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Why exhibiting science products is like fishing

Some years ago, I was out for a walk in Hong Kong while on a business trip and I found myself staring at an amazing array of fish in an aquarium at the window of a local fish restaurant. It made me think about fishing. As a young boy, I grew up among the beautiful mountains of County Wicklow in rural Ireland. The fond recollections of lazy summer days sitting by the river bank holding a fishing rod, and waiting for some brown trout to ponder if the worm on my hook looked like a good option for lunch. I could be waiting a very long time but sometimes, the fish would bite and I would spring into action and begin the task of reeling in my prize. If I was really lucky and it was a large fish, the game of pulling the line in a little and then letting it out again began in earnest in the hope that I could tire it out before it managed to break free or escape off the hook.

So what has all this fishing talk got to do with exhibiting products, and especially science products you might ask. Well a lot, actually, and given that trade shows are starting to resume after their long COVID sleep, I hope this post may be relevant as we all dust off our pop-up booths and consider travelling to shows again.

To me, various components of a successful fishing expedition correlate clearly with components of a well managed trade show. Let me explain.

1. Where should I fish?

All too often we give little thought to this part of our exhibition plans. Like the bored angler, we return to the same spots month after month without giving a thought to whether the fish may now be at other locations. We assume that the shows that we have attended for years are the only game in town and we don’t stop to think about how the world our customers inhabit may be changing and so, like fish, their feeding spots may have moved. Every year, when we make our exhibition plans we need to ask and re-ask some key questions:

  1. Are our target customers going to other shows? There may be new scientific meetings that have evolved as the patterns and fashions of scientific research change over time.

  2. We may also have evolved our product line and may need to step back and look to see if we could broaden our horizons and seek out new opportunities at new venues.

2. What equipment and bait do I need to bring?

Any of you who have started a business probably remember the excitement of going to your first trade show. You put a lot of effort into deciding what to bring, buying the ideal booth back-drop, computers and large screens, polished brochure holders, etc., etc. Our first solo fishing expedition is often the same. We probably bought various new items of kit, a new tackle box, a comfortable fold out chair or blanket to sit on by the river bank. After a time, however, we got complacent, and started to bring the same tired fishing tackle and kit month after month to our regular spots. Sadly the tackle that was well suited to catching one type of fish in the spring may not be what we need for another species in a different season. Indeed, some of our equipment may just be getting plain old and if our shiney spinner lures aren’t shiny any more then we can hardly blame the fish for not noticing them. So take a regular look at your booth. I encourage our teams to set up the booth in the office before each show and ask themselves if they are bringing the right equipment for our target customers and if our booth in general looks well and has the appropriate literature, posters and artwork for the products and applications we want to promote.

3. Selecting a position?

Fishermen often select their position on the day. As salespeople and marketers, we have to plan further ahead than that but the principles are the same. If you have decided to commit thousands of dollars to book a place at a trade show (and don’t forget that you will also have to pay for shipping equipment, flights, hotels, etc. etc.) then why not take some time to think strategically about the place you want your booth positioned. Try to be where the traffic is. Look for likely routes between hall entrances and the refreshments and/or poster areas. Some very large shows will have separate poster sessions for different topics. Try to get a spot near the topics that relate to your product offerings.

Now I know that many large trade shows say you have little choice about the position you can have but there are tricks to help improve your chances of being where you want. Here’s a tip. If you are booking a single booth at a large show then just don’t play by the organisers rules! They tell you to book early and happily take your cash and then put you in some out-of-the-way corner. Instead look at last year's floor plan. If there were unoccupied booth spaces around the show then you can expect the same this year. So, instead of booking early, book late when you can see the remaining unused spaces on the current year's floor plan. Then when you book make your booking conditional on getting either space x or y that you have chosen as best matching your location needs.

4. Setting up and working the booth

This something experienced anglers put some real effort into. They want to have their pitch both comfortable (they are likely to be there all day after all) and effective (all the kit and bait they need near to hand and laid out in an orderly way). I know that often when we get to a trade exhibition and eventually the organisers bring our boxes to our booth location, all we want to do is throw it up and get back to our hotel for food and rest. Just remember all the time and money we are investing and take an extra half hour to organise and re-organise the layout of our pitch so to give it maximum effectiveness the next morning

when the exhibition opens. Also, remember that old saying “familiarity breeds contempt” and try not to let your booth get sloppy as the show goes on. Take time each day to stand back from your booth and assess if it needs to be tidied or improved in some way.

One other comment on working the booth. Be attentive and don’t fall into the temptation of looking bored. If it is quiet then don’t sit doing email with your back to passersby who may be too shy to disturb you. Like the vigilant fisherman waiting for a nibble you must be alert for any interested person who needs your attention.

5. Storing my catch!

This is one part that salespeople manning a booth often overlook. Leads are like live fish and need to be stored with care so when we get them home they are still as fresh as possible. If we bring our catch home fresh then it will cook and taste better. Similarly, if we just throw names and email addresses into a book or onto a laptop without consideration for when and how we want to use them then we may be disappointed with the response to our follow-up communications.

Instead of allowing individual salespeople to record leads as they feel like, try this. Firstly, think about what information you or someone else who may be passed the leads after the show would want in order to effectively communicate with the prospect. Of course, you will want contact details like name, address, phone, email, etc. but also consider what else you would ideally like to know. If you sell multiple products or product variants then the product of interest is a must. Also useful is some knowledge about what the customer is doing and how he or she may want to use your product. If you have multiple people manning your booth then get them to put their name down with each lead they record. Finally, ask them to note what sense they form of both the seriousness and urgency of the lead. So make a form that matches your needs and require ALL team members on the booth to use it for every lead.

6. Learning lessons for next time

We certainly put a lot of effort into planning and executing trade shows but one extra step may improve your marketing efforts going forward. The Show Debrief. What is a show debrief? Well it is a clear analysis of our performance at the show and should result in a document containing the answers to a number of key questions such as:

  • How many leads did we receive and what was the quality of those leads?

  • How many potential customers attended?

  • Is the show still right for our company and product line?

  • Should we go again?

  • If so then what could we change to improve our success at the show?

If we answer the above then like a good fisherman we will have the data to help us decide whether to go back to the same spot next year and, if so, what to prepare to make the following expedition an even better success.

Lastly, don't forget one other element of fishing that you should translate into your

trade show activity. What is that? Well put simply, it is to enjoy it! Trade shows, like fishing, are challenging and are a process of constant improvement. If you can enjoy the process and the work then you can make this activity one of the more enriching parts of your working life and then, like the experienced fisherman, you can become a master.

Good fishing!

Rory Geoghegan

April 16th, 2023

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