Crowdsourcing Column: The Best Things Learned at Trade Shows

This article originally ran in the September 2013 issue of AVN magazine.

In recent years the adult industry has contracted and consolidated considerably as compared to its more freewheeling (and free-spending) past. Industry trade shows, however, continue to sell out quickly while attracting top-tier sponsors and drawing business owners to multiple shows throughout the year—such as, for example, this month’s Webmaster Access gathering in Amsterdam.

Hence the focus of this month’s column: What is the best thing you’ve learned at a trade show?

The people interviewed below shine a bright light on the importance of attending shows and the things any new attendee needs to know in order to get the most out of the decision to step out of the shadows and into the light as a full-time member of the adult business community.

Longtime industry veterans who have attended dozens of shows over the years pointed out that their significance has actually increased now that the number of people active in the industry has decreased. “Industry shows are more valuable than ever as people today are much more cautious who they do business with, and giving them some face time goes much further in building business relationships than emails or Skype chats,” said Wizzo of JuicyAds.com. “I also find it can be helpful to get to know someone on a personal level and that is done much easier face to face. I think for me, one of the biggest benefits have been the relationships that have been made over the years, some even going beyond business. My biggest advice for new show attendees is don’t be afraid to reach out to people, ask them who they are and what they do. Many times you can find and meet people that you never knew existed and forge new business.”

Colin Rowntree, the CEO and founder of the venerable Wasteland.com BDSM brand, has been involved with the shows from their inception, as an attendee, panelist and moderator. “The primary value of adult B2B shows is that our industry is very much interdependent on each other’s services. Be it traffic, billing, hosting, content or many other aspects of the business, most companies simply do not have (nor wish to have) complete “soup to nuts” infrastructure to handle all aspects of their businesses in house. This is where trade shows are extremely valuable, as we can meet each other and establish personal relationships that then carry through into implementation of the various joint projects and services we undertake together. One simply cannot forge these kind of long-term relationships online, and the deals we develop at trade shows become the life-blood of new business development. The close runner-up for the value of trade shows are the seminars where attendees can keep up on new developments in all aspects of the industry in a focused and relevant way.”

“Over the past 14 years I have learned the critical and often difficult project of follow through for deals made at the shows determines how successful a show will be for you,” Rowntree continued. “The most important thing is to be very organized in documenting new deals, and then be very systematic (and persistent) in following up on these deals to bring them to fruition after everyone heads back home.”

Ironically, even though shows are attended by people who work in a business that bares all for the world to see, a surprising number of attendees exhibit a shyness that one would never expect. “The best thing about trade shows is the networking,” said Lauren MacEwen of 7Veils.com. “It’s an important opportunity to meet so many people from different sides of the industry, and people quickly become your most valuable business resource.”

“Coming to a show helps you become a part of the fully invested business community,” MacEwen said. “The internet provides a wealth of resources and the adult industry has plenty of message boards or chat platforms available, but it’s still not a substitute for meeting people in person. You never know when someone might be willing and able help to you, or when you might be able to help them, unless you get to know them first.”

MacEwen added, “Anyone attending a show for the first time should keep in mind that if you find yourself feeling too comfortable, it probably means you are talking to the same small clique of people you already knew. Step out of your comfort zone and go talk to people you have not met yet—it feels awkward for anyone to do it, whether this is their first show or their hundredth show, but it is essential to expanding your social network, and you’ll be surprised how receptive most attendees are to new introductions.”

One area that seems to be a delicate balancing act, according to veteran attendees, is the role of preparation. Going in without a plan is a sure way to waste time and money attending a show, but planning too tightly will cause your schedule to crowd out spontaneous opportunities to do significant business.

“The biggest thing I have learned from years of going to shows is that there is often a difference between the ‘board persona’ a person has on internet message boards and the way they act when you meet them in person,” said Clement of VideosZ.com. “My best advice for anyone new to trade shows is to prepare in advance and plan meetings so you can set clear goals. That way you have a list of what you’re selling and are ready to explain it in a short, easy-to-understand way. What are you looking for, who do you want to meet—and if they give you a few minutes of their time, what will you say exactly? Being prepared and keeping an open mind about each person you meet is the easiest way to earn more money and make better contacts.”

Luke of GrandSlamMedia.com agreed with the importance of preparation but cautioned new attendees against overdoing it. “Planning is always a good idea but if you go too far with it you can end up paralyzing yourself. My advice is to not plan everything or to lock up every moment of your time at the shows. We have gotten the best value by leaving our trade show budget open-ended so that we could capitalize on spontaneous opportunities and enjoy time with clients going out to do exciting things, rather than just putting our brand name on the hotel toilet paper and sticking to a strict list of appointments a mile long.”

For many the real value of shows harks back to the era before chat windows and message boards existed, when everyone understood the value of being able to look someone in the eye. “Going to a show for me is about putting a face to a name. I can work with people just fine over the phone or email or Skype, but I can’t always figure out their character, so I go to shows to meet people and see how they actually are in real life,” said Phil Bradbury of PimpRoll. “I feel it is very important to really understand who I am dealing with, to sit with someone and actually be able to evaluate their character, to see how they act around others, to see how they choose to present themselves. I also want people to see the real me, to be able to judge my character and to decide if I am the type of person they want to do business with in the present and future. Sometimes I can get more out of shaking a person’s hand than I can get out of six months of ICQ logs.”

As a new attendee you should always remember that you are constantly being evaluated and reevaluated by other attendees. “Industry trade shows are arguably the best opportunity we have to put a face to a name and set productive ideas in motion with our peers,” said Mark Spannow, general manager of Dream-Cash.com. “Attending shows on a regular basis serves to develop your brand and legitimize yourself as someone who is a serious professional rather than a side-job hobbyist. Treat everyone with respect, starting with yourself. It’s OK to have fun, but make no mistake: Everything you do will be noticed and possibly photographed, so tread mindfully. We can all remember unfortunate mishaps at shows and those responsible throughout the years—don’t be that person. When meeting with people at a show, be prepared by knowing your business inside and out so you can make the most of everyone’s time. That’s the best way to get noticed for the right reasons.”

Even when you have the importance of a show clear in your mind, the logistics of maximizing your time can present hurdles. “Once you get to a show, actually getting in touch with people you planned to meet can be difficult because there is so much going on usually,” said Erwin of ManicaMoney.com. “Be sure you have a mobile phone number from everyone you want to meet because you may be meeting someone you can’t even identify by face. Do your best to stay at the show hotel or near it, since it will increase your time meeting people and decrease your time going back to your room. This is especially important for the Phoenix Forum, which is held in a tiny hotel where rooms sell out each year in less than an hour.”

“One of the main takeaways I have after years of attending many industry shows is that you develop deals and relationships that could never happen without attending the show,” offered Vegas Ken of TheBestPorn.com. “There is just something about the in-person, face-to-face meetings that you can’t achieve online. Some of the best deals I have done all started by randomly chatting with a stranger at a show. Attending the shows will definitely take your business to the next level.”

“I’ve never been to a trade show where I haven’t learned something new or made a great new business relationship,” said Carl Sandler, CEO of Daddyhunt.com. I go to the shows every year and in the course of a few days have the opportunity to connect face-to-face with dozens of affiliates and vendors we work with regularly. We live in the digital world most of the year, but digital can’t replace relationship building and experiences that occur in the real world. Trade shows are opportunities to personalize business relationships that may otherwise be much more limited.”

Even for people very well known on industry message boards, attending shows offers real value. “We attend trade shows to meet up with current business relationships and create new ones. People are much more willing to go that extra mile when you talk face to face” said Roald Riepen, managing director of FreeOnes.com. “My best advice for someone new is to try to figure out up front, What is it you are after, and what do you want to get out of this show? Be outgoing, don’t get stupid drunk, and bring business cards, a ton of them.”

One final note from a source who asked not to be named: Always keep an open mind about whom you might be dealing with at a show. “I attended a show years ago and there was this twenty-something-year-old guy in a T-shirt and jeans sitting next to a guy in a suit and tie,” he said. “Like an idiot, I brushed off the guy in the T-shirt and tried to spark up conversations with the suit-wearing guy I assumed was his boss. As it turns out, the guy in a suit was an employee of the guy in the old T-shirt and I probably lost out on six figures of business just because I made a false assumption about who was important based on what they were wearing. At industry shows, treat everyone like they are worth a billion dollars because you never really know who is or who isn’t just by looking at them.”

Click here to read the June Crowdsourcing column, click here for the July column and click here for the August column