Wasting My Time and the Bosses Money – A Tradeshow Exhibiting Tale


Yesterday, I was privileged to attend Destination Showcase at the Donald Stevens Convention Center in Rosemont, IL just on the outskirts of Chicago near O’Hare Airport. I was privileged because the Keynote lunch speaker was Bill Curtis, newsman, documentary hero and world traveler, as a side note, he also owns The Little House on the Prairie….. Yep, the real Little House on the Prairie. He is a true inspiration for me and I registered about 2 minutes after I found out he was speaking.

I also decided that I would attend the tradeshow that takes place after the luncheon. I have a client that emailed me in the morning and said we should start looking for some destinations for an event in 2012. A fairly good size event as well. About 450 attendees for 3 days. Not chump change, not in this economy.

I walked into the show hall and it was as I suspected it would be. Very Very slow. Nothing wrong with the event, I just don’t see many planners going to events anymore. They are hating industry events in fact, but that discussion is for another time.

Because planners are not attending industry events and this is a known fact, you would think that the exhibitors would be on their toes making the most of the planners that were there, but alas, they were not and that gives me fodder for this post. I should thank them.

For my client, we are looking at one particular area on the Eastern Seaboard; the area has a central “city” surrounded by other large urban areas. The city is viable, as are the areas surrounding the city and this is a tale of two CVBs and how they approached me, my colleague and the rest of the attendees because there is an amazing piece of learning to be done here.

I walked onto the show floor and immediately ran into a couple of people that I know. Jodie, who used to be with Fairmont and Disney and is now with McCormick Place, she is awesome, always good to run into her because you know you will be laughing till it hurts. As we were talking, I noticed the booth of the City CVB we were interested in. Two staff members working the booth and no visitors at the moment. I gave them a pass because I spotted Teresa Matamoros from Visit Mexico…. Another awesome person. She is a friend and we are also on the Chicago Site Chapter Board so I wanted to go over to her booth and say hello. As we talked and laughed, I glanced back over at the City’s booth and they still had no visitors so I said my goodbyes to Teresa and wandered over the City’s booth. Mind you, both Teresa and Jodie had visitors stopping in to their exhibit spaces while we talked. They were as busy as they could be considering the limited traffic.

As I approached the City’s booth, I was shocked because I got the impression that they really did not want to be there. No excitement, no enthusiasm, no “we are the greatest” attitude. My colleague and I were forced to approach them, they did not come out to greet us even as we were walking straight at them. This is something I would not have done if my client was not looking SPECIFICALLY at their destination. I told them of the program, the parameters and they proceeded to tell me nothing. They recommended one hotel and acted like they just didn’t care. I walked away going “well, we will just have to do the research on our own”. Not the first time, not the last.

They wasted my time and the CVBs money by being there.

Walking away dismayed and kinda laughing, we rounded the corner and bumped right into “another close in urban area” that is literally 20 minutes from the downtown of the city. This other urban area of course has its own CVB.

What a change….. Two people met us in the Aisle and gently steered us toward the booth (they did not know that we were already interested), they had a great looking exhibit, all of the staff were in “costume/uniform” and they had plenty of colorful candies and treats to offer as we walked. As they were chatting up their destination… I told them about my program.

It turns out that the two people who greeted me in the aisle were not actually with the CVB, they were with two different hotels and were working the booth along with the CVB staff (very common in the meetings and events industry). Once they got the parameters of my program, only one of the two hotels would work so rather than the “loosing” hotelier walking away, they both began to sell the destination (not the hotels, the destination).

I was impressed, two local competitors joining forces against a common foe (the other CVB) to bring a program to their area that would only benefit one of them. WOW, this is the stuff I preach about every day, all day. If you are on the floor, be on your game.

After we spoke with the hoteliers, the CVB  rep came by. She was great from the first moment she walked up, even offering more treats (they keep the conversation going). She was talking about the destination and asking the right questions. Understanding the parameters of my event, she began to suggest some off-site evening destinations for the group. But rather than giving me the square footage, she gave the history…. “Did you know that this destination was frequented by George Washington, he and Martha……….etc, etc.”. Not a boring pitch, a pitch filled with the color and feel for the place. Anyone can tell me the specs, she was giving me a feel for the place.

After saying our goodbyes… because now we were friends, I walked away and shot the client an email. Care to take a guess which destination I recommended we visit???

Your exhibit space is a blank canvas and you can paint whatever picture you want, it is up to you what you will create. Don’t be like the City CVB in this tale.

Here is the lesson, you can paint by numbers, using out of the box tools and a little employee training and that is OK because you follow the instructions and it walks you into a masterpiece. You can also start with raw surface and create something amazing, unique and one of a kind which is even more effective but don’t let even the smallest opportunities go to waste, in this economy, everything counts.

Keith Johnston

Keith Johnston

Keith is the Managing Partner of i3 Events but is most widely known as the outspoken publisher of the event industry blog PlannerWire. In addition to co-hosting the Bullet List and Event Tech Pull Up Podcasts, he has been featured in Plan Your Meetings, Associations Now, Convene, Event Solutions, and has appeared on the cover of Midwest Meetings Magazine.

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