Getting The Most From A Trade Show

I attended my first national trade show 30 years ago. It happened to be FDIC, when it was operated by the International Society of Fire Service Instructors. With no idea of what to expect, I was over-stimulated by all that was happening. Of course I enjoyed the experience and have been going to trade shows ever since.

Fast forward to 2009. I have the opportunity to attend the same show, but it has changed tremendously. The FDIC is now owned and operated by Pennwell. The size of the entire program, especially the exhibits, is huge, taking up every inch of available space. It would be easy to be overwhelmed. Whether you are a first timer or a veteran, you need a good plan to maximize the benefits.

There are different elements to the trade show – general sessions, workshops and seminars, informal meetings with networking opportunities, social events and, of course, the massive exhibit floor.

With all of this happening, the days can be long, but they will be rewarding. Hopefully you will enjoy every minute of the experience, renew old friendships and develop new ones. You will return to your organization refreshed and recharged so that you can contribute to its continual improvement.

Pre-Registration Helpful

By now you are registered and have all your logistics in place. Don’t forget to pack the essentials – business cards, your schedule, a note pad and anything else you think you might need. Pre-registration is very helpful as it speeds the process so you don’t spend too much time in line.

The preliminary program has been published. While subject to change, it is a good guide to start your planning process. Look through the program and identify the parts that are of interest to you. This will depend on your personal needs and wants for development, as well the perspective of your organization, especially if it is paying your way. You need to look at the total package as a learning experience. You will learn from the training sessions, exhibit floor and through your networking and social contacts.

Establish Priorities

As you look through the program, begin grouping the various events based on your interests and needs – those that you must see or attend, those that would be nice, but not mandatory, and those that are of no interest. Through this process you can begin to fill your schedule, making sure that you hit the necessary elements of the show.

If you don’t plan, you could find yourself going home without maximizing your experience and not gathering the information that you should have. For example, the exhibit floor is so large that you could easily spend your entire time there and forget to attend a workshop or two would be beneficial. Suffice to say, you will not be able to do it all, so you need to establish your priorities. Write down your schedule and check it frequently.

The general sessions are good and worth your time. You will get a chance to hear presentations that you generally can’t attend anywhere else. They are usually uplifting and motivating, setting the stage for the rest of the show and recharging your batteries. If you miss the session, make sure it is a conscious decision based on another option that takes precedence. Also remember that the speakers often will make themselves available after their presentations to answer questions. Take advantage of these opportunities if there are issues of interest that you would like to pursue.

The workshops are plenty and varied. There is something for everyone. Obviously, go to the ones that interest you. More important, attend the sessions that can help you. Only you can match your interest, job function and job needs to the most appropriate session.

Many of the presenters are very entertaining, but do your best to resist the temptation to attend a session not part of your plan just because of the speaker. For example, if you have no high-rise buildings in your community, attendance at a workshop with this theme, regardless of the presenter, is not advised.

Also remember that you are not locked into a session. If you start with one and find that it is not hitting the target for you, then you should walk out quietly and look for another. (This does not apply to any session where I am the presenter.) Always have a couple of options available in case the first choice doesn’t pan out.

Now on to the exhibits. I am always amazed at the amount of products and services on display. There are the old standbys, such as the apparatus manufacturers who have been there from day one, as well as newer vendors who are showing the latest products that are part of the ever-changing world in which we live.

Having walked a few convention center floors, the best advice I can give is to wear comfortable shoes. The next advice is to map out the floor and highlight the products and vendors that you need to see. There is no way that you can stop by every vendor. There are just too many. If you have specific needs, visit those booths first.

If you are looking to buy apparatus in the coming year, spend the necessary time comparing and questioning. This is your opportunity to comparison shop with all the suppliers in one place. They are putting their best foot forward and want to engage you in discussion so they can give you their best sales pitch.

After you complete your compulsory visits, take the time to cover as much ground as you can. You may get a lead or an idea on something that you never imagined. This is a chance to discover something that can help address some of your needs and add more options to products and services that can be of value to your organization. Every year I discover something that I didn’t know existed, that has shown itself to be of tremendous value. These may be the diamonds in the rough that make your trip even more successful.

In the exhibit hall you will have the opportunity to buy some things. It can be something to help your career, such as a textbook, or a souvenir or a memento of the conference. As you go through, you may find something that would make a nice gift to a family member or a thank you for someone back at the station.

The point is that you will have an opportunity to spend, so have a charge card or cash and also a budget. If you don’t want to spend any money but still need to take something home, many vendors have give aways. Just remember that you can get overloaded with things you really don’t need, so be judicious in your collections.

The exhibit hall presents you with many networking opportunities. No doubt you will encounter people whom you know, and you can make new acquaintances. As you are looking for items of interest, you can listen in on conversations (as long as they are not private) and learn what others are checking on. This can help you learn as much as possible about the various products. It may also be an opportunity to meet someone with similar needs. This can expand your network of colleagues – those with like interests and organizations.

Leave time to socialize. Sharing ideas and talking shop is an important part of your experience. There is so much you will learn in the hallways, over meals, at hospitality rooms and just walking down the street. In many ways, this can be the most beneficial and rewarding part of the conference.

Upon your return home, do a couple of things. Organize your thoughts while they are still fresh in your mind and thank anyone who made it possible for you to attend. This will be your family and your organization. Expressions of appreciation are the right thing to do, and they let everyone know that you do not take the opportunity that you had for granted.

If you promised information to anyone, get on it right away before you forget and move on. It is important to do what you said you would. If there is anything else that you wrote down, take care of it before you get back into your normal routine.

If you are passionate about the fire service, trade shows are an unbelievable experience. Maximize the benefit and have fun doing it.

Editor’s Note: Richard Marinucci is chief of the Northville Township (Mich.) Fire Department. He retired as chief of the Farmington Hills (Mich.) Fire Department in 2008, a position he had held since 1984. He is a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and past chairman of the Commission on Chief Fire Officer Designation. In 1999 he served as acting chief operating officer of the U.S. Fire Administration for seven months. He holds three bachelor’s degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.

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