With company budgets stretched thin in support of multiple trade shows, manufacturers and distributors must fine-tune their approach and think creatively to maximize each venue’s selling potential
By Frank Long
A good thing turns bad when there’s too much of it. Take the example of “too much information.” Every parent wants to know what their children are up to, but they’re probably not interested to learn about the treasure that little Johnny or Susie found sifting through the kitty litter. So it goes with dental trade shows. These events can be beneficial in boosting field sales and generating leads, but the number of shows — and, in some cases, shrinking attendance — are cause for concern among manufacturers and distributors. When it comes to meetings, the challenge for dental companies is knowing which venues are producing — and which they’re better off turning their noses up at.
In today’s super-competitive climate, it’s all about discovering which exhibitions offer a solid return on investment, and then finding creative ways to leverage those venues for maximum brand-building and sales impact. And while there’s no bulletproof cost/benefit formula that works for every firm, there are strategies that can help dental companies determine the “right shows” to which they should commit their resources.
Gary Price, president and chief executive officer of the Dental Trade Alliance, cuts to the heart of the matter, saying, “Customers are the essential criteria for choosing the right trade show.” And by “customers,” he means “attendees.” Indeed, attendees are the most valuable deliverable a trade show can offer to exhibitors. Gauging a show’s worth based on reported attendance can be problematic, however. Although most meetings release attendance figures, and some even break it down by job function, it can be difficult to judge the accuracy of the data, or determine how many days clinicians actually spend at the show.
In addition, there is no guarantee each of those customers fully engages with the exhibit hall. As a result, Price says, it is important to consider whether the dentists and office staff who represent the bulk of attendees will actually spend time exploring the trade show floor. And while there is speculation that attendance at some meetings is down because clinicians now have multiple options to learn about new products, or take continuing education outside of trade shows — the fact is that many attendees still spend exhibition time taking courses. In other cases, they may even be sightseeing or out on the town. Each scenario potentially reduces the actual foot traffic a company might hope to capture at its booth.
“If your company attends a show one year and it yields few customers, why would you go back the following year expecting different results?” Price asks. To make the most of trade show dollars, he discourages companies from signing up for shows out of habit. Instead, he encourages manufacturers and distributors — and their sales and marketing teams — to get the facts about the show and to look objectively at the picture that data paints.
THREE WAYS TO DRIVE TRAFFIC
Dental trade shows are crowded, noisy places, and seasoned sales executives understand that getting prospects’ attention is more than a matter of simply showing up. Anita Sirianni, chief strategist and president of the sales consulting firm Ansir International, offers three ideas to help sales pros and marketing teams drive qualified leads to their booths.
Snail Mail Teaser
Sending a “blah blah” flyer in a No. 10 envelope doesn’t do anyone any good, and is a tactic worn thin by herds of unimaginative marketers. A catchier approach, Sirianni says, is placing a bandage inside that same envelope with messaging that suggests it’s time for a dental professional to stop taking a “Band-Aid approach” to clinical dentistry, and to solve their issues by incorporating your products into practice.
But whatever the communication mechanism, Sirianni emphasizes that creativity is key. “Along these lines, field sales reps,” she says, “can make considerable contributions to creative trade show planning because they know the end-user customers better than anyone.”
Recognize The Entire Dental Team
As much as 85% of marketing efforts are directed at dentists, Sirianni reports — but capturing the interest of other members of the dental team could pay off handsomely. “Although they may not have the final say,” she says, “dental hygienists, assistants and other office staff can be highly influential in getting the decision-maker to an exhibit booth.”
Offering a special service or giveaway that makes a dental assistant feel pampered could pull in the assistant, as well as the dentist. “Create a photo op, for example — perhaps of the assistant being pampered on a throne,” she says, “and think how likely she or he is going to be to ask the dentist to come take that picture.”
For maximum attraction, it might make sense for a company to extend its trade show presence beyond its booth by putting the company’s message “in motion.” Sirianni recalls one trade show for which a company had representatives roam the exhibit hall floor dressed in safari attire. This effort supported the firm’s message: “It’s a jungle out there.” To snag even more eyeballs, the company hired Tarzan and Jane characters to walk the aisles and invite dentists to come by the booth for a special presentation about dental imaging. “It’s all about standing out creatively without spending a fortune,” Sirianni says.
FOLLOW-UP IS CRUCIAL
One way in which dental firms can optimize the marketing dollars they commit to a trade show is to diligently assess a meeting’s value. If the venue suggests true potential for sales, it’s vital to identify which metrics can be used to gauge the success of the company’s specific trade show objectives.
Traditionally, dental meetings provided a silver bullet that boosted sales in the short term and helped sustain firms throughout the year — or at least until the next major trade show. While these basic “business development” objectives may still pertain for some companies, for others the primary goals for attending have shifted, notes Anita Sirianni, president of Ansir International, an Arizona-based sales consulting firm. “Beyond the benefits of brand exposure and immediate sales, many firms are primarily looking to generate leads,” she tells Mentor. And for meeting strategies in which lead generation is the key goal, that objective must be accompanied by meaningful follow-up in order to bring sales to fruition. Sirianni points out that even though a sales executive may leave a trade show with a briefcase full of leads, many companies lack a systematic process for assessing and evaluating the quality of those leads.
“Sales reps or their marketing teams sometimes have the mindset that a lead is a lead is a lead,” she says. “But in today’s selling environment — especially as it relates to trade shows — we know that’s not necessarily the case.”
Price agrees that lead follow-up is an essential component of success for exhibitors. He suggests companies that want to get the most out of their efforts create an easy lead-tracking system to support additional sales after the show. “Using the right follow-up tools after the exhibition can have a dramatic impact on a company’s bottom line for that meeting,” Price reports.
And the consequences can be alarming for firms that do not have strong lead-generation and follow-up strategies, notes Sirianni — who asserts that between 43% and 47% of trade show sales are left on the table by companies that do not have a mechanism to capture contact information for those who participate in presentations or sponsored educational events. “So often, firms don’t have a strategy for how they are going to get a return on that sponsorship fee or honorarium they have just spent,” she notes. “Unless sales can be directly tied to that intervention, everyone is left scratching their heads, wondering whether anything was gained by the money spent.”
DON’T OVERLOOK FLOOR SALES
While trade shows offer the potential to make rain with qualified leads, they also remain fertile ground for field sales. Selling to prospects and existing customers from the show floor offers the savvy sales exec payback potential for the time he or she has committed. “The advantage that trade shows offer to sales representatives is really a high-volume, low-effort opportunity to introduce additional products to existing clients,” Sirianni says, “or introduce any product to prospective customers.”
To make the most of field sales opportunities at dental meetings, Sirianni recommends two tactics. The first is to deploy some sort of “widget” to attendees ahead of the show date, and then track the number of widgets brought back to the booth by the individuals who receive them. These clinicians, she emphasizes, represent potential customers. The second tactic is for companies to assign a sales expectation “per representative.” These would differ according to key variables, such as whether the venue falls within a sales rep’s territory, the salesperson’s experience level, or whether the rep is using the show for training purposes.
ONLY THE SMART SURVIVE
Speaking in terms of all business fields, Business Week has described the trade show industry as an enterprise worth $100 billion, which hints as to how easy it can be for a company to throw money — lots of money — at an exhibition. Considering that larger firms typically can afford a bigger presence than smaller companies, it places even more onus on smaller firms to be resourceful in how they approach a show. “But bigger isn’t always better,” Price cautions. “Working smarter is probably the single best advice for exhibitors of all sizes.”
In this sense, the question of budget may not be as important as how a firm plans for the event. Once a company decides to attend a meeting, for example, it should set tangible goals — an absolutely critical step, Price asserts — and then turn its attention toward seeding the show. A common trait among firms that are productive and efficient at dental exhibitions, he notes, is good early planning. “While it’s important to have the right marketing materials and knowledgeable sales personnel at the event,” Price says, “it’s equally crucial to use local reps, social media and other outside marketing materials to promote the meeting and drive local clinicians to the booth.”
Another suggestion for companies trying to hedge their trade show returns is to send out invitations and book pre-appointments. This, he says, helps boost attendance and gets local dentists thinking about special buying opportunities or seeking information about new technologies. Price also suggests that marketers consider having products on the exhibition floor that match up well with the continuing education classes offered at the show.
A surplus of anything tends to result in devaluation. It happens with soy beans and pork bellies, and with Hondas and homes: too many products for too few buyers. Just as manufacturers and distributors wrestle with declining traffic at some dental meetings, so do show organizers. The strain on resources from attending multiple exhibitions has companies taking a sharp pencil to their show budgets and plans. And for venues that offer prospects for fewer customers, firms have less reason to muster a presence.
Ideas are beginning to emerge, however, that could ease the financial burden of manufacturers participating in the plethora of trade shows. One idea fielded from within the dental industry is a model that would leverage the benefits of collaboration. It proposes that two or more dental academies might hold an event that shares a central exhibit hall, with each group conducting separate conferences in parallel. The financial hub — and, indeed, rub — of this model would be a revenue-sharing agreement between the sponsoring organizations. Revenue sharing would be a complex and delicate matter to work through, however, and no group has yet taken ownership of this idea. And though the industry has seen joint symposiums, none (to Mentor’s knowledge) have included a major trade show element. Yet, if this concept eventually proves viable, it could potentially bring together larger numbers of attendees and exhibitors at fewer events, thereby reducing costs for all.
Though cumbersome logistically and financially, dental trade shows remain the go-to method for casting a wide net over sales prospects. While many in the industry might welcome an annual event schedule with fewer exhibition dates, that change may not come soon — as local, regional and national meetings would be hard-pressed to let go of their share of the pie. In the interim, manufacturers, distributors and sales representatives must decide for themselves how to make the most of the situation as it is. For now, it seems, the best way to achieve maximum impact is to plan ahead, execute well, and then relentlessly follow up on leads generated at each show.