Visiting German Trade Shows: Homework you Should not Skip

German trade shows are the place to be if you want to learn about the latest technologies, update yourself on international market trends, and meet potential business partners from all over the world. According to the Association of the German Trade Fair Industry (AUMA), around two-thirds of the world’s leading trade fairs take place in Germany. Every year, around 150 international trade fairs and exhibitions are hosted in the very heart of Europe, attended by 180,000 exhibitors and around 10 million visitors. Many return year after year, while for others it is the first time.

If you contemplate visiting one of the upcoming shows, or in case you are just about to embark a plane to Germany, the following thoughts might come in useful:

Be Clear About what you want to Achieve

To have a rewarding trade show experience, it is crucial to have clarity as to what you want to achieve during the visit—greater awareness, identify new trends, buy something, sell something, network, etc. Take some time and think about what it is you want to achieve with your (next) trade fair visit.

Example 1: What are the Latest German Technologies?

In the West, the owl is commonly considered a wise, silent and solitary bird of prey.
In the West, the owl is commonly considered a wise, silent and solitary bird of prey. A good example for staying focussed.

Go through the exhibitor database in advance and prepare a list of companies that you would like to visit (and intentionally leave out the others). You will rarely find a fair that is not offering some online database where you can, at the very least, filter the exhibitors by country (however, with international exhibitors, the selection process can be misleading; e.g., if a company from the UAE registers their booth through their UK office).

Example 2: Learn About Trends and Expand your International Network

If you are especially fond of learning about new trends and developments, check out the press releases published in the exhibitor database, and visit those with the most interesting announcements.

Another good opportunity to get additional impetus and background information is the trade fair’s supporting programme; very often, you will find forums, special shows, live presentations, or panel discussions. Check out the offerings in advance and plan your other meetings accordingly. Sometimes, a conference is also held within trade show hours as a special event (attending this event requires a separate ticket), bringing together suppliers, users, and researchers. For networking, it is also worth looking for after-work events that sometimes conclude the day’s programme.

Example 3: Gather Information

Keep in mind that exhibitors expect to get a return on their trade fair investment; for them, acquisition of new customers is typically the top priority, followed by taking care of their existing contacts. So, if you do not plan to buy from them, remember to not make extensive demands on their time; understand that they would also like to talk to potential buyers.

Example 4: Acquire Customers / win Business Partners

If your main objective is to acquire customers or win business partners, do not expect that you will conquer the market in a single visit. As the Managing Director of a major trade association once told me: “Do not expect wonders through one visit or one participation at the exhibition. It would take you three or four participations to develop contact with the German customers.”

Prepare well and Arrive Relaxed

Now it not the time to rest. Prepare well and arrive relaxed.
Now is not a good time to rest, however if you prepare well, you will later feel more relaxed.

For one Indian gentleman living in Canada, the greatest challenges when visiting fairs in Germany are finding a hotel close to the venue and getting tasty food at the show. If you need plenty of sleep and don’t like using crowded trains and buses, make your arrangements early and be ready to pay a fat premium for your accommodation.

Make sure you get Access to the Show

In most cases, visitors need to pay an entrance fee, unless they have a voucher provided, for instance, by one of the exhibitors. A day pass can easily cost 30–80 Euros (and even several hundred Euros for some shows). If you register online, you very often get a discount (while also saving time queuing in front of the box office). Sometimes, organisers promote early bird offers; some will give you the ticket in exchange for receiving your personal data—your address, phone number, occupation, etc.

Many shows limit entrance to trade visitors only. In most cases, you don’t have to prove that you are a relevant visitor, but if, for example, you want to attend the world’s largest trade show for the sports business, ISPO MUNICH, you need written proof of a business relationship with one of the exhibitors or an invitation issued by one of them to enter the halls. Similarly, Spielwarenmesse® strictly limits access to the fairground to people who can prove they are professionally dealing with toys. It’s always advisable to check out the event websites in advance.

If you want to leave the premises to have a quick bite outside the fairground, make sure you’ll be granted re-entry before leaving.

Food: Scarcity in the Land of Plenty

Squirrels collect and store nuts so they'll have food to last through winter. Trade show visitors prepare well to make the most of their visit. Some might even want to bring some food.
Squirrels collect and store nuts so they’ll have food to last through winter. Trade show visitors prepare well to make the most of their visit. Some might even want to bring some food.

If you cannot operate without a proper, tasty, yummy, spicy lunch, the bad news is…you won’t survive. Better stay home or—as a last resort—bring your stock of chutney or chilli sauce to drown whatever you get at the fair. If you are vegan, very often you will have the choice between trying to explain the concept to the staff at the snack counters (with a crowd of hungry, impatient people at your back) and hoping that they have at least a tomato and lettuce leaf left for you…or nothing. According to my superficial knowledge in that area, buns and pretzels very often contain eggs or other animal products, so don’t fall for that well-meant offer; better look out for some fruit and nuts.

If you need to find a prayer room, or fancy buying a five-foot tall Philodendron, or even a 65-inch Ultra HD Smart OLED TV at the show, that’s probably much easier than not having to compromise on food.

Adjust to the Trade Show Rhythm of Time

Prepare and make a list of those you need to see and allow plenty of time. Better show up early on the first day since often stand staff is “hungrier” then. Keep in mind that if a fair lasts for three days, typically the second day is the most frequented. If the show is from Tuesday to Friday, expect Wednesday and Thursday to be very busy. Friday, exhibitors might be more casual and relaxed, and you shouldn’t be surprised if some start packing and leaving Friday early afternoon—a very bad habit indeed! If you visit Frankfurter Buchmesse, try to wrap up your work on Friday afternoon—on Saturday and Sunday, the show is flooded with private visitors.

Don’t leave applying for your visa to the last minute; remember that the trade fair organiser will also need time to issue your invitation letter or any other needed document; make sure you keep yourself informed regarding these requirements.

About your Briefcase: “Take it Easy!”

When packing your briefcase, remember to carry only the bare necessities; typically, it should hold your entry ticket, business cards, notepad and pen, a small bottle which you can refill with water from the tap if you like (tap water is superb in most German cities), maybe headache pills, blister plaster, and last but not least, your paper and / or digital battle plan. Also, don’t forget that, depending on where you got your device from, you will need a plug adapter to charge your phone or laptop.

Even if restaurants and the on-site supermarkets accept credit cards, having at least 20 Euros in your pocket for minor expenses will help.

Use Official Tools and Applications

Online Exhibitor Directories

Diligently prepare your visit and find out about the shortest routes.
Diligently prepare your visit and find out about the shortest routes.

Organisers constantly improve the tools they make available to the visitors; in most cases, you will find an extensive online exhibitor list along with detailed search criteria that reflect the industry as well as the search parameters that a visitor might use.

Exhibitors can very often also upload presentations, product highlight descriptions, and press releases; make use of this information. Sometimes, you can download the list of exhibitors as an Excel, .csv, or PDF file; this can be quite helpful if you wish to perform tasks like collating the data with which companies are already logged in your CRM.

Apps and Matchmaking Tools

Very often, trade show apps for mobile devices are offered; see if you can synchronise the favourites that you have highlighted in the exhibitor list with the mobile application. See if there is also some “matchmaking tool” that will help you connect not only with exhibitors but also other visitors.

Hall Plans and Print Catalogues

No matter how well prepared I am when I arrive at a show, I always grab a hall plan or one of the handy trade show guides, offered for free at the entrance, for quick reference. If you cannot find the print media available, ask for it at one of the information counters that you will usually find in the halls.

Sometimes, the organisers (still) sell comprehensive trade show catalogues, or give them away for free. By comprehensive, I mean 1,000 pages and more. I don’t say that taking this heavy item back home is unnecessary (maybe your boss will appreciate the effort), but at least try to not burden yourself with the book when you enter the show; many should still be available in the evening.

(Try to) Arrange for Meetings

You should book your appointments in time. What “in time” means very much depends on the industry and the people you want to talk to.

Use all Channels Available and Present Yourself Properly

When arranging your meetings, consider using all relevant channels such as the telephone, email, matchmaking tools (as mentioned above), and social media. Make sure people (the exhibitors and other trade show participants) can research you and your enterprise to double-check who is contacting them. Be present and active on LinkedIn and XING; publish a professional portrait picture—sunglasses and scanned passport pictures are taboo! Don’t forget to keep your website up-to-date.

Most probably, you will use email to suggest a meeting to prospective clients and business contacts; make your written communication personal and individual. Try to research the person in charge and address him or her directly (no “Dear Sir / Madam” or, even worse, “Dear Sir”). Always mention the purpose of your attempt to get in touch—what is the intended result of a meeting? Try to be very clear and to the point in your communication. Unless you know the person, write in a matter-of-fact, formal style (not flowery and prose-y). Submit flawless sales collaterals that are well structured; do not attach 8 MB presentations or 20 product pictures.

Present yourself properly and show self-confidence.
Present yourself properly and show self-confidence.

Give your email a meaningful subject line. “Introduction” is not telling enough; “Meeting at sps ipc drives 2018” is only slightly better. What about “Meeting request for bauma 2019: xyz parts by Mining-Star Vietnam” or “IFAT: Seeking waste management for energy park in Russia”? Put the most important keywords at the beginning of the subject line, since you don’t know how many characters will be displayed in the preview of the recipient’s e-mail programme.

It never leaves a good impression if one can see that a lot of copy and pasting has been done. When you compile your email by recycling old messages, first copy the text fragments into a .txt file and from there, transfer the result into your mail programme, so that only one font is used. Avoid exclamation marks and smileys; place emphasis on orthography and punctuation.

Keep it Short and don’t Swagger

When you give someone a call, try to explain who you are very briefly (in the sense, what your company is offering that you assume your contact might need). “This is Robin! I am calling from Dubai!” is not a suitable introduction. Speak slowly and listen carefully. Find out when the person you want to meet will attend the fair, and ask if it would be convenient for them to meet you at a certain time and place—sometimes people are happy to leave their stand for some time. Study the floor plan and suggest a snack bar close to their booth, or mention some other landmark such as the booth of a key player. For instance, you can say, “Let’s meet at the Fujitsu booth in Hall B1, right at the corner when you enter the hall, coming from the atrium.” Send a follow-up email confirming the time and place, and share your mobile number. Be careful when sending invitations from Outlook, etc.—the time difference might mess up your schedule.

If you want to introduce your products and services, do not copy and paste your entire portfolio; rather, try to very briefly explain what your key competencies are or what specific topics you would like to discuss. Don’t present yourselves as “the leading company” unless you are from Alibaba Group, Gazprom, or maybe Coca-Cola. For a German, who is not used to these kinds of hollow superlatives, this claim will instantly undermine your credibility.

Consider hiring a local person to help you with research and setting up appointments; my experience is that Germans are more likely to get involved in a brief conversation if they are called from a local number, and if the person calling knows the language and business culture. You can always get in touch with me (andra[at] for that purpose.

Memorise the Hall Plan and know your “Exit Strategy”

Do not forget to plan enough time for navigating between the stands. When scheduling meetings, keep the hall structure in mind and try to optimise your route. Bear in mind that it can be difficult to proceed quickly when the gangways are crowded with visitors.

And even if you have an appointment, don’t be overly surprised if you are ditched from time to time; it happens! You can always leave your business card and write down your mobile number so people are able to reach you and invite you back to the booth when they finally show up.

All the best!

What else?

German Trade Fairs
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1. Read more: The What, Why and How of Attending Trade Shows in Germany

2. Join my LinkedIn Group Doing Business in Germany: Trade Fairs, Events, FAQ and Best Practices

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