Are Trade Shows Too Big for Small Businesses?

The world’s largest consumer electronics trade show (CES) rocked some worlds last week in Las Vegas, mostly high-tech companies with products resulting from heavily funded research by scores of researchers and technicians. The place looked more like the Vegas Strip than a trade exhibition. Tents, huge media screens, celebrities, and politicians made it even more overwhelming and impressive than in previous years when innovation seemed to be in a slump. All good news for the consumer, but what about for smaller businesses who can’t afford the main stage, control of the mic, and a dozen or more staffers for the event?

For the smaller business owner, the innovator, and the marketing manager, large trade shows are an opportunity to make connections, see how other businesses approach trade shows, and to plan for the next one. Sure, there is always the chance you’ll make that networking connection that takes you from a warehouse by the river to a national chain overnight, but it’s more likely that your trade show experience is one more step toward a more successful marketing plan and to slowly but surely growing your customer base. So why would a small business even bother to attend something like CES?

Think of the huge exhibitions as a learning opportunity. Maybe your attendance is limited to a wandering presence introducing yourself and your ideas. Maybe you’ve got a small booth. If you fail to take in what’s happening around you, the time and resources you’ve spent will be lost. Watch how speakers present ideas: do they posit themselves as the cure to all a customer’s ills or as someone with the resources to help customers reach their goal? Notice the booths: colors, materials, lighting, flooring, sound, use of media, presence of staff, invisible boundaries, and traffic patterns. All of these elements work individually and combine to either support the product or business or drive customers away. What works and what doesn’t? Pay attention to the Big Guys, but also take time to absorb the atmosphere around some of the smaller booths, the lesser-known businesses, who stand out to you. Pay close attention to what draws you and others to them. These will be the things you take away from the big shows to help you and your business compete in a marketplace rife with ridiculously well-funded household-name companies.