How to Do Business at a German Trade Show

How to do business at a German trade show

Trade shows are a great place to explore business opportunities with German and other international partners. But how to actually do business at a trade show?

Advance Preparation

There are two central things to remember:

  1. You are not the only one looking to use those business opportunities.
  2. You must therefore prepare well and be very active.

I was often struck by how my clients, having paid substantial sums of money to exhibit at a trade show, basically just sat around waiting for something. „We’ll just see what happens,“ they would say, while their competitors were working their way through a schedule of meetings.

Unless you just want to have a fun day at the show, walking around, chatting to whomever is available, and grabbing a few free pens, you will have to start preparing months in advance. Trade shows are busy events, and the people attending are usually busy, too.

From my own experience, I can tell you that schedules fill up way too quickly. I was once added to a trade-show booth team on short notice because my manager, who had been supposed to go, had resigned. Don’t worry, I was told, we’re moving all her appointments to other colleagues. And yet, by the time the show started a few weeks later, my own schedule was bursting at the seams, with my first meeting taking place the day before the show officially opened. During the event itself, I had back-to-back meetings, and when I didn’t, I was talking to walk-in visitors. It was exhausting. I was so glad when it was all over.

How to (Try and) Get Meetings

Everybody wants to get meetings at a show. Chances are, lots of people want meetings with the same people you would like to meet. Here are a few things you might want to do:

  • Compile a list of targets that you think might be at the show.
  • To the extent possible, research if they will be exhibiting – exhibitors‘ directories are usually made available a few months ahead of time; otherwise, use directories from previous shows, as many companies are regular exhibitors.
  • Approach your targets as soon as possible – that means months in advance – to request a meeting.
  • Tell them why they will want to meet you – do you have a new exciting product? The solution to all their problems? „Hi, would you like to grab a coffee at the show?“ is not going to get you anywhere.
  • If you don’t hear back from them, follow up politely.
  • If you have a booth, invite them to stop by.
  • If you are going to any other (social) events taking place during the show, let them know that these are also opportunities to meet.

The point here is: show them that you are really keen to meet them.

Completely New Target?

If they don’t know you at all yet, honestly, don’t expect too much – they will probably have other priorities. But this is a good opportunity to start building a relationship (it’s an integral part of German Business Culture). Highlight why they will want to get to know you! And then visit their booth, if they have one, talk to people there and try to learn more about them. Most importantly, learn about whatever issues they may be facing with which you could help them.

During and After the Meeting

Your German contact will want to get some value from the meeting. Don’t waste their time with, „I just wanted to say hello.“ Have something of substance to say, ask good questions, have interesting information to share.

It is extremely unlikely that a German company will place an order with you if they are meeting you for the first time. The only exception I can think of is an emergency situation on their part for which you are offering a solution. Example: their supplier, one of your direct competitors, has just fallen through, and you can plug the resulting hole.

You will have to stay on the ball after the show as well. They are not going to buy from you just because they now have your business card. Yours is going to be one in a large pile of business cards.

At Your Booth

Long hours, poor air quality, terrible food – staffing a booth isn’t always fun. But it’s even worse if you don’t make the most out of your presence.

I’ve seen so many booths where staff were sitting towards the back, hunched over their phones, eating, chatting – anything but engaging visitors. Did I go talk to them? No.

Now imagine that is your booth in a hall full of competitors. Who do you think will end up talking to more potential customers, your team or the one whose staff are saying hello to people, handing them samples or brochures (or candy) and trying to draw them into the booth?

How to Attract Visitors to Your Booth?

If you have anything interesting (other than candy and pens) that might catch people’s attention, bring it out! I once staffed a small booth where we had a demo version of our product. It spun! People liked that. They looked, some came over and asked. At Bauma, I was on a big booth placed near the entrance but in a corner. Most people never even looked our way as they entered the show. So every day, about ten minutes prior to opening, when crowds were already assembling by the gate, the guys would feed a few trees into a wood chipper. We got everybody’s attention (if only due to the noise), and we got more traffic.

An astonishing number of exhibitors still try to play the sexy card, especially at male-dominated trade shows. At Bauma, there were cheerleading shows at multiple booths and lots of young women in short skirts. Another favorite are heavily made-up „nurses“. It’s your decision, of course, what you want to be remembered for.

Snubbing Visitors

Be nice to your visitors.

I’ve experienced a few situations where the people at the booth looked me over and decided I wasn’t important enough to talk to. True, I wasn’t a buyer (I never claimed to be), but I am a consumer and these were consumer-goods shows. Am I still going to buy the brand after being dismissed in this manner?

And what if I am, in fact, important enough? At a very specialized show, a „Head of“ at a German automotive company told me people weren’t paying him any attention at all, nobody was talking to him, he was just walking around and looking. This is someone whom I’m guessing about 80% of exhibitors would have urgently wanted to meet. They just didn’t know he was there. Missed opportunities galore.

Printed Materials

Yes, have brochures available, especially if you don’t display your full range of products. Don’t count on distributing too many of them though – who wants to carry around a ton of paper? Better to have QR codes available where people can download your materials.

Yes, have business cards available. It goes without saying that you should also have order forms and price lists on hand (especially price lists) as well as any further information that might be of interest to your potential customers.

Looking for a Distributor

If you are looking for a distributor, say so. Put up a sign announcing it. Depending on your industry, it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to find a distributor for Germany. But should one be walking the show, you will want to get their attention. They will probably not stop at every booth and enquire.

Outside Your Booth

When you are walking around with a hard-to-read name tag around your neck, you obviously cannot expect anyone to pick you out in a crowded space. Try striking up friendly conversations with people – while waiting in line, at booths, etc. – you never know whom you might meet or what you might learn.

If you are approaching a new target for the first time, you may not be able to get an actual conversation with them. But try and talk to someone at the booth, make your best first impression, and leave your business card. Ideally, get the business card or contact details of the right buyer for your product. Ask if there might be a meeting slot open by coincidence – maybe somebody cancelled. If you have a booth, invite them to visit.

But if there isn’t, don’t get on people’s nerves, either. Get as much information as you can, then thank them politely and leave.

Use that as the basis of your after-show follow-up that will hopefully lead to a business relationship.

Receptions and Events

You will find there are many, many receptions and other hosted events before and during the show, both on and off premises. Many are invitation-only, but others are open to all comers. These can be great opportunities to meet people from your industry in a more relaxed environment. Go if you can, and talk to people!

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