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Friday, July 2, 2010

Trade Fairs - have they passed their sell by date? Preparation for a party conference.

I have just booked my place for one of the Autumn party conferences. Whilst thinking of what is to come, thoughts moved to a similar gathering - the business or trade exhibition. Living on the doorstep of the NEC and ICC, opportunities abound to observe participants at these watering holes. This element of business seems to have eluded management consultancy books expounding best practice. Millions must be spent each year. Has the time come for us to find a new model for bringing exhibitor and client together?

The chosen stand-minders set out the stall, plug in the gizmos, fill the bowl with sweets and tidy up the leaflets. Some worrying seconds pass as the vertical banner is erected with a prayer, that it does not snap back into the box. A few furtive glances at the opposition to see how you match up, a quick walk along the aisle to see whether your stand "works" and then it is count down to letting the rabble in.

The exhibition is a rich laboratory for observing human interaction at its most embarrassing. Take the punter first. We have all walked the souks and souvenir markets abroad, not quite knowing how to handle the uncertain world of a different language, no labelled prices and hawkish sellers invading your space. I am not saying the British exhibition is anything like that, but the body language of the punters suggests a distinct unease at knowing either how to open a conversation or respond to an opening gambit. Perhaps some lessons from speed dating are in order.

And then you want some refreshment and the bowl of sweets beckons. Innocuous you might think but a minefield. These freebies are there to break down barriers but the reality is otherwise. If you take one without asking, it seems a cross between shoplifting and childhood when you took without asking. On the other hand, asking permission seems rather precious - Catch 22. Over the counter, the exhibitor has a problem - seems a bit strange to be in conversation and then to proffer a sweet. Not the icebreaker it could have been.

For the exhibitor, the trick is to stand out. Not that difficult if you develop a style where you make it easy for people to come on to you. Eye contact, co-ordinated gesture clusters and open body language are the ingredients. Standholders spend so much time talking to each other that breaking in is not easy. If you want to stand out literally, move into the aisles and the public space. Take some leaflets and some good open question chat up lines.

As the day progresses everyone tires. Business cards are mislaid and plastic bags overflow. Your legs are on their knees and a litany of inane conversations forgotten. Surely there must be better ways for these commercial fests to be played out. Wonder what the conference offers?