Larry Kulchawik has been involved in the trade show industry for the past 45 years. He served as the past president of EDPA (Exhibit Designer and Producers Association) in the USA, and president of IFES (International Federation of Exposition Services) representing 45 countries. Over his journey he has met the top movers and shakers within each country when it comes to trade show marketing. Larry Kulchawik captured feedback from each of his world trade show friends and outlined their thoughts in his book “Trade Shows from One Country to the Next”. Although focused on trade shows, the book delves into cultural styles and methods beyond trade shows to help marketers recalculate their thinking when selling internationally.
You have dedicated your career international trade shows, being in the industry in for more than 45 years. What do you find so fascinating about this industry? What is that keeps you so long there?
I studied architecture and design in college and it was absolutely not my intention to work in the exhibition industry. I just needed a job and got hired by an exhibit builder in Chicago – and from there I’ve done nothing else for the last 45 years. Part of what makes this so exciting for me is that we all discovered an occupation that was not well known and nobody had gone to college to learn it and become an expert. We all became experts by doing it by trial and error. I’m very proud of the fact that I discovered this occupation, which is in fact not that miniscule – in the United States trade shows and conventions represent 100 billion dollars in revenue. This includes all the services connected to trade show activity – airlines, hotels and cabs, restaurants, etc.
I’m very passionate about what I do for a living and the main reason for this is that I love the deadlines! In the exhibition business you can only stay interested in a project for a certain period of time and then you have to move on to the next project – and that’s what I always liked! like the most in the industry. Over the past 20 years, I have served as president of EDPA (Exhibit Designer Producers Association) and of IFES (International Federation of Exhibition Service Contractors). 12 years ago, when I was the president of EDPA, I helped to launch the first master’s degree in exhibit design, which is the only Masters Degree in Exhibit Design of this nature anywhere in the world. The Fashion Institute of Technology is in the heart of New York City and has been offering the degree program for the last 12 years. I’m so proud that we finally have people actually being trained to be an exhibit designer.
After EDPA, I became president of IFES, which is the International Federation of Exhibition Service Contractors. Contractors from 45 countries are part of IFES today and it is all about creating trusted partnerships and strong relationships; its whole concept is connecting the world to think and act as one when it comes to trade shows. I know that’s easier said than done. – we all in the world have our differences, but when it comes to trade shows, we cooperate, not for the sake of each other, but for the sake of the customers that we represent.
Your book “Trade Shows from One Country to the Next” focuses specifically on global trade show differences and distinctions. What inspired you to start writing the book? What is it about? Who is the audience that the book is intended?
When I started writing the book, I called upon all the people that I have met through the years from all 45 countries, asking them about the specifics of exhibiting in their country. I wanted to create a helpful guide for other exhibit suppliers, but it turned out that the people that need it most are exhibitors themselves. The title of my book is “Trade Shows from One Country to the Next”. It sounds like this is all about trade shows, but it is much more than that. The book will help exhibitors communicate with different personalities and different cultures when you’re trying to sell your product in another country. You don’t need to like the specifics of the culture you are in, but you have to understand and respect it, especially if you want to sell something there. The book is really about that – it addresses all the practical information about the venues, transportation, currency, hotels – all the things exhibitors usually worry about the most when going to an exhibition in a different country. There is also useful information about the rules and regulations regarding exhibitions in each area. In the United States for example we have something called drayage, which is not applied elsewhere, and exhibitors should be prepared for this when exhibiting in the USA. The last component of each chapter deals with the cultural differences and how to engage with visitors at your stand. This portion of each chapter addresses the do’s and don’ts about engagement with the visitors at your stand. It speaks about how to sell, and how to tell within a trade show exhibit space.
What in your opinion is the biggest added value of your work for exhibitors? What helpful information will exhibitors find in your book?
The book will be very useful for people going for business to a country, they have never visited before. But there are also people who have been to a country and think they know all about it. This is most dangerous! I always say: you don’t know what you don’t know and that’s dangerous, because you think you know all about a place, but you really don’t. The book allows you to refresh what you think you know and what you don’t know and uncover those things you don’t know. The mistake that many exhibitors and exhibition organizers make is to assume that the exhibit design that worked at a show in the U.S. will work the same in other countries as well. The underlying purpose of the book is to uncover what is really different in the different areas of the world. You then decide if you want to change or do it your way.
How important is it for exhibitors to know the culture of the country, where they are exhibiting? How can such knowledge help exhibitors have success and better achieve their goals at the exhibition?
Knowing the culture difference of a country when doing business, is key. If you are not prepared, you can make mistakes that can tarnish your image. In Asia for example you don’t hug and touch people – little things of that nature could be a very big thing to make a bad impression, even though you have a good product or service, your attempt to market it there may fail due to a bad first impression.
One of the examples I like to share about differences- with you and it took me five years to realize is why European exhibitors prefer to have raised floors. In the United States they use a thick carpet with the padding underneath. You can lay an electric cord on the ground, cover it with the carpet, and you never feel that cord under your feet. It’s very simple, quick, and a cheaper cost, but every time a European customer comes to a show in the United States they insist on having a raised floor. I was always looking for logical reasons to save money. but then a customer explained that the raised floor is a stage. It’s an important area for their customers to feel they have arrived in the exhibitor’s kingdom. They want a raised floor because their customers should feel important. Shame on me for not understanding this need!
A trade show is a ‘telling’ experience; it’s not a ‘selling’ experience. Often in Europe deals are negotiated and closed on a trade show floor. In the U.S. selling is not as common as telling about what the value of your product/service. The engagement experience is about whether the customer walks away liking your company and whether they feel good about the way they are treated at the trade show. People do business with people they like, with people they feel they trust. The question is how can I best make people feel good about the exhibit experience and see that my product and services are of value for them?
What is also important to know are the terms and words used to describe your exhibit needs when planning an exhibit for a shows in a different country. А glass showcase for example is in French called a vitrine. In the United States the word we use for this is a glass showcase. I remember some years ago a French company asked me for 3 vitrines and my estimator quoted 3 latrines – portable toilets. We lost money for cost of one over the other, because we didn’t know the word they used to describe the item. For this reason and in order to help exhibitors in such situations, I created a template for a Request for Proposal (RFP) (you can find it on my website) for requesting a trade show exhibit in another country. This RFP includes the translation of 250 key words into 12 different languages. This RFP will save valuable time and assures the clarity of your order. It’s not what you say, but what you mean that matters.
What is the one most important advice that you would give to exhibitors, going to shows around the world?
Well my advice is that you don’t have an attitude of “I know” – sometimes you just don’t know what you don’t know. I think the question is- how can I recalculate my thinking to work best in this country? That question needs to be asked by exhibit managers and they should not expect their exhibit suppliers to be providing all the answers. They have to take the time to understand what is different. In the end, you are the one standing in front of customers to sell your product, and not your exhibit supplier. Take the time to understand what you can do to present your product and materials in a way that best communicates with the international audience. My advice is – take the time to identify the difference for each country, and don’t assume that your exhibit strategy works the same at in each place you go. There is no right way, there is no wrong way – there is only a different way. Know and respect what is different and you are on your way to success!
How do you see the future of the exhibition industry?
In general, there are three things that in my opinion are going to change the way our industry will operate in the next 10 years. The three signs are – fewer differences between regions and countries, technology applications, and less emphasis on architecture with a stronger need for a measurable experience. What I’m writing about in the book today is valid now but I would say in five years it’s not going to be the same. In just five years, people will understand the differences in a much greater way than they do now and there won’t be as many differences between taking your program from Paris to Brazil or to New York City. There will be a closer common denominator between countries. You will effectively communicate in the world of trade show marketing because you’re doing it more and have learned what to expect, and how to act. Further to this, technology is changing so fast and within the trade show industry and is being incorporated into trade show marketing in ways that we never have seen before. Think what your cell phone can do today – you can go to a trade show and scan the barcode with your phone and it tells you all about the exhibitor and what is their value. It’s a different way of shopping. Technology is going to change how exhibits are designed and products are presented. Many years ago we feared the concept of virtual trade shows. They still exist. You can go on a computer at two o’clock and literally shop right from your computer to purchase by 3pm. At a virtual trade show, you can go visit booths on your computer and physically see on your screen the exhibitor’s booth with their products and services. This experience however does not deliver the power of face-to-face contact, which is extremely important in business. The one thing that concerns me is that decision making Millennials now live by their telephone and I wonder whether at one point they will still feel the need to get on an airplane to go to a trade show to meet people in person to do business, or simply decide to buy electronicaly? I sure hope they will continue to feel that there’s value in face to face trade show marketing. I strongly feel that the power of face to face marketing through trade shows will continue to flourish in the next seven years. Time will tell!