Trade fair networking
Billed as the leading global event for the travel industry and now in its 35th year, the three-day WTM (World Travel Market) trade fair is a huge business-to-business event, held these days in the only venue big enough to accommodate the 50,000 travel and tourism professionals who attend each year - London’s ExCeL centre. I attended on the second day of WTM 2014 and, I have to say, the experience made such an impression on me that I had to scribble down a few impressions of this, my foray into the world of trade fair networking!
My first impression was how superbly organised the event was. I found that there was ample help provided in the weeks leading up to the fair, including a useful app to help me plan which exhibitors I wanted to visit and where to locate them in the hall, as well as providing brief details of the businesses concerned. On arrival, and despite the enormous throng of people, entry to the event was straightforward and all the staff I encountered once inside were more than helpful. The stands in which I was interested (businesses in Germany, Switzerland and Austria) were easy to find, clustered together in one area of the ‘Europe’ section. I had roughed out quite a precise ‘plan of attack’ on the train earlier, but I found that once inside the hall, the noise and bustle of the place was so overwhelming it was awkward to keep stopping to look at my I-pad to see where I was supposed to be heading next. So I just followed my nose….
So now it was time to get networking! Although I had sent out some tentative emails to announce my imminent arrival at various stands, I received just a few replies and so found myself approaching most exhibitors ‘cold’. As striking up conversations with strangers is not my métier at the best of times, this was always going to be a real challenge for me. Exhibitors ranged from coolly aloof (“approach me if you dare!”) to gushingly friendly, with all gradations in between. After casually circling round the ‘Europe’ area for the first 15 minutes, I then took the plunge and approached the ‘Cultural Heart of Germany’ stand, armed with my biggest smile. I was spared the ignominy of an early rebuff as a very charming lady immediately sprang out of her chair and initiated a chat about Erfurt (the particular brochure I had been nervously fingering), regaling me with the many and varied delights of this city and, indeed, the whole region of Thüringen. It wasn’t hard to sustain the conversation as I am, as it happens, tentatively planning a trip next year to many of the cities of the former East Germany that I know so well from pictures and, of course, the texts I translate. Our casual chit-chat certainly helped to break the ice a bit. The conversation then inevitably turned to the reason for my particular interest in Germany and I told her I was a translator. Deciding at this point it was time to bite the bullet, I asked her who took care of her organisation’s translations. She said that her company’s language needs were ‘serviced’ by one of the larger London translation agencies (not one whose name I recognised, interestingly) and we then talked briefly about the relative merits of working with an individual freelancer rather than an agency. By the end, though it was clear that this particular individual wasn’t herself involved in the commissioning of translations and was therefore unlikely to open any immediate doors for me, I felt that our brief interchange had nevertheless been useful. As she took my card with a wink and a friendly “because you never know”, I could feel the corners of my mouth lift slightly! It may well not lead to anything, but I shall nevertheless follow this contact up with an informal thank-you email (not forgetting to name-check her home town of Eisenach!) and, of course, get on with planning that tour of mine! After this promising opening, I had plucked up a bit of courage and, in all, visited another ten or so stands. Some conversations were easier than others. I tried various opening gambits (just to gauge the reaction I got, really) and, looking back, I’m sure some of them must have sounded very inane (of the “uhmm…. isn’t Switzerland lovely?” kind) but I generally found that once a conversation was started, things got a bit easier and most showed some interest in the service I was trying to sell.
So, how would I rate my first attempt at actively marketing myself? Probably around 4 or 5 out of 10, if I’m honest. I’m sure exhibitors could tell I was nervous and my efforts at small-talk at times left a bit to be desired! The sheer size of the event was also more daunting than I had expected - if ever there was an experience guaranteed to make anyone feel like a very small fish in a very big sea, this was it! On the train later I decided that it may actually be better next time to hunt in a pack, if only for the moral support. Definitely something to think about. But as I headed home with a clutch full of business cards, a heap of glossy brochures and enough CDs about Germany, Austria and Switzerland to keep me entertained through the long, dark winter evenings ahead, I concluded that the day had been worthwhile… but, as my teachers used to say, more practice needed!