If you're looking to start a business, a trade show can be a great place to gather information--whether you're seeking new customers, suppliers or contacts for your business, or you're shopping for a new business to start. Exhibitor booths are manned by franchisors, business-opportunity sellers, banks, phone companies, Internet service providers, and even the Small Business Administration--all of whom are eager to assist you. Some trade shows even offer seminars on a variety of business-related topics.
But trade shows can be overwhelming, with dozens of exhibitors all competing for your attention. In order to get the most out of a show, you need to know what to expect and how to sort through the many offerings.
"A good show will have a floor plan," says Helen C. Brown of Aston, Pennsylvania, who attends trade shows regularly to make contacts for her meeting- and event-planning business, Concepts to Reality Inc. "If you have that, you can plan, in advance, which exhibits you want to hit."
In addition to floor plans, most shows provide booklets with descriptions of the exhibits, as well as a listing of the times, topics and featured speakers of any seminars or panel discussions, so that attendees can better plan their time.
Walking The Walk
Brown suggests that first-time attendees systematically walk through the entire show once, briefly looking at each exhibit. From there, they can choose which exhibits they want to visit again for more detailed information. A seasoned trade-show attendee, Brown says this is how she approaches most shows. "I hit every exhibit table," she says. "That means I don't stop and chat. I walk quickly and pick up all the materials."
If an exhibitor tries to pressure her, Brown says she has a tight schedule to maintain and that she'll be in touch later. "The next booth might have something better. If you commit to the first one, you'll miss out," she says, adding that this is another reason to go through the show quickly once before talking to exhibitors.
During her second pass through, Brown stops to talk, asks questions, and gathers additional information only from those booths which she believes have the potential to provide her business with customers, equipment, vendors or other valuable products and services.
James Washington of New York City advises a similar strategy. Wishing to launch his own small business, he attended both days of Entrepreneur Magazine's Small Business Expo, held in Atlanta in May of 1996, spending the first day looking at each exhibit and gathering information. He returned the second day for a more in-depth look at a select number of exhibits.
"Look at everybody the first time around. When you go around again, start thinking in terms of what's at each particular exhibit versus what you want to do for the rest of your life. I didn't stop at any booth if I didn't want to do that kind of work for the rest of my life," says Washington, a city health department worker planning to buy into Universal Liquidators, a business opportunity he learned about at the show.
Talking The Talk
Chief on Washington's list of questions for franchisors and business-opportunity sellers was how much money would be required for the initial investment. If the figure was too high, he knew not to bother investigating further. If the figure was within his reach, he proceeded, asking questions about the potential franchisor's or business-opportunity seller's involvement in his work.
"The most important thing is how much support you're going to get," says Washington. He asked how much training and what kinds of advertising would be provided, and how often and in what way his franchise or business opportunity would be reviewed by the parent company.
If you'll be selling a product, be sure to ask if samples and raw materials are included with the initial investment, Brown advises. If not, you'll need to find out how much these will cost. Even if raw materials are included, you'll need to know how much it will cost to replenish your supplies later. It is also important to know if the franchisor or business-opportunity seller will help you find a location for your business. Ask for references, too, and take along a notebook to jot down key points so you won't forget later.
What it all boils down to, Brown says, is: "Exactly what do I get for my initial investment?" and "How much does it really cost to get everything I need to get started?"
It is advisable to do your homework before signing up. Regardless of what a franchisor or a business-opportunity seller tells you, Brown and Washington recommend checking references and contacting the Better Business Bureau in the state where a particular company's headquarters are located. You can also check with the Federal Trade Commission online (http://www.ftc.gov), or by calling (800) 554-5706. If a company has had a history of customer complaints, for instance, you can either eliminate it from consideration, Washington says, or ask more pointed questions later. You also need to allow yourself time to consult with your spouse or other family members who may be affected, he adds.
If you feel hesitant about asking questions, remember what's at stake: If you avoid asking a question now, you might be sorry later. "When you're buying a product, you want to know the product is good," says Washington, adding that you won't be happy with any business that doesn't meet your expectations.
A shy attendee can lead into specific questions by asking something general about an exhibit, Brown says. Exhibitors are happy to talk. "They're hungry for you to ask questions," she says. "They want to grab your attention. They love for you to ask questions."
If you don't want to wait in line at a crowded booth, you can leave a business card. Most exhibitors encourage attendees to drop off their cards by leaving a box or bowl out for cards, and many even hold drawings, offering prizes ranging from food baskets to computer systems.
Because exhibitors pay a lot of money to participate in a trade show, they want to get the most for their money. That means that they will take the time to contact you later. By waiting for them to contact you after the show, you'll be able to ask questions without feeling rushed or on the spot.
Home From The Hunt
Once Brown gets home, she has fun sorting through the bags of items gathered at the show. She starts with the freebies--such as pens, hats or mugs--given out by exhibitors. "I start with the goodies and give them all away," she laughs. "Then I sort through the information."
Brown immediately discards any information not of interest to her. Then, she makes notes and sorts the remaining information packets according to what they can offer her. She then writes letters, makes follow-up calls, and sets up meetings with organizations.
To find out about trade shows, contact your local chamber of commerce or professional business organizations. They can usually tell you what's coming before the shows are announced in the paper. "By the time you see it in the newspaper," Brown says, "you might already have something planned for that day."
If you take the risks necessary to go into business for yourself, you want to do so armed with knowledge. A trade show is a great place to find that knowledge, as well as the right contacts to keep your business running for years.
Concepts to Reality Inc., 615 Ruth Ave., Aston, PA 19014-3338, (610) 494-5757.