How To Be an Ethical Competitor On The Trade Show Floor

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A trade show floor is unlike any other business environment. How so, you ask? In a traditional business environment, the rules to be an ethical competitor are much more formal and reserved. You wouldn’t walk into a customer’s office and just start pitching your latest product.

There are niceties involved: “Hello.” “Would you like some coffee?” “How is your family?” “Let’s go to the conference room.” Those generally get redefined — or go out the window – on the show floor.

Even though the social rules are quite different at a trade show, the code of conduct for how to ethically compete should still be followed. Beyond acting in an accepted manner in your own booth, you can also ethically gather intelligence on your competitors at a show. You can even discover what your competition’s customers think of them.

But there’s a fine line between spying and strategy. Let’s talk about how to be an ethical competitor at a trade show:

1) Wear your exhibitor’s badge
How could wearing a badge have anything to do with being an ethical competitor at a show?

It may sound elementary, but exhibitors frequently overlook this simple step that identifies you as a representative of your company. You’re not just doing it for the security people at the exhibit hall’s entrance. It’s also for the people you meet in (and out) of your booth.

Wearing your badge at all times can help start a conversation that might ultimately lead to a sale. And by the way, if your badge is on a lanyard, make sure it’s always turned so people can read it.

What would be unethical? Wearing someone else’s badge, or otherwise misrepresenting who you are. Why is that not ethically competing? You’re deceiving the show organizer, other exhibitors and attendees by attempting to pass yourself off as someone you’re not. That’s just like taking cash out of the till, and we all know that’s wrong.

2) Deal with booth visitors’ badges
Ask booth visitors to turn their badges around so you can read their names. This simple gesture shows that you’re interested in knowing who you’re talking with.

Many shows include additional information on the badge that can help you determine whether the person you’re speaking with is a prospect for your product or service. This extra information can be the beginning of a profitable conversation.

You can also ask for a business card to solidify the contact and get the information needed for appropriate follow-up.

While we’re on the subject, do your follow-up.

How can follow-up be unethical? By collecting a prospect’s information, you have raised expectations in that person’s mind. They may feel they have found an answer to a potential problem. They may even be relaxing already, assured that the solution to their problem is on its way.

You either prove or destroy your company’s ability to provide the product or service your prospect requested in your follow-up (or lack of follow-up) with each prospect. If you have no interest, you shouldn’t have raised expectations in the first place.

An astonishing number of exhibiting companies don’t follow-up on trade show leads. You shouldn’t be one of those companies. Be an ethical competitor and follow through on follow-up.

3) Visit competitors’ booths
One of the best ways to learn about your competition is to simply visit their booth.

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Remember when I said you could ethically learn about your competitors? Here’s where that can really shift into high gear.

Pick up copies of your competitors’ literature. Watch their product demos or live presentations. Keep a respectful distance, but pay attention to conversations between staffers and booth visitors.

Size up their exhibits. The displays themselves, the graphics and the size of their booths can all be observed at a distance. Gaining an understanding of their marketing techniques may require closer observation. Notice what they’re giving away, and how they’re doing it.

Create a 1-10 ranking system for your staffers to rate competitors’ booths, based on visual impact, graphics and/or images, layout, product displays and lighting. During a pre-show meeting on one of the days of the show, collect and analyze this data.

If it’s possible to develop a rapport with representatives from your competition, try to get answers to questions like these:
• How often has the competitor exhibited at this show (always, frequently, seldom, or first time)?
• What products and features are being emphasized at this show?
• Are there any new product introductions?
• What pricing strategies are being used?
• Are competitors using any unique promotional strategies? How do they seem to be working?
• Are competitors involved in any panel discussions, workshops or seminars? What is their involvement?
• Has your competition hosted any special events at this show? Are there any benefits that have come about as a result?
• How do your competitors rate in terms of their staff’s ability to project a professional image? Is the booth atmosphere friendly? What’s the level of their product knowledge?
• What’s the quality of your competitors’ literature (better than, equal to, or poorer than your own)?
• Were there any pre-show marketing efforts? If so, how did they pay off?

All of these activities fall under the heading of “competitive intelligence” (or CI). It’s not theft, hacking, bribery, electronic eavesdropping or even hiring a competitor’s employees in an effort to gain confidential information. This is ethically competing.

Competitive intelligence is all about gathering information about your competitors—and the marketplace—that can be used to identify opportunities, risks and changing conditions in your industry. And trust me, your competitors are already doing this to you. So it’s time you caught up.

What would be unethical? Rooting through your competitor’s booth outside of show hours, when no one is there. Another unethical action would be interrupting a competitor during a conversation with a prospect. These behaviors cross the line of being an ethical competitor.

4) Guard your own front door
Now that you’re aware of the practice of competitive intelligence gathering techniques, it’s up to you to guard against them.

You can’t really keep a competitor out of your exhibit. But you can avoid giving them too much information that may ultimately be harmful to your company.

Train your staffers to be watchful and observant. Teach them to look at visitors’ name badges to see whether they’re talking to a prospect or a rival. Make a list of the kinds of questions a competitor may be likely to ask, and role-play cautious answers.

You don’t need to be rude to others who are practicing competitive intelligence. You just don’t want to make it easy for them to make you give away the store.

5) Practice common courtesy when practicing CI
Here’s an example: Should you stand so close to the product demo in your competitor’s exhibit that you’re blocking real prospects from seeing or participating? Should you engage booth staffers in conversation when there are prospects in their display?


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Of course not. You’re there to gather intelligence, not interfere with their ability to do business.

Niceness goes a long way when attempting to gather CI. You’d be surprised at what some competitors are willing to share, under the right circumstances. These circumstances may not always present themselves at the show. But you might run into a staffer at the hotel bar who’s willing to spill the beans. Engaging that person in a conversation is still being an ethical competitor.

6) Greet and interact with attendees in and around your own booth
It’s absolutely ethical to chat up show visitors as they enter or walk by your exhibit. It’s also perfectly appropriate to stand at the leading edge of your booth space (nearest the aisle) and interact with people as they pass.

As long as you’re not blocking the aisles, there’s no reason why you can’t engage people directly in front of your booth.

Don’t simply say “hello.” That’s a tactic for an in-office sales presentation. Remember, the trade show environment is different. Ask attendees “What are you using to accomplish X?” or “Do you have a supplier for Y?” or “How long does it currently take you to produce Z?” A direct question can open up a conversation. A nicety just gets you another “hello” in response.

What’s the unethical tactic? Greeting, engaging or even escorting people from your competitor’s exhibit to your own. That’s a jerk move.

7) Treat competitors with respect
At a trade show, conversations with prospects or contacts with the media often turn to competitive products or companies. How do you handle discussing the competition in this type of situation? Here’s how:

When a show visitor or a member of the media asks a question about your competitor or their product, answer with care. How would you like them to answer a similar question about your company? This is a time for diplomacy, not cold, harsh opinions. That’s being an ethical competitor.

And here’s another situation where diplomacy is called for: let’s say you’re in the competitor’s exhibit (as you have a right to be—it’s a public exhibition, after all). Would you think it was appropriate to ask a question or make a comment that could potentially embarrass the staff or their prospects? Common sense would dictate that’s not the time or place.

Criticizing, mocking or disparaging the competition is another jerk move. And honestly, how would you feel if the tables were turned? As my mother used to say (quoting Thumper from the Bambi movie), “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”

8) Unpack your baggage
If you haven’t heard the terms “suitcasing” or “outboarding“, then this topic may seem strange to you. But this happens at trade shows all the time, and you shouldn’t be guilty of this practice.

Suitcasing is essentially “selling from the aisles at a trade show.” It happens when a company representative registers as an attendee and actively tries to solicit business from other attendees, by handing out flyers or leaving printed material on tables, or even approaching attendees directly. This is a harmful practice for many reasons.

For starters, the “suitcaser” is acting like an exhibitor but not paying the price for a booth. This is directly stealing income from the exhibition for the booth that should have been purchased. It’s also indirectly harming all the other exhibitors who legitimately paid for the opportunity to reach those attendees.

In the latest research available from the Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR), exhibitors spend over $25,000,000,000 annually to participate in trade shows. This is quite an investment on the part of exhibitors and sponsors. And it’s why suitcasing is so inappropriate. Those who engage in it have no financial stake in the success of the show organizer.

A related practice is known as “outboarding,” and it’s just as caustic. This happens when a company promotes an event (such as a hospitality suite or party) to attendees, at a time when it competes with official conference activities, and without the consent of the event organizer.

Outboarding steals from the exhibition by costing them revenue from the outboarder, who actually should have sponsored an official event. It also steals from other exhibitors by siphoning off attention from those official sponsored events. Attendees and media attention that ought to be focused on the official event get drawn away to the competing event.

Finally, it’s deceitful and potentially harmful to those attendees by confusing them into thinking they are showing up at or supporting an official event when they are not.

According to one trade show organizer, “Our job is to deliver buyers, sellers, speakers and attendees to that place at that time. If someone tries to capitalize on that effort without compensating us for it, it’s wrong. A more direct comparison would be selling candy bars in front of someone’s grocery store. The Girl Scouts and other non-profits do this, but they do it only with the store’s permission.”

So the only ethical way to participate in a trade show is to purchase a booth space and invest the money required to meet the people the show organizer has worked so hard to deliver to the show floor.

That’s how to be an ethical competitor. It’s not hard to do, and it makes you one of the good guys. At the same time, it allows you the opportunity to learn about your competitors and enhance your competitive abilities.

Here at American Image Displays, our business is helping companies put their best foot forward on the trade show floor. And we also believe strongly in behaving ethically in the marketplace. Our track record of more than thirty years is a testament to our commitment to excellence. Whether you need a tabletop, pop-up, portable or modular exhibit, we can be your one-stop shop. To learn more, call (800) 676-EXPO or email [email protected].