‘You’ve got to get ‘em from hello’

Whatever industry you're in, if hitting the trade show circuit is a key part of your job, it's crucial to have an effective game plan for getting the most out of a gruelling exercise.
The stakes are always high at these events. But the biggest, baddest, do-or-die trade shows of all are in the entertainment industry, where cut-throat, multi-million-dollar deal-making turns each trade show into a pressure cooker.

Whatever industry you’re in, if hitting the trade show circuit is a key part of your job, it’s crucial to have an effective game plan for getting the most out of a gruelling exercise.

The stakes are always high at these events. But the biggest, baddest, do-or-die trade shows of all are in the entertainment industry, where cut-throat, multi-million-dollar deal-making turns each trade show into a pressure cooker.

How tough could it be to stroll the Croisette at Cannes, chat up the stars in L.A., or hit the slopes in Banff? Wining, dining, schmoozing. Making deals, making money.

Truth be told, top Canadian TV pros say they do like participating in MIPCOM, MIPTV, NATPE, the Banff Television Festival and newer events like the Electronic Entertainment Expo. It’s just that the glamorous scenarios are deceptive.

The reality is less of a luxurious cakewalk and more of an exhausting marathon performed on a tightrope for several non-stop days at a time. If you can make it at these shows, you can make it anywhere.

Strategy turned to Canada’s top international TV road warriors for the lowdown on making the most of any trade show visit.

Before the show

The consensus is that there’s virtually no such thing as preparing too much or too early. And the savviest technique of all is forging and nurturing professional relationships says, among others, Dan Fill, head of convergence initiatives at Toronto’s Decode Entertainment.

‘This is definitely the best way of doing business and the key to it is always trying to work out win/win deals because these are the same people you’ll be seeing at the next show and the one after that.’

‘You can’t be buying or selling all the time,’ adds Marnie Sanderson, former EVP of television distribution at Alliance Atlantis. ‘Become friends with your clients, think about their needs.’

Next, ‘sit down and decide well beforehand who you need to meet with and exactly what you want to accomplish in every single encounter,’ says Slawko Klymkiw, executive director of network programming for CBC Television. ‘You should have all this worked out in detail’ before starting to arrange appointments.

Then, says Randy Zalken, president of Toronto-based Kaleidoscope Entertainment, ‘get out your registration package and study the floor plan of the venue so you can schedule appointments logistically, and not have to waste time and energy wandering back and forth. Choose your hotel the same way. And if you plan to entertain clients, book the most popular restaurants at least six months in advance.’

Now you’re ready to start scheduling as many appointments with key people as possible, says Jennifer Stewart, CBC’s director of international sales, co-productions and acquisitions. By mid-July, for example, she and her team were already well booked for the upcoming MIPCOM show this October.

But don’t stop at merely juggling appointment times, Stewart adds. ‘We try to give everyone we talk to a preview of what we’ll be doing at the show. And we also try to find out as much as possible about what they’ll be looking to accomplish.’

While agreeing with these techniques, Isme Bennie says it’s crucial not to pre-book all of your available time. A veteran of three decades as both a seller and a buyer of TV shows, she is now director of programming and acquisitions for CHUM’s Toronto-headquartered Bravo, Space and Drive-In Classics networks.

‘Be sure to leave time in your schedule to browse around the market,’ she says, ‘because you always find something interesting that you didn’t know about and you frequently run into people you hadn’t thought to contact.’

Bennie says the next step is deploying your promotional materials judiciously ‘because there’s nothing buyers hate more than carting around loads of heavy cassettes and papers’ during the shows.

There’s a logical solution to that dilemma, says Alliance Atlantis vet Sanderson. ‘Ship or, even better, take what you want your clients to see [to their home base] beforehand and discuss it thoroughly with them. That way, not only do you make things [physically] easier for them, but you can then use your time during the show to discuss and negotiate deals,’ rather than having to educate customers about your products.

An ideal last step before the show begins, says Paris-based Emmanuelle Petry, is to arrange what amounts to a pre-game huddle for your company’s entire show-bound team. As EVP of international sales for Toronto-headquartered Nelvana, she joins people from Tokyo, Ireland, London, Los Angeles and Toronto on the eve of each trade show they attend.

‘It’s our chance to focus on both the big picture and on which programs need what kind of handling,’ says Petry. ‘We also become really motivated and excited, rather than just throwing ourselves into the market [individually] and saying, ‘Oh God, here are my 160 meetings, boom, boom, boom.”

At the show

Echoing the famous line from Jerry Maguire, Petry says that when you’re actually at the show, you’ve got to get ‘em from hello.

‘A lot of business really boils down to chemistry between people. So you need to develop a way of saying hello that’s like a kind of invitation that makes both of you feel at ease and as if you have commonality on a personal level.’

But after the ice is broken, it’s crucial not to waste the scant time of people whose schedules are committed in half-hour or even 15-minute chunks throughout the day, says Roma Khanna, EVP of Toronto’s Snap Media.

‘You’ve got to get to the point within a minute,’ she says. ‘And the best way to do that is to have figured out beforehand how to make [your pitch] stand out from the many others they’ll be hearing that day.’

CBC’s Klymkiw agrees. ‘Be dynamic. Don’t waste their time and don’t overstay your [allotted appointment time]. It’s really important to be able to cogently and confidently leave someone with the kind of impression that makes them answer your phone call or look at your cassette when they get back home.’

That dynamism and brevity is even more critical if you’ve managed to snag a minute with a hard-to-get-to bigwig, says Decode’s Fill. ‘Just try to [pique] their interest enough that they’ll remember you later on.’

What’s the best way of getting that precious minute? ‘It gets back to relationships,’ says Kaleidoscope’s Zalken. ‘Use your contacts to find out when [Mr. or Ms. Big] is going to be somewhere away from the show and get yourself introduced.’

And that ‘somewhere away’ can be as creative as your budget allows. For MIPCOM in Cannes, Decode’s secret weapon is holding meetings in a comfortably-appointed rented boat. ‘People are glad to get away from all the craziness inside the Palais for a while,’ says Fill, ‘so they’ll often spend a bit more time with us and be able to give us their full attention.’

When your company hosts a booth, it’s crucial to make sure it contains the right, well-informed, enthusiastic staffers and the right, well-organized resources. Bilingualism in English and French is a bare minimum for international shows, says Mary Graziano, senior sales executive for Montreal-based Cinar. And sensitivity to the cultural and professional norms of diverse nationalities is also a necessity, says Sanderson. ‘Being overly gregarious or touchy-feely can be considered offensive.’

Having booth personnel flexible enough to roll with the punches is a definite plus, says Sanderson, who still laughs at the memory of pushing an Anne Murray special some years ago. ‘A Japanese buyer was mildly interested but wasn’t familiar with her music and we couldn’t find the tape. So he asked our sales executive, who was a Spanish speaker, if she could sing one of Anne Murray’s songs and there she was, running around saying ‘quick, somebody tell me, what is this ‘snow beard’?’

And speaking of lost tapes, make sure that the promotional materials in your booth do an effective job for you. Bennie recommends saving buyers’ time by cueing cassettes to the essentials by eliminating leader tape and colour bars.

An equally practical tip, from CBC’s Stewart, is to have staff constantly standing by at your home office. ‘That way, rather than loading buyers down, you can find out at the booth what they’re interested in, fax or e-mail that list [to your staffers] and have the materials on the buyers’ desks by the time they get back home.’

Stewart adds that strategically planned giveaways are sometimes appropriate and effective. A good example was the well-logo’d fishing-reel-type extension cables for laptop computers she offered at the most recent MIPTV to help introduce CBC’s new Web site. ‘They went like hotcakes,’ she recalls.

But what about the big question: how do you combat physical exhaustion during those punishing 15-hour days?

Drink plenty of water and wear comfortable shoes are the two most common techniques. Nelvana’s Petry also finds it helpful to start taking ginseng and mega-vitamin C doses a week before a show begins. Graziano suggests doing whatever you can to be well rested when you arrive. And Sanderson’s advice is to get some exercise and ‘alone time’ at the beginning or end of each day by walking, swimming or even shopping. She also recommends reducing mental fatigue by writing detailed notes following each meeting ‘so you’re not frantically trying to remember everything.’

Then there’s the question of whether sellers should bring along the stars of their shows to attract publicity. Bennie says this is usually irrelevant to her because ‘shows have to stand on their own merits when it comes to making deals.’ The presence of actors can, however, be a ‘chance to set up relationships with them for when you do your own publicity [on the show] afterwards,’ she adds.

When it comes to major stars, however, Sanderson cautions that the nature of the beast sometimes means promising what you may end up not being able to deliver.

‘We threw a [lavish] cocktail party poolside in Santa Monica and told the buyers to expect Mel Gibson because his company was our partner on the project. But by the time he finally showed up, thanks to a delayed airplane, everyone except two Spanish buyers had gone to the next party.’

When it comes to high-wire acts at the trade shows, nothing beats the often-hilarious pitch competitions. If you’re plucky enough to take a shot at these three-minute chances to win backing, sales and even prize money, make sure you’re funny, warns Snap Media’s Khanna. The calibre of work you may be up against, she says, was typified this spring at Banff by a campily costumed team of drag queens for a reality show called Queen of the Castle.

After the show

So the very last schmoozefest is over and you’re back home trying to shake off jetlag and catch up on your sleep. Can you slack off a bit? No way.

‘Follow-up is the single most important thing you can do,’ says Khanna. ‘You’ll come back with dozens of cards from amazing companies and people. But if you don’t develop a system for capitalizing on that, [your efforts at the show] are valueless.

‘Once those people are outside of the whirlwind tour of the festival and back to their normal lives, it’s harder to get their attention. So you’ve got to strike while the iron is hot by getting back in touch immediately to follow up on the conversations you had with them. Send them more information, set up a meeting, whatever it takes.’

‘The only real measure of your success at the show,’ adds Graziano, ‘is how effectively you follow up on your efforts during it and how many deals you end up closing.’