The Press, April 2013

When William Davidson and Thomas Brydone pioneered New Zealand’s refrigerated meat trade in the 1880s, it took a perilous three month journey by sea to reach London’s Smithfield markets.

The modern version of this adventure is the many international tradeshows New Zealand exporters attend every year. Are they still a valid marketing tool in a world of instant online communications, or expensive junkets?

Certainly it is easy to spend a lot of time and achieve little attending tradeshows offshore. The risks are real and significant, but the benefits can be enormous with the right approach.

Having attended last week’s BIO International Convention in Chicago, the scale of international industry events can be hard to appreciate from New Zealand. As the world’s main gathering of people from the biotechnology (i.e. products like vaccines, medicines and diagnostic tools) sector, it is like a small town.

Over 15,000 people (slightly less than the population of Ashburton) attended, from over 60 countries and virtually every state of the USA. It included hundreds of presentations across many different subjects.

2,000 companies exhibited their wares in an area equivalent to six rugby fields, from giant multinationals like Merck and Siemens, to stands from tiny nations like Mauritius - an island physically smaller than the exhibition centre where it was held.

The USA’s largest convention centre, McCormick Place in downtown Chicago covers an incredible 23 hectares, offering 248, 000 square metres of exhibition space. It has six ballrooms, a 4,249 seat theatre and 5,800 parking spaces. 18,000 people can be seated for events.

In an event like BIO, one of a number of global industry events held for different industries, getting value is hard. So large and diverse are the attendees, you need to be well prepared and focussed to access the right organisations.

For a technology in its early stages of development a broad forum like BIO is ideal, given there are companies involved in all facets of the biotech sector, from medical to forensics to animal health. It gives an opportunity to better understand potential uses of your innovation and who the key players are.

If your technology is more mature and you know where it can be applied, a smaller and more focussed industry event is preferable. Otherwise you can waste a lot of time with companies outside your area of focus.

The best way to get value out of a tradeshow is being prepared. Ideally before your bags are packed you will have appointments booked with potential customers or partners – trying to organise this at the event is a recipe for frustration.

Without adequate preparation, simply sitting at your booth waiting for people to come can be soul-destroying. The big companies have the best locations and the fanciest stands, consigning you to the Artic wastelands at the corner of mammoth exhibition halls.

Or simply trawling around exhibition booths on the tradeshow floor can be futile, as the people manning the stand tend to be sales people who, while pleasant and engaging, aren’t able to do business with you i.e. buy your product.

At the core of BIO is a series of pre-arranged business meetings, where companies with a potential mutual interest can have a 30 minute session. At the 2013 event 5,700 people conducted more than 25,000 meetings.

For Kiwi companies it is a great opportunity to get access to senior executives at some of the world’s largest pharmaceutical and other biotech related companies. People to which it would be hard to gain direct access otherwise.

Not all trade events have this kind of forum, but you can replicate it yourself with a little effort. Doing your market research, finding contacts through tools like LinkedIn and KEA (Kiwi Expatriates Abroad) and reaching out to them to secure referrals or direct meetings at a show is essential to getting value for your tradeshow dollar.

Another element of preparation is understanding where your products potentially fit in the customer’s ‘value chain’ i.e. the products and services it puts together to deliver value to their customers. For example in biotech the economics are often driven by a need to sell the drugs (vaccines, medicines etc), and anything you offer has to be focussed on selling more of those.

So is it worth investing in tradeshows? With the right homework it is. You simply can’t replicate the experience of sitting down directly with a person and discussing your business, and doing that with a good number of people in one place, instead of tripping all over the globe. While online communication is shortening the buying process, for many sales or partner transactions you still need to meet face to face at some stage, and tradeshows often offer a good opportunity to do that.

Success is ultimately determined by what you do before you get on the plane. And flying Air New Zealand to get there is a lot easier than spending three months on a leaky boat to England.

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