The Electronic Transactions Association's Annual Meeting & Expo is a rite of spring for many in the payments industry. It's a pilgrimage of sorts, with professionals from far and wide converging on Las Vegas for the premier industry showcase. But, as you pack your bags and charge your cell phone, it may be wise to ask yourself a simple question: Why exactly am I going?
It may seem like an obvious question, but evidence suggests it isn't. ETA veterans notice the telltale signs that in some cases this fundamental question has not been addressed, or even raised: attendees wandering lost on the showroom floor, with a deer in the headlights look; vendors standing in a seemingly catatonic state at their booths, not engaging the crowd; attendees thinking of slot machines, not new POS products.
Perhaps now, more than ever, to attend the ETA without a game plan or set of goals makes the entire exercise a waste of time and money - for unprepared attendees, for the vendors forced to deal with them and for the individuals who put on the show only to have their efforts squandered by ill-prepared participants.
But the payment professionals contacted for this article were unanimous in their opinion that a little forethought and planning can make the ETA experience an invaluable one for all who attend and a profitable one for the businesses sponsoring their attendance.
To gain the most value from the ETA's annual conference, it is necessary to understand the organization's mission. Thomas Goldsmith, Communications Director for the ETA, recognizes that businesses pony up thousands - if not tens of thousands - of dollars to fund booths and send representatives to the event. He said that to make those investments worthwhile, the ETA has three primary goals:
The ETA's atmosphere is conducive to exploiting opportunities in those three arenas. "Everybody's in a mood to talk and answer questions, and they're not being rushed by their own business schedules," Goldsmith said. "It's very relaxed. There are parties and dinners and hospitality suites.
"There are things going on where you can sit with someone for 10, 15 minutes to pick their brain, that you might not be able to do if you had to call them up and get an appointment."
But just being able to bend the ear of an expert in any given field only scratches the surface of the ETA's potential benefits. "I wouldn't even want to begin to count the number of partnerships, just the informal arrangements that end up there," Goldsmith said.
"And recommendations, contacts that turn out to be good business later," he added. "Heck, just making a friend that you can call up on the phone and say, 'I've got this merchant. What kind of advice can you give me to help me get that account?'
"There's just no place like it in terms of what you can accomplish there. As somebody once told me ... if I can just get one new sales rep, one connection, one deal done, [the ETA] pays for itself."
Linda Mahy, President and Chief Executive Officer at payment convergence specialist ConnectiveIQ, emphasized that attendees not squander the opportunity the ETA's annual April meeting presents them.
"The vendors spent a lot of time and money to be prepared to be there," she said. "And many of the people that are in that exhibit hall are some of the better people that came out of this industry. They've got something to say. And people that don't go to the shows and work them properly irritate me. It's not just a boondoggle."
Recognizing that attending the ETA is not a frivolous pursuit is a first step. But that realization should be followed by action. "So ISOs that are coming to the show ought to know the exhibit space, know the vendors that are going to be there, search their Web sites in advance, maybe have a couple conference calls in advance if they're looking for solutions," Mahy said.
"And then meet and greet these people while they are there," she added. "When the exhibit hall is open, spend time in the exhibit hall. Give the vendors the courtesy of a conversation with them."
Before engaging vendors at the ETA, Mahy advises ISOs and merchant level salespeople to write down their questions. "What do they want answered?" she said. "What do they want to know about management?
What do they want to know about merchant fraud? What do they want to know about chargeback processing? ... Get on a learning program and take advantage of the collection of brain power that is at that conference."
Mahy stressed that organization is the key ingredient in working the ETA effectively. She said, "You call them before the show - can I schedule some time? Send them an official meeting invite and get locked and loaded - where and when. ... If it's a booth, put the booth number. ETA does a good job of laying out who's in what booth. What the location is. Everybody's got a booth number."
Mahy advised investing in a day planner or Blackberry to organize meeting times and contact information. "Make sure you have your contact list ready to go, your to-do folder complete with cell phone numbers," she noted.
Missed connections because of inadequate contact information means wasted time. So Mahy suggests attendees find out the hotels at which their contacts are staying in case all other attempts at locating them have failed. But organizing schedules is only one aspect. Donna Embry, Senior Vice President at Payment Alliance International, emphasizes organization in every contact she makes at the ETA. She tucks received business cards into the pocket of the conference-issued lanyard she wears around her neck. "If there is someone special, whether it was a special product or a special person, I'll usually put those to the forefront," she said.
Then, at the end of the day, Embry goes through those business cards in the calm and quiet of her hotel room. She rearranges them in order of importance and makes notes on them to help with follow-up after the show.
When her head hits the pillow that night, the day has been successfully ordered and put to bed. Thus, Embry can start the next day of conferencing afresh and open to whatever possibilities lay before her.
Scheduled meetings for making introductions, or as a way to gain information from experts about particular products and services, are just the ground floor of opportunities the ETA affords. Meetings that take business relationships to the next level, into partnerships and acquisitions for example, are in a more complex stratosphere. But, once again, preparation is vital.
"When you see the exhibitor list, if you see something that catches your eye or intrigues you, don't wait for the ETA to set up that meeting," said Phillip Parker, Vice President at Reno, Calif.-based ISO Money Tree Merchant Services. "Give them a call and get some more information, and see if there's more than just the product or service that someone might be offering.
"It's the manner in which they offer it. Their personalities, their inner workings. It helps to get a feel for who they are and how they do what they do to see if that's a good fit for you. And you'll figure that out on the phone more often than not."
Prescreening relationships is especially beneficial "in an arena like the ETA when you're budgeting your time," Parker said. "If it's something that ultimately is not going to work for you, it's not going to happen. You are going to spend 30 minutes discussing something only to find it will just not work for you. But if you do some of that prescreening you can avoid falling into those [traps]."
Embry said meetings at the ETA may not be ideal for closing deals, but they do present opportunities for moving relationships forward. And Parker noted such meetings could be ideal for repairing relationships. Perhaps an equipment vendor is feeling underappreciated or an intercompany issue has cropped up. "Face to face is a great way to - hopefully nonemotionally - repair a problem," Parker said.
Restaurants, of course, are ideal destinations for meetings held during the ETA, with Las Vegas offering an infinitude of culinary delights. Intimate dinners are conducive to forging relationships, but breakfasts are popular as well. For example, an advertising executive for an influential industry publication finalized a contract with an ISO at the ETA over poached eggs and a chorizo omelet.
Mahy said attendees should start their homework months in advance of the ETA. But it is also incumbent on ISOs' upper management to do their part to support their representatives at the show. Sometimes that may mean tough love.
"If I were running an ISO and I had salespeople, I would only send the ones that had appointments," Mahy said. "If you don't have 10 appointments over three days, you're not going. And tell me who your appointments are with.
"What are you trying to learn? Is it a risk vendor, a fraud vendor? A chargeback vendor? An analytics vendor? A neural network vendor? What are you going to learn from this show?" Above all, businesses need to know how spending the money to send employees to the show will benefit them in the long run, Mahy said.
Keith Briscoe, Principal at Toronto-based marketing consultancy Brisk Marketing, agrees. When he managed the marketing presence for technology company eFunds Corp. (now a subsidiary of Fidelity National Information Services Inc.), the policy was simple: no meetings planned, no go. "It wasn't very popular, of course, but it definitely had a positive impact on getting people engaged to set up their meetings," he said.
Once the conference has concluded, however, your job is not done; follow-up is required with the contacts you've made. "What tends to happen is people get very fatigued after they manage to get the show done," Briscoe said. "And then the follow-up flags. And that's the worst you can do because those leads go cold. It's going to be very hard to demonstrate some return on investment. So that part is critical."
Briscoe was quick to point out that the goals of vendors manning booths at the ETA are different from the goals of attendees. "As a vendor you're looking at the ETA as a really strategic sales and marketing opportunity," he said.
But Briscoe believes vendors often waste opportunities with lazy or misguided engagement strategies. "Too often the mistake that's made - especially with smaller vendors - is you show up with your 10 by 10 pop-up booth and you sit there waiting for the universe of prospects to come to you," he said. "And it just doesn't work that way.
"Even just the basic booth etiquette and standards get violated so frequently - people sitting at the booth, just taking a really passive approach."
According to Briscoe, effective tradeshow strategies for vendors include months of preparation and training of booth presenters. He has brought in third-party consultants to play the "bad cop role" to train staff on how to engage attendees successfully. "You can't just expect people to gravitate to you," he said. "You have to go out there and really sell the company and try to make those contacts."
To make the most of tradeshow time, Briscoe used demos to attract crowds. He hired knowledgeable, charismatic individuals to run the demos. "When you get a couple of people standing around watching your demonstration, it tends to breed interest," he said. "As soon as you get a few people, more and more people will say, 'What's going on? Do I need to see this?' That kind of mentality sets in.
"So, from an engagement point of view, it's really critical to have that kind of mini event going on in your booth."
Although demos naturally draw attention, Marketing Consultant Daniel Wadleigh advises booth attendants to give viewers "space" in order to maximize interest. "They like to be able to stand off and be entertained and inspired without having direct confrontation with sales personnel," Wadleigh said. "They will interact with a demo if the consequences are not threatening."
Wadleigh believes demos should ideally excite people's imaginations. "Remembering that professionally trained salesmen paint the picture for the customer of the benefits of having his product/service, there really is no business like show business," he said.
For one tradeshow, Briscoe developed a super-hero campaign. Industry problems and merchant pain points were depicted as super villains. Who was there to vanquish those villains? The super hero who embodied the corporation's industry-leading solutions, of course.
The concept "gave people kind of a hook," Briscoe said. "It looked very different on the tradeshow floor. Some people might have said that looked gimmicky, but the point was to look different and to get people to enquire, 'What's this all about and how does it relate to what I do?'
"Often the technology and the terminology and the jargon can be pretty overwhelming for people. So this was a way to make it much more accessible and elevate the level of discourse."
Like vendors, the media go to the ETA for reasons unique to their sphere. A primary focus of the media at tradeshows is to gather information, learn about product innovations and identify trends for future articles.
But often vendors fail to convey why their companies are worthy of news coverage. Press releases are poorly written or booth attendants are uninformed about how the companies they represent are addressing industry issues and concerns.
"Too often [vendors] get these booth babes who have a specific script they're following," Briscoe said. "They can't actually engage in a conversation."
Occasionally, inappropriate behavior directed at the media - such as sexual advances or inarticulate utterances resulting from intoxication - impedes the media from doing its job. Sometimes individuals will corner members of the media at tradeshows and go on and on about individual and company accomplishments, without making it relevant from a reporter's perspective.
But when individuals waste the media's time with boorish or self-centered behavior, those individuals are wasting their own time as well. "I know I've had people come up and start talking to me and they're obviously drunk," said Kate Gillespie, General Manager and Chief Operating Officer at The Green Sheet Inc. "Probably not the best time to talk to the press."
With the cornucopia of products and services on display amid a cacophony of networking and schmoozing, the ETA experience can be overwhelming, especially for newbies.
"I can't tell you how many times I've seen people wandering around with the addendum for the show and they are lost and they're overwhelmed and they're flooded," Mahy said.
Embry encourages newcomers to orient themselves to the industry and bring structure to the event by attending the ETA's four introductory seminars on the payments industry, many of which Embry has taught herself.
As part of the ETA University (a series of seminars held online and during the conference), the four introductory classes provide first timers with an overview of the industry, from electronic processing basics to the technologies available to merchants.
Parker offered other words of advice: Contain expectations. If attendees go to the ETA with preconceived, rigid notions of what they should accomplish or are obsessed with gaining a particular new partner or specific equipment vendor, "that's probably not going to happen," Parker said.
But if they educate themselves and develop professional relationships that have the potential to pay great dividends for their companies, they can count a pilgrimage to the ETA as mission accomplished.
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