Last week I had the opportunity to walk the floor of a massive trade show for the first time since before the pandemic. There’s a real energy and buzz when hundreds of vendors mix with tens of thousands of attendees. The usual amalgamation of multi-story professional booths combined with homemade single-stall stations give it an air of upstarts and incumbents all vying for the time and attention of customers, potential customers, media, vendors, and partners. I imagine the first trade show was simply taking the format and style of a street market from thousands of years ago and organizing it for a specific industry. Humans proactively trading with each other is one of our biggest innovations as a species.
When I was growing up, my dad would go to a big trade show every summer for his industry and several times I was able to tag along. We went to places like Toronto, St. Louis, and Seattle for four or five days and did a mix of trade show and tourist activities. As a kid in middle school, I’d be on my own while he’d go to continuing education sessions. My favorite activity? Walking the trade show floor, of course, and collecting as many free goodies as I could. Pens and candies were my treasure. At the end of each day I’d show off my spoils and regale him with stories of cool products and booths. I distinctly remember sitting in a car on the show floor — a Lincoln Mark VIII coupe — and thinking how amazing it was to be in a fancy car with the latest high tech gadgets. Freedom to roam and trade show energy make for an incredible combination.
As an entrepreneur looking to break into a new industry, the first thing I’d do is find the biggest gathering, research the players, make a huge list of questions, and walk the trade show floor asking the best questions to anyone that’d listen. I’d go from booth to booth in the relevant areas and eavesdrop on conversations, observe which vendors have the biggest crowds, and seek out insights on the latest trends and growth areas. While not easy, the value and knowledge per hour spent should be as good as it gets.
Entrepreneurs should experience a large trade show at least once and learn how to get value from them.