Trade Show Bob Archives:                                                                     
The Intangibles

We all work with outside suppliers. It’s a necessary part of our business. There are only a handful of companies at most, worldwide, who design, build, store, refurbish, pack, ship, set up, and dismantle their own exhibits all in-house. Somewhere along the way we wind up relying on outside resources to provide much, if not all, of these services we regularly need.

As we gain experience in our positions, we come to rely on a few trusted sources as partners in our programs. Then, at other times, and because of various circumstances, we must go through the process of selecting new suppliers for resources moving forward. This process can be downright frightening, since you never really know what you’re going to get. You might find a terrific supplier, or have the selection nightmare repeat itself like a scene from “Groundhog Day”.

We’ve probably all faced the “RFP Nightmare” at one time or another, collecting multiple bids and comparing one supplier to another in an effort to make the best decision. Suppliers have also submitted countless proposals, and stunning portfolios full of spectacular looking exhibits, in an effort to secure new business.

As important as this process is, there’s one step that nobody much talks about. And, ironically, it’s also the one thing most exhibitors ignore as they prepare to take their own messages to trade shows: the intangibles. Think about this. What do attendees get at trade shows (from you, the exhibitor, that is), that they can’t get anywhere else?

• Information about your products and services? Nope – everybody’s got a web site full of that.
• A chance to hear your industry thought leaders speak? Nope – we’ve got You Tube now.
• The latest breaking news about you? Wrong again – Twitter.
• A chance to attend a hospitality event? – Please. That’s just not unique.

One thing attendees get the chance to do at trade shows is look you in the eye and size you up. Both you and your competition. Side by side. Oftentimes, big decisions come down to the intangibles, things like “Do I really want to do business with these people?” “Do I trust them to do what they promise?”

We as humans have a hard-wired capacity to read subtle body language. And frequently, we base our decisions on how we “feel” about indefinable things. Buyers and Executives who are successful (along with World Class Champion poker players) have developed this ability to high degree. They can look a person in the eye and “tell” whether they’re being truthful or deceptive. It’s one of the gifts and talents that defines their success and sharpens their decision-making ability. Frankly, it’s a survival skill imprinted into our DNA since our days living in caves. So why shouldn’t we, in choosing our suppliers/partners, use this same skill to help us determine who we want to do business with.

Almost every company will have similar costs, similar portfolios, and similar glowing references. What I like to do is meet them face to face and see how I feel about them. Will they come through in the clutch? Will they be with me or against me when the bullets start flying (and you know they will at some point)?

This is exactly how I chose my most recent exhibit house. I sent the RFP out to 15 different companies, whittled it down to the final three, and then brought them all in on the same day for a face-to-face meeting with my entire team. The first thing I did in that meeting was set the big old RFP aside and say, “Tell us about yourselves.” Then we spent the next couple hours just talking and letting the conversation go wherever it wanted. We knew all three companies could fulfill our needs, but we didn’t know who we liked best until after that day’s meetings. Then the answer became clear.

I learned a valuable lesson that day about the importance of human interaction. In our face-to-face business, it’s often the intangibles that make the difference. Don’t ignore them.

Bob Milam, independent industry consultant, is a former EXHIBITOR Editorial Advisory Board member and a past All-Star Award winner, and a current EXHIBITOR Conference advisory board and faculty member.

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