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NPE is a unique challenge. Once every three years, it creates the opportunity for industry representatives from all over the world to get together for a few bustling days. There are major launches, new technology, enormous hoopla, great deals, announcements and plenty of social activity. If you're like most of us, you always leave the show wondering what you missed and what more you could have done.

When you arrive, you usually have some idea of what exhibits you want to see and often have a list of companies you wish to investigate. The larger the show, the more daunting the task of getting through your agenda.

There are often interesting exhibits that grab your attention and threaten to derail your original plan. According to a recent trade show industry study, 39 percent of attendees spend less than eight hours visiting a show and less than 20 minutes at each booth. With this in mind, here are some tips to start working on how to make the absolute most of your time at NPE.

Develop a clear and concise idea of what you want to achieve at the show. Discuss your objectives with your managers and staff beforehand. They'll often have good input and ideas about who and what to see.

Next, do some basic research. Get out the list of exhibitors and merge it with the pre-show publicity materials that have probably been arriving through the mail. Develop a plan of which exhibitors to visit and then organize and prioritize your list into two parts—those you ``must see'' and those you may ``want to see'' if there is time.

Get a map of the show floor and a couple of highlighters to identify your two lists. This will be invaluable in prioritizing your show route. Waiting until you arrive to begin mapping your travels is not efficient.

Decide how much time you can spend at the show, then allocate a portion to each booth. You need to allow extra time for walking from booth to booth, distractions, lines and unexpected opportunities that arise. It's important to pace yourself, so you might consider a sit-down lunch appointment with a supplier as a way to do some business and take a break at the same time.

If you're not the only representative from your company attending, develop a group plan to maximize your visit. Assign who will visit particular companies and whether there are some booths where more than one of you needs to be at the same time. Make appointments to meet for these occasions.

Bear in mind it also will work much better for both of you if you do not have to travel from one distant area of the show to another to be at your appointed


Decide what you need from each exhibitor. Research vendors to find out how they differ and what information is most important for you to obtain. Plan the questions you need to ask and refine them to get the most accurate answers. It's important to focus on what you need to know, so plan on probing beyond the sales pitch.

Use the list of questions to design a lead-gathering form to research specific products and services. These lead forms will enable you to make accurate comparisons of the information gleaned at the show. Make sure that you rate your impression of the exhibitor's ability to satisfy your needs, and whether you feel you could work together.

There may be certain exhibitors you have to see. It is best to make appointments prior to the show to ensure the exhibitor's complete attention and that sufficient time is allocated to have all your questions fully answered.

Pack plenty of business cards. This will help avoid filling out forms if there is no automatic card reader in place.

Wear comfortable shoes and clothing on the show floor.

Remember to make allowance in your baggage for literature, samples and promotional items, which you will, no doubt, accumulate in varying quantities. Take a light and comfortable carryall for accumulated materials.

With NPE being such a global event, brush up on international communication etiquette. Speak slowly and enunciate clearly. Do not use idioms, jargon or slang. Use short, simple sentences; stop between sentences. Use visual reinforcements: charts, gestures, demonstrations. Listen actively and aggressively. Write down what you hear, especially pronunciation of names. Study and treat business cards with respect.

Be formal. Use titles when addressing people, rather than first names. Never touch; respect others' space. Never criticize, tease or generalize; people can't be stereotyped. Smile — it's a universal language.

Research the seminars and workshops and decide which to attend. Go to different sessions than other members of your staff to maximize data gathering. You can share handouts and brief each other after the show.

Finally, go to NPE with the thought of making the most of every minute. Many people think of a trade show as a break from the normal business environment. It is, but it is also a burgeoning place of new business, networking, ideas, education and information. Such opportunities are rare and should be exploited to the maximum. Do so and you will reap enormous rewards.

Friedmann is president of Diadem Communications in Lake Placid, N.Y., and author of the book Exhibiting at Tradeshows: Tips and Techniques for Success.