The SNEWS View: Industry trade show rules to live by

After our last view on trade show espionage, the SNEWS team felt it would be useful to put together a few suggested rules to live by to help guide behavior and conduct when attending trade shows – either as a retailer, exhibitor, guest, media or other designation.
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In our Feb. 12, 2010, SNEWS® View, “Photos, espionage and more at our industry trade shows” (click here to read), we started a discussion about trade show ethics that attracted a lot of lively and passionate comments. There were many suggestions offered by SNEWS readers about what should be done to cut down on the alleged stealing of company ideas at shows and to restore a level of trust many of us who attend trade shows would like to feel is the norm, not the exception.

First, let’s dispel the myth that a trade show is a public venue where photography and potential copying of products is expected: A trade show that requires registration and is operated by a private entity, be it a for-profit company such as Nielsen or a non-profit one such as SIA, is a private, invitation-only event. It is not public. And, as a result, there is an expectation that what goes on at the event is also not public, but more like a private party.

To inject a dose of reality, however, keeping anything secret or guarded at any such event is a futile endeavor, thanks to the Internet and the prevalence of mobile phones with photo and video capability. For some reason, the digital age has inspired a feeling of entitlement: If you have a camera and you see a product you like, it is your digital-age-granted right to take a photo of it and share that with anyone, even if the owner of that product may not want you to take a photo of it, let alone share it.

Most trade shows we attend already have rules and regulations for show attendees, and most forbid cameras, photography and video equipment unless you are a credentialed media representative. Typically, the no-photography and no-video rule is printed on the badge and on registration materials, as well as being posted on signs, but it appears few attendees pay much attention to them. Even if every attendee read the no-photo policy, how on earth does one enforce such a rule and what good is a rule if it is, essentially, unenforceable?

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Increased show security is one answer, but any increase in show security to the level that might be meaningful on a trade show floor has an associated increase in trade show costs attached to it. In this economic environment, most exhibitors we speak with seem more concerned with lowering costs, not raising them. Higher booth walls and building booth castles to keep out the uninvited is another approach, but are we ready to give up the welcoming openness and feeling of light we now enjoy simply to enter a dark age of trade show canyons? We have seen this at the ispo show in Germany and it’s not inviting or pleasant.

Nevertheless, continuing with the status quo is not acceptable either. With that in mind and knowing there are an increasing number of idiots, clueless wonders, unethical miscreants and folks who are at times simply innocent offenders who attend trade shows, we felt it would be useful to put together a few suggested rules to live by to help guide behavior and conduct when attending trade shows – either as a retailer, exhibitor, guest, media or other designation.

For exhibitors:

1.You realize that, while you are attending a private event, it is one being held on an open stage with an open microphone. Anything you say that can be overheard and anything you show that can be photographed may be shared with others, either by photograph, video recording, recording or simple word of mouth. You acknowledge that the only way to ensure secrecy and protection for those ideas, products and designs you do not wish to become public is by keeping them locked up and behind closed walls and doors and shared only with those you trust.

2.You agree that you will only register those attending the trade show who actually work as an employee of your company and you acknowledge that the common practice of extending registrations to friends and acquaintances -- or those who work for other companies even who are not exhibiting -- creates an environment where enforcing trade show rules becomes much more difficult.

3.Even though the show has security, it may not be adequate to ensure the protection of your products and your ideas to the level you desire. You acknowledge that the only way to fully ensure your products are protected outside of show hours is to:

a.Hire a private security guard to sit in your booth from show close until show opening.

b.Lock your products, design ideas and prototypes behind closed doors or inside secure boxes in your booth.

c.Not bring any product or prototype to a trade show or leave it at the booth if you feel it cannot be secured.

4.You agree that just because you are exhibiting at a trade show, you do not have the right to walk into another company’s booth at all without first receiving an invitation and being granted permission. It’s always best to ask and, once you walk in, to be extremely polite and unassuming. (Standing in the aisles with your team and taking notes from there isn’t a good alternative.)

For exhibiting textile suppliers:

1.You agree you do not have the right just to walk into a brand’s booth and begin dissecting a product simply because “another brand asked you to look at the fabrics and figure out what they are and how the brand could get you to create a fabric that achieved the same look/feel/effect.” Or something like that. Nope, not kosher.

For show attendees of any genre (retailer, guest, media, exhibitor, etc.):

1.You will never take photographs of any exhibitor’s product or design without first asking permission. You also acknowledge that just because you have a mobile phone and a Facebook or Twitter account, you do not have blanket permission to share another’s products or ideas no matter how innocent or well-meaning you believe your actions are.

2.You acknowledge that if you are caught taking photographs in a booth without permission, a photo of you and your badge may be taken and forwarded directly to the trade show organizers who have agreed they will use the photo as evidence in potential disciplinary action. That action could include your immediate removal from the trade show and, if you are a member of another exhibiting company, the expulsion of the exhibiting company you work for as well as subsequent banning from future attendance at the trade show or even any other show by the same organizer.

For non-exhibiting manufacturers:

1.You will always keep in mind that being granted entry with this designation is special, and you should not become a traveling exhibitor using the aisles as your personal booth, the food court as your personal meeting room, or your friend’s booth as a personal demonstration area. No rolling duffels full of samples. No briefcases full of invites to your private room with product in a neighboring hotel. No unfurling catalogs in aisles and cafes to take orders and have meetings. Meet, greet, hand out business cards, then follow-up after the show to honor the entry you were granted.

For trade show organizers:

1.You agree to devise a system that facilitates the immediate reporting of violations of any of these rules and results in appropriate action being taken against the violators – both the individuals and the companies.

2.You agree that you will clearly publish the rules and guidelines governing trade show attendance and require all trade show attendees to sign and acknowledge they have read these and agreed to them.

Finally, let’s leave everyone with this thought:

While the Golden Rule -- “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” or, however, you word it based on your belief system -- used to be so easy to apply, it is no longer such an easy thing. In part, that’s because so many individuals who have been raised for a significant portion of their lives in the digital age see nothing wrong with taking and sharing photographs of anyone and anything at anytime for any reason.

Therefore, to help guide actions and, hopefully, to prevent reactions in our trade show digital environment, here is a suggestion for a modification to the Rule for all to live by: “Ask others before doing to ensure what you are doing unto them is acceptable.” Then, maybe, we can all just get along.

Got comments? Rules of your own to suggest? Thoughts or observations? Dive into the Chat below to keep the conversation going.

--Michael Hodgson with Therese Iknoian

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