Tradeshow and Exhibit Thoughtleaders
"The goal of education is the advancement of knowledge
and the dissemination of truth."

John F. Kennedy

Meet our Thoughtleaders: 
An Interview with
David Hardbarger
by Gordon Nary



Return to David's Webpage

You first became involved with the trade how industry as a designer at Robert Jensen Associates in 1970.  What have been major changes in trade shows in the past 46 years.  


46 years. Wow. Really?  What has changed, and what has not changed, are interesting. The basic format of shows remains the same. Shows are laid out in the same grid pattern now as they were from the beginning.  Show rules that dictate basic exhibit configuration and sight lines have not evolved.  A consequence of that is a kind of timeless tradeshow familiarity.

In essence shows have changed though, because they have proliferated. There are a lot more shows than there were in 1970.  And many more shows today are vertically integrated towards a very specific target audience.   

The major shows have grown in square footage, and attendance, to numbers beyond what would have seemed plausible 45 years ago.  The first CES show in 1967 utilized 100,000 square feet, which probably felt colossal to attendees at the time, and had 300 exhibitors.  In 2016 CES filled 2.23 million square feet and had 3,600 exhibitors. 40,000 people attended CES in 1972, compared to nearly 177,000 in 2016.

The evolution of trade show exhibits has been uneven.  Beginning in the early ‘80s and through the early ‘90s many exhibitors were willing to take bigger risks with design than they are today.  And they were willing to pay what was required to achieve an outstanding result.  That was a good decade for designers and fabricators.  A business recession put a damper on the fun until the dot com boom revved up business again for a few years; which were unfortunately followed by the dot com bust and a sudden end to the excitement.

Clients are more risk adverse now than they were during that earlier period, and design has had to ratchet back to account for that.  And in my opinion, exhibit design/construction budgets are tighter than they have ever been during a period of economic growth. But, in defense of clients, for the most part they are participating in far more shows than they did twenty years ago. Spending on any particular show has to fall in line or the entire year’s budget will come unraveled.   

Over the past 25 years fabrication materials and technique have greatly impacted exhibit design, and that has accelerated over the past 10 years.  The proliferation of exhibit systems, and of digitally printed graphics, on fabric and on hard substrates, has had a profound effect. And shapes can be created with tension fabric structures that were un-imaginable in the not so distant past.

Of course technology, especially related to media, plays an ever bigger roll, and is continuing to gain momentum.  Back in the day a big deal was an AV display with three slide projectors and a lap dissolve. Now high definition images are projected on complex shapes. Giant touch screens contain layers of product information.  The surface is just being scratched in this area.  

Sorry to be so long-winded but 46 years is a long time.

Gordon: What impact have recent security risks had on the planning of tradeshows?  


A concern is that the emphasis on security for trade shows, and for other large public gatherings, tends to ebb and flow relative to recent events.  A few days after 9-11, I attended a show at one of the major convention centers.  The show opening was delayed while bomb sniffing dogs scoured the show floor.  A short time later, at my next show, there were no bomb sniffing dogs.  The perceived threat had lessened with time. The actual threat, of course, was the same as it had been for years.  The threat, by its nature, is sporadic, but it is real, and show organizers need to account for it all of the time.

Large public events are being successfully held with high levels of security, and at the same time are not creating significant inconvenience for attendees. So we know this can be done. 

But more broadly speaking, shows will suffer if something happens to cause large numbers of exhibitors or attendees to fear traveling.  So far, despite attacks on airports in Brussels and Istanbul, this has not happened.   

Gordon: In your opinion, could security challenges have an impact on virtual tradeshows?  

I don’t believe that security challenges around virtual trade shows are any greater than they are for more typical internet based activities. And security probably isn’t a top of mind concern of either virtual tradeshow exhibitors or attendees.  That said, providing cybersecurity for any online endeavor is growing in both difficulty and importance.  There could be security issues regarding future virtual shows, but I will be surprised if security concerns reach a level such that they impact the future growth of the medium.  
Gordon: Based on your experience, what are some of the greatest challenges to effective lead follow up?  


My observations are that most exhibiting companies have two major obstacles to effective lead follow up.  The first is that exhibitors are often not sufficiently organized around qualifying, distributing and following up on leads quickly.  The second results from the typical distrust that exists between marketing and sales in many organizations.  To elaborate on the second: Many exhibiting companies are focused on generating as many leads, or contacts really, as possible.  The goal is quantity over quality. These contacts are forwarded to sales as potential leads. Sales people quickly become skeptical, having received a preponderance of unqualified leads, and resist following up.

Both obstacles to lead follow up can be overcome with better planning and greater effort. Exhibitors have to organize so that they can quickly recognize good leads and treat them with real urgency.  And they need to focus their programs so that they generate quality leads, and are not obsessed with quantity.   

Gordon: How do you evaluate the face-to-face marketing and networking skills of new clients of  David Hardbarger Associates;?  

The evaluation happens through questioning and observation.  Most of my client contacts are from the marketing side and are not directly involved in face to face sales.  Booth staffing varies from show to show, so it requires frequent monitoring.  An accurate assessment of staffing capability only comes from show site observation.  

Gordon: What are some of the social media tools and skills that you recommend be included in pre-show, during show and post show communications?  


Technology in general and social media in particular are major forces that will help propel trade shows into a positive future.  Social media tools allow show organizers, and exhibitors, to reach and influence attendees before, during, and after shows.  Attendees are using technology to pre-plan their activities and to navigate their way through large, crowed exhibit halls.

I live and work in the San Francisco Bay Area, so clients are extremely tech savvy.  They look for guidance regarding what to use social media for, but given a direction to head in, they don’t need advice as to how to proceed.  Obviously we are in an era where new social media tools crop up regularly.  Clients, right now, tend to error on the side of using all of the most popular ones.  This is a bit cumbersome, but I suppose that it will settle out over time.

Regarding pre-show and post show; I feel that good old email works well, and it can be combined with other social media.  Communications during shows is becoming increasingly important. I like to see clients make creative use of social media by inventing ways to attract targeted individuals to their exhibits on multiple days. 

Gordon: How do you recommend clients evaluate exhibiting at a show in which they have not exhibited before?


This is complicated because there are so many variables.  For example, earlier we were discussing cybersecurity. The trade show industry has benefited from a proliferation of cybersecurity shows. If your company’s product is cybersecurity oriented, a good case could be made for exhibiting in all of them.  That wouldn’t be practical, so each show would be evaluated on its merits. They are all related shows so there wouldn’t necessarily be any bad choices.  

Conversely, auto companies are increasingly exhibiting in technology shows, with the caveat that modern cars contain a great deal of technology. Attendees might make the leap to spending their time kicking tires at a tech show, so ok. But there is technology in a modern washing machine to.  So does a washing machine manufacturer exhibit in tech show? 

Generally speaking my advice is that if a preponderance of attendees at a particular show are engaged in a profession that has a genuine interest in your product, consider exhibiting. But, if the show’s primary focus is on a range of products or services that are not directly related to yours, be skeptical.   

Gordon: What recommendations do you give clients on giveaways?


When clients insist on using giveaways, I advise that they present them to attendees as a remembrance of a visit, and as a token of appreciation: But to never present them as a reward for visiting their exhibit.

I have observed good guerilla marketing scenarios that were based on giveaways, and would not discourage their use in that way if the client is totally committed.  But that type of scenario requires a great idea, careful planning, and a coordinated effort.  They are difficult to pull off and can fail miserably. 

I encourage clients to carefully identify their target audience, and to focus on bringing those individuals into their exhibit. And conversely, to not squander valuable resources by attracting people, with giveaways, who are not potential customers.

Gordon: Thank y0u for a great interview and your valuable insights into the tradeshow and exhibit market..