The Obama Administration’s National Export Initiative is hard at work, incentivizing businesses of all sizes to try their luck in the international arena. Government programs nowadays offer subsidized translation of marketing and technical documents, subsidized export classes offered through the Small Business Administration, and a generous contribution to the cost of renting a booth at international trade shows.
As a result, more and more small to mid-size U.S. companies are now considering the idea of participating in an international trade show. As an international business consultant, this is something that pleases me immensely; however, it must be pointed out that gaining commercial traction at an international trade show requires some careful planning, some preparation, and a great dose of commitment.
Unfortunately, my recent interactions with future exporters seem to have been more inspired from the mythical tradition of throwing spaghetti against the wall to see what will stick rather than the tedious planning any company interested in expanding internationally should undertake.
Perhaps partly because of the government incentives, companies of all sizes are looking at trade shows as an opportunity to peek into a market instead of considering it the first step they take to develop a commercial presence in a foreign country. They have it all backward.
International business is in many ways just like dating: it’s all about confidence and commitment, and you need to bring both along on your trip. Attending an international trade show feeling wishy-washy makes people run away from you. Knowing you belong in that country because you’ve done your homework and have strategically concluded that there is a place for you here will be magnetic.
Here are ten steps that will maximize your return on each international trade show you attend as an exhibitor:
1) Do some market research: Find out if your product/service might be in demand in the host country. Research your local and international competitors. Find out who in your field already has a local presence. If your product is viable in a foreign market, seek out some trade shows.
2) Chose your tradeshow carefully: Not all tradeshows are created equally. Find out who your competition is in a foreign country like Germany and Canada and check out what type of tradeshows your competitors will attend in the next 12 months. (Most companies will list the international tradeshows where you can find them on their website.) If they’re going, you might be onto something…
3) Gather data about the show: Once you select a couple of shows, study their demographics. Do they attract decision makers, marketing people, buyers? What type of companies exhibit there? Big multinationals with local presence, or a mix where your smaller outfit may have a voice? For this, request last year’s roaster from the organizers and then call on some U.S. exhibitors that are in a different but related industries from yours and ask pointed questions. Do this with at least six past exhibitors to see if their impressions of the show create a sort of consensus.
4) Walk the tradeshow as a visitor first: This will allow you to have a feel for the type of people the show attracts, the type of exhibitors, and what addition you must consider to fit in the culture. Stop by people’s booths (especially your competitors’) and ask them where they will be exhibiting next. Be curious, look at the most popular booth, and take notes (and pictures) on what makes those booths popular in that culture.
5) Invest in good cross-cultural training: Once you know where you’re going, invest in some professional cultural competency training and best international business practices. Knowing how to tweak your sales approach to fit the cultural expectations of the host country will do wonders for your company. If you have access to native speakers of the host country within your company, make them man the booth. Potential clients do notice when your company has already invested in their country by displaying the right cultural know-how; it shows a silent but powerful commitment to their country.
6) Have your material translated: Website, flyers, business cards. Your marketing material must fit the cultural traits and perhaps include your title, level of education, country code and area code. It must be removed of colors that might be considered offensive or numbers that must be inauspicious. Many cultures are superstitious; buyers may not want to touch your material if it represents a bad omen in their own culture.
7) Bring your own interpreter: If you don’t have native speakers on board, invest in hiring an interpreter who is also business savvy in the host country. Any local translation company should be able to help you localize an in-country interpreter. Then take the time to interact via Skype to train him/her about your product.
8) Make your booth culturally fit: In countries where hospitality is important, create a pleasant place to sit where tea/coffee/pastries are offered. Doing business outside the U.S.A. starts with a feeling of shared comfort and values.
9) Make appointments ahead of time: Contact the customers you’re targeting in the host country. Let them know you will be attending the tradeshow and offer them free passes to the show.
10) Have a flexible schedule: If dinner with your new contacts goes well, do your best to get invited to their plant/office while in their country. The more time you manage to spend with your potential customers, the closer you are getting to your commercial goal.
Remember: international business is a long-term investment and it is entirely relying on relationships. For most companies it will take many trips and many trade shows to build a presence in a foreign country. Plan adequately.
© 2012 by Valérie Berset-Price