Build a Better Trade Show Strategy

Your budget may be tight, but it’s still important to make room for industry trade events.

Thanks to the economic crunch, industry trade show attendance has been squeezed out of many spa budgets. However, this can be a crucial mistake, as there are still many benefits to be gained from attending these shows. The key to getting the biggest bang for your time and money is to design a strategy that helps bolster your business and your spa’s specific education level.

With the advent of regional spa events, virtual trade shows, seminars, webinars, and Web-based networking and marketing, the traditional trade show “rules” have changed drastically over the past few years, both on the attendee and the management sides. While the overall premise—education—remains the same, the methodology and strategy have shifted, and the spa industry continues to find innovative ways to reinvent itself and remain competitive.

Julie Mahoney, owner of Oasis Day Spa in South Weymouth, Massachusetts, believes that trade shows are here to stay. “They offer benefits in ways print or the Internet can’t,” she says. “Nothing surpasses the ability to experience new technology and products hands-on, to see demonstrations first-hand and converse with spa owners and educators in person. They also open channels for networking beyond the show. Trade shows offer a boost to your psyche, and inspire fresh new ideas to improve your technique and practice.”

It’s the “human factor” that proves invaluable for Angela Cortright, principal at Spa Gregorie’s, with three locations in Southern California. “There are always products or services you might not be aware of to discover, but probably even more important is the opportunity for face time with people you know, or would like to know,” she says. “You can cement relationships, and discuss new and better ways to operate and increase profits. It’s hard to do that via a telephone or email relationship. It’s that total dynamic of being there in person.”

Evolutionary Spirit

During the industry’s peak in the mid-2000s, it seemed like everyone threw their hats into the trade show arena, striking while the iron was hot. That all changed in 2008, when the climate changed to “survival of the fittest.” This was a turning point, not only for trade shows but for spa businesses in general. Owners realized that it was critical to reinvent themselves, or lose their livelihoods.

This realization spawned an evolution, and savvier tactics. The trade show industry saw several mergers and acquisitions, which whittled the numbers of shows to a more manageable and less daunting level. Organizers strategized how to offer unique and profitable experiences for attendees, and spa professionals evaluated their attendance patterns, scrutinizing show programs to determine which events would provide maximum benefit without breaking the bank or necessitating long absences from their spas.

Many spa professionals feel that overall, the trade show experience has changed for the better. “I think trade shows have come a long way over the years,” says Mahoney, who has been an esthetician for 30 years and a spa owner for 16. “In the past, gleaning information and education at a ‘beauty’ show was often a disappointing experience, as many of the offerings were sales-driven and there was little to offer estheticians and spa owners. Now there is so much more education based on research and technique.” And for spa professionals, the core incentive of the spa industry trade show—and the basis from which it originates—lies in the promotion of continuing education throughout owners’ and service providers’ careers.

“It’s so important to stand back and look at what the spa industry is all about,” says Luda Conti, owner of Avanti Day Resort in Manalapan, New Jersey. Russian-born Conti draws on her European influence and knowledge of the industry at her business, and turns to both national and international trade show events to glean inspiration. “The industry has changed,” Conti affirms. “With day spas, it’s all about the experience; it’s important to ‘wow’ the client. It’s the little details. I look for something different that is going to make my spa stand out—I want to know how to create that ‘wow,’ that spa spirit.”

Should You Stay or Should You Go?

Suppose you’re convinced that trade show attendance is a necessary aspect of educating yourself and your staff, and growing your business. In today’s market, any spa professional can easily find at least one trade show to attend per month. How do you choose? The first step is to determine which aspects of a show are most worthwhile to your business and your team on a professional level. Fortunately, evaluating a show’s offerings in advance isn’t difficult.

“There is so much information available prior to a show,” Mahoney points out. “With a little research you can get details such as speakers, classes and discussion groups, to better determine if that show is for you.”

But understanding your own priorities isn’t so simple. The reasons to attend shows are vast: continuing education, product knowledge, face-to-face contact with product suppliers and peers, trends, networking—the list goes on. Taking a look at the basic structure of each show can help simplify your decision-making.

Education. Many trade shows offer continuing education units (CEUs) for general education classes, but is this your deciding factor? Ask yourself: Does the educational program offer information that will help my business flourish? Are the speakers on the program knowledgeable and experienced? Does the show program offer beginning, intermediate or advanced education—or a combination of all three? Although fewer than 13 state boards currently require CEUs to renew esthetics licenses, industry professionals realize that knowledge is power when it comes to keeping in step with the competition and ultimately being No. 1 in the field. The future of the industry rides on continued education and training, and the constant search for new strategies and visions.

“Manufacturer classes are a must if you want your staff to revisit or master the use of the skincare products featured in your spa,” stresses Cara L. Solomon, owner of Body Restoration Spa in Philadelphia. “General business classes, on the other hand, allow spa entrepreneurs to learn about or share any workplace issues that arise, lending an advantage in the areas of spa management and ownership. I also like the series of classes offered to help the solo esthetician embark on her private practice venture. This gives her more control over her destiny.”

The educational component is primary for Spa Gregorie’s. “We take a look at the show agenda and determine which sessions will be most valuable for us, and who should go to what,” says Cortright. “And if we only have one person going, then guess what? That person gets to wear every hat we have.”

Attendance certificate. Some shows’ conference programs issue a certificate of continuing education. If marketing is a priority for you, brandishing these certificates can be a great way to promote your spa’s commitment to staying on the cutting edge of the industry, and remaining compliant with ordinances.

Show floor action. In the market for new vendors? If so, you’ll want to attend a show that offers a well-blended variety of product manufacturers with strong reputations in the field. You can only learn so much about exhibiting vendors from websites—the real story is revealed at the show itself.

Networking opportunities. Do you need to expand your relationship base and solidify your place in the greater spa community? If so, find out about networking events that are being offered. “The beauty of the trade show is the opportunity to interact with other spa professionals,” says Solomon. “My Facebook profile is connected to numerous contacts I’ve met at these shows, and we stay in touch so we are more acquainted the next time we bump into each other at shows. These are great relationships to have because the people aren’t direct competitors.”

Cortright is a fan of what she calls “accidental networking.” “You are going to see people you know and that’s important, but it’s really important to reach out and meet people you don’t know,” she explains. “I like to look at name badges—I’m not shy. If there is something about a particular person or establishment that I’m interested in or curious about, I’ll start up a conversation in the elevator or in the hallway.

“You just never know where those relationships will lead,” Cortright continues. “During events, I always ask people I meet, especially spa directors, ‘What are your favorite products? What’s flying off your shelves?’ I have found some of the coolest products this way.”

Points of differentiation. When it seems as though every show offers what you need, it’s time to look at some variables. Solomon lists several key factors to help you decide which shows to attend. “Choose a trade show that speaks to your position in the spa industry,” she suggests. “Based on that, decide which speakers you must hear and designate time for visiting those must-see booths on the trade show floor.”

If finances are primary: “Choose a show that is closest to the city in which you live. To conserve your dollars for new product purchases, attend on only one of the conference days—specifically, the one on which you will get the most out of the speaker lineup with extra time to walk the show floor and carry home small purchases,” Solomon advises.

Conti weighs a host of factors before making the decision on whether to attend. “I ask myself, where at this show am I going to find something different, something that makes me say ‘What is this? I’ve never seen it before!’ I seek a trade show that offers an experience that can help set me apart.”

“I’m Here—Now What?”

A successful trade show visit requires an action plan. What are your tangible goals? What information do you want to bring home? How will you share your newly acquired knowledge? Hit the ground prepared and ready to meet your goals. Solomon suggests registering in advance and pre-paying for class sessions. “I usually try to register within the early-bird time frame,” she says. “Then the badge arrives in the mail a week before the show, enabling me to skip the long lines of people waiting to register.”

A strong focus helps to maximize the show floor experience, reminds Conti. “I am constantly searching for information at shows,” she says. “I know I am there to attend classes and to learn, to pick up the little things that I can take along to create the next big thing.”

The team at Spa Gregorie’s discusses the direction taken at each show, including the trends. “I require a write-up after every show. So, if the assignment was to attend these three workshops, and seek out these five vendors, then I want a report afterward,” stresses Cortright, who then compiles all staff reports into one big report. “If appropriate, I’ll schedule a follow-up meeting a few months afterward, and we’ll discuss what we did with all that information, how we are utilizing it, what was implemented, and what we have changed.”

In today’s slowly recovering economy, finding that “next big boost” can be just what a spa professional needs to regain her enthusiasm. “If you have grown tired or bored with this industry, you may just need some inspiration,” concludes Solomon. “Start with a trade show nearest to you and plan to attend for just the day. Take some time after the show to review your notes, the samples you collected and the product information you received. Make use of this knowledge and use it as a source of inspiration.”

Evaluating Exhibitors

Sometimes the sheer volume of product and equipment vendors at trade shows can be intimidating. If you’re seeking to partner with a new supplier, it’s possible to lose sight of what you really need and end up making a wrong choice. Cora L. Solomon, owner of Philadelphia-based Body Restoration Spa, recommends the following methods for avoiding missteps:

“Walk the trade show floor and take notice of the booths that seem to be very busy,” she suggests. “Ask vendors about their years in business; their minimum opening order; the shelf-life of their products. Do they require all of their products to be displayed in your spa? If some SKUs in your retail areas don’t move, can they be swapped for other products in the line? And finally, can they speak to some of their current accounts before you commit? The responses will be telling.”

Trade shows offer attendees a unique glimpse into how vendors run their companies, so take advantage of that opportunity. Create a mental checklist:

• Do the vendor’s booth workers have an upbeat, yet professional demeanor?
• Are they well informed about the product?
• Is the booth operation organized and professionally decorated?
• Is the vendor selling everything under the sun and coming across as a cash-and-carry flea market vendor?

Strategy Checklist

These pre-show pointers will help you meet your goals at industry events:

• Define your focus, do your homework and have a set schedule in place.
• Study the show program. Create a personal itinerary and mark down the companies (and booth numbers) you want to visit. Circle the booths you plan to visit on the show program. (This is a great visual reference while walking a hectic and crowded show floor!)
• Schedule appointments with key people to learn more about the new procedures/products/ingredients they are showcasing. Exchange cell phone numbers with all your contacts just in case of last-minute scheduling changes.
• Highlight the advanced education and manufacturer classes you want to attend. Set goals for each session, and be prepared to take notes and report back to your team with what you learned.
• Make a networking plan—research the trade show’s social events and schedule them into your day. On your Facebook and Twitter feeds, share not only that you will be attending the trade show, but list specific networking events. This can help you seek out like-minded spa owners you can network with and learn from.
• Set achievable goals. For example, “At this show, I want to accomplish A, B, C.”
• Create a plan to share your newly acquired information with your team, and discuss how to best implement what was learned.

Bit of History

Although the true beginning of professional skin care and its expansion into trade shows leaves much to retrospective interpretation, trade shows’ roots can almost undeniably be traced to one of the industry’s first official organizations, CIDESCO (Comité International D’esthétique et de Cosmétologie), formed in 1946. The group’s goals were, and remain, to bring members of the profession together to pool knowledge and exchange ideas; to make contact with other professionals whose work had influence and bearing on the esthetics profession; and to establish a sound framework of education in beauty training. From the beginning, CIDESCO has held an annual congress, and although its reach is global, its focus on continuing education to grow the industry helped set the foundation for today’s industry trade shows.

Melinda Taschetta-Millane is a Chicago-based freelance writer and editor specializing in the spa industry.


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