Why we don’t exhibit at trade shows…

There are tons of people from tons (literally, I’m talking about thousands) of companies that sell to restaurants heading to Chicago today. They’ll spend the day setting up their booths at the National Restaurant Association trade show, and they’ll spend the next few days working very hard to convince restaurant people to buy their stuff, whether it be software or silverware or hardware, or any of the hundreds of other products restaurants have to buy.

We won’t be there. And for that I am so thankful. Wes and I spent four days (and quite a bit of money) attending the show in Chicago three years ago. Not only that, we spent tons of time planning our booth, planning what we would hand out that would be memorable and unique, and so on. We talked to hundreds and hundreds of restaurant people, telling them what we did and why it could help them. By the last day, we were exhausted and, while curious to see what results we achieved, we weren’t really that confident that we had made that much of a dent. Especially not a large enough dent to justify the inordinate amount of time and money we had invested into the thing. Added to which, I came down with nasty stomach virus as I was tearing down our both, suffered through a long cab ride and flight home with it, and wound up having to stay at an airport hotel in Charlotte that night so I didn’t bring this awful trade show virus home to my wife and young children.

I remember being in the cab on the way to the airport that afternoon in Chicago, feeling as bad as I’ve ever felt, and thinking to myself, “I will NEVER go to another trade show!” And it wasn’t just an overreaction to my pathetic physical state at the time. It was a strategic decision that we all agreed was the right more for our company. Here’s why:

Trade shows once were great for spreading the word
Before it was easy to tell tons of people what you do and why it’s useful over the Internet, trade shows were a great way to speak to a large audience. You won, because you got to tell so many people about your product in such a short period of time. And the attendees won, because they got to hear about a large number of products in a short period of time. So everybody started going to trade shows. And trade shows became a normal part of doing business. It wasn’t a matter of whether you would go or not. Of course you were going. It simply became the way things are done. Period.

But it got harder to stand out
Since every vendor hawking anything went to trade shows, it got harder to stand out. You weren’t just trying to stand out from your direct competitors, you were trying to stand out from all of the other vendors, because you knew the attendees could only remember so many vendors when they went home. They may talk to hundreds of them, but they would only remember three of them. So vendors started doing crazy stuff to be memorable. Stuff that had nothing to do with their products. My favorite is the one where vendors hire models to stand at their booth. Models who have nothing to say about their product and are paid to just stand there and be pretty. I mean, there are freaking businesses now that operate solely to hire out models to stand with vendors exhibiting at shows. How hilarious is that? People have become so desperate to be memorable that they pay some nice looking woman to stand at their booth so attendees will stop and talk to them. Then the vendors try to lure them into a conversation about their product. Really? It’s come to having to do that to be memorable? No thanks. Not my cup of tea.

And now there are much easier ways to spread the word
After our trip to Chicago, we took a step back and thought about how we could better spend that same money, or perhaps not spend it at all. And for two years we didn’t spend it at all. Rather, we saved it. We simply didn’t go to any trade shows the last two years nor we did we spend any measurable marketing dollars on anything, except the little bit we spend on SEO. And that’s kind of the point now, isn’t it? These attendees used to go to trade shows to learn because that was the most efficient way to learn. Nowadays, they can learn what they want on their phone browser while drinking their morning coffee. If they have a problem with their restaurant employee scheduling, they type “restaurant employee scheduling” into Google and find out who is solving that problem. They’ll see some ads (like ours) as well as natural results. They can see who has the best presentation, who speaks to their needs the best, and make a decision without ever having to get on a plane. Of course then they don’t get to make small talk with any models…but I digress.

I am a big fan of the HBO show, “Boardwalk Empire.” This was my favorite scene last season:

For the last three years, we have waited, planned, marshaled our resources. We didn’t make any bets because there simply weren’t any plays. But this year we saw an opportunity. And while we aren’t betting it all, we decided to spend a little money on something marketing-related. Something that we are convinced will give us much better returns than we could ever get from a trade show. This year, we are spending about the same amount of money that it would cost to go to Chicago (one time) to film our Restaurant Owners Uncorked video series, a series that will help us build credibility for our brand, help educate people in the industry we serve, and help tell some of our thousands of awesome customers’ stories to people all over the world. Plus it’s something that is a whole heck of a lot more fun to work on than standing at a booth for three days sounding like a broken record and picking up nasty, mutated, alien stomach viruses!

I’m not saying nobody should exhibit at trade shows. But I am saying that it’s o.k. to take a step back and determine if the time and money is worth it, or if there is a simpler, more elegant way to achieve the same (or better) results.