When you're going to a trade show, you have a lot of logistics to handle: using your business credit cards to make the flight and hotel arrangements, setting up your booth, connecting with buyers... Hopefully somewhere up in the front of the topics jostling for attention in your mind are collaboration tools.
What are you going to use to help you meet the right people? In many ways, that's why you want to attend a trade show—to find future business partners. Maybe you want to meet a potential supplier or a vendor, or perhaps an investor to help with your working capital.
Sure, there are a lot of other reasons to go to a trade show: to raise your brand's visibility, to learn more about your industry, to be inspired, to bring in new work that improves your cash flow… but often the way you do all of that is by making new friends.
So if you're looking to make some allies, you may want to take the advice from these entrepreneurs.
1. Find out who will be attending beforehand.
If it's possible, and there's a list of attendees, you'd do well to scour your trade show's website, see who will be there and then start learning everything you can about the ones who interest you.
(In this case, your collaboration tools are your laptop, phone, desktop or whatever you use to access the internet.)
Rushi Patel is the co-founder and COO of Homebase, a company that offers online employee scheduling software.
Follow up, follow up, follow up. In real estate, there's location, location, location, but in sales—it's follow up.
—JP Cheung, head of sales, DataTrue
“We do a lot of LinkedIn stalking on the attendee lists before attending a trade show," Patel says. "We connect, then set up a time to meet—before we've ever met in person."
He says that he has forged quite a few partnerships that way.
Adam Clark, CEO of Tangible Solutions, a manufacturer of 3D-printed titanium medical implants in Fairborn, Ohio, agrees.
“It's really important to invest time reviewing the attendee and vendor list prior to the start of the conference," Clark says. “Taking it a step further, and studying the layout of the conference show floor, will increase your understanding of the event, who the major players are—customers, competition, vendors."
2. Avoid overloading your schedule.
Yes, time is precious, but aside from making good use of the hours you're at a trade show, there's a practical reason for doing advance work and having an idea of who you'd like to meet beforehand, according to Clark.
“You and your colleagues will get distracted and fatigued during a conference," Clark says. “With a plan in hand and knowing the people you want to speak with, that will ultimately improve your chances of finding that perfect partnership."
JP Cheung echoes that sentiment. Cheung is the head of sales for DataTrue, a Vancouver-based company that helps businesses audit, monitor and validate the data they collect online.
“I've tried events where I fill my schedule with breakfasts, sessions, two lunch meetings, and three overlapping social events," he says. "Do not do this.
“You'll be tired and out of energy and won't be your best self," he explains. "Pick the events and sessions that matter, and don't be afraid to jump out if it turns out it's not the best use of your time."
So schedule your time while at the trade show wisely—you may want to do the same with your travel preparations. (Your collaboration tools here are your calendars and maybe a travel agent.)
If you can avoid flying or driving all night to get to a trade conference the next morning, do so. Give yourself the time you deserve to make all of this go right. Don't be a hero.
3. Talk to other people about your future collaborators.
How do you find potential partners?
You may have to first talk to others about the types of people you'd like to partner up with. Think of your phone, email server and your sparkling personality as your collaboration tools.
Beth Bridges, a networking speaker and author out of Fresno, California, suggests asking the organizers if they have any specific programs, services or events that are designed to help you either make a deeper connection or sort through the many people and companies that are there.
“A lot of shows just throw everyone together and hope that things happen in the general mosh, but some will have better plans or will be willing to help you if you ask," Bridges says.
When you're talking to other attendees, if it's clear that you won't be partnering with them, “give them a very brief description of the qualities you're looking for and who they would recommend you connect with," she suggests. "This way, you tap into the knowledge and networks of many people, rather than just relying on your lone self to talk to as many people as possible."
It's even better if you meet somebody who introduces you to somebody else.
“At the very least, when you approach someone, let them know that they have a good reputation and that they were personally recommended to you," Bridges says.
4. Be fine with your collaboration tools not working.
Sure, you're utilizing your collaboration tools, from your smartphone to your business credit cards, to make this trade show a huge success. But don't force it, says Reuben Yonatan, based out of New York City and the founder and CEO of GetVOIP, a communication software comparison resource.
“I highly advocate throwing your expectations out the window," Yonatan says. “Don't head into a trade show with the plan to land X number of new partners. Instead, go in and explore. If there isn't a good fit for your company—good, you've avoided problems. If there is a good fit, fantastic."
He makes a smart point. If you force things in an effort to create a partnership, you could end up with a bad partner and make things far worse.
“While we all need to realize an ROI on trade show attendance, it's important not to push a long-term partnership with a person or company who simply is not a good fit," Yonatan says.
5. Follow up with your potential new partners.
Don't negate all of your hard work. It probably goes without saying, but if you do make a connection, don't be a stranger. Use some of the collaboration tools you collected on your trip to follow up—like those business cards.
“Anytime I get a business card, phone number, email, etc., I immediately follow up the next day to keep the conversation going," says Leo Friedman, CEO of iPromo, a Chicago-based online retailer of promotional products and corporate gifts.
“It has proved to be a worthwhile tactic, and I have established some good business deals in the past using this method," he says.
"Set a reminder to follow up with everyone when you're back at your desk, and make sure you do it. It's easy to be overwhelmed or forget about that pile of business cards at the bottom of your laptop bag, and follow ups help you stand out from the crowd," he says.
Which is what you want, if you want your collaboration tools to have done some good. To stand out from the mob of attendees, it helps to contact those potential vendors, suppliers and investors.
“Follow up, follow up, follow up," Cheung says. “In real estate, there's location, location, location, but in sales—it's follow up."
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Photo: Getty Images