The Trade Show Director Never Saw It Coming

Ever wonder why a new trade show director’s hair goes gray by Day 3?

by Tony Compton

Johnny’s smartphone alarm rang precisely at 5:30 in the morning, but today he didn’t need it. He was already sitting in the drive-thru of his favorite fast food restaurant awaiting his routine cup of coffee. It was Johnny’s first day at work as the new trade show director for an up-and-coming software company in downtown Atlanta and he was too excited to sleep.

At just 27 years old, Johnny couldn’t believe his good fortune. He was hired by the VP of Marketing to lead the event efforts for a software company starting to make a name for itself. Even better, it was a software company that had just gone through a major round of funding. They had money, were willing to spend it, and the future looked awesome.

Johnny was hired at a most opportune time. It was a short three months before the annual tech show in Las Vegas, and his new company needed his help in pulling off its event appearance. The good news was that the exhibit space at the show was reserved, and the company booth was already under construction at a show services company in Connecticut. With a 30 ‘ x 30’ space reserved and a major show sponsorship bought and paid for, Johnny couldn’t wait to get to work.

The company was going all-in on the Vegas event. All-in for a midsize software company, anyway. The company’s budget for the show was a cool $500k. Not necessarily huge, but bigger than anything Johnny had ever seen. As a marketing manager for other tech start-ups, Johnny never spent $500k in any one year, let alone on any one event. The biggest booth he ever organized was a 10’ x 10’ and it was usually compiled from a collection of exhibit parts and equipment housed in a backroom closet at HQ. Nevertheless, Johnny was ready. In his junior marketing years, he had observed what the bigger tech industry players did at trade shows, how larger booths looked, and imagined how he would handle the logistics when given the chance.

Johnny’s drive south on Interstate 75 to Atlanta’s Hartsfield airport is a long one. Even on a Sunday afternoon. With no traffic it takes Johnny 30 minutes just to get to downtown Atlanta, and the airport is another 20 minutes after that. Johnny recalled that it was just three months ago that he started work at his new company. Just three months ago he was waiting for his morning cup of coffee, and it was three months ago that he observed the same, never-ending Atlanta road construction that continues to plague his morning commute. But today was Sunday. The road construction equipment lay silent, and Johnny was off to Vegas.

The three months leading up to the big event flew by, and all was going according to plan. The event services company in Connecticut had their act together: the booth design was sharp, the paperwork was in order, everything was on its way to Vegas, and they were ready to start work on the booth Monday morning. Johnny also had his logistics in order: 25 staff registered for the event, hotel and travel in order, invoices were up to date, collateral created, printed and shipped, and the schedule for the three-day event was reviewed – over and over again. Even the company-branded shirts were delivered on time to everybody going to the show. Nothing was left to chance.

Or so it seemed.

Johnny bounced out of his Vegas hotel room at 8:00 am Pacific Time the next morning. Gaining three hours on his body clock, there was no containing him as he bounded down to the exhibit hall to monitor booth construction and prep for the start of the show. And his booth looked good, too. With excellent placement on show floor, the booth had four stations for demos and a theater area that sat 20. Plus, the company logo was everywhere: on attendee bags, signage above escalators, even on the event’s website and mobile app. It didn’t matter that dozens of other logos were alongside his, Johnny knew this is a can’t- miss situation.

Throughout the day, Johnny’s excitement only grew greater. As he sat on a company crate while watching the crew construct his booth, he obsessed over the show schedule. It was a very full three days. The hall was open every day from 10:00 am until 5:00 pm. The company’s sponsored demo session in the back of the convention hall was scheduled for Day Two at 12:30. Their case study presentation with a partner and a customer was scheduled as part of Day Two’s educational sessions at 4:00 pm. And the company’s CEO was taking part in a panel discussion at 1:00 pm on Day Three.

It didn’t even bother Johnny that his train of thought was constantly interrupted as his colleagues arrived in Vegas on the eve of the show and made their way in small groups to his exhibit. But it started getting under his skin when everybody had an opinion about the booth. They questioned the signage, the layout, the location, the wireless, the timing, the schedule, the setup – even the lack of storage in the booth for their luggage. Johnny enjoyed working with everybody at the company, but now just wasn’t the time for all that. He just wished they’d stay away from the booth, just for today.

It’s fair to say Johnny was ready to rock on the show’s opening day. He felt the pride his exhibitor’s pass provided as he accessed the convention hall before the general attendees. He also felt the pressure of opening day and knew that time is a commodity in short supply. It was already 8:30 am, and the noise of last minute construction in nearby booths and loud vacuum cleaners throughout the hall took their rightful places as the most prevalent sounds heard just before the exhibit hall doors swing open. But over the next 90 minutes, Johnny was reassured by the sight of scheduled booth staff arriving – on time. Especially the four people for the four demo stations, and the one for the booth theater.

Showtime!

As the first wave of 10:00 am exhibit hall visitors crushed the booth, Johnny’s team sprang into action. All four demo stations lit up with activity, and the booth’s 20-seat theater was soon filled to capacity. Now, the speed of activity kicked in. As Johnny observed his colleagues at each of the four demo stations, he noticed that the visuals seemed off. Hard to read. The monitors were the correct size, yet the visuals were not properly sized. Some fonts were eye-chart material. To make matters worse, the noise in the exhibit hall was overwhelming. Neighboring booths had loud sound effects, music, and spokespeople. Johnny’s demo station presenters were no match for the surrounding volume, and most gathered around each station couldn’t hear what was being said, let alone see. Meanwhile, Johnny’s name was being called in the booth theater. There, the audio/visual was working, but an industry analyst in the audience was peppering the company presenter with questions she couldn’t answer about their products, and it was getting uncomfortable. But Johnny was helpless. The show had started. There was no more prep time.

The demo station presenters would never overcome their surroundings, or lack of ability to communicate with small groups. Adding small sound systems could have helped if there was time to practice, but there were other issues with content, visuals, and presentation skills.

The robotic company presenters in the booth theater fared no better. They only knew how to regurgitate content in front of predictable audiences. They knew nothing about preparing for unfamiliar crowds or handling tough audiences with difficult questions. They were not equipped to handle lines of questions from analysts, reporters, competitors, and disgruntled customers.

Day One couldn’t end fast enough for Johnny.

Day Two brought some diversionary relief. There was that sponsored demo session in the back of the hall at 12:30, and the case study session on the educational platform at 4:00. They would give Johnny the excuses he needed to take breaks from the booth and get away for a few minutes. But these two events only served to compound the company’s presentation problems. The 12:30 demo session barely drew a dozen people during the lunch hour. And while the demo session went on, people ate lunch, checked their phones, and surfed the Web. The company demo presenter didn’t have the skills to break through to the preoccupied audience.  The demo came, and went.

The 4:00 o’clock session was another colossal convergence of errors. Each presenter brought last-minute slides. Different formats, new material, all for a 45-minute end of the business day session. Despite assurances that there was coordination among speakers, the presenters were clearly not on the same page. The partner’s segment turned into a sales pitch. The customer was so nervous, he could barely speak, and read most of his slides. By 4:30, only a fraction of the audience remained.

Day Two ended in a sure-fire way to alienate a customer and a partner.

Johnny’s CEO flew in the morning of Day Three to take part in his panel discussion. He was much too important to do anything else at the show. He was to fly in the morning of, and flying out shortly after, his session.

Johnny met the CEO and VP of Marketing at 12:55 in the back of the panel discussion ballroom, mere minutes before the session started. All were surprised to see the setup for the panelists in the front of the room: a short, eight-inch riser with four chairs, four wired handheld microphones, and a podium with its own stationary microphone. The panelists were seated in way that they could barely see over the top of the heads in the audience. Conversely, anybody in the audience seated beyond Row 3 could only see the talking heads of the panelists. It was a disastrous setup.

The moderator stood at the podium and hardly moved for an hour, reading scripted statements and throwing out softball questions. Johnny’s CEO sat and stewed on stage. He was able to answer two questions and chime in on two other occasions. But that was it. There was no prep about the environment, and no prep on making the discussion interesting. Panelists could only sit there, get through it and leave. What a waste of an opportunity.

It also turns out that some at the panel discussion decided to go live with streaming video on Facebook and Periscope. But nobody at Johnny’s company was remotely prepared to instantaneously go on camera, let alone the CEO. Damage to branding and the corporate reputation was done.

Day Three concluded with an impromptu gathering of Johnny’s colleagues in the booth as they awaited their ground transportation to the Vegas airport. Some sought the opportunity to buddy up to the CEO, who spared to few minutes to visit. All brought their luggage to store in the booth, which quickly ran out of its capacity to do so. The scene resembled a Vegas tourist crowd standing around a bus station awaiting departure for the Grand Canyon. But by 5:01 pm that evening, Johnny was left alone with the outsourced crew dismantling his booth. Johnny wasn’t leaving Las Vegas until the next morning, and not getting home until very late Friday night.

But the post-mortem emails and texts couldn’t wait. Johnny’s messages started to pile up, with the questions becoming repetitious:

•   What happened?

•   What happened in our theater?

•   What happened in our demo stations?

•   What happened in our demo session in the back of the hall?

•   What happened in our case study session?

•   Why didn’t we prepare for live video streaming?

•   Why were our presenters so ineffective at audience interactions?

•   Do we NOT do sales enablement?

•   What’s wrong with our content?

•   Who handles our content?

•   We’ve got great content, what went wrong?

•   Did you know that the CEO’s panel discussion was going to be a waste of time?

•   How much did this event end up costing us?

•   What did we get out of it?

•   What time will you be in the office on Monday?

Despite having good sales and marketing content, a boastful sales enablement program, an impressive booth with an equally impressive location on the show floor, and a very healthy trade show investment, Johnny’s Achilles’ Heel was the lack of presentation and communication skills displayed by his colleagues. His success at the show depended on their ability to make the most out of every on-site communication performance, yet that aspect of the sales and marketing process was completely overlooked. The staff was unprepared for all presentation and communication scenarios, and today’s mobile video platforms. The poor example was set by the guy at the top, none other than the CEO. Nobody took initiative.

But it was Johnny who was on the hot seat.

5:30 came early that following Monday morning.

This time, he hit the snooze button.

Tony Compton is Managing Director, GettingPresence. Opinions are his own. He can be reached at tony.compton@gettingpresence.com.

4 Comments on The Trade Show Director Never Saw It Coming

  1. iaeejannat // April 4, 2017 at 8:22 am // Reply

    Reblogged this on IAEE Blog Station.

  2. I don’t know if this is a real situation where only the names were changed to protect the innocent — or “fake news” — but on-site failures happens more often than not with unprepared and inexperienced exhibit managers who don’t take into account all the moving strategic and tactical pieces of the trade show puzzle that they need to preplan. Successful exhibit management isn’t for the faint-of-heart OR rookie. So sad to see $500K spent and all that missed opportunity!

  3. jrobertparkinson // April 4, 2017 at 8:19 pm // Reply

    Great development of a good story. When there is no plan, anything can happen. – Usually what happens is BAD!. Johnny was driven by “wishful thinking” rather than by design and planning.
    Good Job, Tony.

    There are too many Johnny’s at trade shows. Maybe your story will encourage them to plan before they act.
    Well Done.
    Bob

  4. Excellent article. It brings out the many unforeseen challenges at trade show exhibits related to both physical and marketing. As a trade show manager, big time experience is everything and hiring suppliers with a track record is essential. That budget is worth meticulous detailed planning, anticipation of every thing that can go right and wrong, company buy in the event’s significance, rehearsing and all hands on deck. It is unusual for all these stars to align. While exhibit design and content are crucial to success, project management on the client and supplier side, when it’s top notch, has more hours and intelligence attached to it than anything else. As designers at setup, we have found ourselves in many unexpected roles, i.e. live show tech management, last minute video production etc. What ever it takes !!!

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