On March 3, the Columbia Chamber of Commerce will present the 2015 Columbia Business Showcase. This all-day event kicks off with the Chamber’s Quarterly Membership Breakfast, followed by the business expo and the Women’s Network Luncheon, and finishes with the Columbia Business Times mixer. In all, that’s more than 11 hours of stone cold opportunity for you and your company to impress the business glitterati of mid-Missouri. Or, if you’re not careful, do just the opposite.
Historically, these types of events are populated by two kinds of players: those who come to win and those who, like Dorothy, look like they’ve suddenly found themselves somewhere over the rainbow without a clue where they are or what to do. I affectionately like to think of these two groups as winners and losers.
The winners are prepared, organized and polished. The losers are busy stuffing their bags with pens, stress balls and mini-pen lights while their booth sits unmanned. The winners crush it by setting measurable goals and having impeccable follow-up. The losers sit behind a folding card table playing Candy Crush II: Soda Saga. The winners maximize their investment by gathering new leads and creating awareness for their brands. The losers spend all day ogling the Jazzercise ladies.
Don’t be a loser.
In the immortal words of Ricky Bobby, “If you ain’t first, you’re last.” So to help put you in pole position for the CBS, we’ve talked to area experts and created a list of tips to get you to the winner’s circle, which isn’t so much a real thing as it is a state of mind. But still (I’m sticking with the sports-themed metaphors here), the point is that the stakes are high, and if you’re not on your A-game, you could end up doing your business more harm than good.
- Plan to attend all the events.
Winners don’t show up late or leave before the game is over. They get there early and stay until the bitter end. Each of the four events, the Chamber’s Quarterly Membership Breakfast, the showcase itself, the Women’s Network Luncheon and the CBT after-hours mixer, all present different ways to make a connection and create awareness for your brand. Teresa White, marketing specialist with the City of Columbia Public Works Department, is the co-chair for the Chamber’s Columbia Business Showcase planning committee.
“Going to all the events helps you maximize your visibility,” White says. “And if you missed one of your targets at one event, you might very well find them at another.” In addition, each event has its own vibe, so it might be easier to start a conversation in one setting versus another. All day is a long time, so tap out if you must, but to get the most out of the day, make sure someone is there from your business to represent your interests at all events.
- Put your best people in the booth.
We’ve all seen the intern wearing the wrinkled khakis his mom bought him for his cousin’s bar mitzvah, the one who sits behind the table, plays on his phone and ignores hordes of potential customers as they stream by. Is this the person you want as the face of your company? Probably not.
Lili Vianello, president at Visionworks Marketing Group and exhibitor trainer for CBS booth holders, tells exhibitors to think twice before choosing just anyone to man their booth. “Think about how to put your best foot forward,” Vianello says. “Put your best people in the booth, and prepare them. That’s one of the surest ways to maximize the opportunity.” Just as winning coaches start their strongest players, your starting lineup should include your most talented salespeople. The showcase is long, hard work. This isn’t the time to go with a rookie.
- Have a pre- and post-game plan.
Cara Owings, marketing adviser at Marketvolt and trade show consultant, urges exhibitors that a tradeshow is not just about the day of the expo. “It starts long before that day,” Owings says. “Make a plan that includes before-show marketing, a plan of action for the day and follow-up/after-show marketing strategy. Put just as much effort into your pre- and post-show marketing as you do that one single day. Don’t just show up, meet people and never think about it again.” That, Owings warns, is a wasted opportunity and will yield no results.
White agrees. “If you collect 100 business cards but don’t take any notes about what you talked about or whom they’re from, it won’t do you much good,” she says. The whole point of the showcase is to create awareness, increase visibility and ultimately walk away with new business connections or leads. To recoup your investment, you will need to convert at least some of those leads into clients or sales.
“Follow up, follow up, follow up,” Owings urges. “Assign salespeople to leads, and have them call or visit. Continue the conversations from the show, and move those leads into sales for your company.” You can bet Gary Pinkel didn’t become the 2014 SEC Coach of the Year without strategic pre- and post-game plans in his back pocket. And if you are looking to become the 2015 CBS Booth of the Year (disclaimer: not a real thing — again, state of mind), you had better spend some time setting goals and developing a plan to achieve them.
- Think outside the booth.
Experts agree that one of the worst things an exhibitor can do is put a table at the front of their booth and sit behind it. The table at the front closes the space off, and sitting down gives the impression of a person who isn’t fully engaged. “Don’t feel limited to the materials provided, usually a table and two chairs,” Vianello says.
Owings agrees. “Remove the provided table and chairs in the booth, and create an inviting space with no barriers between you and the attendees,” she says. The booth is your home field, and you want to take advantage of that to the fullest extent possible.
In addition to spatial relations, there are other ways to distinguish your booth from the masses. Heather Stewart, director of marketing and strategic initiatives at Services for Independent Living and president of the Chamber’s Women’s Network division, says last year they sent out invitations to specific contacts well in advance of the CBS. “We wanted certain people and businesses to know they were important to us. Sending an invitation seemed like a good way to demonstrate that they were a priority and ask for their time.”
Other fun ideas include setting up specific appointments during the expo and even roping off a VIP section of your booth. “You want people to walk away talking about your booth — but in a good way of course,” White says. So skip the meathead bouncer and cover charge, but don’t be afraid to step outside the norm, and have a little fun with your booth construct.
- Pay attention to your appearance.
This advice might seem like common sense, but the number of sweatpants-wearing people walking around business expos suggests otherwise. The CBS is not an unsanctioned casual Tuesday, nor is it the time to take a fashion risk. Dress appropriately for the event, which almost always means business casual. Emily Clapp, recruitment architect with Veteran’s United and the incoming president for the Chamber’s EPIC division says: “Make sure what you wear represents how you want people to see you. No sweats.”
Clapp, whose EPIC memberships are businesspeople ages 22 to 40, adds: “Many businesses are not only looking at your product, but they’re looking at you as a possible recruit as well. I know I always keep my eye out for good potential hires, and how someone presents themselves is definitely a part of that equation.”
In addition to looking professional, you have to consider comfort, particularly where women’s footwear is concerned. I don’t care how fierce your new black pumps are; if they pinch your toes, leave them at home. If your face has that my-shoes-are-killing-me look, people will avoid talking to you. Owings says a mentor once advised her to always bring two to three pairs of comfortable shoes to rotate in and out throughout the day. That’s good advice. Bottom line: Dress in a professional manner, be comfortable — but not sweatpants comfortable — and unless you are Sofia Vergara, don’t wear 6-inch stilettos.