How to approach international trade shows as a new US player

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Trade shows are big business. An estimated 31,000 mid-to-large-sized shows take place each year, with over 2,750 in Europe alone.

For high-growth US startups expanding to the EU, trade shows present opportunities to build networks, understand the competition, gain brand exposure and acquire knowledge about the market in question.

There’s a lot to gain - but a lot to think about - when considering European trade shows as a marketing push. Here are five questions to ask before making that decision.

Why should we go?

Factor in travel, accommodation and time commitments for multiple people, and attending a European trade show doesn’t come cheap - even as an attendee. Exhibiting will add stand costs, marketing collateral expenses and staff costs on top. 

All of this needs to pay for itself. A business needs to understand exactly what it’s going to gain from being there.

It may be difficult to measure return on investment specifically, but setting realistic goals makes it possible to measure return on objectives. Are there key contacts attending - and would a meeting be guaranteed? Does the offering’s target market make up a large enough proportion of the audience? Are the topics covered appropriate? If the answer is no, it may be better to invest the marketing budget elsewhere.

How should we go?

Attend as a delegate, exhibit, sponsor or speaker -- which is the right route to take?

Think about the objectives, and the amount of time and money available to meet these goals. 

Sponsorship can be expensive; at the Integrated Live Marketing Summit in November 2017, for example, packages range from £4,000 to £24,000. It can, however, build brand awareness, create positive publicity and drive sales. Be sure to check exactly what the sponsorship dollars mean in terms of advantage - get concrete figures regarding expected media coverage, the target audience and your obligations as a sponsor. 

Regular, ongoing sponsorship can be a worthwhile commitment, if a particular event fits well with a business’ brand and offering; being associated with each iteration of a quality show helps to cement market presence.

For businesses with new tech or specific insights - especially US insights for a European audience - a speaking engagement may suit, particularly if there’s something cutting edge to share. To secure these engagements it’s important to make sure the topic fits the event, and comes with a strong case for organizers to accept the offer.

However, attending solely as a delegate can also offer significant value. Scrutinise the list of delegates and exhibitors carefully pre-show, and create a hit list and organize meetings with the right people before arriving. While sponsorship and speaking engagements will build more exposure, a strategic approach to the delegate role can still offer great returns.

Exhibiting is more flexible, and can suit a range of budgets. However, the time commitment is high. Besides the full-time presence that’s needed on the day, there’s the time spent in preparing before the event and following up with leads after the show is over. It’s essential to plan to follow up on leads generated, or else the entire exercise can be for nought.

Whom should we send?

It’s important to choose the right team for the job. This will be determined by one of three things: the objectives for the show, the product or service on offer, and the networking opportunities being pursued.

If the reason for attending is “to network with senior decision-makers”, directors are the right choice for those first encounters. While there may be others who can drill down better into product technicalities, it’s best to have negotiators working on the same level - C-level team members talking to C-level team members.

If the goal is to launch a brand new product that currently has no equivalent in the EU, a CTO can describe the product and its place in the market - especially when attending alongside new European hires who know the market and its cultural differences inside out. 

Those exhibiting at European trade shows will also want to place a strong focus on choosing the right staff for the stand, taking into account personality, the ability to adapt to other cultural norms, and potentially also bearing in mind foreign language skills. 

What are the logistical requirements?

Organising a presence at a home-grown trade show can take a great deal of time and effort - and with an international event, there’s even more to consider.

Be sure to make travel and accommodation arrangements early to avoid last-minute panic. City hotels book up quickly when a large trade show is in town, and it’s hard for delegates to stay on form if they’ve been sharing a bunk bed in a youth hostel for the duration. Many conference attendees book next year’s accommodation as soon as the last one has finished.

Exhibitors need to think about their booth and marketing collateral too - will those be shipped from the US, or produced in the host country? In either case, it’s vital to have someone arrive in the host city to check that deliveries have arrived or builds have been completed on-spec. That person needs to arrive early enough for issues to be handled in good time.

Finally, there are two bedrock issues of operating abroad. If currency rates fluctuate wildly, will the budget be elastic enough to keep spend and return in balance? How will language and cultural barriers be negotiated, both in the lead-up to the event and on the day itself?

How should the brand represent itself?

In 2016, dmexco welcomed 1,013 exhibitors and over 50,700 visitors from across the globe. With numbers like these, it can be tough to stand out: everyone needs to make an impact, especially exhibitors.

Tell a story. Engage visitors by addressing their needs. Find a way to stand out without being gimmicky.

Remember, what works in the US may not necessarily work in Europe. It is important to take cultural differences into account, along with language barriers. Consider having materials and the stand itself translated into the local language, and potentially even hire a translator on the day.

First impressions are everything, and a well-designed stand which offers an engaging experience will draw in more visitors. Research from Sweden’s Halmstad University revealed “a spectacular stand” as the biggest reason for delegates to stop at a particular stand (36.6%), followed by “dedicated and inviting people” (30.2%), “planned visit” (11.9%) and 8.9% each for “exciting activity (e.g. competition or game”, and “giveaways and sweets”. 

When chosen for the right reasons, international trade shows can prove a great springboard from which to launch your business into the international marketplace. Success relies on defined objectives and an exhaustive plan.