How to Replace a Trade Show Presence During the Pandemic

Episode 97

August 18, 2020

Manufacturing marketers rely on trade shows, but many have been cancelled since the pandemic began. How can marketers replace an in-person trade show presence, at least in the short term, and connect with prospects remotely? Jim Cermak, host of the Trade Show University podcast, talks to Jeff and Carman about how manufacturers are adapting to trade show cancellations and how to translate the elements of a good trade show booth into other kinds of wins.

How to Replace a Trade Show Presence During the Pandemic Transcript:

Announcer: You’re listening to The Kula Ring, a podcast made for manufacturing marketers. Here are Carman Pirie and Jeff White. 

Jeff White: Welcome to The Kula Ring, a podcast for manufacturing marketers brought to you by Kula Partners. My name is Jeff White and joining me today is Carman Pirie. Carman, how you doing, mate? 

Carman Pirie: I’m well. I’m well. I don’t think that’s a shock to any listener who has heard me respond to that question the exact same way every episode that we’ve recorded. 

Jeff White: I listen to the radio every once in a while and they do the exact same thing, so I think it’s all right. 

Carman Pirie: Exactly. Exactly. I always remembered I could tune into NewsRadio 88, which was the 880 AM station out of Manhattan. On crisp winter evenings in Eastern Canada, you could get that signal on the radio, which means you could listen to Yankees games among other things, which was kind of cool. But they would always like, “Traffic and weather together on the eights, it’s NewsRadio 88.” And it was like the same thing all the time, every eight minutes or whatever, or every 10 minutes, but it was pretty awesome. You didn’t tire of it, so hopefully, our little early banter in these shows has the same grace extended, as it were. 

Jeff White: Well, we’ll have to just assume it does and go with that. 

Carman Pirie: There you go. 

Jeff White: But I am looking forward to our discussion today. It’s a topic that’s near and dear to our hearts, and certainly to our listeners, and our clients, and others we speak with in the manufacturing industry: Trade shows. And given where we are in the world today, recording this in early spring 2020. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah. It’s a thought on every manufacturing marketer’s mind, what are we doing now. What’s our strategy? How does it pivot as a result of the reality that trade shows aren’t likely to be the same as they were for at least a little while? So, I think today’s guest is going to really help us dive into that. 

Jeff White: Yeah, for sure. So, joining us today is Jim Cermak. Jim is the host of the Trade Show University podcast and we’re really glad to have you on The Kula Ring today. Welcome, Jim. 

Jim Cermak: Thanks so much for having me. And it’s always a good time when I get to talk about trade shows, so I appreciate it, guys. 

Carman Pirie: Man, if you have a podcast called Trade Show University, one assumes talking about trade shows is right in the sweet spot. Almost like… I wonder, Jim. Does this make you a boring party guest? 

Jim Cermak: Gosh, I hope not. I get a little more excited about talking about trade shows than probably 99% of people out there, so I just have always been enamored with trade shows, with the possibility of trade shows, with their potential for any exhibitor, as well as any attendee, to just gather more information at one time than any other possible marketing tool. I get excited when I see that people don’t get excited or don’t use it to its fullest, I try to help them out. And that’s where the podcast came from, is to really help people make the most of their investment going into these shows. 

Carman Pirie: Very, very cool, and I think that is worthwhile. I mean, there are a number of marketers that we’ve spoken with that will disclose that 70, 80% of the marketing budget is dedicated to trade show presence in some way, shape, or form, and that’s not an insignificant spend, and I think they need all the help they can get in terms of getting the ROI lifted on those initiatives. But now I guess the obvious thing is that they’re no longer happening, at least trade shows in their traditional format. For the foreseeable future, Jim, what are you seeing out there? What’s the shift that’s underway and how are your clients or people that you interface with adapting to this? 

Jim Cermak: Yeah. It’s a weird world right now. When this all started and little by little, shows were canceling, and postponing, and then all of a sudden, within a week it seemed like every trade show, every event, every conference around the globe just postponed or they canceled altogether. A big part of my background is manufacturing. It left a lot of manufacturing companies just going, “Uh, what do we do? What do we do?” And it really depends. Some companies are just saying, “Well, we’re going to, whenever that show shows up again, we’ll go to it.” And then I was talking with a manufacturer yesterday and they said, “We canceled all shows for the rest of the year. We’re just not going. We’re just not going. We’re going to use that money in other ways.” 

And so, every company that is typically an exhibitor is going to approach this a little bit differently. What we’re seeing, in the typical springtime is usually a heavy trade show time of year. This March-April-May timeframe, and then there’s a couple sprinkled in June-July-August, and then September it really ramps up again in a lot of industries. So, September-October-November, leading up to the holidays and then it trails off again. So, what we’re seeing is all the shows that were in the spring are postponing to the fall. We’re going, if this all shakes out, everything relaxes, we can get back to some sort of new normal where people can actually travel and go to these shows again, you’re gonna see way more shows in the fall than we’ve ever seen before, and now companies are going to have to make some choices. Because these are gonna overlap. They were maybe planning on going to a show in the spring and another one in the fall, and they don’t have the budget to go to two at the same time, or don’t have the staffing. They might be overlapping with each other.

It’s gonna be very interesting as we pull out of this. There are so many unknowns right now. And the first thing is just timing as to when the restrictions are gonna start being lifted. Then we will start to see the show organizers really put some things in place and how they’re going to morph. But right now, the shows that are in the future, right now they look just like they always have on paper. But how it’s gonna end up, we’re really not sure. 

Jeff White: I think it’s really interesting too to consider. You said when the show comes up again, we’re gonna go to it. But it’s not gonna be, even if restrictions are lifted and people are able to travel more safely, and congregate potentially further apart, I guess, what do you think they’re going to need to consider about how they change the way they think about their booth and think about the staff they send, and all of those things? Do you think that there’s any planning going on inside a lot of these people who traditionally exhibit at trade shows? 

Jim Cermak: As far as the actual trade show itself, when that show happens somewhere in the future and they physically go to set up their booth, I think companies are just still kind of sitting back and waiting. I think it’s too early for them to say, “You know what? I’m gonna invest in a new style of booth,” or a new display, or something like that. I think it’s because they don’t know what it’s gonna look like. There may be restrictions where every booth is an island booth, where you’re not right next to another booth. There’s not four, five, six 10 by 10 booths right next to each other. Maybe you will have an aisle on all sides and it’s gonna look more spread out. 

That might be one option. Another thing might be that they are going to split it up into several small rooms instead of one big room. We just don’t know yet. It’s just it’s too early to see what the restrictions are gonna be in place by these show organizers. Companies I think right now are just kind of holding onto their wallet and not making any big changes yet, because there’s just so many unknowns as to how this thing is gonna shake out. 

Carman Pirie: I gotta say, I did not think that eight minutes into our conversation we would be talking about the potential challenge that marketers could face in having too many trade shows stacked on top of each other. And I contrast it with a conversation I had earlier this week with a gentleman who owns a training company. He said as he came into 2020, there was no year in his history that was as dependent on travel, international travel, in-person training sessions, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And they’ve made the shift to actually cancel everything that’s scheduled to be in person until the end of 2021. 

Jeff White: Wow. 

Jim Cermak: Wow. Wow. 

Carman Pirie: Just to say that’s how we need to change our business. Now, of course, it’s a smaller, more nimble business. He’s saying, “Look, I need to get into this new reality that I need to be able to deliver my training virtually and build my business so that I can sustain out to the end of 2021.” So, he’s seeing it I think as more of just a take the hard dose of reality now, and then if something changes, then that’s cool. But it seems to me that if you’re a marketer out there and you’re reserving budget thinking trade shows are returning to normal this fall, maybe it’s the Canadian in me, because I know that there are a few differences on the different sides of the border about this, but man, that just feels like a fantasy to me. 

Jim Cermak: You’re right. I’m with you. With you. And I love shows, and I want them to come back in a big way, but if you are depending… Say you had a show in the spring and you were supposed to be at a show right now, this week, and you are not there, and that got put off to the fall, don’t wait till the fall. And I’m sure you guys can back me up on this. Get aggressive with your marketing now, because guess what? These shows are equally important and sometimes even more important for the attendees coming to these shows. There’s a reason they come to these shows. It’s because it’s so efficient. If they are shopping for a specific product or a specific service and that is the area that you’re in, that’s the industry you’re in, the reason people like coming to these shows is that they can see you, and they could see all your competitors in one room, at one time, and they can stack you up side by side. They could ask you all the same questions. They could look at your products. Attend demos. Side by side by side. 

And there’s gonna be people and companies that they’ve never heard of before, brand new startups, innovative companies that are not on their radar, that without a trade show they’ll never see. It’s so important on both ends, so you need to get aggressive with your marketing now. Take some of that money that you may have spent, maybe on travel. If you’ve already had money that’s been deposited for a show and they’re moving it to later in the year, and that money is sunk, leave it there. Don’t pull it out. Just leave it there. 

But take the money you would have spent on travel, and on hotels, and all that good stuff to be there at the show, and start getting in front of your target audience. Just be aggressive. That would be my tip. 

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Jeff White: I love this notion of shows being equally important to buyers as they are to sellers. How much do you think people who are traditionally going to trade shows to exhibit and sell are thinking about the people who are coming to them in that way? Are they considering what their buyer’s behavior and buyer’s journey is, and the multiplicity of vendors that they can meet with as they’re planning how they’re gonna go to market at a trade show generally? 

Jim Cermak: You know, that’s an excellent question, and I don’t want to slam too many people out there, but for the most part, I don’t think they think that deeply. I don’t think they’re really thinking about their customer and where they are in the journey. I think for most companies, and this again, if this is not you, then great. But for most companies they show up, they put on their best smile, they’ve got their products and services, and they wait for people to come to them. It’s the “If you build it, they will come,” and that just doesn’t happen at shows even for the best companies. People are not gonna come up to you, especially if they’ve never heard of you before, they don’t know what you have to offer. You just standing there is not going to draw them in. 

I don’t think that companies do enough. And that’s an excellent point. They don’t do enough to really understand where they are in their journey, where they are in the buying process, what is the landscape, the competitive landscape within the business? Do you have an opportunity because someone dropped out of the market, or you have a brand new product, and you have an advantage? Are you effectively getting that message out to people and really understanding that when we get to the show, the people are gonna be experiencing this. This is what they’re going through. There’s a downturn in the economy, or there’s new regulations that we have to understand. How are we getting that message to really reach the audience, the person walking past my booth? How am I gonna bring them in to let them know, “Hey, I’m here for you. I understand you. And we have a solution. We want to be your partner. We have the solution that’s gonna meet your needs.” And if you’re just relying on your booth graphics and all the fun stuff that is in your booth, the little squishy toys that you’re giving away, then you’re making a big mistake. You’ve got to greatly understand your customer and effectively communicate to them in a good way as they walk past your booth. 

Carman Pirie: And hopefully before they walk past your booth, and after it, if you want something spontaneous to happen, best to organize it, as they say. And I think this whole notion of the shows being important to buyers too, I think is frankly in some ways is a bit empowering to marketers because I think sometimes the trade show pause that’s happening right now, marketers may feel in some ways they’re just a victim of it, you know? Now what do I do? 

But to me, I think there’s some level in power in that understanding that you know what, this is also a problem for buyers, too. And then you just talked about the competitive dynamic and the comparative dynamic that buyers can come to the shows, they can evaluate a lot of different contenders, they can see new product developments, et cetera. Well, now it would seem to me that there’s quite a vacuum that the people who have the courage to be active marketers at this time, it would seem to me that there’s going to be some active recipients on the other end because those buyers still have a job to do, don’t they? 

Jim Cermak: They sure do. They sure do. And if you’re in an industry, let’s just say textiles, for example. Fashion. If you are a textile manufacturer and you rely on writing orders at the show, now all of a sudden you may have had a couple hundred thousand dollars in orders written at an average show and that’s gone. So, what do you do? And it’s reliant on someone coming up and actually seeing and feeling your product to place that order, to say, “Yes, I want this in my retail store. I want this in my collection. I want to use this material.” Whatever the case might be. 

You’ve got now a challenge as to how I do effectively do that? How do I get people to actually feel my product, to see my product, to try it out? What am I gonna do? And so, it’s gonna take a lot of creativity. What I’m seeing out there is a lot of companies are saying, “Hey, we’re doing a virtual trade show,” and maybe they put out a video that showcases some of their products and services and things like that. Doing something is better than doing nothing, but you’ve gotta cut through the clutter. And I know you guys, I’m sure you know all about cutting through the clutter. Because we all get a million emails, and how do we get someone’s attention? Maybe if they’re not a customer, they’ve never heard of us before, we are fairly new or we’re a smaller player in the market, how do we cut through that? 

And figure out a way. How do I still get that order? How do I possibly get onto their ordering guide so that I don’t lose that opportunity that I just lost-

Carman Pirie: Yeah, and I do appreciate that it is a challenge to figure that out, and I think that is the task at hand for many a marketer right now, but I guess maybe the silver lining in it is not everybody’s gonna be able to figure it out, i.e. all your competitors could go to the trade show and some of them could have had a better presence than you had, but now the game has changed, right? And a number of those competitors won’t figure out how to get in front of those prospects. While it’s a huge challenge, I think the good news is at least competitively, it may not be as crowded once you get there if you can crack that nut. 

Jim Cermak: You are 100% right. You’re 100% right because everyone still is kind of sitting there wondering what to do next, and especially right now. You have a lot of companies that are short-staffed, that have had to furlough employees, and so they don’t have, and unfortunately, as we all know, sometimes the first department to go is marketing. And so, you keep the engineers, you keep the production people, you keep the plant running, but the people who were your front people in planning your show, in getting your social media, and your direct mail, and all your marketing tools out there are no longer there. They’re no longer there. Because you had to cut somewhere. 

It’s a totally unique challenge for a lot of companies, but if you have the wherewithal to continue on and to reach out to your customers, yes, you will absolutely be at an advantage, but you’ve got to do it creatively. You gotta do it in a new way that’s gonna grab their attention and maybe give them that opportunity. If you think about when I’m at a show, and I’m an exhibitor, I’m at a show, what do you want my customer or my prospect, the ideal prospect, to leave my booth with? How do I want them to feel? What do I want them to think? And what do I actually physically want them to leave with? Now, how do I package that in a time like now and get that in front of your customer? And if you could do that, then this could be a very big win for you. 

Jeff White: I think it’s one of the things that we’ve been seeing, and I’ve received a number of emails from lists that I’m on and things like that about this idea of come join us in our virtual trade show booth, and it’s effectively a skeuomorphic digital version of what they would have had in their 20×30 trade show booth. And I don’t know. Maybe I’m just being cynical, but it feels to me like that’s a bit lazy, and that’s a bit like, “Oh, it was gonna be a trade show, so if we’re going to replace that, we need to replace it with a virtual version of the exact same thing.” But I think that just doesn’t take into account the very different way that people expect to interact with things these days. And I don’t think that creating a visual version, where you can click on the screen and see a video, and click on the product and see a 3D model, that that’s necessarily the right way to go. Am I being too critical or is there some value in that? 

Jim Cermak: You and I are on the same page. You and I are on the same page. I agree with you 100% that that is not the way to go. If you’re gonna do something, do it right. And that is not, in my opinion, doing it right. Is it better than doing nothing? Yes. If that’s your best take at it, and you don’t have the wherewithal to call up Kula Partners to help you out with this, then please do it. Do something. But no, I think you’ve gotta give people an interactive experience. When we leave a show, if we’re an attendee and we leave a show, we remember the in-depth conversations that we’ve had the best. The ones that, where I met that new company, that new vendor, and they have what I need, and I cannot wait to get back in touch with them. I can’t wait for them to follow up with me. Because I think that they could save us money, or that they could give us a new solution, or that they could give us this or that. 

And so, if that is true, that as an attendee that’s what I remember is those really great, in-depth conversations that we had about my business and the solutions that I’m looking for, and their products and their services, then how do I give that to my attendee? And it’s only through getting into an in-depth conversation in some way. You’ve gotta crack open that door, get that person either on a Zoom call, on a phone call, something where you can effectively start that conversation. And it’s not an easy thing to do, but that’s where you’ve gotta go. You’ve gotta think about the attendee and what they want to get from it. Especially now. This is such a unique time and their needs are gonna be maybe a little bit different. Maybe it’s just reaching out and saying, “What are you struggling with right now? How can we help you get through these next few months till things open up again?” Maybe it’s just taking that kind of a tack, but you’ve gotta get into a conversation. 

Carman Pirie: You know, Jeff, I’m reminded of our conversation about factory tours, and where we talked about the factory is a very powerful thing, but what really happens there that’s even more powerful, very often there are a number of personal relationships that are built in the course of spending a half a day going through somebody’s factory, right? Maybe you’ve gone out to lunch, you’ve gone out to dinner with somebody, as well. You’ve traveled to get there. And I remember we talked about that in that episode, but I’m thinking it’s so similar to a trade show presence. It’s like yeah, there’s a lot of wrapping around this, but the real important thing that endures and that actually drives the sale is probably a lot more of the personal connection than it is the sizzle of the steak, as it were. 

Jeff White: Yeah. No, I couldn’t agree more with that. 

Carman Pirie: It’s interesting to consider then replacing a trade show presence, at least in the short term, but don’t think about it as how do you have an online trade show, but then just how do I connect with those people in a more effective way and do it remotely? 

Jeff White: Yeah. 

Jim Cermak: Absolutely. 

Jeff White: Which, as Jim has said, is easier said than done, and we’ve seen some of the data coming out, HubSpot was releasing some information about the volume of outbound sales calls has gone up, the connect rate has gone down. Because now everybody’s going to be getting those extra touchpoints. I know I’m receiving them daily from people trying to book a sales conversation with me and it’s just it’s not resonating. It’s not. If I see one more email that says, “Boy, the times have sure changed. Would you like to book a sales call?” I don’t know. Would you like to be thrown in the spam folder? 

Jim Cermak: Oh my gosh. It’s so true. If you’re a manufacturer, you’re listening to this and you’re going, “Okay, what’s the solution? What do I do? I’ve gotten some ideas from listening today, but what do I do?” And think of yourself. Just like Jeff just said. Just think of yourself. What are you getting too much of that you’re starting to ignore? A lot of email, a lot of stuff like that, so how do I bust through that? What would you respond to? Would you respond to maybe a package landing on your desk? Maybe with some product samples and a special invitation to a Zoom call or something. I don’t know what it could be for your company, but you’ve gotta do something to bust through that clutter and get their attention in a positive way. 

Jeff White: Well, and of course the package, and normally I’m all in on the idea of customized direct mail, or packages and things like that, but of course now people aren’t in the office, so they’re not necessarily going to be as easily reachable. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah. It’s really interesting. We’re seeing that even with account-based advertising targeting, where IP targeting, of course, isn’t nearly as effective these days, because nobody’s in the office. But cookie-based targeting is number one with a bullet, and so I was exactly thinking that point as well, Jeff, as Jim brought that up. But then I don’t think it takes that club out of the bag so much as like well maybe I can’t surprise somebody with a delivery. I have to in some way schedule one. They need to know something’s coming and they need to be willing to give me their home address potentially, but if something’s arriving at the home versus arriving at a company destination, it maybe changes what you’re able to do or how you can maybe potentially connect with that person, knowing that they’re experiencing what you’re sending them in a more domestic environment. I don’t know. 

Jeff White: Yeah. Interesting. 

Jim Cermak: Well, if they were hoping to see you, or your industry, you or your competitors in an industry, then reaching out to them in some way saying, “Hey, I have something I need to send you. I just need to know where to go. Where to send it.” It might be as simple as a phone call, but again, as we have all said, it’s easier said than done. 

Carman Pirie: Well, if there was a one size fits all solution to this, probably none of us on this podcast would be in business, so I guess that’s the silver lining in it. Jim, I thank you so much for sharing your insight and thoughts on this evolving state of affairs with us today. It’s just great to have a chance to connect with you and I wish you all the best as we navigate these next several months. 

Jim Cermak: Well, thanks so much for having me. This has been a pleasure of mine and great talking to both of you, and yes, let’s all get through this together and meet at a trade show down the road. 

Jeff White: I think that’s a good idea. Thanks, Jim. 

Carman Pirie: Drinks are on Jeff, I say. 

Jeff White: Okay.  

Announcer: Thanks for listening to The Kula Ring, with Carman Pirie and Jeff White. Don’t miss a single manufacturing marketing insight. Subscribe now at That’s

Read Full Transcript


Jim Cermak

Host, TradeshowU Podcast

Jim Cermak is the host of the Trade Show University podcast. Jim brings over 25 years of marketing, training, consulting experience, and has worked, planned, and attended hundreds of trade shows. Both in his own business and for others, he has helped companies improve the effectiveness of their marketing messages and materials leading to increased results.

The Kula Ring is a podcast for manufacturing marketers who care about evolving their strategy to gain a competitive edge.

Listen to conversations with North America’s top manufacturing marketing executives and get actionable advice for success in a rapidly transforming industry.

About Kula

Kula Partners is an agency that specializes in maximizing revenue potential for B2B manufacturers.

Our clients sell within complex, technical environments and we help them take a more targeted, account-focused approach to drive revenue growth within niche markets.


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