“When the Internet took off, a lot of people said it would mean the end of trade fairs, because people would now do business via the Internet without any further need for time-consuming personal encounters and exhibitions. But trade fairs haven ́t suffered a bit. They may have changed, in that the middle-range fairs seem to be fading out leaving only the major ones in place along with a new emergence of smaller, more localised or specialised events. But trade fairs as such are as essential a part of the trading process as they ever were. The main reason is that at a trade fair you not only can explore a concentrated selection of products or prospects, but also that trade fairs involve personal contact. To most people, physi- cally meeting the man or woman on the other side of the deal is a crucial part of entering into business. That personal touch is one of the key components in a successful trade fair participation.”

Mediocrity versus excellence

Han Leenhouts, a jovial Dutchman who oozes enthusiasm, has been attending trade fairs by the hundreds since he graduated from col- lege with a degree in commercial economy. His first job in what he calls “hardcore sales” for a carpet tile company took him to a few fairs and after that he spent ten years with one of the Netherlands ́ leading presentation specialists. He ended as commercial director there before launching his own business specialised in stand design in 2002. “For a long time I believed, like everybody else does, that

the stand is the critical success factor in a trade fair presentation. But again and again I discovered that even the very best of stands did not guarantee success at all. I gradually came to realise that an excel- lent stand with a poor crew is far worse than a mediocre stand with an excellent crew. That ́s where my specialisation originated. Now I focus exclusively on training sales personnel for trade fairs.”

The human factor

Everything Leenhouts does revolves around what might be summed up as the human factor. “Selling is not a job”, he says. “It has to
do with your attitude to people, yourself, your product. It begins with conviction, enthusiasm. If you don ́t have that, you can ́t sell a thing. Fortunately, most exporters don ́t lack anything there, or they wouldn ́t be going to a trade fair. I ́m often impressed by the intrinsic motivation I encounter among entrepreneurs in develop- ing countries. There ́s a certain urgency about their approach that
is rare in Europe. What they do lack sometimes is self-confidence. Many of them approach European markets and trade fairs with a certain amount of awe. There ́s nothing wrong with healthy respect for a challenge – but if you let it eat away your self-confidence, your business will suffer. And it needn ́t, because on the whole their propositions are perfectly sound – they wouldn ́t be selected by the CBI for export training otherwise. They have so much to be proud of. My job, if you strip it down to the basics, is to make them aware of that and to show them how they can communicate it effectively so as to attract potential customers, rather than scaring them away by being too introverted, too humble or too anything.”

Landing the leads

In his training sessions, Leenhouts goes through the whole pre-to- post trade fair trajectory, with a constant emphasis on the role of the people landing the leads. Apart from instructing trainees on how to define clear, relevant exhibitions targets, he uses a blend of theory and practice, including role plays, to familiarise them with the intri- cacies of outward appearance, presentation techniques and – the linking pin between exhibiting and selling – the actual approaching of new visitors. “The charm of trade fairs is that they are very direct”, he says. “You ́re there because you want to sell something; the other guy is there because he wants to buy something. Your basic ques- tion to each other is, ́Can we do business? ́ But due to cultural and psychological complexities we have to build some trust before the question can be answered, or even asked. In some cultures the issue is dressed up so elaborately that it takes a long time to get anywhere at all. Fortunately in Europe, and particularly in the Netherlands, we have a fairly straightforward approach to business. A buyer is gener- ally quite prepared to give you some trust, provided you come across as enthusiastic, understanding and transparent.”

́PINO catchers ́

Those three passwords are often undervalued by exporters – par- ticularly the first one, enthusiasm. Says Leenhouts, “The ability to establish a basic relationship of interest and trust within those few seconds that a visitor needs to glance at your exhibition is vital. It ́s a matter of personal charm, ease, poise.” Obviously – though to many exhibitors it does not seem obvious at all – that ability is not equally distributed among human beings. “Some people have it, some don ́t. Some can develop it, some can ́t.”

“The point is that you do need it if you want to get the most out
of every visitor that comes near your stand. So if you don ́t have it yourself, find someone in your company who does. It doesn ́t mat- ter whether he – or she – has a lot of product knowledge. Her job
is merely to establish contact, to capture the interest of the visitor. After that she can easily and quite naturally pass the contact on to
a colleague for a more in-depth exchange. I came across a hi-tech company that deployed what they called PINO-catchers: specialised sales people whose only job during the entire fair was to be around the stand to ́catch ́ PINOs: Potential Interesting New Objects. It worked.”

Leenhouts encourages businesses who cannot find naturally gifted PINO-catchers among their own staff either to hire them for the duration of the fair or to use gimmicks and give-aways for the same purpose. “Selling is not a dirty word, particularly at a trade fair. Once you realise that, you ́re half way to establishing the quantity and quality of leads that will really boost your business.”