The American Trade Show - Lessons on Existence


My name is Brandon and I’m addicted to trade shows.

I admit it.  Looking back on the hook from which hang all of my badges and lanyards I had the realization that the seven trade showcases I thought I’d attended were actually ten.  Honestly, I thought I was doing pretty great.  These were some great shows and as a member of the press (snicker) I was getting treated like royalty.

Or so I thought.


See 2013 came around and afforded me the opportunity to attend one of the largest international interior design shows, IMM in Cologne.  And it blew my mind.  I just can’t look at an American trade show the same way.  Why?  Because Europe has us by the balls and they no intention of letting go.

Granted, it’s Europe.  Hello?  Winner.  Who doesn’t sit in their 6x6 grey cubicle and dream of jaunting off to Paris, London, or Berlin to see the best of the best in design? I certainly do.  Daily. It’s why “The Kitty” exists.  The reality is that there are so many lessons from which the trade show industry could learn.

Stop Calling it a Trade Show.  Semantics.  It’s a A Fair.  An Exhibition.  A Display.  The same goes for booths.  I hate the word booths. Sounds like I’m eating at a diner.


Encourage Attendees to Linger.  The US has an aversion to sitting a spell.  Let us take a load off inside and outside a display.  Huddle and lounge areas in the middle of the action.  A cold beverage in a real glass. No “Used Car Salesperson” talk-my-ear off antics.

The Mega Show.  IMM’s attendance numbers for 2013 were 142,000 attendees from 137 countries. Mind blowing.  It’s expensive to attend a show as an attendee and I’m certain it’s prohibitively so for exhibitors.  The Mega Show concept blends complementary industries in an effort to garner cross-pollination, provide a wider audience, and generate a greater participation by attendees with smaller travel budgets.  Not to mention, it becomes a true destination event.  Kudos to the KBIS team for realizing this in time for their 2014 showcase.

The Bi-Annual. IMM has Living Kitchen.  iSalone has Eurocucine. Every other year, both are major kitchen exhibitions that provide for a superior response from manufacturers in terms of introduction of innovation and product development.  It’s a conceptual model that industry segment specific fairs should adopt in compliment to the Mega Show.


Leverage Social Media.  In the weeks leading up to IMM, its PR team tweeted, blogged, and generally connected virtually with designers and manufacturers by providing links to product, retweeting commentary and introductions to others in the field.  As a designer, you not only lit up when you were retweeted but actually felt part of the show.  They wanted me there, and let me feel it.

Food Service is not a $9.50 Sandwich.  American trade show craft service sucks.  There.  I said it.  In fact, forget talking about it.  I’m just going to show you.  That’s halibut.  With steamed carrots. Served in a temporary café. Where you could watch its preparation.  It didn’t taste like rubber, wasn’t reheated, and didn’t cost my salary.  Thank you Miele. Exhibitors take note – if you don’t have a working kitchen and you’re selling appliances, you’re losing the battle.   


Press Kits Should be Paperless. I once saw the editor of a very prestigious journal sitting on the floor of the press room literally ripping a stack of press kits to shreds until she had a nice, neat pile of flash drives and cds.  The printed press releases, folders, and tchotzkes ended up in the rubbish bin.  In fact, follow Greenbuild’s lead and provide me a log in to a 24/7 download site.

The Era of the 10x10 is Over.  Seriously.  I’m not a sardine.  In fact, I’m mildly claustrophobic. 

Speaking of Spaces, Independent Halls Work.  IMM consisted of 11 halls instead of one horribly giant, acoustically underperforming, probably cold convention center. Multiple halls allowed for more intimate groupings of like products and services.  It facilitated a greater sense of accomplishment (I walked four of the 11 and don’t feel as if I “missed” out). Ease of navigation (our attachment to numbered aisles is insane).  And most importantly, I could actually hear myself think.

Rethink iPad and iPhone Apps.  They’re useless.  Seriously. Most of the halls have very little to no wifi.  I’d rather use my iCal for appointments. This is the one place where the paper directory is still the biggest tool for walking a show.

Encourage and Facilitate Brand Collaboration. There are so many great brands that can’t make the financial commitment to a giant show.  This means that shows are often times overwrought by brands with big PR budgets while the little guy is forced to his corner of the internet.  A lighting manufacture provides product for a cabinetmaker’s display.  A faucetry line teams with a tile line.  Get it?  

The Outskirts are Where Products go to Die. You know those outer rows?  They’re good for making a beeline to the bathroom. Share the wealth a little and move some of those brands out into the action.  Make use of those end caps for your “Best of” displays.   Dwell on Design had an Airstream dead center. Mix it up a little.

Phew.  I’m opinionated aren’t I?

So designers and attendees alike – what else would make your trade show experience that much better?

Do tell because they’re listening.