You were sent to a conference to learn from the instructors, to network with other attendees, to gather some information on the vendors your organization is considering, to see if any other vendors are worth looking at and to see if anything new should be considered. You will visit the vendors' booths, hear their presentations and view demonstrations. This column suggests optimal approaches to the exhibit hall.

Planning Your Attack

You need a plan to make the best use of your time at the exhibition. You've probably been given marching orders such as, "Look at the ETL [extract, transform and load] tools," or "See what Product X is planning for its next release," or "Bring back all the literature you can find on data quality," or "Get me one of those cool T-shirts from Vendor Y." (A side note on the T-shirts, pens and assorted vendor toys you may be picking up: be sure not to display your plunder on your return; it would diminish the seriousness of your quest for information.)

If you are going to be looking at more than one category of tool, map out the floor and visit all the vendors in one category before going on to the next group. For example, if the category is ETL, you will look at each of the ETL vendors before moving on to business intelligence tools. The conference catalog will tell you each of the vendor's specialties. Be prepared with your questions. Gather literature, especially white papers, and take notes on what you've learned.

Booth Babes

What you are about to read is politically incorrect, but please continue reading. Many vendors will select some of their most attractive employees for the exhibit. These employees are both male and female and they are commonly referred to as "booth babes." The booth babes may not be the most knowledgeable on their product, but they do draw potential customers. You may say it is unfair to stereotype those blessed with good looks as being less than smart. I strongly disclaim this stereotype and tell you openly and honestly that some of my best friends are attractive, and one is even borderline intelligent. Where is all this leading? To make the best use of your time, search out the ugliest guy in the booth. They brought him along because someone has to answer the tough, penetrating questions, and those are the ones you will be asking. Be sure to get his or her card and politely ask if you can make contact with further questions. If everyone in the booth has the same eye appeal, inquire about the person who is most technical.

Active and Passive

You can introduce yourself, have your badge scanned, give them some very basic information about your environment and your needs, and let them give you the stump presentation, or you can take the initiative to tell them why you are visiting their booth, outline your situation, why you are interested in their product and what information you need from them. Get your questions answered before allowing them to go into demo mode; you may even want to skip the demonstration if, by their answers, you discover that the product is not a good fit for your needs. Make it clear that when you ask if they have a specific capability, you are not looking for a theoretical answer ("It should be able to do that"), you want an explicit answer ("It does that and this is how"). You want to talk to customers who are doing what you are asking. If the person answering the questions cannot answer yours, ask if they might know someone in their organization who can and ask for that contact information.

Reporting Results

Write up the results of your exhibit floor journey, including your reaction and evaluation of each vendor who is in contention. This write-up should contain the questions you were asking and the pertinent answers. Your report could include a recommendation to drop a vendor from consideration if you learned that they failed in one of your mandatory categories. Identify the vendors and the products that should be pursued. If you are expecting a follow-up answer, or if you will need to ask additional questions, indicate this in your report. Document the people with whom you have spoken, their titles and if you are expecting to hear from them. Suggest which of the vendors you feel should be invited to present and demonstrate their products.

A final note: some vendors sponsor hospitality suites with finger food, drinks and a 142-decibel noise level. You'll come away with no useful information, a vague understanding of the vendor and its products, and a minor hearing loss.  

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