Simon Hathaway is Group Managing Director, EMEA, at Outform—the award-winning global innovation agency.
Trade shows are often viewed as expensive but necessary among business leaders. And rightly so when companies spend a significant amount of their marketing budgets attending events.
But trade show spend is highly valuable in ways that go beyond new business opportunities. For leaders willing to get hands-on, in-person industry events offer a unique opportunity to become a more effective leader. And by working the booth, you can have a lasting impact on company culture and leadership credibility.
Now is a good time to dig deeper and unlock some of these hidden benefits. In-person events are making a steady recovery from the early days of the pandemic and are expected to return to pre-pandemic levels by 2024. Here are seven solid benefits I picked out after a recent trade event.
1. Enhance your visibility.
One vital part of leadership is often overlooked: the need to be present, to be seen. Visibility and being understood can inspire confidence, trust and engagement across teams. Even more so when the show gathers together colleagues from multiple territories who you might otherwise see only occasionally.
Be an active and visible participant at shows in order to demonstrate commitment to a common cause. This gives you a surefire way to develop your “leading-by-example” skills and to build credibility as an empathetic leader.
2. Build team cohesion.
The reality is that trade shows involve long, tiring work days in a small space. It’s an intensive period of work where everyone has to quickly learn to rub along together. Cooperation and effective communication are essential for creating team cohesion for a successful event.
Camaraderie is key. It breaks down barriers and flattens any preexisting internal silos between departments and also between you as a leader and the team.
The leader’s role in building team spirit is to embrace and demonstrate the company values being instilled across the organization. In a creative business like Outform, where I’m the group managing director, EMEA, we’re fortunate that a sense of fun is already part of the culture. An in-person event allows companies to lean into their culture, helping to relieve event pressures and strengthen cultural foundations for the longer term.
3. Manage the pressure.
In my experience, what works well during long show days is to structure them with “top-and-tail” meetings. For example, during a flagship event for the retail sector we work within, a morning meeting sets the tone and ensures everyone is clear on objectives.
At the end of the day, gatherings are more relaxed affairs and a time to create a fun vibe around the stand. To encourage useful feedback, we hold circle meetings in which the youngest team member shares their feedback first. This ensures everyone is seen and heard and makes the insights more valuable. Learning when to hold back as a leader is an important skill.
Being more relaxed can also result in unexpected but not-forced fun. During one meeting, I found myself in the circle break-dancing. Colleagues recorded my Dad-dancing moves and shared them on social media, creating a fun, spontaneous and memorable moment that endures.
4. Listen and learn.
Too often, at a trade show, the CEO or managing director makes a brief appearance and takes part in a handful of customer meetings before disappearing.
But by not sticking around and working the booth, you miss out on a unique front-end experience. Where else can you see close up how the sales team presents the business to potential customers? And where the sticking points lie?
It’s only then that the granularity of the commercial team’s challenges becomes apparent. As a leader, you leave the event better informed for future decision making. And when you follow up and address the issues, your credibility as a leader is reinforced.
5. Reset perceptions.
Effective leaders need to be self-aware and understand what others may think about them. There’s a saying that perception is a reality until you change it. In-person events are where you can reset any of those (mis)perceptions.
Ultimately, every positive moment of interaction—whether with colleagues or clients—can put to rest a multitude of ideas about who you are as a person. These reputational moments cascade well beyond the event itself, spreading their roots deep into the business.
6. Manage unpredictability.
Problems arise unexpectedly at events where everyone depends upon each other for day-to-day success. So events are also a place to flex quick-thinking skills and to demonstrate staying calm under pressure while supporting the team towards creative solutions.
We recently attended a demanding show for on-stand tech, which we had to manage on the hoof. We also had to revise the original stand design when it became clear that what looked good on paper—showcasing three new digital mannequin retail displays—didn’t work well, given the volume of show visitors.
Our solution was to remove one piece of kit. It was a tough decision but a valuable lesson in how to make decisions quickly for immediate impact.
7. Drive home the positive.
Another benefit to unlock at events is learning how to turn potential negatives around. It’s often too costly to send the entire team along, and trade show stands are, by their nature, typically too small for a large team. Some colleagues will inevitably get left behind.
How you include them requires delicate navigation—and you won’t always know if you get it right. Our approach was to share the trade show vibe through our social channels and a round-up video for colleagues afterward, leaning once more into visibility.
When you share that positive business message with the rest of the team, you can start to turn your biggest marketing spend into new work that everyone can benefit from and get excited about further down the line.
Trade shows are undoubtedly about lead generation and future business growth. But the opportunity to amplify your leadership skills, boost your credibility and enhance company culture shouldn’t be dismissed either. And that doesn’t always have to involve break-dancing inside a circle.
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