Thursday, March 22, 2007

Business Expo 101.

I tried an experiment yesterday. It remains to be seen whether the experiment will be successful; field tests are currently underway. I signed up for a table at the Tabletop Expo sponsored by my local Chamber of Commerce. The tables were quite inexpensive, putting the expo within reach of small business owners such as me. What one chooses to put on that inexpensive table will, of course, have an effect on the return on investment.

Of course, I had to have something to give away, and have been longing for MCM Voices pens, so I looked in my Chamber of Commerce business directory and picked out Pacific Printing. Owner Tim Banister must have spent a good 45 minutes to an hour guiding me through the catalogues, talking me out of stuff as well as trying to talk me into getting a shirt made up with my company name on it. Shirts with MCM Voices just aren’t me, not yet anyway, and I had the sense to stay away from that for now (I was tempted though, since my friend Elaine Singer told me she met our mutual friend Peter O'Connell at Podcamp Toronto last month; he was wearing a spiffy white shirt with his company name on it and she was deeply impressed). I ended up just getting pens with my company name and web address on them.

The MCM pens

Tim also asked me some pointed questions about what I expected to get out of my participation in the Expo – what kind of people would I be marketing to and what would I be trying to sell? This was very important, because if not for his questions I might not have realised that the one thing I was most likely to be able to sell was something I don’t usually market, namely on-hold messaging and telephony. I subsequently designed a brochure that featured that part of the business much more than I would otherwise have done. Again I consulted the Chamber’s business directory and found that I could email my brochure file to Paradise Copies, right downtown, and they would run a proof for me which I could then go in and check at my convenience. They did exactly what I wanted, and yesterday morning when I realised I didn’t have a sign for my table, I quickly designed one and emailed the file to Paradise. They not only printed it, but affixed it to a little foam easel and I was suddenly starting to look somewhat professional!

Of course, I couldn’t have a table and invite people to it without offering something to eat. So I made chocolate chip cookies. Lots of them. It is part of my upbringing that when you provide food you don’t run out. I made dozens and dozens of cookies and still worried about running out, because typically 500 people attend these expos as visitors, and there are 125 tables, so potentially I would be feeding 52 dozen people. I had only 15 dozen cookies.

The Expo was held at the Log Cabin on top of Mt. Tom, and the weather was perfect for it – brilliantly blue and sunny, not too chilly and not too warm to be lugging dozens of cookies around in. My table was in the Southampton Room (picture #10 in the virtual tour) with a beautiful view of the Pioneer Valley. I can only give you a blurry view of what my table looked like because my camera suddenly stopped focussing, but it gives you the general idea. After setting up I wandered around to see what other vendors were present and to get the lay of the land.

MCM’s table at the Tabletop Expo 2007

My first clue that I had more than enough cookies was the lavish buffet tables with cheese, crackers, raw vegetables and dip, and then I noticed the armies of servers carrying trays of h’ors d’oeuvres: scallops wrapped in bacon, filo shells with crudités, coconut-encrusted chicken, mozzarella sticks, miniature tacos, beef and pineapple… I gained a couple pounds just looking, and I did more than look. Many of the tables had bowls of candy, an equipment rental company had a chocolate fondue fountain, Edible Arrangements had pineapple flowers dipped in chocolate – there was a lot vying for the palates of the visitors. I talked to a lot of people, saw old friends and made some new ones. Berkshire Hills Productions was there and I finally met Ed and Helen Pelletier, who have been on my contact list for two years. Gretchen Siegchrist of Media Shower Productions had a table – she joined the Chamber of Commerce about the same time I did and we exchanged notes. Someone from Clear Channel stopped by my table and left a card and took a demo CD. My family dropped in to visit and my husband greatly enjoyed talking with Sean Jeffords of Sean’s Custom about solar energy and green building practises. Several of the Chamber of Commerce staff visited me and it was great to see their familiar and friendly faces. Basically, it was a big party where networking was the order of the day, and I had a good time. And – my luck has certainly turned since I started this frenzy of organised networking last fall – I dropped my business card in a fishbowl and after a while a kind lady came to my table with a prize – a 1 GB USB drive courtesy of Turcotte Data & Designs!

What I could have done much better at this event was to get my brochure off my table and into the hands of every business owner in the room. There are more business expos coming up, and although I won’t have a table I will take my brochures and cards and pens with me and do a bit more glad-handing. I can probably accomplish as much or more without a table, although the data aren’t all in yet. My advice to anyone considering this form of marketing is to be very clear about what you are trying to accomplish and how you plan to get the job done. Be realistic about it and visualise your plan – picture yourself standing at your table and greeting people as they go by – hook them with the cooky or whatever other lure you have and draw them into conversation about themselves. Find out if they offer a service that you might be able to use, and tell them about the services you have that might be valuable to them. This kind of setting is not easy for shy people, so if chatting with strangers is not your strong suit you really must have a plan to help you get through it. And remember, many of the people there are shy too, and you can help them by making the first move. Finally: if you're planning to bring food, try to find out ahead of time what else will be available and what your competition will be! I have a lot of cookies in my freezer (got tea? Come on over!).



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