January 20, 2010

Lessons from a trade show



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I just spent the past three days at a specialty foods trade show. My favorite exhibitors by far (even if I didn't love the product), were the ones who had stories to tell and engaged with the attendees. Here are some that I did love.

I chatted with the young couple with a baby who make Le Caramel products from a traditional French recipe in California. They were passionate about their sauces and candies and it showed in their conversation.

Sukhi's, a company that makes great Indian food, started out serving their dishes to Indian workers in Silicon Valley and in a booth at the Ferry Plaza farmers market in San Francisco. There were several family members working the booth, and everyone was excited to talk about the product.

Kari's Malva Pudding is a traditional cake-like dessert from South Africa with a picture of the owner's daughter on the package. Another passionate entrepreneur with a story to tell.

There was the "guy in overalls" sitting at the PawPaw Tom's booth, telling the story of how he promised his friend Tom on a 1992 camping trip that, if he ever started a food business, he would name it after him.

In addition, booths with samples allowed exhibitors to share ideas for preparing the products and pairing them with other foods, and to offer recipes and menu suggestions. I walked away with ideas for using sauces, cheeses and beverages that had never occurred to me. For example, the people at the Sence rose nectar booth were not only offering tastes of the drink, but were making cocktails out of it as well! (I believe we were drinking the By Any Other Name cocktail on this page.)

Of course, there were also guys in suits representing Jelly Belly and many large corporate entities where personal stories are hard to find. Those companies, however, are already established and don't have to do much to attract new customers.

The newbies to the industry, the companies who are still small and still trying to get a foothold in the world of specialty foods, can't play the same game as the big guys, who often approach attendees with a hard sell.

A note: At these trade shows, I attend as a representative of the company my husband works for and walk the floor like any other buyer, bringing back materials and suggestions to him about which booths he should visit. I've been attending this show for probably 13 years now, and I know the products and his store almost as well as he does. It's a fun hobby for me, and unpaid, but I work it like the rest of them!

I stopped at one booth, a favorite small chocolate brand but one not yet carried by his store, and all the woman wanted to do was scan my badge into the computer. I asked her what was new, and she pointed to the two products, but wasn't particularly interested in engaging.

I tasted the chocolates and they were good, but without any engagement from the vendor, I wasn't interested in asking any questions and I moved on. It's a long three days of standing on barely-cushioned hard concrete, shmoozing and (for the real buyers) negotiating. If someone doesn't want to give a buyer any time, there are hundreds more booths to visit.

To make a long story short (too late?):  

1. Tell stories that engage your audience and make them want to stick around for more. 

2. You, the speaker, are your brand, and you are a human being. Make a connection like a human being, not like a salesperson.

3. When you're trying to get people to notice you and hire you, you have to notice them. If you're too important or too busy, they will move on to someone who pays attention.

In addition to the products mentioned above that I enjoyed at the Fancy Food Show, here are a few more recommendations for you!

Conte's gluten-free pizzas and pastas

Smoked olive oil from The Smoked Olive

Green onion and sweet potato latkes from Linda's Gourmet Latkes

Delicious sauces from San Angel Mole

Barely Buzzed cheese from Beehive Cheese Co. (rubbed with espresso and lavender)

Pastures and Green Fields cheeses from Saxon Creamery

21st Amendment Brewery's Hell or High Watermelon Wheat Beer

Golden Star's elegant White Jasmine Sparkling Tea

popchips! especially the new cheddar flavor

DariFree non-dairy milk alternative

Mexican Chipotle vegetarian sausages from Field Roast Grain Meat Co.

Spicy Ketchup from Maya Kaimal (I especially like to support Maya because we were college classmates)

Rogue Ales' Chocolate Stout

Okay... enough?

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14 comments. Please add yours! :

Greg Friese said...

I have noticed at trade shows recently the booth reps always have a smart phone in their hands. They likely missing on engaging lots of potential customers because instead of making eye contact and offering to listen to customer needs they are reading email, sending text messages, etc.

Did you notice this trend at the food event?

I would suggest to even tell the story you need to first be physically and mentally ready.

Lisa Braithwaite said...

I didn't see a lot of that, surprisingly, but you make a great point. You have to be present in the first place!

Alicia said...

Thanks for mentioning us! We are so glad that you liked our cheese! Can't wanit to see you again next year, if not sooner!
-Alicia, Beehive cheese

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Now that's a good business trick, having a Google alert on your name! :-) We enjoyed meeting you and loved your cheeses.

Florence Guerrero McCarthy said...

Thanks for the mention and for stopping by the San Angel Mole booth.

You make some great points and I have a pet peeve to add. Exhibitors who ignore visitors to their booth based on their badge designation. Just because someone is not a buyer or distributor doesn't mean you can't benefit from the interaction. Sure it gets busy but if someone takes the time to stop they deserve to at least be acknowledged politely and with respect. A little good will goes a long way.

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Good point. The badges used to be even more specific, so that even if you were a retailer, but didn't have authority to make buying decisions, the badge would say so. Those of us without buying power would flip our badges around to the back so we wouldn't be judged at first glance. :-)

Two people you will always get dumped for when talking to certain vendors: Anyone from Whole Foods, and Ari Weinzweig from Zingerman's. It's hilarious, in fact, how some vendors will drop you like a hot potato when they walk by. To get into Whole Foods or Zingerman's is the holy grail of the Fancy Food Show vendor!

N. said...

Hi Lisa, you do make a very good advice here, For beginners for public speaking. However, I'm also thinking "what about those who experience public speaking anxiety?" I had my own comprehensive shot at tackling public speaking anxiety, please have a look!

Beating the fear of public speaking


Thank you, Nick

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Nick, if you spend some time on this blog, you'll see that I frequently address anxiety and how to handle it. Thanks for your link; I'll check it out.

Cliff Allen said...

I like to encourage people to tell me their story so I can understand their motivations and passions.

When talking with a salesperson or executive in a show booth I'll sometimes ask questions like "Why did you create this product?" or "How did you get into this business?"

While you were at the specialty food show, I was researching vendors at the home builders show -- and I heard some fascinating stories about what's going on in that industry!

Lisa Braithwaite said...

I'm the same way, Cliff. I ask a lot of questions to get to know the stories behind the products. If I were actually in the retail industry, these stories might help me sell the product. Of course, I do pass along the good stories!

Home builders shows must have a lot of good stories!

Kari said...

Please say you snagged a bottle of smoked olive oil. I'm intrigued...

Lisa Braithwaite said...

LOL -- still working on that! They don't have a distributor yet, so they won't be showing up at Lazy for a while. But I already can think of a million ways to use it!

Penni Wisner said...

Hi Lisa, just read this post and enjoyed it and followed your links to several products. What a lot of creativity. I don't remember many or any of these products being written about in the Chron. Your lessons learned were just what my marketing teacher, Patrice Curtis, was telling our class last night: Remember this person has not heard your "elevator speech" before!
Penni Wisner, Kitchen Coach www.penniwisner.com

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Such a great point, Penni! Each new person you talk to is a chance to start fresh.

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