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March 17, 2022

A Scott in the Dark: Preparing for a Trade Show

A Scott in the Dark: Preparing for a Trade Show

Scott shares his suggestions for getting the most out of a trade show.

Scott shares his suggestions for getting the most out of a trade show.

Today is the first day of Transworld’s Halloween & Attraction show in St Louis. If you’re at the show, Scott will be doing a book signing at booth 1903 from 2-3PM CT.

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Hello everyone and welcome back to the dark. Scott Swenson here with A Scott in the Dark, and this is a unique show. So, this show is being recorded the week before the Transworld Halloween Christmas and Escape Room Show. For those of you who've been listening for a while, you know that I will quite regularly do a show where I record segments at the trade show, and I've done it for several trade shows in the past, but I always try to do it for Transworld because let's face it, that's the big boy right now; or big girl, or a big person, I don't want to be gender-specific. 

I decided as I'm doing my final prep to get ready to go, this year it's been a little bit different because I'm working right before and right after, so I have to kind of plan a little bit more ahead. I thought maybe I should do a show that would be about planning for trade shows, planning for shows Transworld or any of the other ones that are out there. So, this show is all about the things that you need to know if you've never gone before, or even if you have gone before, you may sit there and go, "uh-huh. That's a good idea. Why didn't I think of that sooner?" But, the idea here is just to kind of give sort of a prep so that people can understand you know a little bit more about what to expect to the show if they've never been, and maybe ways to get them more to get more out of the show if they've been in the past. 

I think the first thing we have to address is, you know why are you going to the show? I mean with me I go because it is an important part of my business. I do a lot of networking while I'm there. I have done a booth there before, and of course, being part of the Haunted Attraction Network, I will be at a booth again this year. So, I've got the whole business side of it. I also want to see, for my clients, what is out there. I need to be aware of what's going on in the industry and what the new stuff is. So, I need to see the products. 

Then, I won't lie, there is a strong social component as well. Because let's face it, trade shows are fun, especially haunt trade shows, Christmas trade shows, and escape room trade shows. It's just a great opportunity to meet with people who have similar interests, who are in the industry, and it gives you a chance to sort of get together and hang out with them. 

So, I guess you have to kind of figure out what you want to accomplish. For example, if you are a vendor and you have a booth at the show, the first thing I forgot when I was a vendor, I was also a speaker that year. What I forgot was, "Hey, who's going to cover my booth when I'm not there?" So, if you are a small vendor especially, make sure that you have Booth coverage scheduled for the entire run of the show. It never fails, the moment you don't have somebody there is when the biggest, most important potential client comes by. So please work that out. Usually, people in the industry are very willing to help out. I was lucky, I was able to just kind of find some friends who weren't doing anything and who weren't coming to my seminars--and I forgave them because they looked after my booth while I was gone. But that's probably the first thing to remember.

Another thing to remember is, if you have never done a booth before, you will be talking more than you're used to, so make sure you stay hydrated and make sure you have some sort of lozenges or something to keep your throat going. When we get into the social side you'll understand why I say stay hydrated, because there is some partying. I know it's hard to believe, but there is actually some partying that goes on at haunt trade shows. What a shocker, who would have known?

Also, I think it's important to make certain, if you are a vendor and you do have a booth, I think if you're going to get the most out of it, make sure you have ways for people to contact you. I'm kind of shifting away from business cards right now. I'm moving more towards I have a QR Code that basically just puts me into people's contacts. So, I do have business cards for those people who still like to collect the paper stuff, but I also have a QR code on my phone that people can just scan and hit two buttons and I'm in their contacts. There's a couple of different companies out there that do that. There's also some companies out there that have wristbands, like Disney smart bands that you can tap your phone to and make connections. Or there are black cards, they're like credit cards that do the same thing and then they have a QR code on the back just in case somebody doesn't have the high technology to be able to tap and take, as I call it.

However you're sharing your information, make sure that you have enough ways to communicate. For example, this is my business card. Now that's one side which has the old-fashioned stuff on it and then the other side is this QR code. So, if you're watching the video, you can actually see what I'm talking about, and if I hold it still enough, you might even be able to capture my information and put it in your phone. But like I said, I have this in card form, I have it also on my phone, and then I even had a little badge, a little pin made up that actually has the same information.

Also, if you're a vendor, make sure that you have enough of your promotional material, and if you don't want to print it all up, again, QR codes are a pretty decent idea if you want somebody to go to your website or whatever. Even though it's less than a week out, it's still something you can get done. In fact, it's easier to get a QR code made that leads to your website than it is to print up additional brochures. The nice thing is, it also drives people to your website. 

I will say, as a buyer, I have stopped picking up almost everything, unless it's really, really cool, because I don't want to take it all home, and I fly, you know I fly to and from most of these shows, because there aren't many in Florida. The only one I drive to is actually IAAPA, which is the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions Expo because it's in Orlando, but everything else I have to fly to. For years I was always trying to fly back and shove my suitcase full of pounds and pounds and pounds of paper and brochures and stuff like that. You might be able to even save some bucks if you think about offering a QR code for those guests who don't want to take all the paper, all the printed stuff, and all the price lists, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Again, make sure you have enough of it, and enough different varieties of it so that people can take  your information home.

This is a weird little thing, and there are people who will disagree with me on this. Actually, there's people who disagree with me on everything I say on the show, which is completely fine. I'm just sharing my perspective I've been at this for over [mumble] years and this is the way I look. It's not the way everybody looks at it, and I totally get that, but this is a suggestion that I make if you are a vendor. Find a way to always be branded. I know some vendors who will wear outlandish suits through the entire run of the trade show

so that everybody notices them when they're at their booth, when they're walking the trade show floor, when they're at events and functions, they are constantly visible and recognizable.

If you're not that much of an extrovert, make sure that you at least have some sort of logo or branded color scheme. I will tell you, those of you have been to the events, have been to this event before, for the haunt side, people are wearing black. So, if you're wearing a black T-shirt, you have a black logo, or you have a black jacket, you will most likely blend in with everybody else. If you're a vendor and you want to be recognized and remembered, you probably want to do the opposite, you probably want to stand out. 

Now, at this late date, I'm not saying, "change all of your wardrobe." What I am saying is, I will share with you a trick that was used for years when I went to these mass auditions for actors. The Southeastern Theater Conference, that is a huge mass audition for young performers, where I used to go there with the theme parks, and we'd see like 2000 people over three days. It was overwhelming. But, what some of the smart kids did is they would pick a color that they would wear the entire weekend, so that every time we saw them in their audition, walking around, at callbacks, they would always be wearing the same color, and we automatically said, "oh, there's the kid in teal that we really liked." I thought it was brilliant. I thought it was really, really smart. 

So, you can do the same thing as a vendor. You can make sure that you always have something branded on. My friends used to make fun of me when I was when still working for Busch Gardens in Tampa. Every single moment of the day for the trade show, I had something that said either Busch Gardens or Howl-O-Scream or something like that, 

I had some piece of clothing that said that, because again, I wanted to be identifiable as that buyer. 

Now that I have my own company, I am always wearing pins. In fact, I just had new pins made. I have one here. I had new pins made up for the trade show with my logo. It's just to make sure that I always have one, but they're simple little pins that look like that--if you're watching the video, if not it's just my logo which you've seen pretty much everywhere--just to make sure that I can always have one on my lanyard, my lapel, whatever. It's a more subtle way of doing it, but then everybody can look at it and go, "Oh, you're the guy with the lightbulb logo, I remember you." I get that a lot, actually, they don't remember who I am or what I do, but they remember the lightbulb logo. Thanks to my amazing designers who did that. 

Stay branded, stay branded so you can stay recognized, that's the that's the piece of advice that I give to every vendor. 

If you have some sort of giveaway, as so many vendors do. If you have some sort of giveaway, whether it's a pin, whether a bag, it's a pen that has your name on it, or a squishy or something, I don't know something whatever. I strongly recommend that you would think about the purpose of those giveaways. The lanyards are pretty much provided, those are usually locked up by a sponsor vendor, which I totally get. So, unless you're giving me lanyards that is cooler than what the sponsor lanyard looks like, don't expect anybody to see them.

Let's face it, giveaways are not just about letting the person who picks them up remember who you are. It's also a way of every time they use that it represents you to other people. I have an example here of what I thought was a really cool Busch Gardens giveaway. So, it's a pen, but it's an orange pen that says Busch Gardens on it. If you just look at this part of the pen, and I'm covering up the top here for those of you who aren't able to watch, the pen itself looks pretty normal and the Busch Gardens is very, very small. 

However, what they did was they made the top of the pen a tiger shape, and this was a promotion for the Tigers Roller Coaster. The top of the pen is bent to look like a tiger and it's black and orange striped. So, you have a black and orange pen with a black Busch Gardens logo on it, and then the top of it is a very obnoxious tiger shape that is tiger striped. So, while you're riding with it, it actually draws attention to the pen and people go,

"Where did you get that pen?" And you go, "oh it's Busch Gardens." Well, you've automatically doubled the impact of your giveaway, because now the person who picked it up understands what it is, and the person that saw them writing with it knows what it is.

So, another example that I saw that I think worked really, really well. A lot of places give out bags to hold the various paperwork that I'm trying desperately to get people to get rid of. They have those bags and there are sponsor bags and there are, you know, multiple different vendors that have created bags over the years. One of the cleverest ones I saw was actually at IAAPA Expo last year. One company, and if you were at IAAPA you'll know exactly what I'm talking about, did an oversized orange bag. It was gigantic. It was like walking with a billboard, and the people who had them, everybody was like, "that is so cool it holds everything." It really didn't, they just got too heavy. But, people who were carrying them around were just advertising for that vendor everywhere they went.

So, keep that in mind if you're doing a giveaway. What does it do for the person who picks it up?  And will it be commented on by people who see it? It's kind of a double-duty thing--he said doody. I'm so tired, sorry--but anyway, it's a double-duty thing and will help you out a bit more. Again, probably too late to change them now, but just think about it for upcoming shows, and especially Transworld, because every likes big pickup cool stuff.

Something you may be able to do, at this late date if you haven't done it already, is find some way to make your booth interactive. Find some way to make it so that guests do things at your booth; whether that is a photo op that has your logo in it, whether that is something basic is a QR code that they come up and scan and it takes them somewhere to get more information. It's way too easy at any trade show to walk up and down the aisles and become numb to it, just kind of blur out those booths. Keep in mind, you are competing with other vendors, and not competing with them for money but competing with them for attention. You've got to get the attention of the people walking through

In many cases, say, for example mask manufacturers, there are going to be plenty of mask manufacturer vendors, I'm sure, at Transworld. So what can you do as mask manufacturer A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, or L? What can you do to make your booth seem so much different than the other mask booths?

Couple of things I'd like to suggest is, again, do a photo op. Secondly, think vertically, think going up. Keep in mind that I'm 6'4'', if I'm standing in front of your booth, there's a whole section that people can't see because I'm tall. So, if you have a way of making your logo or your product visible above where people are standing, assume people will be standing in front of your booth, make sure that there are things to be seen above their heads.

One thing I do not recommend, just because it becomes very distracting, is making things that are consistently too noisy. If you have something that goes off every now and then, fine, gets the attention, great. There's always a vendor who has that at every single, certainly haunt trade show I've ever been to. But, I will say that one of the years that I had a booth, one of those vendors was immediately behind me, and instead of it just going off randomly every now and then, it went on quite regularly, and I had to spend a lot of time kind of yelling over it. It didn't bother me that much because I'm used to talking a lot. What it did though, is it made the people who were trying to talk to me a little bit miffed about the vendor behind me. So, just keep that in mind, be courteous.

I think the most important rule to follow as a vendor is, to follow the rules. Make sure that you are following the rules that are laid out by the trade show. They're very clear, they're in your contract, they're all the things that you signed, and they're basic common sense. Just read through the rules and make sure you follow them. So, that's my that's vendor suggestions. 

If you are a participant and you're going there as a buyer, or just for the social purposes...

Well, we'll get to social in just a minute. If you're going there as a buyer, and when I say buyer that's not necessarily just a buyer of hard goods, that's also the consumers who are taking part in the seminars. Which, to me, at my point in my career, that's probably the most important reason to go, and I'm not saying that just because I'm a speaker this year. I think it's the most important reason to go, to share new information and to learn new information, and learn from people who have different perspectives from you in the industry. See what you can discover from them.

So, if you're going as a consumer or as a buyer, I think the most important thing you can do is set your goals. What is it that you're trying to accomplish? I always like to have my designs done for multiple clients before I go, because then even though I'm not necessarily the one who's going to sign the purchase order, I can go back to--I have six Halloween clients this year--I can go back to them and say, "OK, I know what your theme is, it's this, and I saw this product from this vendor at the show. I got to pick it up, I got to hold it, it was really cool, I strongly recommend that you purchase it." If you've got your concepts that are ready to go, set out your goals and say--I'm going to make this up--"I'm going to purchase a giant bat mask, and I need an animation that can be used in a circus room, and I need 3 new lighting fixtures that are RGB changeable and they're going to go here.". So, set your goals so you just don't end up wandering the trade show floor aimlessly.

The other thing I'm going to suggest is, don't just stick to one section of the show floor. Because the three shows are co-located, if you are a haunter, take some time t go and walk through the escape room stuff, and also the Christmas stuff. With a lighting fixture, the only people who know it's a Christmas light are the people who install it, the light itself does not identify as Christmas. Quite often you can find things in the Christmas side that can be utilized in the haunt side, and vice versa. Obviously, that's less true with props,

but certainly with lighting and audio. So, take a wander through, be open-minded, and again, I'm not just saying that because I'm teaching seminars on both sides. What I'm saying is, it really does benefit you. It opens your mind and it also is kind of a palate cleanser so all of a sudden all of the masks don't look alike, all the costumes don't look a

like, because they're not, but you just kind of become overwhelmed.

The other thing that I think is important is to plan but don't over plan. I know it sounds like I'm contradicting myself, but understand what your goals are, make a plan to accomplish them, but then also leave some time to just go with the flow, to just follow the crowd. You will meet people there, you will see people that you haven't seen in a while, something will pop up and you'll be like, "Oh yeah, I'd love to do that. Let me go do that." If you're too locked into your schedule, then you run the risk of missing out on some great spontaneous stuff that always happens. So, just you know, you may pick a night or an afternoon or a morning, because let's face it, it is a 24-hour experience--especially on the social side--that you don't have anything planned that you just decide, "well, I'm going to see where that takes me." Quite often what I've discovered, that's when the most memorable things happen.

Those of you who have known me know that one of my dearest friends, from Busch Gardens, Robbie Lepre, who unfortunately has passed, but Robbie knew everybody, and everybody knew Robbie in the haunt industry. I used to just say, "OK, I'm going to pencil in this time where I'm going to do whatever Robbie wants to do." Because she would always find the coolest parties, the coolest people to have dinner with. We all have friends like this, right? They just kind of know everybody and they know the cool people to hang out with. So, allow for some spontaneity, that's the point. Allow for some spontaneity in your schedule. Book the specific seminars you want to see, book the specific parties you want to go to, but keep some flexibility and some open space in there so that you can decide, "let's go follow our new friends that we just met and see what they're up to."

Well, let's move on to social, let's move on to the social side. I know I mentioned earlier, there is occasionally some partying that goes on at these conventions, occasionally, but who knows, it may not happen this year. Ha, right.

I'm going to sound like you're your parents and I'm going to say, just be careful. Because I have talked to people after trade shows who were like, "I wanted so badly wanted to do this, but I was so hungover I just couldn't do it." So, know your limits, stay hydrated, be healthy. All right, enough of being the old guy, enough of being everybody's mom. 

Have a good time. Have a really good time. Plan time for transportation. I will say that quite often there is a specific hotel that always has a big party going on in the lobby and it goes on into the wee hours of the morning. So, whenever you're just looking for someone to talk to who wants to talk about zombies, dead things, and fake blood, you have a place to go. But, also make sure that you have the ability to get back to your hotel room, whether that is Uber--which is our friend--or you are you have the appropriate clothing.

In this particular show, Saint Louis, the weather is very unpredictable, and it looks like it's going to be pretty mild this year, 2022. You know, if you're from Florida when it gets down into the 40s at night, it's still going to be cold. So, I have to make sure I'm bringing the appropriate clothing; packing layers.

I also think the most important thing to remember, and I have very rarely seen a problem with this, but it does rear its ugly head occasionally, and that is, be nice. The haunt industry is filled with people who are really cool, people who are really fun. When people get tired, people get stressed, or people get overwhelmed, they forget that we're all in this together. I realize that there are competing haunts, I realize that there are some organizations that feel other organizations "steal ideas" from them. One of the things I've learned in working with multiple organizations, at multiple times is, there are no original ideas, there's just great execution, there's just trying to find different ways to put these ideas together.

I'm always fascinated by people who will come up to me and say, "Scott, I've got the best new idea. No one has ever done this before," and they'll explain something that I did ten years ago. It's not that I did it, that's not the point, it's that it was done 10 years ago and these ideas keep coming back. So, put competition on the sidelines during the trade show, and find those people that are fun to be with, tell stories, tell war stories, show you new tattoos, and show you new battle scars that happened in the last season; because everybody has them and everybody has those stories. Every haunt actor I know, "Yeah, when this happened to me right here on my elbow, when X, Y, and Z happened last season. I got stuck in a drop door." We all have those, and they're fine, they're great stories to tell. But, make friends. 

I will tell you, in networking situations, or in any business situation, it is far more impactful in the long run to make friends than to make connections. So instead of thinking about just passing out your business card like you're dealing a hand of poker, take some time to get to know people. Take some time to get to know people and make new connections that are friends first and potential business associates later. 

So that's kind of the whole shebang. I realize I was kind of rambling, but like I said I'm working on a project right up until the day before, and then I immediately go back into another project the day after the show, but I will be in Saint Louis. I'm checking my calendar one more time. I will be in Saint Louis from the 16th through the... I leave on the morning of the 20th. 


Scott SwensonProfile Photo

Scott Swenson

Owner/Creative Director

For over 30 years, Scott Swenson has been a storyteller, bringing stories to life as a writer, director, producer and performer. His work in theme park, consumer events, live theatre and television has given him a broad spectrum of experiences. In 2014, after 21 years with SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment, Scott formed Scott Swenson Creative Development LLC. Since then he has been providing impactful experiences for clients around the world. Whether he is installing shows on cruise ships or creating seasonal festivals for theme parks, writing educational presentations for zoos and museums or directing successful fund raisers, Scott is always finding new ways to tell stories that engage and entertain.