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February 13, 2017

Imagine this conversation among you and your top managers. Actually, you probably don’t have to imagine it. If you’ve never participated in a conversation like it—either at your current job or in a previous one—I’d be very surprised:

“The trade show is in two months and we need to be there.”
“OK.”
“Good.”
“Um, say, why exactly do we need to be there?”
“Because it’s the industry’s leading trade show and everyone in the industry is there.”
“Yeah, I know that. But what are we going to accomplish by being there? Or… what bad thing will happen to us if we don’t attend?”
Pause.
Sound of breathing.
Awkward glances.
“We need to be there!”

You know you’ve been there, or you know someone who has been. Or you had the thought yourself when given a similar directive, but you figured there was no sense protesting because there was no way your store was going to get away with missing it, so you might as well just go ahead and get ready.

But it’s a good question, which is not to say there’s no good answer.
If you really are going to an industry trade show because you figure you can’t be the only one to miss it, you’re essentially engaging in a strategy of avoiding disaster by omission. If the keynote speaker reveals the sole source of the world’s first true self-cleaning cat litter and you missed it, boy will you feel like an idiot (and go out of business quickly).

But since the likelihood of such a revelation is next to zero, what can you realistically expect your store to achieve by attending a trade show? Updates on industry best practice? Probably, but you can always find those on Google or in the pages of Pet Age.

The chance to hear a motivational speaker get you pumped up about sales? OK, but you’re back to your regular self in two weeks. Insight into what your competitors are offering in the coming year? Of course, you could just stroll into their stores and look around.

None of this is an argument for skipping trade shows, necessarily. Rather, it’s an imperative that before you prepare to go, you should know the answer to this: “What is the one thing we must accomplish at this show, and how are we going to accomplish it?”

That is a very good and realistic question to ask before you spend several days with direct access to the major players in your industry. That is a circumstance that allows you to act quickly and address a need. But what need?

Here are some things to consider:

• Do you have a sourcing issue with a particular product or line of products? Alternative suppliers will probably be present at the show. Before you go, have you made sure you’ve set up appointments to talk to them? What is your strategy for making sure you’ve solved that sourcing problem before you head home?

• Do you consistently struggle with store-level management performance? Who is going to be at the show who has done well in this area? How are you going to make sure you talk to that person before the show is over?

• Is local marketing a continued struggle for you? Make appointments before the show to talk to five other store owners who don’t compete with you because they’re in different markets. Find out what works for them and develop a new strategy for the coming year based on the feedback you receive.

• Do you have an issue with costing? Research who is going to be at the show that might be able to help you identify and implement some different practices to help you improve in that area.

These are just examples. You know the issues your store faces, and you know the questions you should be asking. If you’re going to spend the time to attend a trade show, don’t do the usual things with no clear objective. Have at least one thing you can accomplish at the show that improves the fortunes of your store.

That said, since you’re there, do the usual things, too. Collect business cards. Meet people. Network. Walk the floor and see if someone’s got something new or different that might be of interest to you. In no way do I mean to suggest there’s no value to any of this—there is potentially lots of it.

But I don’t recommend you commit that much time and money—not to mention the scheduling challenge it presents back home—just for a shot in the dark that maybe, possibly, perhaps, hopefully, you’ll get some sort of benefit.

Define one clear benefit with value you can measure and make sure you have a game plan for how you’re going to realize it. Think it through in advance. Do the necessary advance work so you don’t show up trying to wing it.

That’s how you can make sure the time and expense at least accomplish one thing. Beyond that, I suppose the sky’s the limit.

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