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Differences between international and domestic trade show exhibitors.


Trade shows, trade fairs, expositions, scientific/technical conferences, conventions. The name may vary but the basic function of the activity represents a major industry marketing event. They are "events that bring together, in a single location, a group of suppliers, distributors and related services who set up physical exhibits of their products and services from a given industry or discipline" (Black 1986). In 1988 in the United States alone, over 100,000 firms exhibited at some 11,000 business trade shows and spent over $9 billion. This must be compared to 1982's 91,000 firms which exhibited at some 8000 trade shows at cost of $7 billion. In ten year period 1980-1990, the number of trade shows went from 4500 to 10000. Show/fair attendance has reached at least 50 million and utilize the available 53 million square feet of space several times over every year. More than half of all industrial shows sold all available exhibit space--2 million square feet could not be accommodated. Demand for space is forecast to more than double over the next decade. Comdex 1990 with 118,000 attendees from over 100 countries and 1850 companies, 2.2 Million square feet of exhibit space with over 1900 accredited press from throughout the world in attendance versus Hanover Fair with over 400,000 attendees and nearly 5000 companies. The trade show medium plays much larger role in Europe and other foreign countries than in the United States. For example, average attendance at the top 100 events in Europe 77,000 visitors vs. about 22,000 in the U.S. (Trade Show Bureau Newsletter, June 1992).

Trade shows accounted for over 22-25% of the typical U.S. Business Market Promotional budget, second only to personal selling activity and ahead of print advertising and direct mail. American firms spend annually approximately $9 billion for exhibition travel and labor costs and $12 billion for exhibit costs (1984 U.S. only). Trade Show Bureau estimates that the trade show industry itself generates $50 billion a year. Industry estimates indicate that this figure is growing by almost $1 billion a year during late eighties. Growth of exhibit space has averaged nearly fifteen percent annually during the seventies, slowing down to a smaller but sustainable 7-8 percent during the eighties. However, the 1991 recession cut growth to 3 to 4%. According to Trade Show Week, the industry newsletter, number firms exhibiting at the 200 largest trade shows grew 7.7% between 1986 and 1987. During the seventies the number of new exhibitors increased at an average annual increase of 3-4% while in the eighties it has exceeded 7% annually (Mee, 1988). Show attendance at the major events increased at an average of 3% per year during the seventies, rising to more than 6% during the eighties. At the same time, the annual company budget allocation for trade show participation increased from $73,000 in 1978 to $212,000 by 1987.


Trade shows rank second behind only personal selling in influencing buying decisions of industrial purchases (Parasuraman 1981; O'Hara 1991). Nearly 44% of trade show visitors travel more than 400 miles to shows and spend more than $300 per person in transportation costs alone to attend the event. The average delegate spends nearly $1000 per visit. While 85% of all attendees have a key impact on the buying decision. The cost per contact at a show is one third that of a personal sales call (Trade Show Bureau 1986a). In 1988, average total costs per visitor (including space rental, construction costs, freight, booth personal travel, living expenses, and salaries) was $133, almost one third the cost of a personal sales call. It takes approximately 0.8 sales calls on average to close a sale initiated by a trade show lead while most estimates place the number required in the field to be five. Overall, the cost differential is about 3.5 to 1 in favor of trade shows.

Additional advantages of using a trade show include: promotional message is delivered to a large number of qualified interested people (86% of all show attendees represent a buying influence, are interested in a specific exhibited product or service and have not been called on by a sales rep recently); introduction of new products possible to large number of prospects; potential customers may be discovered; enhanced goodwill; free company publicity is possible; and gathering competitive information. Trade show activities can play a major part in vendor evaluation and recognition (Bello and Barczak 1990; Moriarty and Spekman 1984) due to their personal selling process elements: 1) identifying prospects, (2) servicing current accounts, (3) introducing products, (4) improving corporate image, (5) gathering competitor information and , (6) selling (Bonoma 1983; Kerin and Cron 1987).

In sum, trade shows can provide the opportunity to affect multiple phases of the industrial buying process in one location; they can create awareness in new prospects, reinforce existing customer relationships, provide product demonstrations for evaluation, establish relationships between vendors and prospects, and allow sales of products on the spot. Also, trade shows significantly influence industrial buying during the need recognition and vendor evaluation stages of the purchase process (Moriarty and Spekman 1984).


Trade shows do have their downside; costs can range up to $39 or more per square foot, $7,800 for 200 square foot booth (note: outside the U.S. prices are quoted by the square meter); space costs represent only 15% of a company's total cost. And, space rental costs have more than doubled over the past ten years. Tactical rather than strategic orientation might account for a finding that only 23% of executives think trade shows are very effective. All too often, a substantial number of corporate marketing and management executives still perceive trade shows as a non-selling activity or at best R and R or a social activity for those employees that attend (Skolnik 1987). This is exacerbated by the fact that only 56% of firms participating in trade shows have set specific objectives before participating in a given show. Only 46% of companies set goals before they exhibit, half are very general, and one of three exhibitors do not set specific quantifiable objectives. A Southern Methodist University study found that (1) more than forty percent of all first-time exhibitors fail to return the next year; (2) the typical exhibit reaches less than sixty percent of its prospects; (3) few exhibitors do any preshow promotion to ensure that their key prospects or customers reach their booth (referred to as a stand at international events; (4) booth personnel training has improved but leaves much to be desired; and (5) lead qualification , tracking, and return on investment evaluation are functions unexplored by most exhibitors (only fourteen percent claim they track lead conversions to sales). Barely seventeen percent of all exhibitors provide their management with ROI data. No wonder that many executives question the value of trade shows (Mee, 1988).

The problem centers around the inability of many firms to measure quantifiably the return on their trade show investment. In the midst of tens of thousands of visitors among the thousand or so booths, the feeling exists that a company gets lost in the crowd. This problem is greatest at nonselling events featuring complex products for which the buying decision usually involves several people. The buying process takes many months if not years, during which the impact of the trade show/fair is minimized, forgotten, or even totally overlooked (Sashi and Perretty, 1992).

Disadvantages with trade shows, particularly poorly organized or managed events include: takes salespeople away from their territories; large shows are often cluttered, crowded, confusing environments; labor problems and unions frustrate exhibiting companies and run up costs; proliferation and excessive frequency of shows; high proportion of unqualified attendees. Bonoma (1983) adds unknown effectiveness on return per dollar spent, difficulty of measuring efficiency vs. advertising, for example, high and rising costs of participation, and a growing feeling shows are boondoggles or perks. With the large sums companies spend on trade events, surprisingly little is spent on researching their effectiveness.

Proliferation of trade shows not only in booth size and number, but in terms of specialization and regionalization (referred to as a vertical trade event) seems to be occurring (Murphy 1990). This is primarily due to the ever increasing diversification of technology coupled with the medium's apparent cost effectiveness. Two factors are behind the trend towards regional trade shows in the United States: escalating travel costs and the discovery that most attendees to either national or regional shows are basically regional in nature and come from about a radius of 400 miles.

Additionally, firms must decide whether to exhibit at vertical or horizontal trade (i.e., wide array of products and services on display) events. Vertical shows/fairs can be too narrowly focused by the organizer on specific products/services which can have an adverse effect on the quality/quantity ration of the event's attendees. Industrial buyers generally have broad purchasing authority and often shy away from attending very specialized exhibitions. Horizontal expositions sometimes suffer from the hyper-market environment and can take on a carnival atmosphere. Visitors can become crowded, confused, and overwhelmed by fairs/shows that are too broad in their exhibitor company and product mix. Their sheer size precludes buyers from having sufficient time to visit and shop all the alternatives for their company's needs. There are trade-offs to each type of exhibition and the challenge for exhibitors and attendees alike is to determine which event(s) will meet their corporate objectives. Both vertical and horizontal events can be effective marketing mediums, but many are not! The organizer, whether a private promoter or government agency, must be experienced in managing and producing a successful domestic or international exhibition.


That trade fairs and exhibitions are considered important in the international marketing activity of many organizations seems not to be in question. Internationally, trade fairs assume greater significance with over 600 events taking place annually in over 70 countries. Why firms choose to exhibit and to what extent their attendance is monitored as part of any marketing planning exercise is less certain. Approximately 3300 US companies participated in overseas trade fairs and related events in 1989, a 25% increase over the number of participants in 1988 (U.S. Department of Commerce). West German trade fairs attracted 312 US exhibitors (companies) in 1989 with American attendees estimated at 50,000. United States companies and their exhibits are favored at overseas trade fairs because they are known to be on the cutting edge of technology. And, having an American firm with that technology at a trade show/fair can attract the crowds and upgrade the profile of visitors.

International trade fairs provide companies with the opportunity to create sales and establish relationships with agents and distributors that can lead to more permanent distribution in foreign markets. Trade shows can also be a fertile ground for cultivating new customers for small and mid-sized businesses; the entry time for exporting can be cut from six years to six months through wide usage of foreign trade fairs. While nearly 60% of American visitors to trade fairs expect to purchase an exhibited product within two months of attending the fair, nearly 100 percent of business persons at foreign fairs are buyers with order books in hand. Many are distributors looking for products that can be sold abroad. European Trade Fairs tend to be much larger than those found in the U.S.: the Cologne trade fairs bring together 28,000 exhibitors from 100 countries with 1.8 million buyers from 150 countries. The Hanover Fair grounds in Germany hosts events year round and is a major venue for trade fairs in Europe.

The U.S. government sponsors permanent trade centers/sites in a variety of cities around the world where products from various American industries are exhibited for specific time periods. Seventeen permanent U.S. trade centers exist in industrial centers such as London, Frankfurt, Bangkok, Stockholm, Tokyo, and Rome. In conjunction with trade centers, the Commerce Department offers manufacturers seeking business overseas the opportunity to have their products presented to potential buyers on videotape and thus gain greater exposure.

Authors agree that exhibiting at a trade fair can meet a variety of objectives. Carman (1968) pointed out that these will vary between firms and between events, but provided a list of ten for consideration. These included making direct sales, maintaining an image with existing and new customers, introducing new products, and finding new ideas and applications. The last point is particularly important since the two-way communication--possible at a trade fair/trade show but not in the traditional promotion media---permits the exhibitor to receive, as well as transmit, new ideas and intelligence on the market and its own competition. In a survey of 58 exhibit managers, Carman found only 12 able to provide data on their evaluation of the benefits of trade show participation. The remaining companies simply failed to do so.

Most companies appear to exhibit on an automatic or repeat basis. Having exhibited on a regular basis for many years, they usually do not question their exhibition effectiveness or results (Banting and Blenkhorn 1974). These researchers found that the average firm considers trade shows fairly low in effectiveness, yet continue to exhibit because this medium is viewed as a good opportunity to introduce new products, to establish personal contacts with new prospects and to maintain corporate visibility. The benefits of analyzing competitors ranked ten (evaluating competitor's products) and fourteenth (evaluate competitor's marketing tactics) on the final list of reasons for exhibiting. Small firms (sales less than $10 million) had a higher expectation of immediate direct sales and indicated higher interest in using trade shows for competitive information gathering than did larger firms.

The literature reports remarkably little about trade exhibitions internationally. Rizzo (1982) suggests that the advantages of foreign trade shows are that they allow exporters to meet buyers directly, investigate at first hand the markets for their products, observe the competition, and gather marketing research data. Weinrauch (1984) while accepting that trade shows/fairs are a promotional tool, includes the following in his list of the advantages which they have over other promotional methods, "an exporter can gather critical marketing related data, such as competitive reactions, product development and research, pricing structure and distribution structures." Bello and Barksdale (1986) considered the difficulties potential exporters experienced at trade shows. They suggested that reassigning domestic employees to main the international exhibit stand will not work since two types of export knowledge are required of a competent exporter, objective (or general) knowledge and experiential knowledge. While the former can be taught, the latter can only be learned. Thus, the researchers argue, that international exhibits should be manned only by committed personnel who have such experiential knowledge.

U.S. exporters have time and again been advised and urged to make use of trade fairs to improve their marketing performance. None of aforementioned papers cited offered any empirical evidence of the role of trade fairs and exhibitions in export marketing. It would be valuable to discover exporters' reasons for exhibiting internationally and in particular to evaluate the perceived role of trade fairs in the gathering of competitive information. Thus, the authors of this manuscript conducted a pilot study in 1993 to begin to examine the dynamics of international trade fair participation.

While 60% of business visitors at U.S. trade shows expect to purchase an exhibited product within 2 months, nearly 100% of business persons at foreign fairs are buyers with order books in hands, or distributors looking for products that can be sold in the U.S. European firms on average commit 33% of their marketing budget for trade fairs versus only 25% in the U.S. CEOs/Managing Directors in European companies consider it part of their job to work the trade fair floors. Unlike their U.S. counterparts who typically stay away from the exhibit area.


Data for this study was collected by mail survey of American businesses. A cover letter with university letterhead was utilized to provide legitimacy. Cooperation of a large media corporation with high level of trade show participation was obtained; the media company provided the authors with 2500 labels containing names selected at random from their data base of domestic trade show users/interested parties. These were drawn from a random national sample of names from 2 SICs. After expunging duplicates and multiple listings from the same company, 2000 surveys were sent. As the company desired to be anonymous, no sponsorship was mentioned. Surveys were individually addressed but the cover letter was not personalized.

The survey was a 7 page comprehensive survey comprising of 4 parts: general trade show items, questions aimed at international usage, questions for non-exhibitors and a set of questions concerning organizational demographics. The whole questionnaire comprised 85 questions and was quite extensive. The four parts of the survey consisted of domestic trade show questions , international trade show items, users with no trade show activity within the last two years was asked to fill out part 3 on non-usage, and organizational characteristics.

Final tally was 204 useable responses (out of 240 received) for a response rate slightly over 10%. As the survey was an eight page vehicle with the cover letter being the first page and organizational characteristics being the last, considerable time was involved. This, no doubt, was responsible for the low response rate. However, the actual number of responses received made for usable analysis. Since this number was deemed adequate, no follow up mailing was made. Organizational respondent profiles can be viewed in Table 1.

From the responses of the respondents, the responses were marked either "Not-exhibiting" for those who had not exhibited during 1991-92 and had no plans to do so in 1993--these filled out the non-exhibitor section and the organizational demographics--, a second group termed " Domestic Exhibitors" who exhibited at a domestic trade shows (but not any international show) during the same time frame, and a third group termed "International Exhibitors," who indicated they had exhibited overseas during the time frame in question. As we were only interested in differences between domestic and international exhibitors, those indicating 'non-exhibitors' were eliminated for comparative purposes. Using ANOVA, t-test, chi-squares, and discriminant analysis, we examined the two remaining groups. Differences between the two groups were assessed from the organizational demographics and exhibiting philosophies, these being the common ground among the two groups responses. In addition, a profile of international exhibitors was created using results from part 2--which queried international trade show activities and philosophies.


Results of the comparison between domestic and international exhibitors can be seen in Table 2. Considerable number of similarities were observed between the two groups. Both domestic and international exhibitors believe the two most important objectives of trade shows as gaining leads/new contacts and finding prime prospects.

Both domestic and international exhibitors believe the most important targets set for a show are: number of new leads and introduction of new products. Both domestic and international exhibitors believe the most important criteria of measuring trade show effectiveness is number of leads generated while domestic exhibitors also believe the conversion rate from these leads to sales is important. Both domestic and international exhibitors believe the most important reason their firm exhibits is identifying prospects.

Both domestic and international exhibitors believe the top pre-show promotion to be personal initiation by mail. Domestic also like personally delivered invitations while international exhibitors prefer free show tickets and special trade show journal editions ads. Both domestic and international exhibitors prefer dinner with special customers as a conference activity with a co-located seminar or conference program as a second choice. And most interestingly so, both domestic exhibitors and international exhibitors indicated similar results as to complexity of product produced, technical aspect, relative price of product sold, customization of product, frequency of its purchase, and complementary of product. This must be compared to non-exhibitors which indicated considerable differences between these items and exhibiting firms. Thus, little difference exists between domestic exhibitors and international exhibitors as to the product produced and marketed.

Many significant and substantial differences were seen between the two groups. Principal differences between the two groups can be seen in their view of the effectiveness of trade shows and their satisfaction with its results. International exhibitors indicate a higher perceived effectiveness and say their upper management believes in its high effectiveness and tend to be more satisfied with its results. International exhibitors tend to exhibit at more national shows and at more vertical (industry specific) shows than do domestic exhibitors. International exhibitors also tend to use more follow up (post-show) tactics than did domestic exhibitors. As to have been expected, international exhibitors indicate theirs is more of a worldwide orientation than did domestic exhibitors, many more of which are content to be considered disproportionally only North-American in geographical coverage. Although international in scope, two-thirds of the international exhibitors indicate their predominate activities to lie only in North America and Western Europe.

International exhibitors indicated that over half attended 5-9 international trade shows in 91-92 with more planned for 93-94. The predominate criteria international exhibitors used to evaluate/select international trade fairs include size, number of visitors, with quality of audience most important. Principal reasons given by international exhibitors for participating in intl trade fairs were establishing contacts (most important) and worldwide image. Of the exhibitors who self-classified themselves as international, almost half are new international exhibitors (1-4 yrs) who tend to rate domestic and international audiences about same, not having reached the experience necessary to differentiate the audiences. Most of those who indicated they were international exhibitors said what prompted their start in export activities were unsolicited orders. The major difficulties the international exhibitors indicate they face in the international arena are business customs and logistics. Their mix of trade show booth personnel is (mean values): Technical 12%, Mktg & Sales 60%, Executive 16%, which differ from domestic exhibitors by having more marketing and sales personnel present and fewer technical advisors

A Discriminant analysis between domestic and international exhibitors was also run. Results can be seen in Table 3. As Table 4 shows in the predict versus actual table, a very high significance level was obtained. These two techniques confirm and verify each other. The Multivariate result was marginally significant, thus indicating not spectacular differences between the two groups (this despite the highly significant group versus predict matrix shown in Table 4). In essence, while some differences were seen between the two groups, their behavior as a whole (especially as concerns versus non-exhibitors) were very similar. One interesting observation was that while North American oriented firms were, not unexpectedly, domestic exhibitors, the internationally exhibiting firms, although quite new, gave worldwide orientation and indicated that one of the first facets of their marketing mix changed in the upgrading from North American emphasis to Worldwide-orientation, was to become an international exhibitor at trade shows. This quite clearly indicates the value and importance of exhibiting overseas.


What kinds of firms can benefit in what kind of ways from international trade events? Some answers may be suggested by an internationalization theory which assumes that exporting is a sequential learning process as a firm passes through stages of increasing commitment to foreign markets (Cavusgil 1984). These are (1) experimental involvement in exporting (2) active involvement, and (3) committed involvement. These can be related to different forms of participation in international trade fairs. In the experimental phase, a domestic trade show focus with sales made from unsolicited overseas inquiries is typical. Actively involved firms utilize U. S. Government (Department of Commerce sponsorship) to build bridges internationally via trade fairs. Committed companies extensively engage in overseas trading events to support their local partners, to build representation in foreign markets, and to learn about foreign buyer needs and the competition.

Market knowledge and export planning are two powerful discriminators between successful exporters and non-exporters (Aaby and Slater 1989). Not having sufficient market knowledge represents a barrier to exporting. For example, for American firms, the most important barrier to exporting is most probably the "lack of exposure to other cultures" (Rabino 1980). Increasing country-specific experience leads to better understanding of market mechanisms and a network of personal contacts (Madsen 1989). Consequently, product decisions, agent/distributor choice and communication with market participants are improved. In turn, this leads to better performance.

Participating in international trade fairs can provide American firms with valuable information through overseas experience and personal contacts. Thus, exporting barriers can be overcome to some degree through international trade show attendance. Information available concerning international fairs suggests that selling plays an important role for exhibitors at these events. International fairs attract serious buyers and while sales are always the ultimate objective, important intermediary goals also are set by the globally focused company.


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Fred Palumbo, Yeshiva University

Brad O'Hara, Southeastern Louisiana State University

Paul Herbig, Managing Director, Herbig & Sons Marketing Consultants
Organizational Demographics of Respondents

a. Trade Show Usage # %
 Not exhibiting 42 20
 Domestic only 85 42
 International Exhibitions 77 37
b. Type of Business
 Manufacturing 157
 Services 46
c. Customer Type
 Industrial 115
 Consumer 71
d. Area of Operation
 Domestic US 125
 Worldwide 68
e. Size of Entity
 Small (under $10 M) 72
 Medium ($10-250 M) 56
 Large (over $250 M) 55
f. Years in Business
 New (1-10) 38
 Young (11-20) 49
 Mid (21-50) 72
 Mature (>50) 44
g. Affiliation
 US-Public 63
 US-Private 109
 Foreign 31
h. # Product Lines
 Few (1-5) 74
 Some (5-10) 62
 Many (>10) 67
i. # Customers
 Few (1-99) 41
 Lots (100-500) 60
 Many (>500) 112

Table 2
Significant Differences Between Domestic and International Exhibitors

a. International exhibitors rate overall effectiveness
 of trade shows higher (Chi-Square = 14.4, p<.006)

b. International exhibitors believe upper management
 rates overall effectiveness of trade shows higher (F
 = 4.8, p<.02)

c. International exhibitors perceive upper management
 support of trade shows to be higher (F = 4.67,

d. International exhibitors tend to exhibit at more
 industry specific events.

e. Domestic exhibitors disproportionally at 'fulfilling
 company mission' (Chi-Square = 5.2, p<.023)

f. Domestic exhibitors cite too many state/local shows
 while international exhibitors believe not enough
 state/local trade shows (Chi-Square = 6.8, p<.033)

g. International exhibitors claim to have exhibited at
 more national shows than domestic shows (F = 7.58,

h. International exhibitors indicate higher
 satisfaction with trade show results than do
 domestic exhibitors (F = 4.2, p<.042)

i. International exhibitors place a greater percentage
 of their meeting expenditures with catalogs (16% vs.

j International exhibitors tend to use follow-up
 direct mail more often than do domestic exhibitors
 (T = 2.3, p<.021)

k No significant differences were rated between
 domestic exhibitors and international exhibitors
 with regard to customization, complementary,
 frequency of purchase, and pricing.

Table 3
Significant Univariate F Tests for International Versus Domestic


MGMT SUPPORT 12.46672 1 2.46672 4.98780 0.02763
 Satisfaction 8.35863 1 8.35863 3.97180 0.04884
 Effectiveness 3.94810 1 3.94810 5.01440 0.02723
 Geographic Area 17.84322 1 17.84322 8.60409 0.00411

 Decision Makers 2.88155 1 2.88155 4.71540 0.03212

 WILKS' LAMBDA = 0.67602
 F-STATISTIC = 1.49306 DF = 26, 81 PROB = 0.08910

 CHI-SQUARE STATISTIC = 36.41300 DF = 26 PROB = 0.08433

Table 4
International versus Domestic Exhibitors




DOM 39 11 50
INTL 11 47 58

TOTAL 50 58 108

 86 out of 108 correctly chosen = 80%


PEARSON CHI-SQUARE 37.63876 1 0.00000
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Author:Palumbo, Fred; O'Hara, Brad; Herbig, Paul
Publication:Academy of Marketing Studies Journal
Date:Jul 1, 1998
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