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Ace World Companies vice president Camron Ghanemi shares his strategies for getting the most out of two very different trade shows that took place this month (May).

As many regular readers of this blog are engaged in activity around trade shows throughout the year, I frequently report on my experiences from exhibition booths and aisles. I’ve discussed before how much time and money is invested—and wasted—at such events, so we should continue to share battle stories to help each other get the best return on that investment.

This month it is opportune to compare two very different events Ace had a presence at and compare equally contrasting strategies that our marketing team adopted. The first was the Inland Marine Expo at America’s Center Convention Complex in St. Louis, Missouri; and the second was Association for Iron & Steel Technology’s AISTech show, at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Both had fitting backdrops—the Marine Expo was staged on the banks of the Mississippi River, while the steel show was held in the Steel City itself—and both were important to our growth strategy. But that’s where the similarities end.

Revenue streams

This was our first time at the Inland Marine Expo. This year’s event was the third staging of the show, but we were in uncharted waters. That was an important consideration when we were planning how to tackle the show and get the most from it. This wasn’t the time for branding. Our mission was to introduce ourselves to quality people and apply our products to a marketplace where, honestly, many hadn’t yet heard of us.

We have steadily grown our presence in the marine market following the supply of a 30t gantry crane with a 10t auxilliary hoist to the Port of Chicago around five years ago. The sector took further note when in 2014 we purchased Pullift, which makes winches, a key product to material handling operations at ports. But we haven’t yet made any real waves.

We decided that to meet our objectives we should walk the aisles of the show, not exhibit. That was a big decision too because trade event visitors and exhibitors typically don’t want to be sold to from the aisles, but we knew if we handled it correctly relationships could be forged without being tied to an exhibit and budgeting for a booth, staff and associated expenses.

I’m not going to go into detail about what constitutes good and bad practice when promoting a business from the aisles of a show—that’s a blog for another day. Much of it is common sense anyway. Fixing up appointments in advance, choosing the right booths to call upon, reading the early signals of conversations, and common courtesy, all go a long way to success. Charging attendees certainly eliminated tire-kickers and we were taken seriously among a high-level delegation.

Before we arrived at the show, our research had told us that we should be prepared to meet engineers and purchasing decision makers from ports and terminals; barge and towing companies; fleeting and harbor services firms; dredging companies and marine contractors; inland shipyards and repair facilities; and government agencies.

We took that demographic, looked at their likely material handling requirements, and applied that to our product mix. As you’ll read in a minute, what came out the other end of the marketing mangle was a very different type and capacity of equipment to the steel show. In St. Louis, inland and intracoastal marine transportation professionals were going to be interested in gantry cranes, low capacity hoists, gearboxes and winches—not 100t, custom-made lifting technologies.

All things considered, we took a multifaceted approach to a show that proved a great opportunity for us to cultivate contacts and take a snapshot of the market as we look to execute a H2 2016 plan to increase our supply of lifting equipment and winches into the sector. In addition to market research and networking, we succeeded in promoting our gearbox manufacturing capability to prospective customers and discussed possible distribution opportunities of specialist products that we don’t provide ourselves, such as the capstan winches, which are very popular in port material handling.

As I said in a press release we circulated about the show, I was encouraged by recent comments from Michael Toohey, the president of the Waterways Council, who referenced ‘record funding’ to modernize the nation’s inland waterways transportation system. He also spoke of the importance of recapitalizing this critical link in the transportation supply chain to prepare for export growth. These are positive noises as the sector looks to equip itself for such investment and growth.

Steeling the show

AISTech couldn’t have been more different. We’re regulars at the annual event that serves our biggest market. That means there was less emphasis placed on us introducing our company and more on reinforcing our message that we’re the leading supplier of crane and hoist solutions for the industry. Branding and scale were integral to our strategy.

Our participation revolved around our biggest ever trade show exhibit—a sprawling 30-foot by 20-foot booth, front and center of the exhibition hall. It goes without saying that this came at a price and one must be certain the audience warrants the expense before making such a commitment. I’d suggest this wouldn’t be the way to effectively test the waters (literally in our case above) of a new event to your company.

As I’ve said before, steel is our most important end user sector and giving that industry a sense of our long-term commitment to it has been key to our success. We supplemented our presence with advertisements and content in relevant trade journals, exposure in the AISTech show guide, and sponsorship of the brand new 2016 Chevy Silverado giveaway, which was given away to the lucky winner of a prize draw at the end of the event.

Of course, getting a return on such marketing spend takes cohesive planning. Imagine if, ahead of the St. Louis show, we’d have sponsored the truck giveaway (not that there was one), show guide and advertised in every waterways magazine. How would those exposed to it have found us? Folks don’t run around aisles pointing to publicity asking if anyone has seen the Texan crane guys. In Pittsburgh the big booth and marketing push went hand in glove. Obviously, one doesn’t only advertise where they’re present, but you get my point.

The Viewpoint article we penned for Iron & Steel Today magazine was a resounding success. Not only did the publisher themselves have a booth from which they distributed copies, but they also handed them to fellow exhibitors and visitors, while we were given a bunch to distribute ourselves. Again, without the booth this would have lacked some impact at the event itself, but the issues are being circulated to a much wider audience as we speak so it was worth sharing educational content. I frequently implore readers of this blog to better connect with their relevant trade media.

As is always the case at trade shows, we were among the most active at the hashtag—#AISTech—where we networked before, during and after the event. I didn’t mention it above but one could network in such a way as a visitor to an event, providing they are clear about the nature of their presence and their ability to connect with people onsite. I bet social media becomes a bigger part of AISTech in coming years as a younger audience attends.

This year, the audience remained much the same as always, so we knew many of the maintenance and facilities managers, for example, who stopped by the booth. Some argued that attendance was down on previous years but perceptions were mixed. Encouragingly, the aisles were busy right to the end of the final day. Often the second day is busiest before the crowd falls away thereafter, but we didn’t observe that trend this time.

As referenced above, the products these attendees were interested in was in stark contrast to those we promoted at the marine event. There in Pittsburgh, we discussed higher capacity, custom cranes. We had notable conversations with two different steel mills about 100t capacity cranes, while other, slightly smaller, orders will also be processed in the coming weeks.

The market in general remains slow, with many noting the impact cheap, imported steel is having on the industry. Note that we didn’t lessen our presence, however, which shows our loyalty to customers and the marketplace. I’ve seen large manufacturing companies in other industries scale back their exhibition presence in slow times. The long-term negative impact far outweighs the short-term, minimal financial saving and I’d advise against that strategy.

AISTech 2017 takes place 8-11 May at the Music City Center, Nashville, Tennessee. We’ve already agreed to repeat our 30-foot by 20-foot booth and will advance discussions about other marketing and sponsorship over the coming months. Before that, Breakbulk, the International WorkBoat Show and PowerGen are all in the diary. Each time, our strategy, literature, marketing and presence will be tailored to the audience. Make sure yours are too.

Ace provides overhead bridge cranes, overhead gantry cranes, wire rope hoists, electric chain hoists, crane kits and end trucks. Follow us on Twitter at @AceWorldCompany

Camron Ghanemi
Vice President, Ace World Companies
President, Pullift Corporation