It’s conference season again. Professional organizations in the training and e-Learning business are offering up their winter and spring conferences. Most include expos, where vendors display, demonstrate, and sell their wares. The expo is not the only reason to go to conferences; professional development and networking are usually the primary drivers. Yet the opportunity to look at new products and services, all in one place, is compelling.

Some people suggest that expos are an anachronism, saying that shopping on the Internet is all you need. Really? We shop on the Web for a new car, but at the end of the day, we’re in the showroom, kicking the tires and going on a test drive. That’s how we should look at a vendor expo. Think of it as product research. The expense of the trip is worth it if you can avoid a poor purchase decision on a big or not-so-big ticket item.

Shopping an expo can be daunting. So, based on more than 100 expo visits over 30 years, here are my 14 tips for making your journey a success:

  1. Before you go: Define your requirements. Answer these questions: What do you, your organization, customers, and clients need? What are your requirements for a particular product or service? How much can you afford? If you are not clear on why you are going and what you need, your trip may be wasted.

  2. Before you go: Do your Web research. Visit the Websites of vendors, products, and services that match your needs. Many professional associations have vendor directories that can get you started, and you can purchase reports and buying guides from several industry experts. Narrow your choices through recommendations, case studies, reviews, product specs, price (although sometimes, the actual price you’ll pay is hidden), and, just as important, what simply seems interesting to you.

  3. Before you go: Review the expo roster. Most conferences publish a pre-event list of vendors so you can match your research to the vendors who will be at the show. If your vendors are not going, you have a choice to make. Don’t go, or, if other vendors are there, go anyway to see some of the products and services that didn’t make your initial cut but could help you understand what’s available. Finally, if most of your preferred vendors are attending, but not all of them, you might look at multiple shows to see all your potential choices.

  4. Get the lay of the land. Now you’re at the expo. First, casually walk up and down the aisles. Don’t stop for any detailed conversation, just walk the floor and get a feel for who is there. Mark down the booths you want to stop back to see. Do this on the first day of the expo so you’ll have time to go back.

  5. Avoid the crowds. Most attendees are in the expo when there are no other sessions or events taking place, and especially when free food is being offered. If you are serious, do the opposite. Visit the expo when traffic is light; you’ll get a lot more face time with sales and technical people.

  6. Take the gimmicks in stride. Many vendors have all sorts of gimmicks to get you to stop by. Food, toys, trinkets, and prize drawings are common. Partake by all means, if you find it entertaining. Just remember that these come-ons have nothing to do with product and service quality or value.

  7. Think about badge swiping. Nowadays, most conferences put barcodes on your nametag, allowing vendors to quickly swipe your badge and get your contact information (remember you provided this information when you registered). There’s nothing inherently wrong with this; in fact it makes it easy for the vendor to contact you if you are interested in following up on a product or service. But keep in mind that having your badge swiped by a vendor that holds no interest for you still could mean a deluge of contacts (phone, e-mail, and snail-mail). You can always opt out later, but on the expo floor, you will have to judge for yourself how much of this you want.

  8. Lay back at first. One good technique to use at a booth is simply to listen while someone else asks questions or looks at a demo. This way, you get a feel for what you might ask, you can observe the skills and competence of the salesperson, and perhaps you can make a decision as to whether or not you want to explore more deeply and personally, or just pass.

  9. Now, it’s your turn. As you return to vendors that interest you, you will likely want to ask questions and see a demo. Come prepared with some good up-front questions, and ask the same questions of all your top choices so you can compare their responses. See how good and how deep their answers are; you want to know if the vendor’s representatives are knowledgeable about their products. It’s OK if one rep has to ask someone else about your question, as long as you get a good answer in short order. But if you can’t get your questions answered after several tries, or if there’s too much “selling” and not enough “explaining,” it’s time to move on.

  10. Get demoed. Whether the demo is one-on-one or in a group setting, it should be logical and geared for your level of understanding (not too simple and not too geeky, unless you ask for it to be). Be sure to ask questions and be ready to evaluate the responses.

  11. Take a test drive. Ask for an opportunity to try the product both at the booth and back home. Some vendors will give you a 30-day trial via disk or download. Others will want to contact you to arrange it. Either way, “try before you buy” is always good advice.

  12. Talk price. It may be difficult to get exact pricing information at an expo. However, for those products and services you are interested in, it’s probably worth a try, even if you just get ballpark numbers. But keep in mind two things: first, the purchase price may not include installation, implementation, or support (often in “service agreements”), and second, almost everything’s negotiable, sooner or later.

  13. Make a return visit. For some vendors, you may have more questions, you may want to show the product or service to a colleague who is also at the conference, or you may just want to confirm that you liked what you saw the first time. So go back and visit again. It shows your interest and you should expect increased interest from the vendor.

  14. Back home, debrief. Debrief with your colleagues about what you learned and your impressions of each firm. These discussions, along with your pre-trip work (steps 1-3 above), will better position you to make the right choices for your organization. You still may have more shopping and research to do (e.g., inviting the vendor to your organization, getting an I.T. review, or issuing an RFP), but you now have a great foundation for moving forward.

For those of you who live in certain parts of the U.S., you may know Syms, the discount clothing store chain. I don’t care much for their clothes, but I loved founder Sy Syms’ slogan, “An educated consumer is our best customer.” Take Sy’s words to heart when you visit a conference expo. Get educated and you won’t go wrong.