Home > Business > My Secrets to Long-term Success in the Trade Show Industry

My Secrets to Long-term Success in the Trade Show Industry


Blogger PhotoThere are a handful of us travel warriors who visit exhibit companies from one or two person shops to operations with several hundred employees and multiple locations. I’ve been doing this for over 20 years, so hopefully I’ve picked up a few insights along the way. What have I discovered after thousands of miles and hundreds of nights in hotel rooms? First, stick with one or two loyalty programs … but that’s another blog post.

My good friend Gary Camarato at Optima asked me to share some tips. So with all humility and a thanks to Gary for asking, here are my Secrets (or at least the ones I can share without jail time).

This is a Marathon, Not a Sprint
If you come out of the gate strong, gather a great customer list, and close a bunch of jobs, but do not have the capacity to handle/manage those jobs, you risk two things. You risk losing the client and the long-term revenue. In those situations you are usually so fragmented and pulled in so many directions that your profit margin suffers.

A Price War Will Always Be a Race to the Bottom
I am not saying that you should never lower your price. I’m saying that if you lead with price, you will always have someone who can (and will) steal a job. It’s OK to give a little bit to reach the client’s budget, if the look and feel of the design makes sense. But that’s about design. I am talking about the clown who says in BIG BOLD print, “We will beat everyone’s price by 25%.” That’s throwing money away and devaluing every person in the industry who understands honest, competitive pricing.

To be fair, I also believe that price gouging will have the same impact. I’ve worked with exhibit houses who think just because they have the client’s art files and know their booth that the exhibitor can’t go anywhere else. So they get greedy and tack on a few points here, there, and everywhere. When that happens, a flag is raised and a difficult situation is born. My dad always said, “You never have to apologize for making money, and you shouldn’t if it is fair, honest, and what the market will bear.”

Blogger PhotoTreat Your Employees and Your Vendors as Well as You Treat Your Clients
Although I have never been the client, I have been an employee and a vendor for a long, long time. Over that time, I have worked for three companies in this industry. I cannot think of an instance where I have been treated poorly. I can think of hundreds of times where I was treated well. The long-term success of any organization is employee retention. At Optima, several of their first 10 employees still work there. Classic Exhibits has many employees with over 10 years on the job and several over 15 years. That longevity is priceless from a standpoint of history and culture.

Vendors are not perfect. We try. We sometimes make mistakes and simply screw up. But vendors are people too. How the parties react and remedy a mistake will determine much of their future relationship. Ultimately there is a right way and a wrong way to do just about everything As Jim Hoffmann said a million times, “Always take the high road.”

Determine What You Want and Plan Accordingly
If you want to be a 50 million dollar organization, you will need a totally different infrastructure than a 5 million dollar operation. It’s a perfect example of “Be careful what you wish for.” If you are feeding your ego, step back and see what makes sense and then re-evaluate the whole operation. You might be better off being a 5 million dollar well-oiled machine making money, than a 50 million dollar house with the deer in the headlights look. There is nothing wrong with either scenario.

Don’t Spend all Your Time Worrying About What the Competition is Doing
I have watched this consume exhibit houses over the years, and I firmly believe that it takes valuable energy away from operating the business. You have to be aware of the competition. You do not have to let it consume you. Take care of business at home and good things will happen. I’ve personally seen that happen over the past seven years.

Blogger PhotoGet in the Car and Visit Your Customers
In the day of text, chat messages, email, Instagram, and every other form of non-human interaction, you should jump in the car and see a couple of customers every week. We all preach the need for trade shows and face-to-face marketing. Well, get out from behind the computer and take a client to lunch. You might be shocked at the increased business you will find with a little effort. This isn’t rocket science. It is about building a relationship with your client. Sales 101. Now go on. Get out there. Go visit someone!

Finally – as Steve Perry said, “Don’t Stop Believing!”
You know there will be good times and bad times. You can’t panic and cash out the first time things get tough. I remember Gary Player saying, “The more I practice the luckier I get.” Well, just know that most times a downturn in business is through no fault of the business itself. It is usually a combination of outside forces. Look at 2001, the biggest disaster on US soil in our lifetimes. The next year was tough for everyone. But you bounce back. 2008-2010 — the mortgage and real estate crash. It took some exhibit companies, but the bulk of them survived. Believe in yourself, your employees, your clients, and your vendors. You are all in it together. As Jimmy V said, “Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.”

After 20 years of hanging out with distributors, suppliers, designers, and manufacturers, giving free advice is easy for me. But know that when I retire somewhere around 2045, the paid consulting gig will start. I’ll be about 83 by then.

Here’s to a Successful 2015!

Reid Sherwood
Eastern Regional Manager
Classic Exhibits Inc.

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Based in Portland, Oregon, Classic Exhibits Inc. designs and manufacturers portable, modular, and custom-hybrid exhibit solutions. Classic Exhibits products are represented by an extensive distributor network in North America and in select International markets. For more information, contact us at 866-652-2100.

  1. Gary Camarato
    January 30, 2015 at 12:05 pm

    Thank You Reid, Great Post! g

  2. Gary Camarato
    January 30, 2015 at 2:05 pm

    Reid, To your point, “At Optima, several of their first 10 employees still work there. ” Today we celebrate Kevin Clobes 26th Anniversary at Optima. Kevin, R&D, was in fact the First Optima Employee! We are also Celebrating Derek Leftridge from Marketing’s 22nd Year… way to go Derek and Kevin thanks for your long term customer dedication! Tony Schmidt and I are hitting our 23rd year in October and September respectively.
    It’s been a long strange trip!

  3. January 30, 2015 at 2:28 pm

    Nicely done Reid. Here’s to your successful 2045!

  4. January 30, 2015 at 2:35 pm

    It is a good post Reid – glad we know you and get to work with you!!!

  5. Trina
    January 30, 2015 at 3:09 pm

    Great words Reid!

  6. January 30, 2015 at 5:18 pm

    Super read, Reid! Very pearly wisdom, and from a guy now on the road often, I’m looking forward to putting it all to good use. Thank you!

  7. February 2, 2015 at 2:43 pm

    Thanks Reid. This one gets forwarded!

  8. melmwhite
    February 3, 2015 at 10:10 am

    Well done Reid! Practical, sound advice from a true sales professional.

  9. CG
    February 3, 2015 at 7:28 pm

    The wisdom of Seth Godin, wrapped in camo clothing. Just as inspiring, just as valuable. THANK YOU.

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