What’s happening when they scan you at trade shows

Chances are good that when you attend a major trade show (as I’m doing this week in Washington, D.C.), you’ll have something in common with the can of peas you bring home from the grocery store. Like the peas, you’ll be assigned a bar code, and the organization running the trade show will follow your movements – and those of your fellow attendees – every time you walk in and out of the show.

The information is collected efficiently. Your name badge carries the bar code, and a handheld scanner can be used to check you in and out of the venue each time you come and go. It makes for better security, of course, and no one can enter the show who hasn’t paid.

At the same time, the show is collecting all kinds of data that can be used to negotiate lower prices and better terms and conditions for future events. It can demonstrate to hotels and restaurants, for example, how many individuals come to a show, how many nights they stay, how often they leave the exhibit hall during a given day, and how many hours they stay away before returning (presumably to eat or shop).

Not that the information is tremendously useful, but a trade show can even get a good idea of how many smokers attend. If someone is stepping out eight times in a day but coming back within 10 or 15 minutes each time, odds are that person stepped outside to light up.

With such thorough data in hand, the trade show can justify the rates it charges an exhibitor for space by demonstrating how long and how many days an average attendee spends in the exhibit hall. The show also can make it possible for exhibitors to collect data easily on attendees. An exhibitor can rent its own handheld scanner and quickly gather names and contact data on individuals (with permission, of course). Extra bar codes allow an exhibitor to note whether a person wants to be contacted by a sales rep, placed on an email list or given technical data to help make a buying decision.

We hear constantly that marketing has to become more data driven. Trade shows have bought into this idea heavily, and they’re delivering the goods. You might not like being bar coded like a can of peas, but if you’re one of the voices proclaiming the importance of market data, it seems only right that you wear your bar code with pride.

What do you think? Can other organizations learn some valuable lessons from trade show data gathering?

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