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They say, "you can’t teach an old dog new tricks" — but if that old dog is an experienced exhibitor, he’d better learn some new tricks to stay alive in today’s competitive tradeshow environment!

Recently, I had a range of experiences that brought home the importance of going to every tradeshow with ‘baby eyes’ — with an open mind and willingness to consider everything about your exhibit from a number of different angles.

What are ‘baby eyes’?

If you’ve ever spent any amount of time with a baby, you can’t help but notice the way they view the world. Every single thing around them — every object, every person, even every shadow on the wall — is not only worthy of attention, they’re downright fascinating.

Babies are fascinated by everything because it’s all new. They’ve never seen it before — and they lack discernment. Without a frame of reference, babies have no way to tell if they should pay attention to the fuzzy stuffed animal or the crinkly wrapping paper it came in.

That’s true, but there’s another aspect that’s well worth considering. When a baby looks at something for the first time, they really see it as it is: free from any preconceived notions, and without any baggage. Additionally, babies are blissfully unaware of what other people think. They view new things not only free from their own expectations but free from the expectations of everyone they know.

What does this mean for tradeshows?

Eventually babies stop viewing everything as new, exciting and wonderful since this is a survival mechanism. After all, if we were constantly stopping to admire everything that caught our fancy, we’d never manage to do those tasks necessary for survival. Focus is imperative, especially for people who want to Get Things Done.

This is especially true at tradeshows. There are so many stimuli — bright colors, attention grabbing signs, loud noises, crowds, vivid displays, interesting people — that it’s easy to get overwhelmed and find yourself unable to function. To be an effective, efficient exhibitor, you have to ‘tune things out’ and focus on your own exhibit. It’s a defense mechanism.

This defense mechanism comes with a cost. Closing your eyes to the more stimulating aspects of the tradeshow may allow you to function — but you lose some of the wonder of the show.

If you’ve lost the wonder, if you can no longer see the magic and the glitz, if the entire exhibiting experience has become everyday and blasé for you, how in the world can you create an exhibit that will engage, entice, and enthrall attendees? Remember, you have to entertain as much as inform! Eventually, you will find that you can’t. You’ve become a mechanic instead of a magician.

That’s when your exhibits will start to fail. Not good for you, not good for your company.

What can you do?

Wonder and magic can be recaptured. If they couldn’t, there would be no such thing as mid-life crisises or second honeymoons. To bring the wonder back to the tradeshow arena, you need to capture those baby eyes that reside in a grown up body. Here are three ways to do this:

Take Your Own Eyes Traveling

Open yourself up to the wonder of tradeshows by attending a show that is wholly outside of your industry. If you’re in heavy equipment, for example, attend a food and beverage show. If you’re in high tech, go to a craft and hobby show. Pick something that is in no way connects with your everyday responsibilities.

This frees you to observe the show objectively. If you have no interest in the products and services being offered, you can then judge each exhibit on its merits. You have just been handed a set of baby eyes — use them to discover what attracts your attention, what catches your eye, what makes you laugh, smile, and want to learn more. Also, pay attention to what makes you cranky, what makes your head hurt, and what makes you long for a ‘time out’.

When you get back, consider what you’ve learned. What positive elements can you emulate in your exhibit? What negative elements are you doing, perhaps unconsciously, that you need to eliminate?

Recruit Someone Else

Another method of acquiring baby eyes involves bringing someone to a tradeshow who has never attended one before. Ideally, this should be someone who has never attended any kind of industry event — perhaps a new employee or someone from your company who doesn’t get out of the office much. Even better – a child! Let them loose on the floor, either accompanying them while they wander, or alone.

Take note of their observations. Remember, someone with baby eyes might be amazed by something you’ve seen a million times — don’t discount their experience. You’re looking for their objective opinion. If you’ve seen something a million times and it still has the power to amaze and entice a new viewer, that something is an effective marketing tool. Is it one that you’re using?

Bringing children onto the show floor is a specific tactic taken very seriously by exhibitors at the International Amusement Park and Attractions show. Since many of the exhibitors sell rides aimed at children, they want the opportunity to observe reactions and ask for their opinions.

Flip Your Perspective

If you spend most of your time directing a booth team, spend one show actually working the booth. However, if you’re usually the one shaking hands and asking questions, devote one show to walking the aisles as an attendee.

Changing your role helps you see the show in an entirely new way. It’s easy to forget what your booth staffers go through in a day when you’re not doing it yourself. If you’re trapped in a booth for the entire show, you lose your sense of what the attendees experience. Give it a try. Look and listen and you’ll be surprised at what comes into view from either side of the aisle.

Baby Eyes at the End of the Day

After you’ve viewed the show with baby eyes, it’s time to look at your own exhibit with this new found tool. This is difficult — often impossible to be critical or even objective of something you’ve worked so hard on. I recommend recruiting baby eyes for this — and recruit them from someone who has the freedom to speak openly and objectively without fear of consequences.

Remember, baby eyes will allow you to discover many things. You don’t have to give them all equal weight. At the end of the day, you’ll have this mass of observations. Assess them carefully. Some will be eye-openers, while others will cause your eyes to roll. Integrate those eye-opening thoughts into your planning process, doing what you can to bring some of the magic and wonder back to your exhibit. You’ll be pleased you did as your next show participation should demonstrate some new and improved results.

This Marketing article was written by Susan Friedman on 11/26/2006

Written by Susan A. Friedmann, CSP, The Tradeshow Coach, Lake Placid, NY, author: “Meeting & Event Planning for Dummies,” working with companies to improve their meeting and event success through coaching, consulting and training. For a free copy of “10 Common Mistakes Exhibitors Make”, e-mail:; website: