The days of the tradeshow are waning, or largely dead if you listen to some, including me. Tradeshows are no longer a place to reach your customers and show them what is new. They are no longer a venue for courting new customers and teaching them the valuable aspects of your business and what you can do for them. Rather, tradeshows are places where you network with colleagues, size up the competition and forget which booth they had which product at, relegating you to the internet to go look up what you didn’t know you didn’t know but would have figured out anyway.
(Although our most recent tradeshow at IWF (partnering with Modern Surfaces and PaperStone) was pretty awesome).
Forget exhibiting, I am not even going to tackle that. In a nutshell, not displaying at a marquee tradeshow in your industry is to be conspicuously absent, which is lighting up the rumor mill. So honestly, you have to bite the bullet, drop tens of thousands of dollars, and prove you are still in business.
Don’t get me wrong, the networking with peers and colleagues is invaluable, but there is a better way to do this than flying to Vegas or Orlando to rub elbows with 10,000 people you don’t know and 25 that you do.
Enter the age of the roundtable. These are small, intimate events, hosted by an association, a company, maybe one of your partners or suppliers. Ten, perhaps fifteen people attend and agree upon an agenda of topics that are relevant to their industries. Perhaps it is market data, business systems, labor shortages, equipment or operational efficiency that is on the docket. It is entirely up to the host. Guest speakers may be brought in or it can be an organic discussion.
These small events forge friendships and bonds between the attendees that would be incredibly difficult to form at a massive tradeshow. Everyone is a peer and everyone has a voice. There is no hierarchy. It is a collaborative discussion. You may be sitting across from a competitor and sharing ideas, or disclosing your business issues in front of a customer, but in these open discussions, it is OK. These people become your friends. Whether a one or two-day session (anything longer may test your friendship), these concentrated groups are very effective at hashing out business issues and everyone typically walks away with a “gem” - one very valuable piece of information that they plan to bring back and use in their factory/office/facility.
Here is a cheat sheet for setting up a roundtable:
- Choose your audience - Who do you want to attend? Just customers, or partners, suppliers, etc.?
- Set a reasonable attendee goal. Don’t go over 20, ideally 12-15.
- Decide on a location. Pick a host with good meeting facilities and a place to tour when you are there. Make the location somewhere that people actually want to go (Nashville, Boulder, Scottsdale, San Diego, etc.).
- Set an agenda. It is best to send out a survey (Survey Monkey is a great tool) to find out what topics people are interested in discussing. You can throw out some ideas or ask them to fill some in.
- Pick discussion leaders. These are not people pushing a personal agenda. This is very important. You need people that will guide the conversation and have “guidance topics” to steer the conversation and keep it on track should it get too far off course.
- BUT, let it get off course. Discussions can lead to really interesting ideas that people never knew they even wanted to talk about. If the discussion is getting lively and people are engaged, don’t stop them! Passion is the success in these small meetings.
- Disable the Conductor - Don’t let someone railroad the whole discussion and make others feel nervous to talk. The discussion leaders need to be adept at pulling in people that do not seem to be participating.
- Everyone has a voice - If the topic does not seem to apply to someone or they seem bored, try to turn the discussion in a way that engages them, by considering how and in what capacity they do business.
- Not everyone has a voice - OK, some people are sponges with no vocal cords, and that is fine too. Let them absorb, and they may participate, but if they seem to just want to observe and let knowledge sink in, let them have at it.
- Jot down unfinished topics - Inevitably, you are going to come across topics that could seed an entirely new roundtable discussion. Write them down for your next scheduled roundtable.
- Socialize - All work and no play isn't fun for anyone. Make sure that you have set up a reception for when people arrive to break the ice and get introductions out of the way. Also, planned dinners are great opportunities to get people to mingle and talk to others that they may not have had the chance to speak with yet. Often times, a fun tour of a local landmark or a sporting event is yet another chance to bond with the attendees. I have done brewery tours, distillery tours, factory tours and project tours at some of the events I have attended in the past.
- Follow up. Make sure you send out a summary of the event. Keeping people in contact is very important. These people are now a close, cohesive network. Set up a group on WhatsApp or Google Hangouts where you can share ideas that were discussed at your Roundtable.
Obviously, I (Jessica), am a proponent of this type of networking event. Tradeshows have been such a waste of time in the past, and when I consider the relationships that I have forged from attending a tradeshow vs. attending a roundtable, there is no comparison.
So, save lots of time, lots of fake leads, lots of money and lots of back pain and bad food and pull up a seat at the roundtable. Your friends are waiting.