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The Matrix Method for Working Large Trade Shows

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If you’ve ever attended a large publishing or educational trade show in the U.S. or Europe, you realize how difficult and frustrating it can be to make good use of your time and accomplish sales objectives, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the turf. You know there are people out there on the exhibit floor who are good prospects for your books, but how do you find the right ones to meet and network with? How do you allocate your time profitably? How do you make your interviews productive without getting totally exhausted by the end of the day?

I recommend using my Matrix Method for Working Large Trade Shows. The Matrix Method is a simple organizational tool designed to help you budget time wisely and focus activity on the booths and prospects that are most likely to return profitable business relationships, future sales, new partnerships, and networking prospects.

It’s not unusual for trade shows such as BEA (Book Expo America), ALA (American Library Association), AFT (American Federation of Teachers), or ATRA (American Teachers of Reading Association) to have between 900 and 1,500 exhibit booths in multiple halls with more than 20,000 attendees. I have found that taking an hour before the start of the show to prepare my matrix and plan how to work the exhibits ensures a profitable experience.

To Get Ready, Get the Guide

Here’s how the system works. You can use a laptop or a PDA if you are so inclined, but good old pen and paper is best and makes rapid access to your plan on the convention floor easy. Begin by getting a copy of the exhibitor guide. For the large book publishing shows, these guides are typically published before the meetings in magazines such as Publishers Weekly and Library Journal. You should make every effort to obtain a copy of the exhibitor listings well in advance, since it’s much easier to do your planning at home before you leave for the show than in the hotel the night before it starts. But even if you can’t get the show guide prior to the start of the meeting, don’t waste time walking around without first preparing your matrix. Grab a cup of coffee and prepare your plan.

Step One: Enter Your Personal Symbols

I start this process by listing one or more of my “personal symbols” next to each interesting exhibitor listing I see in the guide. Feel free to use mine, or come up with your own based on your organizational objectives.

$I list the dollar symbol next to exhibits that appear to offer sales opportunities. This is a priority symbol for me and means I should be sure to visit this exhibitor.


A question mark, for me, means, “What’s this?” It identifies an exhibit I’ve marked because something in the description caught my eye and raised a question or triggered some interest. You have to remain open to serendipity at large trade shows, because you never know what you’ll find or whom you’ll run into. Most question marks will turn out to be dead ends, but occasionally you’ll find a perfect fit with your goals and business objectives. (Years ago, I put a “?” on my matrix next to Publishers Marketing Association at a convention. I walked up to a woman named Jan Nathan and asked, “What is PMA?” That was the start of a long association that has brought great pleasure, profit, fun, and knowledge to my life.)F

F means “friend” to me. It’s someone I know, have met, or want to follow up with at the show. Be sure to make time to visit friends at their booths. Being successful in publishing is all about networking and taking advantage of who knows whom. I am always happy to tell my friends about new books that we are publishing and to send them free copies or furnish them with more information about marketing tips and programs we are trying. This technique has paid me back tenfold when I needed a favor or a free book.


C stands for “competitor,” and you need to make sure to visit all of them, both large and small. It’s usually at a competitor’s booth that you can pick up ideas to integrate into your own sales and marketing programs. What do their covers look like in comparison to yours? Who are their new authors? What new books are they publishing? What marketing or publicity techniques are they trying? You’ve got to spend time with the competitors and pick up their catalogs to bring home for future study. (One of the best marketing ideas I ever got came from visiting a competitor who was featuring a title in a Lucite display. I ended up building hundreds of such displays to spotlight my book in medical stores throughout the country.)


T is for “technology.” It means booths with POD, traditional printers, software publishers, or new technical advancements I need to find out about. They provide learning and educational opportunities for me as well as sources to tap for bids on future projects.


The booth number that gets a star is one where I see that something is going on that interests me personally. Perhaps a book is being given out, or there is a contest to enter. I always include a couple of stars on my matrix to keep my day interesting and fun.

You can come up with many more symbols to define your own business objectives, but the point is to read the exhibitor listings and put symbols next to the booth numbers that appear to be worth your time.

Step Two: Preparing the Matrix

This next part is easy. You simply take an 8 _” x 11″ sheet of paper, turn it horizontally, and create columns by drawing rules at one-inch intervals from top to bottom. At the top of each column, you write in the convention floor aisle numbers–100 aisle, 200 aisle, 300 aisle, all the way up to the last aisle on the floor (some shows go as high as 2,500 to 3,500, so you may need to use several sheets of paper!)

Then, go back through your exhibitor listing and jot down the booth numbers of the exhibits marked with your symbols in the appropriate columns. List the numbers of the booths you want to visit with the lowest numbers at the top of a column and the highest at the bottom. Finally, copy in your personal symbols so you know what to look for at each booth when you arrive.

And there you have the Matrix Method for Working Large Trade Shows. It’s a great one-page road map and planning tool for working a show, because it pinpoints specific objectives to accomplish and booths to visit while reducing the amount of paper and reference material you have to carry with you and allowing you to stop and take advantage of serendipitous opportunities (like meeting Jan Nathan!).

Robin Bartlett is director of sales and corporate relations for the American College of Physicians in Philadelphia. A past member of the PMA Board of Directors, he is the chair of the PMA University. Robin can be reached at rbbartlett@aol.com.

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