Trade Shows, Conferences, Conventions: What’s the Difference?

trade shows, conferences, conventions... what's the difference?

Defining the Difference of Specific Industry Events

For those of us in the association industry, public outreach is crucial. In order to make an association successful and continually increase your membership, you need the public eye’s attention. Usually, we would do this at events specifically designed to bridge the gap between associations and potential new members. There are a few terms for events like these. Such as a trade event or show, an annual conference, or a convention. But do you know the difference between these terms? 

If I were to tell you that an international conference and a science fiction convention happening at the Las Vegas convention center were different, you’d think, “no brainer”. However, the differences are more subtle than that. So let’s talk about the differences between conferences vs. trade shows vs. conventions. 

What is a “Conference”?

In the most basic sense, a conference is a gathering of experts in a certain field of academia or industry. The purpose of this meeting can differ slightly, but the idea is for these experts to exchange information they’ve learned, and to come up with possible solutions for problems the industry or group might be facing. 

Typically a conference will have a keynote speaker that will address the group as a whole with a keynote speech. Usually, a keynote speaker will be some sort of celebrity or another person of note within the field or industry. This is done in an attempt to make the show attractive for potential attendees.

conference

What’s the Best Use for a Conference?

In order to discuss the best use of a conference, first, we have to acknowledge that there a couple of different kinds of conferences. 

  • Academic conferences are held by scientists or academics with the intent of sharing research or performing a workshop.
  • Business conferences are industry-specific events. Members of the industry will meet to discuss trends and patterns happening in relation to the industry. They might also discuss new ideas for innovation, invention, or opportunity.
  • Trade conferences are attended by businessmen and women as well as members of the public. The public is given the opportunity to make connections with businesses and network with vendors. 

What’s a Famous Conference that I’ve Heard of? 

The most famous conferences are probably held by the United Nations. They meet annually in September or at special request by the Security Council. The goal of the U.N. is to secure peace for the world, and this is always the topic of discussion in some form or another. 

Perhaps recently you’ve seen Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg speak at the U.N.’s climate change conference. The U.N. conference is always featured in the news, however, young Greta received a lot of press being a speaker at the young age of 15. 

How is it Different?

The biggest difference in conventions is that their intentions are to spread information more than for business networking. While the exchange of money is not forbidden by the nature of a conference, that is not usually the aim. Trade shows are meant for the dissemination of ideas in regards to business and industry, but conferences tend to focus more on humanitarian efforts and education. While the exchange of money is not expressly forbidden at a conference, it’s certainly not the focus. 

what is a trade show?

What is a “Trade Show”?

A trade show is a very particular kind of event. A trade show is an exhibition for companies or associations from a specific industry to show off new products and services they’re offering. These trade shows are not commonly open to the public. However, it is specifically for industry professionals looking for new products and services. Other attendees might include company representatives and members of the press. 

People usually find association trade shows by finding applicable groups in the Encyclopedia of Associations published by Gale Research. They may find the shows these groups attend in magazines, newsletters, or even posted at the public library (among other places as well). 

To find a trade show happening in your region, check with the local convention centers. Trade shows take a lot of planning and need to be booked months in advance. So, chances are, there’s already a trade show coming up in your area that you’d be interested in. 

trade shows vs conventions

Why Would I Attend a Trade Show?

The most basic reason you would want your association represented at a trade show is to influence other groups in the industry. According to a study published by the Center for Exhibit Industry Research (CEIR), “91% of attendees believe trade shows are the number one source of information to help them make purchasing decisions.”

That’s a huge number, especially considering that this is coming from the mind of the consumer. In other words, not what the association professionals think is happening. Trade shows can be an extremely invaluable source for getting information to the men and women your association wants as members. 

What’s a Big Trade Show that I’ve Heard of? 

If you’re at all familiar with trade shows, you’ve probably heard of the Consumer Electronics Show. They’ve boasted attendance numbers beaking 170,000. All of this is in a space of 2.47 million square feet of floor space. It’s a show aimed at showcasing all of the latest products and services in the IT and tech industries, and every year it gains more popularity.

How is it Different?

The name of the game for trade shows is creating awareness and increasing your business. Conferences and conventions can be more focused on the exchange of information. Trade shows, however, put the focus on making money. Where a convention is focused on the consumer experience, trade shows are all about the vendors. It’s a chance for your business or association to show potential investors, customers or members what you’re really made of. 

what is a conference vs a convention

What is a “Convention”?

Perhaps the definition for “convention”, in relation to any of these categories, is the most elusive. Merriam Webster defines a convention as “an assembly of persons for a common purpose”. It seems to me like it could refer to just about any gathering, though. More precisely, the purpose of this meeting is for the mutual discussion or enjoyment of a specific industry, profession, or fandom. 

What is a Convention For?

Conventions have appeal for both vendors and attendees, but the focus is squarely on the attendees. Conventions are meetings with the intent of consumers being able to interact with creators, attend panels, or participate in events. 

conventions usually have more of a celebratory feel to them

What’s a Big Convention that I’ve Heard of? 

The most common type of convention in the United States is a comic book convention. Famous Comic-Cons include the San Diego Comic-Con and the New York Comic-Con, and it’s quite likely you’ve heard about them.

How is it Different?

Conventions are different because their focus is on the consumer experience rather than the ability for an industry or association to sell something. Think of conventions like a music festival. The point of the music festival is for the attendees to have a good time listening to music they enjoy. The fact that musical artists, concert organizers, and food vendors are making money is just an added benefit. Simply put, conventions are an organized event for enthusiasts to gather together and share their enthusiasm. 

different meetings for different industries

Different Meetings for Different Industries

Now that we’ve taken some time to really dissect the differences, it probably seems pretty clear. Trade shows, conventions, and conferences are all pretty different beasts. Of course, they’re all a meeting of minds with the intent of sharing information and experience, but there are many more subtle differences between them. 

So now you know the difference. And hopefully, a better idea of which one pertains to you and your association. Be sure to look up an event happening near you and find out how one of these events can be beneficial for your association! And if you’re wondering what you need to know before attending your first trade show, see what we have to say!

What You Need to Know Before Attending Your First Trade Show

what InLoop thinks you need to know before attending your first association trade show

Tips for Success at Your First Trade Show Exhibit 

Whether your association is just starting out or you’ve stood the test of time, attending your first trade show can be pretty nerve-wracking. You want your first trade show to be a successful outing and be the launch pad for future successful endeavors. 

However, if you’ve never been to one before, it’s hard to know what to expect. It’s also hard to know what common mistakes you should avoid. That’s why we’ve come up with this handy guide for the first time (you and) your association attends a trade show!

be sure to be planning for your first trade show

Pre-Show Planning

The key to having a great trade show experience is proper planning! Planning should begin far in advance, before the actual event you plan on attending. If you were to just show up with your material without prior planning, you’d be destined for failure. And no one wants to be a failure!

Early Registration

Did you know that most shows have dates for early registration? Be sure to research the show you want to attend and register your association the first day that early registration begins! The more time you have to plan for your trade show, the better off you’ll be. 

Not to mention that there are often early-bird discounts for registering your association early. For every penny you save, there’s a penny that can be put towards your success. Register early and you’ll be making this outing the most successful one it can be for your small business or association!

budget is a part of the trade show planning process

Event Budgeting

Setting a budget is critical to having a successful first trade show experience. In fact, without a budget, it’s hard to tell what a successful outing actually is. 

To set your trade show budget, consider the following:

  • What are your expenses? Having a limit on your spending for an event will help you to keep from making your exhibit outing a failure.
  • Record your spending. Without recording what you’re spending, there’s no point in having a budget at all. 

Be Attractive!

We’re doing a lot of logistic thinking about numbers and money, but don’t forget about creativity! No one will want to visit your booth if they’re not attracted to it. Make your booth and your business cards full color with fun designs. You want to accurately convey information, but have fun with it! 

Chances are you already have a creative person working for you who would jump at the chance to use their skills. In addition, video sharing is another great way to bring people by. Give them a show and they’re sure to stick around for a minute! As long as it’s a good show, that is. *wink wink*

make sure your booth is attractive to the trade show attendees

Check the Attendee List for Potential Customers

Almost any exhibit hall you go to will be able to provide an attendee list prior to the event. This list usually comes with a price, but it can have absolutely invaluable information. It’s time to do your research. 

If you know who is going to be attending the show, you can more accurately see how you want to spend your time and efforts. You can find your target market before the building is even occupied. Make a marketing campaign geared specifically towards the groups or people you know will be attending. Being able to tailor-make material or forums for specific attendees will almost certainly net you some positive results.

make a marketing effort on your association's social media platforms

Make a Marketing Effort on Social Media Platforms

Social media marketing is the best way to drum up some buzz before you attend your first trade show. Use your platform of individuals already interested in your products or services to enhance the excitement surrounding your trade show exhibit. Incentivize your followers to share your marketing efforts and expand your audience. The more buzz you create surrounding your association, and the trade show, the more valuable your experience will be.

Setting Goals

Setting goals will ultimately be the only way you know if your trade show was a successful one or not. Without having something to measure against, your only metric for success will be how you felt. While making a couple of good sells feels good, it’s not going to cover your expenses, and you might end up losing money without realizing.

We suggest setting S.M.A.R.T. goals for your outing; broken down, this means:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant
  • Time Bound

While the goal to “have fun” sounds nice, it’s not going to pay the bills. A real goal might be… “We want to make x amount of money or sales”. Or… “We want to interact with x amount of attendees”. When you have something specific to work towards, you have a specific goal in mind.

Achieving your goal becomes infinitely easier when the endpoint is in sight. Also, set some smaller goals for yourself. Sure, there are bigger reasons why you’re at a trade show. But there are lots of small successes to be celebrated in addition to the big ones. So shoot for the stars, but don’t forget to pat yourself on the back for your hard work!

know the convention center where your first trade show will be

The Big Day!

The big day has finally arrived! You’re there, you’ve got your trade show displays ready to go. Perhaps your business cards are designed attractively in full color, and you’re just about ready to set up your booth space. What should you be thinking about on the day-of? It’s your first trade show, but we believe in you.

Know the Convention Center 

Get some intimate knowledge of where you’re going to be. No, we’re not just talking about where to get food and where the bathrooms are (although that’s important, too)! Get to know the physical space. Are you far away from any drinking fountains or the food? Maybe offering food or drinks would be just the thing to get someone to stop at your table! 

Know where your competitors are and know where your target market is. Know what your competitors are offering and how they’re advertising. Give yourself the competitive edge of knowledge and planning to circumvent the competition.

Finally! The big day has arrived! It's time for your first trade show.

Give Your Target Audience a Reason to Visit your Trade Show Booth

We’ve done all our research on who will be attending the trade show. You know which competing associations are nearby, so now it’s time to come up with your plan of attack. 

Here are some tips for coming up with great ways to attract an audience:

  • Make interactive content. Entertain your guests! Give them a puzzle to complete. Find a way to involve social media. Giving prizes out is another incentive to get the interaction started!
  • Entertain. You don’t have to be Elvis Costello to put on a show for your audience. It doesn’t have to be music, either! You can perform demonstrations for your products if you have them, or just have a fun game to play while you discuss your association.
  • Provide a phone charging station. When we’re at a trade show, we’re all away from home. You know that means at least one person forgot to bring a cell phone charger, right? And for everyone else, you’ve already been out all morning. Seeing a cell phone charging station at your booth is going to be an oasis in the desert for some folks. So while attendees are charging their phones, what better a time to strike up a conversation?! Mention what else your association can do to help them.
set SMART goals for your first trade show

Being Prepared for Your First Trade Show

Being prepared for your trade show exhibit is going to be the first gatekeeper to success. Make specific and achievable goals for yourself and your association! When it comes to your booth and your promotional material, no detail is too minor to be worthy of consideration.

Success doesn’t come from being prepared for just one thing, but from being prepared for everything. So continue to follow our blog this month and see what you need to do to be ready for your first trade show experience!