Participating in a trade show is a difficult balance. While you must plan the trip carefully, double-check your presentation material, and structure every passing moment for optimal efficiency, you also have to be able to improvise and connect spontaneously with others. Without requisite planning, you risk loosing money and wasting time. However—too much focus on the planning leads to expectations about the outcome, which prevents you from making unexpected, invaluable discoveries and connections in the moment. This is the inherent beauty of the trade show: as complex, people-based organism, it is dynamic and constantly evolving.
This contrast between structure and spontaneity in trade show planning is not necessarily opposed. If you view the show as a diagnostic tool for your business, you can get the best of both mindsets.
In this case, a diagnostic tool refers to any experience that tells you about the state of your business, whether it be the key strengths and weaknesses of your employees, the core values of your audience, or whether or not your mission is easily understood by potential clients. These forms of essential knowledge are usually hard won through trial and error, but absolutely necessary to stabilize and grow your business.
Turning the trade show into a diagnostic tool is not a call to action, but rather a subtle (and highly effective) change in perspective. Instead of changing how you participate, you simply enhance it: By observing audience responses, new trends in your field, the communicability of your brand and mission statement, the visual effectiveness of your booth—and perhaps most importantly, how your team is working together. All of these elements can all be assessed in a matter of days at a trade show. As a small to medium business owner, you could send one extra employee to each trade show, designated simply to observe, record, and assess. The applied value of their data would be comparable to that of a professional hired to watch your business over several months—but at a fraction of the cost.
A diagnostic tool empowers your business by equipping you with the insight to create change. But it’s not just a one time application—every single trade show is a new opportunity to find causal relationships, which deepen your understanding of your product, your brand, and your audience, in turn increasing the profitability and long term growth of your business.