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Trade show intelligence: the other side of the coin

By Vernon Prior - posted Wednesday, 21 October 2009


Trade shows allow you, and your competitors, to promote your activities in a highly visible and concentrated fashion. They provide direct access to many potential customers who are there because they are interested in what you and others have to offer. At the same time a trade show represents an opportunity to gain access to a tightly focused collection of information sources that, if properly managed, can offer huge benefits to your organisation.

Without exception, exhibitors will be at trade shows to talk! Their employees will be eager to give away their trade literature and promotional material. Companies frequently use trade shows to announce major changes in their operations, such as acquisitions and mergers, new products or services, or significant new contracts. Many of these topics may not have been made public before the event. And, in their enthusiasm, exhibitors often forget - or disregard - the most elementary security precautions.

Hence, trade shows offer an ideal opportunity to not only see a wide range of competitor products but also to ask some revealing questions, and to conduct some highly concentrated research. Indeed, a properly organised, competent, and well-briefed team should be able to gather more significant and beneficial information in a few days than could be collected in a full year under any other set of circumstances. But, in order to do so, their focus and activities should be organised well in advance.


Before the event

Early preparation will allow more time for planning, and for briefing your intelligence team. Coincidentally, it may also help to reduce your costs through cheaper airfares and early-bird registration fees as well as providing a wider choice of suitable accommodation.

The intelligence team’s primary role will be to collect as much trade and promotional material as they can, to observe, and to obtain answers to predetermined questions. Collectively, team members should possess the necessary expertise to cover all aspects of your business (technical, financial, marketing, R&D, human resources, and so on).

Your first decision is to select those trade shows which will be the most profitable for your particular purposes. The potential presence at the show of various elements of your business environment (competitors, customers, suppliers, professional or trade associations, and relevant government agencies) will play an important part in that decision.

You should now be in a position to establish your critical information needs and to decide who would be the most appropriate individual to deal with each aspect to be covered. If you already have some sort of intelligence operation in place you will almost certainly be aware of the type of information that your decision makers regard as important.

Your intelligence team will be much more effective if you provide them with an information kit, the contents of which may include:

  • details of competitors attending;
  • an annotated map of the exhibition hall showing their location;
  • anticipated new products or services;
  • recent pertinent advertisements, promotional material, or news items;
  • contact details of your own intelligence staff, as well as some means of communicating rapidly with your intelligence director (and the rest of your team);
  • names and affiliations of attending media representatives.

Your preparation should also include details of related seminars, presentations, or speeches (particularly those given by your competitors), as well as of site visits to premises, plant, or installations (especially those of your competitors).

Make sure that you collect media items and promotional material describing the event. Make a note of any significant items, as well as the names and contact details of experts in your industry or business (including writers from trade magazines, academics, researchers, consultants, and representatives of industry or trade associations) for inclusion in your contacts database.

During the event

Your first step should be to carry out a reconnaissance sweep to obtain a general overview of the layout. You may then go ahead with intensive information gathering. Collect everything (including business cards), observe, listen to gossip, seek answers to your questions (using elicitation techniques), and make notes.

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For those not familiar with the topics of competitive intelligence and knowledge management, Vernon's comprehensive glossary of terms is widely available online, including at the following sites:,,,,,,,,, and

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About the Author

Vernon Prior is a leading practitioner in competitive intelligence and knowledge management. Over the past 20 years he has presented training programs in Australia, Brazil, Brunei, Hong Kong, India, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and the United Arab Emirates.

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