Convention time is nearly upon us again. October, in fact, is just bursting with activity. The Western Carwash Association kicks the season off with its convention (October 3-5) followed by the Southeastern Car Wash Association (October 8-11). Next is the Northeast Regional Carwash Convention (October 17-19), with the National Association of Convenience Stores closing out the month (October 29-31). If that isn't enough, AAPEX and NACE spill over into November (1-5). Cost-conscious operators must be wondering whether they should make the financial investment in one or several conventions this year.
Don't let a few dollars become a barrier to convention participation. The payoff - in terms of new product information, new ideas and contacts - is immense.
Just as important, with some advance planning you can attend
conventions with a smaller financial investment than you might think possible. Here's how:
Plan Your Activities
If you're on a budget, check out your destination's sites and attractions before you leave home. You'll probably find a wealth of low-budget entertainment and activities. Even if you're not a planner by nature, browse the Web to learn more about your convention destination. You might be surprised at the variety of possibilities - museums, sports attractions, historical sites - open to you.
Plan Group Activities
Chances are your association will plan a series of exciting group events, but you can plan your own as well. Some possibilities: a golf outing, a baseball game, or a shopping trip. Pull together a dozen or so members from your own region, put the event on the calendar, and make arrangements for a reduced-price event with the sponsoring businesses.
Get a Map
The map might suggest visiting opportunities that won't be mentioned elsewhere: parks, natural landmarks, and historic markers, for example.
Check out What's New
What sites or shopping attractions have opened recently near your destination? These new entertainment or shopping attractions might offer reduced-price ticket prices, coupons, or other opportunities for budget-conscious travelers.
Review the Review
Check the Web-based newspapers and tourism sites for reviews and commentary about attractions around your destination. You'll get a feel for what's popular - and what's inexpensive.
Form a Car Pool
If your convention site is within driving distance, pull together a group of members who are attending the convention and travel together in one car.
Reserve a Suite
Yes, hotel suites are more expensive than traditional rooms. But if you share the suite with other members, you might find that the cost per person is favorable. Check out the rates.
Select Educational Opportunities Carefully
Are special fees required for in-depth convention seminars? If you're trying to save money, aim for the free workshops.
Check out Alternative Restaurants
If you eat every meal at your convention site, you'll probably pay more. Other nearby restaurants - or restaurants off the beaten path a few miles away - may offer a local flavor and cheaper prices.
Use Public Transportation
If a bus or subway system is available at your destination, consider using it to explore your destination city. Most transit systems make route maps available through the Web or by mail. Get these in advance.
Tack on a Vacation
If you've always wanted to visit your destination, try to arrange a nearby brief vacation before or after your convention. You may save big dollars on travel costs.
If you're entitled to tax exemptions on any purchases, be sure you make exemption certificates available to vendors. Carry certificates on your trip if necessary.
Save Every Receipt
Depending on the nature of the expense, your receipts may bring you reimbursement or a partial tax deduction.
THE TRADE SHOW BOOTHS
In many ways, this is the heart of the convention. It's full of opportunities to save - and earn - money. Check out exhibitors offering long-term cost-saving opportunities, such as new technology. Just as important, spend time learning about new products and new revenue-generating tools.
Even if you go home with an empty pocketbook, the knowledge you gain on the trade-show floor can send dollars flowing your way far into the future. You can parlay your limited time in the exhibit hall into a genuine learning and networking experience. With a little attention to planning, you can get a tremendous return on the time you spend there. Here's how:
Plan Your Stops
Pick up a map of the exhibit area before you begin browsing. Then identify a selection of booths that might offer especially useful information.
Stay in Shape
Don't kid yourself: spending a few hours in an exhibit hall can be a grueling experience. Whenever possible, wear loose-fitting clothing and, above all, comfortable shoes. Or take a lesson from veteran exhibitors, who often wear padding inside their shoes. Before setting out, eat a light meal. Avoid sugary snacks, caffeine, or soft drinks in the hall. Water and easy-to-digest snacks, such as dried fruit, will help you keep your energy level up.
Know When to Browse
Take the tempo of the trade show. When exhibit traffic is light, make your high-priority, business-oriented visits. You'll be able to spend more time with exhibitors this way. When traffic is heavier, you can browse through the lower-priority booths more casually.
Decide what you want out of each exhibit even before you start making the rounds. Do you want help with a thorny service problem? Want to learn about a new line of products? Want to save money? Keep these goals in mind as you visit each booth. You might even want to develop a list of stock questions to ask each exhibitor you visit.
Look for the Quick Message
When you approach a booth, look and listen for the "quick message" - the exhibitor's key points. The signs, posters, or demonstrations around the booth often display this message at a glance.
Overlook the Clutter and Hype
Trade-show exhibits are designed to whet your appetite for what's being offered - and that's good. But don't spend so much time around the signs, the giveaways, and the show-and-tell demonstrations that you neglect what you're really after.
Bring Your Specs
Bring along specifications for products you'll need in the months and years ahead. Refer to them when talking with exhibitors, and don't hesitate to pass copies along to exhibitors who may help fill your product needs later on.
Ask for Help
Pose questions and problems - perhaps from a ready-made list - to exhibitors. Specifically, ask for help with problems you're having on the job. They frequently know about others in the industry experiencing the same difficulties, and can offer you valuable solutions, insights and recommendations.
Ask for High-Value Materials
What relevant brochures, magazine reprints, and case studies can exhibitors give you? If an exhibitor doesn't have what you're looking for, ask him to place your name on a follow-up list.
Ask about Free Seminars
Many exhibitors offer seminars or demonstrations during the convention, or throughout the year. Ask for a schedule of events, and note topics, dates and times that are right for you.
Kick the Tires
Participate in demonstrations. Try your hand at surveys, exercises, or evaluations offered by exhibitors. Do you have a product or service suggestion for an exhibitor? Don't hesitate to throw in your two cents before you leave. Offer advice. Have you used an exhibitor's products in the past? If so, can you offer examples of effective and ineffective performance? Offer your insights. Exhibitors take these suggestions very seriously.
Become a Customer
If you're pretty sure you're going to be doing business with an exhibitor, pass along the information necessary to begin a successful sales relationship - right then and there. This information might include company background, credit references, products used now, quantity information, and purchasing resources available.
Make a brief handwritten note after you leave each exhibit. Jot down the key points you've learned, product problems you've encountered, or issues you'd like to raise in a return conversation with the exhibitor.
Develop Company Contacts
Exhibitors often know the companies they represent inside and out. They may be able and willing to furnish you with the names and telephone extensions of key training, accounting and technical
people in the company. If you're conscientious in gathering this information, you can often leave the convention hall with a treasure trove of new contacts.
Carry a portfolio or bag with pockets so that you can sort and file printed material as you receive it. If you indiscriminately dump everything handed to you in an oversized bag, chances are that most of the material will eventually land in a junk pile.
Talk to Other Visitors
You can often learn about their needs and problems, and pick up valuable tips from them. Better yet, you can build new professional acquaintances that can make your job easier over time.
Richard G. Ensman Jr. is a Rochester, NY-based freelance writer.
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