TRADE shows were traditionally initiated for companies to showcase their products and services with the intention of educating their various publics on all aspects of their operations and as a platform to interact with long-term customers as well. They were platforms companies used to show off their successes and to present the best exhibit against their competitors as well as host elaborate cocktail parties. Those were the good old days. The days when it made economic sense to prioritise public relations marketing activities in annual company budgets without batting an eyelid.
The Zimbabwe International Trade Fair (ZITF) will this year host the 58th edition of its annual showcase from 25 to 29 April and companies that have resolved to be part of the proceedings have no doubt already started to make preparations on who will design their stands, how many stand attendants and senior managers will attend and what will be presented to the publics. All this takes money. And interestingly, many of these participating companies have had it ingrained in their psyche that no actual returns are expected after the five days of showcasing. They still operate in the mindset of way back when the country was doing well, unemployment levels were low and companies posted impressive profits at the end of each financial year. They still want to pretend ZITF is purely about public relations activities and strutting impressive stands and attire and winning trophies for the best stand designs. For five days, these companies will be under the illusion that things are well while they network with other business executives and for a moment it will feel good.
ZITF as a company has strict rules on how companies conduct themselves during the five days. The first three days are strictly business days with the last two open to the general public. In all these days, none is set aside for the participating companies — most of whom are failing to meet production deadlines and are behind in salary payments and probably also have crumbling structures, to trade directly with the publics. To practically trade with their customers.
This is where the crux of my issue lies. As far as I am concerned, companies should now expect to make business sense of their participation at all trade shows including the nationwide agricultural shows. It is now not enough to just SHOW the people what your company can do and provide. Zimbabwe must be the only country that continues to hold on to the long-forgotten thought of using the trade shows for public window shopping. And I can assure the ZITF management that once they decide to allow exhibitors to sell directly to the public on say the last day, their stand occupancy rate will shoot to 100 percent and they will be fully booked for the years to follow.
It is surprising that company executives and in particular, public relations and marketing personnel do not feel a little embarrassed to spend so much on participation and not have an objective to recover the costs incurred. It is no longer attractive to just have the role of spending the little that the company makes without a conscious to recover and be part of the concern to make profits from every activity.
So, this is basically a challenge to all company executives intending to participate and have already made their hotel bookings and applied for their day- to-day allowances to think a little deeper beyond the surface. Ask yourselves if your participation makes practical sense if you cannot make business sense out of it. Yes, I am aware of the old thought that “we go to ZITF to meet our customers and show new products and network and allow the public to sample our product”. That is now BASIC in this environment and ZITF must show that it is also moving with the times in this area and even think for the companies and offer that one day to its customers to put price tags on the products on display. What is the point of going back to Harare, Masvingo or Mutare with the products you brought all the way to Bulawayo? Why should you happily accept the cost of trudging equipment, perishables and other products such as clothing, agricultural inputs and home appliances back to where you came from. Why can you not go back lighter but with a healthier company account and a sense of accomplishment? This way, it will make sense for you to take a few days off work when the hassle of maintaining a good image and good spirits and dealing with a cross section of people comes to an end.
ZITF makes its money from the sale of exhibition space and tickets as well as the hosting of various functions and workshops and also from sponsorships and rental payments. If companies continue to accept the yearly event for socialisation, that sinking feeling they have been experiencing when it is all over at the end of the five days will continue as long as they do not choose to be proactive and speak with one voice and engage the facilitator.
Yes, some companies have been selling on the sly but there is a need to allow one day of actual trading. And companies must be prepared to offer the public attractive prices after all, the product was going to go back and probably gather dust on the shop shelves.
This is not to say that companies no longer need to showcase new or existing products and services nor that they should stop looking to take advantage of networking opportunities. Sales personnel should continue to look for products to sell and ZITF should be the place to pick up on and spot latest trends with the intention to improve on existing services and merchandise.
And the trade show is the perfect place to identify new business prospects. It just has to start making economic sense for participants.
Patience Madambi is a senior journalist and public relations practitioner.