Overcoming our low-key tendencies

Visitors to the estimated 600 annual Canadian trade and consumer shows are likely to see a reflection of ourselves: little in the way of the flamboyance or flashiness, but lots of the modest decorum and stuffy propriety that often defines our...

Visitors to the estimated 600 annual Canadian trade and consumer shows are likely to see a reflection of ourselves: little in the way of the flamboyance or flashiness, but lots of the modest decorum and stuffy propriety that often defines our national character.

It is a far cry from the pomp and pageantry, glitz and glamor, and hooting and hollering that characterizes most trade and consumer shows south of the border, say many industry experts.

‘We’re so conservative and much too reticent to try anything new,’ says Jacqueline Peake, principal with Corporate Events Management, which oversees the Parent Show and the Business-to-Business Show, among others.

Hard to change

‘It’s so well-embedded in the Canadian psyche that it’s hard to make changes and convince exhibitors to be a little more daring,’ Peake says.

Although the numbers of shows have more than doubled over the past 15 years, and the exhibition market has grown into a $1-billion industry, consumer and trade shows are still given relatively little attention by most marketing managers, says Denis Carley, vice-president of Canadian I & D Specialists, an exhibit installation and dismantling firm based in Pointe Claire, Que., near Montreal.

Attendance at exhibitions is considered a necessary evil, Carley says. If exhibitors are not present, they are conspicuous by their absence.

However, a change is slowly taking hold.

The increasing number of foreign exhibitors at domestic shows has got many companies scrambling to compete for attention on the showroom floor, according to many industry analysts.

More brazen approach

Taking the lead from their u.s. counterparts, some Canadian companies are shunning old-fashioned prudishness for a more brazen approach.

However, it is not quite the same ostentatious, show-biz tactics that distinguish most u.s. trade and consumer shows.

It is ‘in-your-face’ with a polite and proper Canadian attitude.

‘Interface’ is now the buzzword on the Canadian consumer and trade show floors.

Whether they are peddling screwdrivers and drills, vacations in Singapore, strollers and baby bibs, or bridal gowns and wedding cakes, many exhibitors are looking to become more interactive with their consumers as a way of garnering attention.

‘The biggest difference between a trade show and other forms of advertising is that you can demonstrate your product and interface with people,’ says Sandra Palmaro, manager of advertising and public relations at Microsoft Canada, which spends about 10% of its marketing budget on trade and consumer shows.

‘It’s not just about handing out information to people anymore,’ Palmaro says.

Murat Olcay, B.C. group manager of exhibition organizer Southex Exhibitions, agrees.


‘Get them interacting with the products, the next thing you know, they’ll be interacting with the salespeople and you’ll be ringing up the cash register, Olcay says.

Microsoft’s exhibit at the comdex computer trade show in Toronto last month is lauded by many in the industry as a good example of the emerging trend to creating more interactive booths and displays.

Palmaro says breaking down the physical barriers between clients and salespeople is an important part of Microsoft’s interactive strategy.

Free-form display

A free-form display, designed by Mississauga, Ont. exhibit manufacturer Kadoke Display, consisted of one main booth with two theatres set up for demonstrations and discussions on either side, used in conjunction with 26 satellite booths or ‘pods’ where 30-40 products were also being demonstrated.

‘The satellites were a brilliant idea because within 35 seconds of leaving the main display, people were reminded again – `Oh yeah, Microsoft,’ ‘ says Sam Kohn, president of Etobicoke, Ont.-based Exhibits International.

Palmaro says it is important to link trade and consumer show themes to the overall marketing strategy.

She says not only should color schemes and the general visual impact be similar, but the fundamental message should coincide with other advertising efforts.

‘We see it as an extension of our brand personality,’ Palmaro says. ‘Accessibility is the whole philosophy behind Microsoft – making the pc experience fun and accessible – so accessibility was really, really key in the development of our show.’

Thing of the past

Peake says that while consumers were content to be voyeuristic in the past, the barrage of information they must digest in a technological society has fostered a need for a more interactive approach.

Interactive displays provide an important forum for consumer education, she says.

Bryan Bodell, displays manager at BChydro, says because people learn best with a hands-on approach, interactive displays are the most prudent way to deliver a marketing message.

This month, BChydro will be introducing a sophisticated interactive model ‘home’ at Vancouver’s Pacific National Exhibition, to sell consumers on its Power Smart campaign.

The exhibit is set up to walk consumers through a typical house.


It is complete with video monitors which are located in strategic positions – beside windows, doors, refrigerators, stoves and other appliances. The videos will provide commentary throughout the tour, teaching people how to conserve energy.

Interactivity also means getting buyers to communicate with experts through show seminars.

Seminars offering up everything from advice on child-rearing, to cooking tips, to suggestions on how to operate a high-tech lathe are quickly becoming an integral part of creating excitement and getting buyers out to shows.

‘Part of the theory behind having seminars is to create an event,’ says Olcay, who manages both the B.C. Home and Garden Show and the B.C. Fall Home Show.

Not cheap

‘When you consider that the average person going to a home show spends between $50 and $60, it’s not a cheap proposition for an afternoon,’ he says.

‘So you’ve got to give them something above and beyond the opportunity to look around and shop.’

Barry Siskind, president of Toronto-based International Training & Management and author of The Successful Exhibitor’s Handbook, agrees.

Because of the proliferation of consumer and trade shows, clients have had to become more selective in choosing which shows to attend.

More and more shows have seminars attached to them so that people can justify taking the day off work, Siskind says.

And while experts continue to file up to the podiums at most consumer and trade shows, larger-than-life celebrities, such as Toronto Blue Jay Roberto Alomar, are also making guest appearances.

‘Sports personalities are still the biggie,’ says Clancy Goodfellow, sales and marketing manager at Don Mills, Ont.-based Hanna Design, which makes a portable panel exhibit system called Radius.

‘Whether it’s baseball, hockey, or tennis, it’s still the most important drawing card,’ Goodfellow says.

Joseph Paonessa, president of Baseball Mania, a Niagara Falls, Ont.-based boardgame manufacturer, says he was surprised to see an anxious and noisy crowd form around his exhibit an hour before Alomar was scheduled to arrive and sign autographs at the January Toy Show held at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.

‘It certainly worked for us,’ says Paonessa, who adds the excitement and fanfare created by the exhibit and the World Series champ’s presence, helped to get some large chain stores carrying his baseball board game.

Videos, high-tech graphics and lighting, and a large model of the boardgame were also used to create excitement around the booth.

Paonessa says between 10% to 15% of his marketing budget is devoted to trade shows.

‘It’s a place where all of your buyers come together under one roof,’ he says.

‘Where you’re able to meet sales representatives from all across the world. It’s definitely worth the investment. We wouldn’t be able to talk to clients like Sears without getting into a forum like the trade show.’

The competition, Toronto-based Canada Games Company, which markets games such as Trivial Pursuit, Scruples and Balderdash, has tried a different tactic to create excitement at the Toy Show.

A giant yo-yo attached to a 150-foot crane outside of the show building caught more than one person’s attention two years ago, says company vice-president of marketing and sales, Kenny Albert.

And last year’s circus theme – full of clowns, tents, and animal silhouettes – was a huge success, Albert says.

‘Anybody can have a contest and give away a television, but we try to make the biggest noise we can,’ Albert says.

Kohn agrees, adding the purpose of the trade or consumer show is to create controversy.

He has caused a stir on the exhibition floor with many of the ‘film sets’ he has created for Warner Bros.

Recently, a mock Batman set, complete with thousands of parading plastic penguins donning small red knapsacks in a Gotham City setting, caught the attention of many passers-by.

Medieval castle

The year before, a huge medieval castle with moats and drawbridges in a Robin Hood-style film booth drew hundreds of spectators who patiently lined up to get a look inside.

‘Don’t go out there unless you’re prepared to scream,’ he says. ‘If you’re just going to sit in the background, you’re wasting your money.

And while individual exhibitors and designers are working to create excitement in and around their booths, show managers and owners are also providing entertainment to bolster audience numbers.

‘Many of the exhibitors really rely on us for hype and pump,’ says Robert Grainger, vice-president, show division for Outdoor Canada, which operates 13 shows including the Toronto Ski Show and The Sportsmen’s Shows.

One of the company’s most successful promotions to date was last year’s rodeo at The Toronto Sportsmen’s Show.


Grainger says thousands packed into the Toronto Coliseum building to see bull-riding urban cowboys and cowgirls on bucking broncos.

The Great Canadian Maturity Show has also relied on entertainment to get the sixtysomethings out to their show. Big bands, line dancers and tap dancers have been the main entertainment in the past.

‘Anything that will bring nostalgia back to these people and remind them of their younger years is usually quite a success,’ says Derek Morrison, director of sales and show manager of Mississauga, Ont.-based Premier Consumer Shows, which runs the Great Canadian Maturity Show and The Great Canadian Travel Show.

‘You’ve got to make the entertainment fit with the type of show you are producing,’ Morrison says.

He says prizes, such as trips to Australia worth thousands of dollars, also help to attract audiences.

According to Grainger, give-aways, contests, draws and entertainment are all an important elements in amplifying the enthusiasm on the exhibition floor.

Consumer shows

However, industry experts say elaborate contests and showy spectacles are much more likely to be found at consumer shows than trade shows.

Trade show exhibitors tend to take a much more conservative approach, relying more heavily on educational seminars to get buyers out.

Because consumer shows are more family-oriented, they require a bigger entertainment investment, Grainger says.

Carley says he would like to see even fewer gimmicks and contests at trade shows.

‘Personally, I think they cheapen the trade show and take away from the booth,’ he says. ‘A good design should be enough in itself to create excitement.’

Besides making booths more interactive, many Canadian exhibitors are also investing big dollars in both their booth design and in sophisticated graphics to create enough visual impact to differentiate them from their competitors.

Good design

‘There’s no doubt that a good design can generate more prospects,’ says George Kadoke, president of Mississauga, Ont.-based Kadoke Display, a manufacturer of custom exhibits.

The One of a Kind Canadian Craft Show is considered by many to be the creative hub of the consumer show universe.

Because exhibitors are often artists or artisans themselves, they are particularly innovative in creating unique booths and displays, says show producer Steven Levy.

‘It’s not just glitz and glamor, but creating a psychological mood and good visual merchandising,’ he says.

A psychological mood can be most effectively created with lighting, he says, or even by placing sponging under carpet, so weary-worn visitors can rest their feet.

Good visual merchandising usually means relating the display to the product – creating a cabin-like exhibit if you’re selling snowshoes and canoe paddles, he says.


However, the Craft Show is something of an anomaly. While nearly all of its exhibits and displays are custom-designed, the trend over the past few years has been more to portable systems booths.

David Sharp, president of Toronto-based showcase distributor Octanorm North America, says system exhibits fit the requirements of many companies in the ’90s.

Less expensive

Not only are the exhibits reusable and recyclable, they are less expensive in the long-run, Sharp says.

Many companies are using a combination of both custom and systems displays, opting for less expense and more versatility, agrees Gordon Wheeler, president of Markham, Ont.-based Nimlok Canada, which supplies portable display and exhibit systems.

Custom or system, celebrity or expert, clown or giant yo-yo – all of the publicity, panoply, promotions and dazzling displays would be meaningless without the efforts of well-trained sales staff in getting a show off the ground, say the experts.


‘If you’re really trying to create excitement on the exhibition floor, it’s up to your salespeople,’ says Don Fusco, marketing analyst, with Markham, Ont.-based Reed Exhibitions, which oversees trade shows such as The Canadian Machine Tool Show, and the Canadian High Technology Shows, among others.

Recently there has been a much greater emphasis throughout the industry on training staff for the show.

Industry gurus such as Siskind and Fred Fox, host of the training video ‘Power Selling for Exhibitors,’ are frequently brought in to train sales staff.

Siskind says selling at trade and consumer shows is markedly different from regular retail sales.

‘This is the part that most people fall apart on,’ he says. ‘All the money in the world can be spent on a beautiful booth and hardware, but it all goes right out the window if your sales staff isn’t properly trained.’

Too much time

Most untrained salespeople tend to spend too much time with potential clients, letting thousands of others walk by.

Because most shows are not about writing orders, but about getting leads, time spent with trade show shoppers should be scaled back to a few minutes rather than the 15 to 30 minutes that are spent in a typical retail environment, Siskind says.


‘People have to be much keener now because of all of the activity that surrounds the show,’ he says.

‘They have to work much harder just to make sure that clients are coming to see them during the breaks in seminars and entertainment.’

Fusco says dressing staff in uniforms makes them more identifiable and presents a consistent corporate image to potential prospects.

A successful show also involves much pre- and post-show work, according to Fusco. And the sooner exhibitors get started, the better off they will be.


Exhibitors should be advertising in industry trade magazines, letting clients know that they will be at the shows. Direct mail campaigns are another effective way of bolstering traffic at the booth, according to Fusco.

Steve Barber, vice-president of Etobicoke, Ont.-based exhibit organizer Industrial Trade and Consumer Shows, says statistics show that the greatest number of those who attend trade and consumer shows are those who have been issued a vip pass in advance.

‘If you get an invitation from a business that you already have a relationship with, you’re going to feel compelled to stop by at their booth,’ Barber says.

Rented list

Companies such as Reed Exhibitors also rent out a list of pre-registered visitors which exhibitors can take advantage of to get buyers to their booths.

Defining objectives well in advance is also important, say the industry analysts.

Whether the objective is to generate 1,000 new sales leads, launch a new product, or invite the executive management to come out and meet the buyers, it will largely determine how sales staff is to be trained and how the display will be set up, Siskind says.

When Duracell Canada commissioned an award-winning exhibit in 1991, the purpose was to launch its new battery tester, says company marketing manager, David Suske.

May not work

‘Not every booth will work for every show,’ says Suske, who adds the company typically attends 15 to 20 trade and consumer shows a year.

‘And the worst thing you can do is to have the same look, time after time, show after show,’ he says.

The company wanted a new high-tech, high-style look, which would correspond with its positioning as a technological leader.

Suske says it also wanted a user-friendly display, making it easier for clients to interface with sales staff.

Gold and black – the company’s corporate colors – were used in a combination of slatwall panels and cylinder forms to create a battery-like shape.


In front of the display, designed by Markham, Ont.-based Geron Associates, a tray full of batteries was set up along with a battery tester to get people interacting with the product, Suske says.

Product launches

Product launches, such as the Duracell battery tester, can often be done more effectively at a trade show than in a regular sales environment, according to Carley.

Research has shown that the average industrial sales call costs companies an estimated $122, compared with $85 per sale at the consumer or trade show, he says.

Powerful medium

‘The trade show can be a very powerful medium if you use it effectively,’ Carley says. ‘Too few marketing managers realize how valuable it can be as a potential sales vehicle.’

Industry experts agree that there are still too many missed opportunities by trade and consumer show exhibitors.

For example, research shows that companies only follow up on an average of 20% of the leads that are generated during the shows, Fusco says.

And too few exhibitors are interacting with clients in more casual settings such as hospitality suites after the show, which can sometimes be a more favorable atmosphere for striking deals with important clients, he says.

However, if current trends are any indication of what the future holds, the Canadian trade and consumer industry will continue to expand and develop as a respected and sophisticated marketing vehicle, says Siskind.

It is estimated that by the end of the decade, the number of trade shows in Canada will have reached between 2,000 to 3,000. There will probably be many more cross-border shows as the industry continues to proliferate, he says.

Smaller and more highly specialized shows will appear, says Kohn, who is already seeing this trend develop among his clients.

Requests for private shows – in their offices and warehouses – are just the beginning of the trend to the verticalization of the marketplace, he says.

And the trend toward interactivity – with greater accessibility in booth design and display, better and more frequent product demonstrations, and a sales staff which is trained to interact more effectively with potential clients – will continue to dominate the Canadian consumer and trade show industry, says Peake.

‘People don’t just want to look anymore,’ she says. ‘They want to be a part of it. We’ve only seen the beginning of where this trend can go.’