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Trade shows are dead. Long live the trade show.

Some 15 years ago and fresh out of college, I worked for a small, non-profit organization of cancer doctors. During my first few months on the job, I was sent to Anaheim, CA to man a booth at the American Association of Cancer Research (AACR) Annual Meeting where there would be more than 20,000 attendees on hand.

And I’ll never forget it.

We were definitely a small fish swimming in a much-too-large pond. Our lowly one-person setup placed on the outskirts of the massive exhibit hall was dwarfed by the sea of big pharma companies and their glitzy, over-the-top productions. Even in the infancy of my career, I immediately knew it wasn’t the right scene for us.

We spent thousands of dollars, and our organization got very little out of the experience. Though I did manage to give away my fair share of pens.

My tale isn’t unique. Many companies I’ve come to know have had similar experiences of getting caught up in the hype of a “can’t-miss” trade show, only to see it fail to live up to expectations.

15 years ago, there were many mega-shows just bursting at the seams with attendees and exhibitors alike. To not attend a high-profile show meant you wouldn’t be seen as a “player” in the industry. And to make any impact at a mega-show often meant spending big – in planning, dollars and resources.

Fast-forward to today, and the landscape has changed. Small and mid-sized businesses have become savvier in understanding mega-shows often don’t move the needle in driving new business. It’s harder to stand out, make lasting impressions and build fruitful relationships.

Instead, today’s progressive organizations are finding that true value is found more readily at regionalized B2B events. There, organizations are finding a much greater ROI where they can not only exhibit, but they can often become an active part of the event itself – redirecting dollars into event sponsorships, and sometimes even taking up positions as invited speakers or panelists.

The trick is finding the events where your budget and message can make the biggest impact.

Often times, it can be more cost-effective to spend the first year simply scouting a trade show and working the room as a registered attendee. With some initial “reconnaissance networking,” you can quickly get a feel for the general audience and how receptive they may be to your organization. By not investing too heavily the first time through, you also allow more time to size up any industry competition, investigate marketing/business opportunities and lay the groundwork for future partnerships.

So, when it comes to trade shows, remember when you shrink the pond, the fish start looking a lot bigger.

“Tradeshow Floor Greenbuild 2010” flickr photo by Charles & Hudson shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license