Monday, April 17, 2017

The Psychology of Trade Shows

I recently attended my association's trade show. It's a major event for our industry, taking place only once every three years and co-located with the much larger trade show of one of our industry's key customer markets.

Our association staffs its own exhibit booth in the middle of the show floor. It's a large island space, designed with plenty of cushioned carpet and comfy chairs to provide a refuge for our members who are staffing their corporate exhibit booths all around us. It's a great set-up for getting into all kinds of conversations with our members.

And those conversations inevitably include eveyone's favorite subject -- the quantity and the quality of exhibit hall traffic. Our exhibitors expect our show to pass both tests. They want leads and plenty of them. A busy exhibit hall adds to the positive buzz everybody wants to feel. But at each booth, a steady and well-spaced stream of people who have come to do business is far preferable to an onslaught that have come to scoop of the pens, bags, and other exhibit giveaways.

However, when it comes to studying human psychology, nothing beats the observations and discussions surrounding the exhibit hours and the length of the show.

Let me go out on a limb in make a prediction about the trade show you are familiar with. It's too long. The last day, or the last afternoon, or the last few hours are absolutely dead. Every attendee who is looking to do business has already been through the hall, and all that are left are a tiny handful of the people who have come to grab souvenirs.

How do I know this? Because human psychology makes it true of every trade show in the world. "Get in early" is a basic human drive, but even more so is "get out early." The show goes through Saturday, but I can get a flight home on Friday and still have my weekend. The show goes to five o'clock, but I can get a flight home at two o'clock and still have dinner with my family. Everyone at these shows front-loads their schedule. No one plans to come only for Saturday, or only for two to five in the afternoon.

Which leads to all the questions in our association booth about why the show is so long. Same thing every cycle, there's no one there on Saturday and most of Friday. Why are we open? Maybe the show should close on Friday? Or even Thursday?

To that, I typically offer caution. Shortening the show won't change the basic human psychology of the situation. If the show closes on Friday, then Friday will be dead. If it closes on Thursday, then Thursday will be dead. People, even those who have come to do business, will still be motivated by the desire to "get out early."

Truth is, you have to scale the length of your show to the number of people who want to do business at the show and how much time they need to conduct that business. And since the goal is always to increase the number of those people, you have to make your show longer than the number of business-oriented attendees you experienced at the last show. In other words, a show with two good days and one slow day is probably the right length for its audience. Trim off that last slow day and you risk packing too many quality leads into too short a time, and your exhibitors will be frustrated that they couldn't get to them all.

Standing around with no one to talk to is part of everyone's trade show experience. It may also be a necessary experience if you are to be sure that you got all the value you could out of the show.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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