Ediquitte signIt could be just me. I may have attended too many trade shows.

Yet somehow I believe Emily Post would have been appalled if she walked the exhibits at NAR Midyear.

To add a little context, I have attended, exhibited, sponsored and run trade shows.

In fact, I’m afraid to count the number of miles I have walked on trade show floors, having attended many NAR-FAR-CAR annuals, NAR Midyears, HomeBuilders/IBS, PCBCs, COMDEX, CES, IBC and others.

I have also been the lead for many firms exhibiting at these same shows, and have found myself staffing exhibits, including too many hours at a booth that was in the bowels of a covered bus garage at the Sheraton in Hawaii (NAR 1987).

I helped Brad Inman produce more than a half-dozen of the first Real Estate Connects, so I have done more than worked the floor or staffed a booth: I sold all the space and sponsorships.

So I am probably being a hard ass about all this when I ask: What ever happened to Trade Show etiquette?

Rules to follow

Less than a minute after I walked inside the hall on Thursday at 2 pm at NAR Midyear, I was taken aback.

I looked around the room and I saw body language at almost every exhibit that said “Stay away, I’m busy.”

People were eating and drinking (water, sodas) at their booths.

Rule #1: Never eat or drink at a booth, do it somewhere else. Yes, if budget constraints leave you as the sole staffer, you need to drink water and stay hydrated. But do it discretely. I’m not going to come talk to you if you are leaning up against a counter in the back of your booth with a water bottle in your hand. If you are eating at your booth, well, think about the message that sends: We can’t afford to have anyone else here, so I have to eat at my booth. I don’t think that’s a message that you want tied to your brand.

People were sitting in chairs, behind and next to counters.

Rule #2: Stand, don’t sit. This is where most people make the biggest mistake. The best way to engage people is when you are standing. If you are sitting, you send the message you really don’t care or are too tired to stand. Either way, that doesn’t invite me to talk to you. It feels more like I am interrupting you at your desk when you sit. So I walk by. And I turned around and watched everyone else walk by to. Oh, and no one sitting even greeted me with their eyes, much less actually said something like, “Hello, How are you today? Meetings going well for you?”

Almost everyone I saw was looking down: Heads were bent and they were reading, texting or playing with their nails. One was surfing the web on their big display. I could count the number of exhibitors who were smiling on one hand. Ouch.

Rule #3: Eyes forward, smile, please don’t text or surf. You have to let people know you want to talk to them. You can great someone with your eyes and a smile and get them to stop and talk to you without ever saying a word. Somehow we forgot this simple principal: If you look like you want to be some place else, you probably should and not be staffing a trade show booth.

I walked by two very nice booths; both pretty big, both with at least one giant flat screen that displayed an “Error Code” and a frozen program on the screen. People staffing these booths were oblivious to their displays being on the fritz. I circled back to these booths and 20 minutes later, both screens were unchanged.

Rule #4: Constantly check your booth, and double-check any technology. Here’s the big point: Your exhibit is your brand – it tells people instantly who you are as a firm and what you are about. If the booth is disorganized and sloppy, think of the message that sends. If you are a tech firm and your screens are frozen what does that say about what it is you do? If you are exhibiting at a Trade Show, you have to put your best foot forward because you are communicating your brand, often instantly, to thousands of people. You can make that a positive message or a negative one. Unfortunately people tend to remember negative experiences longer – and tell other people about it.

I saw some great conversations happening. Unfortunately it was between co-workers at their booths. They were unaware of my slow walk by, even though the look on my face was trying to convey that I was interested. However, they were too interested in each other. It could have been worse, and it was: One well-known software vendor left their booth completely unstaffed. No “back in 5 minutes” note, just no one there. Double ouch.

Rule #5: Talk to others, not among yourselves and always have someone at the booth. Sure, there will be down times and chit-chat makes the clock feel faster, but the minute someone is in eye-range, shut it down and move to the perimeter of your booth and be ready to make someone feel welcome. It’s easy to break the ice and start a conversation at a trade show. But you won’t get that opportunity if you are not focused on the reason you are there.

And there’s the rub: Why are these companies exhibiting in the first place?

It is clear to me that many companies are not focused on answering this question seriously enough. It feels like the appearance at Midyear is obligatory (our competitors are here, so we need to be), or done to show their brand and keep top-of-mind awareness. If the later is the case, most firms I witnessed were doing more harm than good.

These shows were once a place to sell things. That doesn’t appear to be the case at all anymore, it feels more like a game of “Whack a Mole,” as a client described it to me on the phone the other day: All I really am is a new prospect to put into their CRM and begin dripping on me.

Well that’s not going to work very well if these firms don’t follow the basic rules of etiquette at a Trade Show. I mean if they don’t do it right there, how do I know they will get it right elsewhere?
# # #