Where’s Waldo The Supplier?

Imagine the typical conference scene depicting hundreds of people at a convention center doing a variety of interesting meeting and tradeshow things.

Now consider this image is a hand drawn double page spread in large children’s book.

Your task as the reader is to find Waldo, the supplier and exhibitor, at the event hidden in the group. Unlike the famous Waldo with his distinctive red-and-white striped shirt, bobble hat and glasses, Waldo the supplier does not have any distinguishing characteristics. Waldo the supplier looks and acts like all of the other people in the scene. So, where’s Waldo the supplier?

Find Waldo the Supplier

As you intently scan the two-page spread, you realize that the page is full of red herrings involving deceptive use of red-and-white striped objects, just like the real children’s book Waldo. The harder you look, the more you notice that there is really no way to tell who is an attendee or an exhibitor.

Then your eye notices a tiny stripe on each individual’s name badge. Some name badges have green stripes, some yellow and some red. You conclude that attendees have a green stripe, exhibitors yellow and speakers red.

Then your brain notices an amazing pattern. All of the suppliers with yellow stripes congregate in small huddles away from attendees. As you continue to scan the page, you recognize rooms set in theater style with a podium at the front and a speaker. The attendees are all sitting facing the speaker looking at the back of heads of each other. You don’t see any exhibitors sitting with the attendees. The more you analyze the page, the more you detect that the exhibitors rarely are with other attendees, except in the exhibitions hall where they expect the attendees to just come to them.

You chuckle to yourself and say out loud, “Not much different than most conferences I’ve attended.”

A couple weeks ago, Dave and I participated in GaMPI’s Meetings Exploration Conference in Atlanta. At this event, Dave had an interesting observation that reminded me of the “Where’s Waldo” children’s book. He didn’t see many yellow-striped name badge exhibitors attending breakouts. Their absence sent a loud message to attendees. Suppliers want their business, but they don’t want to help them be successful.

As Dave and I presented two sessions on hybrid events, an unusual thing happened. Even though most suppliers are worried about how hybrid or virtual meetings will cannibalize face-to-face events, we found a Waldo, an exhibitor, attending our session. 80% of the exhibitors did not attend any GaMPI education sessions but Megan Maharry, National Sales Director from Disney did. Yes, she could have chose to follow in the footsteps of her exhibitor peers and reply to emails, play Mafia Wars, hang out in their booth or respond to RFP’s that they’ll never win. She wisely chose a different path.

Megan was present in all of the concurrent sessions. She understands that she is in the relationship business and that by attending the breakouts with the planners, she’s growing those relationships and helping attract planners that will later visit her booth. She’s building trust and sharpening her saw so she can better help her clients solve their problems. Megan doesn’t just sell brass, glass and attractions. She sells better meeting experiences. She gets that meetings mean business…that face-to-face matters.

And Megan has a deeper understanding. She really surprised us by asking us the $64,000 question: “How can we help our clients provide Hybrid Meetings along with their face-to-face events? What should we be providing as the venue to support their endeavors?” Wow, that was the right question and she got the right answer too. Megan now has a secret weapon that will help her in her consultative sales approach.

So what makes Megan better than the rest? Is it good training, a genuine interest in helping her clients, a love for the meetings industry or good genes? Dave said “It’s all of the above and I’d put big money on her employer getting more ROI out of their participation in the MEC than their competition.”

The moral of the “Where’s Waldo The Supplier” story? Suppliers, if you truly believe that the meetings and events industry is a relationship business, then you should carefully consider your actions at your next tradeshow. Suppliers don’t build and grow their professional network without taking advantage of participating in every opportunity possible. That includes participating in the breakouts to better understand your customers challenges and opportunities.

As Dave says, “Suppliers, go to more education sessions so you can be more helpful to your clients. You might actually learn something. You might book something. You might even build relationships that pay off for many years.”

What do you think? How can you attract more Waldos in your education sessions? Do you have any advice for the Waldos at your exhibitions or events?

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  1. Hi Jeff, I totally agree with you. I rarely have suppliers in my programs when I’m speaking – and I’m interactive speaker. Lots of chances to meet folks.

    Having just spent a week working at Disneyland I’m totally not surprised it was a Disney person who showed up. They are very sharp.


  2. I think it starts with the culture of the organization.

    For example, I thought it was really easy to be engaged at PCMA and act like a human rather than a sales robot. They were generous with me, were explicit in my orientation about how we should behave, and generally treated me with respect. That makes it easy to show them loyalty.

    In comparison, I’ve experienced other organizations that didn’t even bother with an orientation, constantly approach me with high pressure sales tactics, invite me to apply for awards which secretly have high fees attached to them, etc. It’s really hard to feel good about engaging in the value creation side of those organizations.

    My reaction was just to bail out of most of these events, but if I hadn’t been turned off, I would be in those sessions with you.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      ‘@Cynthia – Yeah, leave it to those Disney folks. They are a smart bunch and know how to build relationships for sure.

      @Tony – Great point about the culture of an organization and how some organizations create barriers for some attendee’s engagement during the conference. I’ve experienced that too.

      @Michael – I like what you said that “The challenge may be somewhat driven by the problem of event/education design.” So we as meeting organizers need to think about that point and intentionally design education experiences for all the stakeholders involved.”

  3. Jeff,

    This is a great story, with a terrific message. I just wish all of my hotel and supplier friends would read this article, as it’s message is a wake-up call.

    So many of our hotel/supplier industry colleagues are unhappy that there aren’t enough “planners” at industry events, whether they be chapter, regional or national. Yet, to your point, you attend a large conference, and many of them are nowhere to be found while the education sessions are occurring.

    That challenge may be somewhat driven by the problem of event/education design. But, the first rule of customer interaction excellence is to go where your customers are and engage with them. They just need to get engaged, and get into the conversation.

    That is why this story, of Megan Maharry, is so heartwarming. She gets it! I actually hope to have a chance to do business with her.

    Thanks for calling out this topic, I actually plan to write a blog article on this subject as well as I think we need to start shepherding more of our hotel/supplier partners into our discussions.


  4. Dave Lutz says:

    As a professional meeting industry conference goer, I see great supplier participation at monthly Chapter events. At larger events with multiple sessions is when I really notice the disappearing act. It happened at IAEE, PCMA and GaMPI. What’s funny is that you will see a ton of suppliers attend a hotel negotiating or revenue management session. Planners will be there too. Planners realize that the more they understand hotels and suppliers business, the better their negotiating results. Most suppliers are just hanging where they are comfortable.

    Suppliers need to realize that the more they understand what makes an event or conference successful, the more they can move into a consultative sales role, help their clients and close the big fish. They need to attend and dig in with sessions to better understand what’s going to make future events grow and prosper. They need to quit doing dinners where they are entertaining clients named Ernest & Julio Gallo!

  5. Debra Roth says:

    HI Jeff,

    I am so glad you wrote the Where’s Waldo post! And as you probably know by now, I am also one of those suppliers that “get it” and I view the Waldo stripes as a jail sentence.

    For those of you who don’t know me – I am Debra Roth and I own a company called Pink Inc. We build Creative Fabric Solutions – primarily tension fabric structures for Event Design, Exhibits and Architectural installations. I met Jeff online through the social media – Twitter in particular in the #eventprofs group – an open group of like-minded event professionals that exchange ideas and network together.

    For the most part in the larger trade shows that I participate in as a vendor or supplier (as show management likes to call us) the perception is that we ARE low man on the totem pole. Those stripes identify us as folks to: Watch out! Don’t engage! Here comes the pitch! DUCK!!!!

    Often education is double booked with the trade show portion of the show. (We have to set up and tear down too!) And when it isn’t, rarely are there sessions that would include the suppliers – there are rarely sessions directly addressing – how suppliers can work better with the conference participants – Most show organizers do not ask what we would like to see or do. OR what if there was actually a supplier education track. Oops I forgot that is a different trade show!

    There is NO incentive for the Conference Participants to even come into the trade show hall. We are all booked so tight that when there is a free hour the participants have to run to check their email, do some work or maybe even relax or go into the fresh air.

    And if it is a 6-8 hour a day show us suppliers are tired of standing all day in a brightly lighted hall talking to new and existing clients. And since this economic downturn it has made it worse – now we wonder where everybody is? We all spent A LOT of money to be here – and yes all of us suppliers become good friends….gotta talk to someone! (Especially on that last day of a 3 day show!)

    There is often very little deliberate interaction – a setting up of meetings – although we are starting to see focused hosted buyer sessions – one on ones with buyers and sellers. Pre-determined meetings that are set up before anyone even gets on site.

    The trade show model is changing – In the last few years I have turned to smaller shows where there is more of an even playing field. However – I think that is for another post! (I do see a change now and I DO have lots of ideas and observations!)

    Those of us who exhibit are often called vendors – and in some cases suppliers, again – cementing that we are only here to supply you with something and rarely are we considered Sponsors, Partners or even Masters of our forms. Even though we ARE sponsors – paying a large part of the conference to subsidize the educational portions – we are not viewed as helping the industry – just those pesky people that want to sell us.

    I prefer to be referred to as a Partner and I view my work as a partnership where I bring in my 20+ years of expertise and experience in events, exhibits and architectural industries. I want your event (exhibit – whatever it is) to be great and I believe it is a reflection on my company when you do great! Your success is my success! Maybe I am a rare “supplier”, a true PARTNER who continues to learn and share my knowledge. Perhaps I am even a Master of my own particular area. So – to you I ask – what can we do to change this perception? It sounds like you may want to help!

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thanks for the thoughtful and wise comment. I mistakenly call you and your peers suppliers and vendors all the time. I’ll try to work on that. As I shared with you recently, once I and a supplier agree to work together, I have no problem calling you my partner.

      So here’s my question for you. If I’ve not agreed to do work with you yet and you’re a vendor that has a product or service that might interest me, what should I call you…before we’ve agreed to work together. Should I still call you my partner even though we’re not in a contractual relationship yet? Just curious if you have any thoughts about that.

  6. Jeff, if I’ve got something you want and we aren’t working together yet, you can call me anything you want – as long as you call me. 😉


    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      ‘@Cynthia – I have visions of you doing Karaoke to Blondie’s “Call Me!” Maybe ASAE’s Annual Conference in LA in September you’ll do that for me as a request. 🙂

  7. Great article! I completely agree. At our annual conference and expo for the exhibit and event industry, TS2, we provide our exhibitors with full conference registrations for their booth personnel and always encourage them to participate in the sessions, but it is often difficult to actually get them there. I will definitely be sharing this post with them!

  8. […] Standing Out in a Crowded Exhibit Hall Jeff Hurt recently observed on his blog, Midcourse Corrections, the exhibitor, or supplier is often missing from conference sessions. As his post compares the […]

  9. Howard Keele says:

    Fantastic concept. This would have generated some real fun and also bonding together. Uniforms have a unique, even if we don’t like them, place in ensuring people are equals.

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