10 Tips for Better Photography Conventions and Trade Shows

It’s a new year and that means a new round of photography conventions and trade shows. I’m writing this about 2,000 miles from where I’m actually supposed to be right now, which is the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. Family obligations, freakishly cold weather, and gremlins all conspired to keep me away from what would have been my first CES. I even had press credentials. So if you’re there and can convince someone in charge to give you my swag bag, it’s yours.

10 Tips for Better Photo Trade Shows

So, here I sit in Atlanta, clicking the “refresh” button for up-to-the-minute info on all of the shiny new lenses, cameras, and other I-Won’t-Be-Able-To-Live-Without-Them pieces of gear being introduced in Sin City this week. Not exactly how I’d planned it, but there you go. CES, though, is just getting the ball rolling. The coming weeks and months will bring Imaging USA (January 12th), WPPI (February 27th), The Photography Show (March 1st), Photokina (September 16th),  PPE (October 30th),and many others.

If you’ve attended even just one convention or trade show, you already know that they can be crowded, busy, loud, bustling affairs. Everybody wants to be the first in line to hold that new lens or drool over the concept camera prototype with a moon rock sensor. At first glance, this doesn’t leap out as a productive environment. It can be extremely overwhelming, both to the trade show veteran, as well as the novice. You can, however, cut through the noise and make it a worthwhile experience– if you plan properly.

1. Plan Ahead

This could be the one most important piece of advice I can give you. If you are hoping for a constructive experience, you have got to plan ahead. Besides the discounts for early registration, the sooner you get the full list of vendors the better you can plan and prioritize. What does your photography business need this year? Cameras? Lenses? Are you looking for a new print lab? Get this stuff figured out. There’s nothing wrong with taking time to wander aimlessly about the exhibit halls, but try to get your actual business out of the way first. Be the responsible business owner. THEN be the kid in the candy store.

2. Chart Your Course

This is like Planning Ahead: Step 2. There should be a map included with the registration materials. If they don’t send you one, download it from the website. Figure out where your target vendors will be and mark them prominently on the map. As noted, my usual plan of attack is to take care of business first. Then I try walking the entire floor, starting from the outside and working my way towards the middle. It’s during this second pass that I drop the tunnel vision and explore all the possibilities. If there is something particularly important on your list, try contacting the company ahead of time. Some will put you in touch with their trade show reps and let you make an appointment.

8 Tips for Better Photo Trade Shows

3. Travel Light

I’m always amazed by the people I see walking a trade show with a fully-stocked camera bag on their shoulder. Is there going to be some kind of portrait-taking flash mob that nobody told me about? I’ll grant you that there may be a photo walk or two planned, but you’re going to be much better off if you navigate this maze without all that gear on your back. Trust me– your back will thank you. If you feel you must bring a camera, make it a point-and-shoot or your phone. Besides documenting your experience, it’s a great way to keep track of ideas as they hit you.

4. Comfy Shoes are a Must

You’re going to be on your feet a lot and convention halls are not known for comfortable floors. Be good to your feet and they’ll be good to you. Function over fashion. Nuff said.

5. A Moment of Silence for the Trees

I can’ t begin to speculate just how many forests die so a trade show can be fully stocked with brochures, but it’s a little appalling. Since you’re going to end up throwing away at least half– probably more– of what you take, try being selective. If an extra tree or two must be sacrificed, let it be to make sure you have enough business cards with you.

6. & 7. Speaking of Business Cards…

You’ll be collecting  them as well as giving them out, but you have to be able to put faces with names when the party’s over and it’s time to go home. Take two quick snaps with your smart phone every time you get someone’s business card– one of the card and one of the person. Do this in the same order for each contact so you can match each person to their business card. Also, use the backs of the business cards you collect to quickly jot down action items or reminders about your conversation. Both of these will help keep you organized when it’s time to get back down to business

8. Keep Your Phone Charged

It may sound like a no-brainer, but you’re at a trade show– not the dark side of the moon. Reception is not always optimal in the belly of a convention center, and that can drain your battery faster that usual. You still have a business to run and people need to reach you. Step outside once in a while to check your messages and your charge. Speaking of your phone, check to see if the show has its own mobile app. If so, download it to help you navigate the crowds and stay up to date on convention news and special offers. You may also want to think about purchasing a portable battery charger like this one from EasyAcc.

9. Network

Step out of your warm social media cocoon and meet some people without using your keyboard. Go out for drinks. Share a meal– and ideas. Facebook and Twitter have made the world a much smaller place. Take advantage of that and arrange some face-to-face time with some of those friends you’ve never actually met.

8 Tips for Better Photo Trade Shows

10. Take a Class or a Workshop

Not every show has a classroom component, but many of them do. When you’re planning, make sure to look through all of the course offerings. Walking a trade show floor is kind of like walking through a mall. It’s fun to look around, but you’re doing more window shopping than actual shopping. Make the trip more worthwhile by taking a class or two and broadening your horizons. Walking a trade show only benefits you if you need what’s being sold, but expanding your knowledge base is always a good investment.

Every convention or trade show can be its own kind of daunting, but they don’t need to be. A little planning and a common sense approach can both go a long way to making it a rewarding, beneficial experience.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a “Refresh” button to click.


  • Sheldon

    On 6&7, I found myself making notes on (received) business cards anytime I get them, not just those from trade shows.
    I always jot down when & where plus what they were discussing (should I get a support related email sometime later). It makes recalling the context a lot easier when you get ‘random’ email questions from them!