21 Tips for Getting the Most out of Photography Conventions and Trade Shows

21 Tips for Getting the Most out of Photography Conventions and Trade Shows

21 Tips for Getting the Most out of Photography Conventions and Trade Shows with Skip Cohen

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It’s suddenly the new year, which means trade show season is about to kick off. Most of you will make it to at least one convention or conference between now and the end of April. Sadly, many of you will also waste time and money from the minute you walk into the convention hall to the time you get home.

This isn’t a new topic for me to share. Having spent over 35 years attending conventions, both as consumer and exhibitor, I’ve learned the return on your investment is only as good as the planning you put in before you start the trip.

It’s time to put together a complete recipe for success at every conference you attend.

  1. Why are you attending?
    Before you commit to any convention, think through why you want to go. “To thine own self be true” should be your mantra. Think about where you need the most help. Think through your goals for 2017—what do you need to achieve them?
  1. What companies are you working with?
    Make a list of every manufacturer and vendor whose equipment or services you use. No matter what role they play in your business, put them on the list.
  1. Who’s exhibiting?
    Every company and association that hosts a convention publishes the exhibitor list online well in advance. Review the list and isolate those companies whose products/services you use. They’re a must-see at any trade show. This isn’t about just knowing their product line, but about building your network. At some point, everybody has a crisis. A great network is key to getting the help you need as quickly as possible. Every product and service you use should be represented by at least one contact name of somebody you’ve met.
  1. Need new equipment?
    If you’re in need of specific equipment, know your financial strength before you walk into the show. What’s your budget for 2017? I’m a huge fan of renting and leasing equipment. It doesn’t tie up your cash flow, and you get to use somebody else’s assets without depleting yours.
  1. How’s your skillset?
    Every conference offers an extensive list of programs, but people often flock to the most popular speakers simply because they’re entertaining. Once again, it’s about being true to yourself. Think through what you’re missing in your skillset. What techniques do you need help with? The complete platform of speakers/classes is available online. Review the list and pick programs with topics in which you need the most help. And always attend at least two programs completely out of your comfort zone.
  1. Exhibitor activities
    As you review the exhibitor list, check out in-booth programming. Many exhibitors have guest speakers presenting in their booth on the trade show floor. At a convention last year, Profoto had 22 speakers over a three-day period. In-booth mini-workshops allow you to meet industry icons face to face.
  1. Pre- and post-show events
    As many of the conferences have grown, so has the availability of excellent education. Look for special events going on before or after the convention. The key is to get the most bang for your buck, and if you’re already on the road, why not expand your education with another day or two of education? ShutterFest, for one, offers “Extreme,” which is an intense hands-on experience taking place after the general conference.
  1. Schedule meetings
    If there is somebody you want to meet with at a convention, set it up in advance. There are few things more hectic than a busy trade show. You’ll only be disappointed if you try to schedule a meeting with someone you bump into at a conference.
  2. Print a postcard
    There’s nothing worse than working a busy trade show and having a photographer put his iPad in your face and start showing you his portfolio. It’s not a problem if it’s a scheduled meeting, but this sort of “cold call” is the wrong way to go. Instead, print up a postcard-size piece showing three to five of your very best images on one side, and your contact information on the other. I’ve always liked oversized cards. While they’re more expensive, you’re not printing thousands of them. Also, don’t forget your business cards.
  1. Don’t be a storm trooper
    Something strange happens with too many of you in the chaos and excitement of a convention: You forget your most basic manners. If you see a person you’d like to talk to but they’re already in a conversation with somebody else, wait your turn. When you get their attention, ask if it’s a good time to talk. Be willing to come back later or call them after the convention.
  1. Breakfast, lunch and dinner
    Never eat alone. Meals are the perfect time to network. The social side of a convention is incredibly productive, but not if you’re only spending time alone or with people you already know. Find a balance between friends and potential associates.
  1. Never miss the bell
    You snooze, you lose. There are few things as fun as going out with friends and barhopping in a convention city. But you’re at the show for a reason, and if you need to sleep in late the following morning, your evening out with friends might become the most expensive investment you make in the show, especially if you miss appointments or presentations.
  1. Reservations
    If you’re attending a larger convention, make a few dinner reservations in advance. It’s no fun when you’ve worked to get people together for dinner and can’t find a place to eat within a decent timeframe.
  1. Walking the trade show
    Start in one corner and work every aisle. Technology changes so fast. You never know what new companies and products you might find. You don’t need to stop at every booth. Just keep your eyes and ears open for products and services that might help you build a stronger business.
  1. Meeting the icons
    My buddy Brian Malloy wrote this in a guest post about conventions a few years ago: “Keep an eye open for your heroes, and don’t be afraid to introduce yourself to them. I have met photographers whose work I have admired for years, and finally got the chance to chat with them and thank them for inspiring me.”
  1. Evaluate each day
    At the end of each day, look over the literature you picked up at the show. Write down who you met that day. List anything you promised somebody you’d mail to them when you get back, return phone calls, etc. This is also the perfect time to look at your progress on your hit list of companies and people you wanted to meet.
  1. Follow-up
    When you have been lucky enough to get time with somebody, especially an exhibitor, send them a thank-you note when you get home. Yep, a good old-fashioned thank-you note. It’s even better if you use customized stationery with one of your images on it.
  1. Photographs
    Take a decent camera. I know everybody has a cellphone, but you just might find something here and there that deserves better. My camera of choice is the LUMIX FZ300 with a 25–600 zoom, perfect for anything that comes along. Whatever you travel with, just make sure you can get great images suitable for publishing or sharing later.
  1. Publicity shots
    Take a few shots of you interacting with other photographers and vendors. Good images like this are perfect for publicity releases after the convention. If you meet with a new album company, get a shot of you and the vendor that you can use later in a press release announcing the new products to your clients.
  1. Network
    The greatest benefit of any convention is expanding your network. At every program you attend, talk with people around you. Introduce yourself, exchange business cards and discuss why you’re at the convention. Afterward, follow up with people you hit it off with, and keep in touch.
  1. Comfort
    I made a mistake 20 years ago at Photokina in Germany, where I wore a brand-new pair of loafers. I was limping after just two hours. Wear comfortable shoes. Don’t worry about making a fashion statement. You’re going to be on your feet all day. Stay hydrated. Pick up a bottle of water each morning on your way out of the hotel.

Here’s the bottom line, the reason I’m emphatic about planning every convention trip: Time is your most valuable commodity. You’ll never have enough of it. Attend every possible convention, conference and workshop you can. Plan your experience in advance, and then evaluate each one when you’re home.

Want more information on this article? Get access to video content and additional supporting images. Launch the January issue of the magazine by logging in or signing up for a free account by clicking here. Shutter Magazine is the industry’s leading professional photography magazine.

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