How to Put On a Good Show By Professor David Iornem

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Historical Development

Trade Fairs have come into limelight during the past decade or so. The trend gathered momentum in the 70s. In the 1980s, it seemed that no state in Nigeria was worth its name if it did not have a trade jamboree every year. Almost every state in Nigeria organized or facilitated the organization of a trade between 1975 and 1985. The Federal Ministry of Commerce in 1983 felt compelled to bring sanity on the scene and now there only two international trade fairs in Nigeria. There is one in Lagos and the other in Kaduna.

What is a Trade Fair?

What is a trade fair and how can the society and the exhibitor benefit from a trade fair?

Fairs are not particularly new in our society. We learn in history of the Trans- Saharan trade routes that linked many markets such as Timbuktu and kano. In these markets, we are told in history, traders used to come from many parts of the world including the Middle East to display their wares. It is not difficult for us today to imagine the operation of these historical markets because miniatures of these markets still exist within our society. In Benue State for instance, the Tiv have market places where they meet every five days to display, sell and buy goods. In other part of the country the market days fall every four days. Yet in others, they fall every seven days. The important characteristic of all these market or fairs is that they fall periodically at pre- determined times. This is similar to, for example, the Kaduna Trade Fair that falls during the first quarter of every year or the Lagos Trade fair which comes up in November every year.

With the development of Nigeria into town centers, new dimensions in our market have been introduced. Markets in the towns normally hold every day. The Kaduna Central Market is a typical example. Traders come out with their wares and place them on exhibition every day.  This practice is akin to the idea of permanent exhibitions that some industrialists mount at hotels or their premises throughout the year.

Modern Trade Fair

If trade fairs are not that new, why the fuss about trade fairs every now and then all over the country? The answer is to be found in the nature of goods that are customarily exhibited at the trade fairs. A trip to any of these trade fairs, whether it is a specialized one at the agricultural trade fairs which are common all over the country or the generalist type such as the Kaduna International Trade Fair, will demonstrate to you the point I am trying to make. Typically, you will see machines, equipment and intangible services such as banking, insurance and management consultancy. Occasionally you may come across consumer goods such as dishes, wrist watches, prepared foods and you name it. Whatever the nature of goods, whether they are for industrial purposes or for the everyday use of the ordinary person , those who bring them to the trade fair are interested in showing to their  target market what they have; and most importantly, what benefit the items they are showing can bring to their target market. They hope therefore to create awareness for their wares so they can bring to their target market so that they can sell more. For consumer goods items, the sales may be immediate and the exhibitor may place less emphasis on post-exhibition sales than sales during the exhibition. However, the situation is different for industrial goods. It is not very usual for an industrialist to carry money in his pocket to an exhibition to buy machinery. The usual thing is to explore what is available and take a decision later after a detailed analysis of technical and economic factors surrounding choice of machines. This is one other area where fairs differ significantly with the traditional markets that we have earlier referred to.

Getting the most out of Trade Fairs

An exhibition is a very complex means of communicating with the market place, says Harry McDermott who is a specialist on exhibitions. Yet because effectiveness is not always easy to measure, exhibition are often misunderstood, misused or not used at all.

It would appear that the wrong use or misunderstanding of trade fairs stems from a defective perception of what it all is. Most participants in trade fairs view it as a mere display, a presentation to view, or a showing off. But the fundamental purpose of any exhibition at a trade fair is or ought to be to enable the exhibitor to meet people of value to his business. To benefit most from a trade fair, the exhibitor should therefore relate all other reasons to this fundamental purpose.

The incidence of missed opportunities for exhibitors at trade fairs can be traced form a lack of existing clear objectives on the part of exhibitors. This is perhaps because many marketers fail to systematically determine, in advance, what they intend to achieve by participating in a trade fair. Sometimes the feeling of disappointment and expensive and wasteful is borne out of the failure to clearly establish the objectives for participating in a trade fair.

It has been the experience that some companies would decide on the eve of an exhibition that they will participate. Then they would send a junior to find space and arrange for the construction of a stand. Such companies do not normally define what they hope to achieve through the trade fair. They normally forget about the fair even before it is over. I know of an executive who sent his junior when the junior returned from the trade fair, he found a query on his desk demanding an explanation why he should not be disciplined for absenting from work for several days without excuse. He (the executive) was certainly embarrassed by the junior’s answer which was a report on the fair. Needless to say that the report was filed and forgotten about. Yet such an organization, next time around, would complain about the cost and non-effectiveness of trade fairs as tools for promoting sales.

When participation in a trade fair is carelessly planned or unplanned it is easy for the funds used to be considered as wasteful. However, if clear objectives are set out for participation, the action in itself will urge the participant to make concrete plans to achieve the objectives.

The special uses of Trade fairs

Exhibitions can be most useful for products that need meeting people of a specific value to the company. Such specific people will be seen and talked to, they will see, feel and if need be, smell and taste the goods. No other means of marketing communication offers these potentials.

McDermott has identified some of the more important uses of a trade fair and they include:

  1. To meet and identify as many potential buyers (purchasing influences) as possible in a relative short time on neutral ground.
  2. To give a practical demonstration of equipment to a large number of people. Exhibitions are especially important for demonstrating heavy capital equipment which are impossible to take to the customer
  3. To introduce new products, companies and concepts.
  4. To maintain or develop a company’s image in the market; to increase awareness of the company and its products.
  5. To sell
  6. To protect your market by preventing competitors making undue inroads, and to keep an eye on the competition
  7. To find new agents or distributors
  8. To research into products and markets

Anyone who is thinking of participating in a trade fair should therefore have reasons for doing so. Such reasons will lead him to establish firm and clear objectives which will guide him in the mode of participation in the trade fair

From the reasons outlined above, it can be observed that trade fairs are not principally means to make direct sales alone. Many of the reasons advanced for exhibiting apply in equal force even during periods of economic difficulties

It is important for any exhibitor to realize that participation in trade fairs is only a part of marketing effort. If he has not been promoting his products and he thinks that a trade fair will do the magic, he is in for a shocker and should be prepared to join the long queue of those who are frustrated with trade fairs and have therefore written them off in their scheme of things

The importance of planned follow-up

This discussion will be incomplete if mention is not made of the role of follow-up in an exhibition.

The executive in our earlier example who simply filed the trade fair report of his junior obviously did not make a follow-up on the trade fair activities of his company. This is to be expected bearing in mind that he did not plan the participation nor did he establish any objective for participating in the trade fair.

To benefit most from a trade fair it is necessary to plan and executive follow-up activities directed at achieving the objectives of the exhibition. The exhibition should take note of the people who visit his stand. He should screen them and make contact with those he considers good potentials. For the industrial goods exhibitor or service firm, it is a good idea to open a visitor’s book where every visitor to the stand will sign his name, his occupation and address. During and after the trade fair, these names will be screened and useful contacts will then be identified and follow up. This suggested follow –up system can give you a great deal of useful feedback and information about your visitors. In screening visitors for follow-up activities, the following questions should be borne in mind;

  1. Is this visitor an existing customer or a new prospect?
  2. Can he influence the purchase of your goods or services?
  3. Has he any plans to buy your goods or services?
  4. Have you been able to sell to him?
  5. Did he buy from a competitor?
  6. Why did he buy from a competitor? Was it because he preferred the product or that your salesmen were not creative/ aggressive enough?
  7. Is he a real prospect who should be placed on the list and contacted regularly?
  8. Did he know of your company or products prior to visiting your stand?

McDermott has suggested that the exhibitor should use pads of enquiry forms. A simple and tested system is to use pads of enquiry (in triplicate). At the start of each day every exhibition salesman should have a pad from which completed forms are collected at the end of the day. One copy is retained by the publicity department and the two remaining copies are sent to the local salesman for the territory. He should be required to report on his visit or telephone call within seven days.

In these days of high-powered marketing, it is still possible to create an impact and an air of efficiency by writing promptly to people who visited your stand, thanking them for doing so, and enclosing requested literature. If an exhibition visitor has asked competitors for information, the first to respond has the edge. Make certain it’s your company.

Trade Fairs are good…Anytime

Some critics have suggested that trade fairs should be eliminated in the country because we are experiencing economic difficulties. This argument does not make any sense. Indeed, it is precisely why we should have trade fairs. Trade fairs represent one of the cheapest ways to bring buyers and sellers together. Instead of each buyer looking for a seller from one town to another or indeed one continent to another both buyers and sellers are brought together under one roof and in large numbers.

Government planners have often traveled extensively in search of technical partners or consultants. Similarly, would-be independent entrepreneurs travel abroad in search of appropriate technologies or partners. Entrepreneurs who do not travel abroad often commission consultants to do this on their behalf at great expense. Trade fairs present a much cheaper alternative to other forms of information and technology hunt. They are, therefore, much better alternatives in times of economic difficulties.

Government Role in Trade Fairs

Some critics also question the role of governments in trade fairs. They argue that public funds should not be spent to promote fairs for businessmen. This approach is short-sighted. Businesses, whether small or large, have important roles to play in any society. They provide jobs and contribute to the revenue and productivity of the entire society. Any government that wants to create jobs and foster progress ought, therefore, to encourage trade fairs as a way of contributing to the growth of enterprise in the entire society. If the Federal ministry of Trade and Tourism organizes the annual “Made in Nigeria” Trade Fairs in collaboration with Manufacturers Association of Nigeria in an effort to promote Nigeria manufactures, the patronage of Nigeria goods that can possibly result from such activity will certainly promote social good for the society in general and for Nigeria manufacturers.

Those who criticize government involvement or encouragement of trade fairs are also usually of the view that trade fairs create more opportunities for foreign businessmen than for our local businessmen. In my mind this is a criticism of local businessmen and it is partly the point of this discussion. We are basically trying to point out the potential use to which our businessmen can put a trade fair. This lack of awareness is part of our under-development in the area of business promotion and it can only be hoped that improvement will come with time and experience. However, it is certainly wrong to assume that we do not benefit from trade fairs while our foreign counterparts do.  The mere act of bringing manufacturers of various technologies to the doorstep of Nigerian entrepreneurs is a good achievement that can be capitalized upon.


To sum up, we have tried in this discussion to define the meaning and functions of trade fairs and have suggested that good planning with crystal clear objectives can contribute towards lessening the impact of many obstacles. We have drawn the conclusion that major benefits can accrue to both entrepreneurs and the entire society through the medium of trade fairs.


Iornem, I. (1997). How to put on a good show. Official Catalogue of the 7th O.A.U/A.E.C. All – Africa Trade and Tourism Fair, Kaduna International Trade Fair Complex, pp. 79 – 83.


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