“– Man, you’ve got a face… You should look in the mirror… You’re scaring away the customers!
– Which customers?“
(True dialogue at a so-called business fair in 2006)
Fair. Exhibition. Conference. Meeting. Forum. Congress. White paper session. Public contest. Festival. Niched Clubs. Experiential school. Case studies contest. Business simulations. Circle meetings. A few types of professional live offline events cry out to many participants, delivering content and trying to sell (products, services, and ideas) to their audiences from a specific, well-defined market interested in a particular field, a topic on which the event is held.
Most of the participants strive to convince that their product, service, idea, and work are the best and will create a lot of difference for the customers. Therefore, for structuring purposes, I will separate them by the result of marketing & sales-oriented participation and PR & awareness-oriented participation. Also, an essential aspect in getting the market pulse is visiting such an event as an external objective observer, an active non-exhibitor.
The first aspect of striving from the ethical point of view in the participant’s eyes is respect towards competition and friendly communication with the participants near you. This is a special occasion where you will encounter people you don’t like or professionally “hate”. Sometimes, out of avoiding others, important miscommunications may happen. These events are rare opportunities to settle old conflicts, form friendships, and create everlasting memories. For several days, a few persons in the same space, 7 to 11 hours a day, make a unique kind of magic proximity you might remember as a participant. Enthusiasm is a must. Also, if it’s a fair or an exhibition, you might wanna develop, if you don’t have it, the ability to speak with two people at the same time while doing something else.
Usually, to sell products and services, people and organizations participate in fairs, exhibitions, or festivals. Some people stay at the physical stand (at least two), and someone else does a presentation for a short period (from 15 to 50 minutes) in a public area reserved for workshops.
The first kind of ethics refers to the audience. The visitors move fast, and you need someone who stays in the walking hall and welcomes all people who make eye contact, walks them to the organization stand, presents the products/services, gets contacts, plans one-on-one meetings, or does direct selling. The people you approach deserve a clear-cut approach. You must know precisely what to say to each person, making your approach flexible and asking that person about their interest. Asking what is important for them to find at that event helps you understand whether this is a potential customer or not and helps him understand if and how your offer could work for him. There is no room for mistakes. In an event gathering of 20.000 people in three days as visitors, you have less than one minute to connect with each one you personally meet. At the end of the three days, you must have your contact and sales target reached.
The second kind of ethics relating to this context is with the organization you’re representing. I’ve seen at some of these events people were supposed to be selling but were actually smoking behind the counter, playing games, talking to each other, navigating over the internet, being out for a coffee, or staying 3 hours in the lunch break, coming late or leaving early. This is not only unprofessional behavior but also unethical because it reflects poorly on the organization. As a potential customer of that organization, if I create my first impression from this, I ask myself: “what kind of organization hires these people to represent them?”. But, then, it’s even more tragicomical when these organizations are selling advertising or corporate consulting services.
A present, active person at a stand should never be behind the counter but in front of it. People staying at public fairs and exhibitions in the stands bring death to their products and services. Create attention! Make a difference! Be alive! Do networking! Be prepared to work two hours before schedule and after schedule four hours every day. Eating and sleeping may be optional during the event. You’re also not allowed to look fatigued! You will probably be poorly paid and underperform in the settled goals. If you can’t do it, avoid this kind of context.
Also, pay attention to your collaborators! The people you share the stand with must be present and task-focused. There is no room for misunderstandings, conflicts, absences, and assumptions. You owe your respect to the persons working with you. They are your peers, no matter what they’re doing. Any things which might not satisfy you must be left second-hand. The concentration must be on the target. Even if others seem not to consider it, it is your duty, first of all to yourself, to be ethical to your peers. To help them, support them, and work together to the best of your abilities to get the work done. Oh, and another thing: don’t work with your girlfriend or boyfriend at the stand. Never. Don’t ask me why. Just don’t.
The last but not least important ethical relationship is with the organizers. First of all, a base of communication with the organizers is the contract. If the participation contract (with all additional documents) only has 2-3 pages, it should look suspect. No serious organization working on a significant (inter)national event will provide you with a sketchy contract. Be sure that the contract states what the organizers are offering you, what you are allowed to bring to the stand, who is in charge of making those things happen on their behalf, what they are obligated to do in case the equipment offered malfunctions, what is their time of response to any problem, what is the organizing team’s manager’s mobile phone number for any misunderstandings, how present will the organizing team be at the event and between what hours. Also, if you have bought a stand in a specific location and the organizer decides overnight to change the location, you must be entitled to drop the participation or ask for lowering the price / get money back, and you must know this specific situation is the case for litigation from the exhibitor against the organizer.
Get the contract clear. Make no mistake. If you sign it in blind without negotiating it and putting some clear-cut questions, it’s like asking for trouble. You may win, or you may not. But you’re not participating to get into a fight but to do business. So do business. Carefully review the contract, ask questions and negotiate it! Otherwise, chances are you’ll compromise the ethics as a participant in all the other instances.
If, on the other hand, you are organizing the event, do yourself a favor. Don’t be a mercenary! Choose your customers. Learn to say “no” to those potential exhibitors who might create trouble or do negative branding for your event. Any event brings together all the niches which constitute a particular field. Don’t mix up your event, or you’ll be out of the market before you know it. Some other organizer might anyway pick your idea and make it better. Don’t play around with fire. As an events organizer, you don’t create the market in a field; you simply respond to it. If, even more, you try to sell the emperor’s invisible clothes, you’ll get some money and some more negative branding. So that when the market develops, you’ll have considerable hate and inconsideration capital.
Invite people to shoot you on video, link to you, and tweet about you. Anyway, chances are they might do it consistently. So at least, give them a big smile. You came to the event to get your face on a poster. Act like it! Congresses, conferences, meetings, and forums are places you don’t have as much control over your image. There are so many people talking, asking questions, and sharing information that you are in high competition for a place in the listener’s mind.
Some professionals make a PowerPoint presentation, put it on the wall, use remote control and look at the audience while the presentation runs in the background. Don’t look at the presentation, don’t turn your back on the audience, and don’t read the display! If you’ve done this, go hide under a rock and change your name. Never do it again!
Share your phone number, e-mail address, blog, skype, and maybe Twitter at the end of the presentation. In the end, you’ve come to share ideas and to be contacted. Confidentiality has no place in such a public context, where participants are obviously pre-selected. So drop any prejudices and transfer your contacts. Make the presentation available on SlideShare, or make sure the organizers send it to all participants. This is important to help people who participated remember and others who did not but were interested in accessing your message anywhere, anytime.
If the event also has a conference attached and your job is to represent your organization, be in the audience for most presentations. Don’t act like a star; interact! These contexts might be some great opportunities for developing professional partnerships. You cannot afford to waste this opportunity. Take it. Use it. Make the best of it. It shows respect towards your peers and the industry you’re in. Visitors don’t like stars. They came there to interact with you. If that was optional, they would simply get your presentation from someone else or the internet.
Plan your speech by asking a few questions if time is essential. In most cases, it is. You can’t afford to answer irrelevant questions. If possible, have someone in the room collect questions and select them for you to answer the most relevant ones. Don’t take from other people’s time. It’s a lack of respect for their work. Strive to make your presentation shorter if possible.
Be flexible. There will always be delays, missed participation, and changing scheduled speeches. Profit from this. It’s helpful to prepare an extended and short version of your presentation so that you deliver the essentials without entering a time crisis. If the opportunity shows itself, always have a bag of secondary ideas or works to present. For example, I was at the International Psychology Fair in 2008. I have contracted for three workshops. At the end of the last day, two hours were freed up by failed participation. Finding out about that in time, I have booked the two hours for three other presentations. In a few hours, I sent the promotional message over the internet, and there were about 100 participants in three unplanned workshops on themes I wanted to present but had no initial place. If you know how to talk, there’s always room for changes. You owe it to your audience.
Make sure your team/collaborator(s) know(s) your presentation, and at least one of the members can reproduce it in case you can’t make it in time. It’s a shame to not have work presented or an idea delivered because it is dependent on one speaker. For example, I was participating in The National Psychology Conference. A workshop I was doing at the same event got superposed with the presentation of one of my works, and I couldn’t make it, so I asked an acquaintance to present it in my stead. Make the delegation process work. You should participate, but if you can’t, ensure your message gets through. Respect it.
Use cocktails and networking breaks. If it publicly ends at 11 o’clock, plan to stay there until at least 1 AM. Get contact data. Don’t count on the organizers, if they promise you they will send everybody the contacts of everybody. Make personal contact. Make people remember you. It’s a form of granting them your attention.
Don’t drink. A conference is not a place to use alcohol. If you go there to do business, do business. You can have this kind of fun somewhere else, at another time. One of the worst things that you don’t want to get remembered for is that you get drunk at cocktails. If you’re organizing this event, please have someone take notes on what happened against the planned schedule. Then, when delivering the press release, or publishing the content of the possibility that passed, respect the truth and the participants of illustrating what actually happened, not what you intended to happen. That will also give you a more precise objective instrument for evaluating how much of what you proposed you got happening to help you plan better for the event’s next edition.
When visiting public events like those mentioned here, you can allow more time for each participant, ask questions, and get the market’s pulse. If you are a keen observer, consider this homework to get done from time to time to get in touch with reality. Attendants, active participants at an event, are there to make a statement out of their presence. They are there to communicate with their audiences. Freed from the pressure of being a participant, you can understand the whole event from a more critical, non-involved perspective.
Before participating in an event, list the notable participants you’re especially interested in. At most events, there are two rooms for parallel workshops/presentations. You will have to choose, according to your interest. A good way of covering a specific event (also if you’re a journalist) is to split the coverage with a colleague of yours, to have the tasks and the presences clearly divided so that you can have complete coverage of the event. Be prepared to take pictures, ask questions on the spot, and talk to the managers. Also, on the last day, towards the end, it might be useful to talk to some of the participants for impressions & testimonials and with the organizers.
There might even be some alternative ways of getting customers rather than participating. For example, you can meet with a potential customer and talk business at the coffee shop or the restaurant where the event occurs. You may actually get customers for free without even registering for participation at the event. Another alternative to consider, for example, is visiting fairs or conferences in the field(s) of your customer(s).
Finally, get time to approach events with patience. They are time-consuming. At the same time, if you know how to use events properly, they may bring you a lot of money.
Be smart, act ethically, and the world will open up to you.
I wish you the best possible participation at this event, whether actively participating or just visiting. Properly organized events may be an excellent environment to connect with people, meet experts in specific fields, and have an overview of a field. It’s also good training for your communication skills. To skillfully use events as opportunity-generating devices, create an experience for yourself. Get involved!
Marcus Victor Grant
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