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Don’t be rude: Trade show etiquette

Jan. 19, 2017
Grabbing for samples? Ignoring hygienists to wait on a dentist? Think twice before doing these things, says this author. There are ways both attendees and company reps could do better at trade show etiquette.
There are ways both attendees and company reps could do better.

If you are like me, the first thing that pops into your head following the title of this article is a question: What is trade show etiquette? Merriam-Webster defines etiquette as “the conduct or procedure required by good breeding or prescribed by authority to be observed in social or official life.”1

This is the time of year when most of us sit back and reflect on what we want to do, not do, or change. If you plan to attend a convention and trade show in 2017, I hope this article will cause you to pause and think first.

There’s two sides to every story

One side of a trade show is the attendee. A trade show can appear like dental trick and treating, and who doesn’t love samples?

Last year at a dental convention back in my home state, I witnessed the second side of the trade show, the booth representative. I was completely aghast at what I saw. I watched attendees reach and grab for anything and everything that was on the tabletops. To my surprise, I watched an attendee reach for a Costco-size product on the table display when the representative had their back turned.

A sample is actually “a representative part or a single item from a larger whole or group especially when presented for inspection or shown as evidence of quality.”2 Who taught us that a sample is a free product, and more importantly, who said at trade shows every booth has a free product to hand out? Often, we just assume this.

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In the world of business, unless “free, take one” is stated somewhere, it ain’t free! That does not necessarily mean attendees have to pay money for it—rather, it may mean we have to pay by giving our attention.

Every single company that is a “for-profit” company—basically all our dental manufacturers—is for a profit. The definition is self-explanatory. The dental companies are paying the booth representatives to market for them. The amount of money spent to have a booth and employee there is beyond what one can imagine, easily over 50 thousand. Without these companies, clinicians would not have trade shows, goody bags, or the sponsored CE classes, to name a few. If you look at a speaker’s presentation, there is usually a sponsor noted. That sponsor is not only paying the speaker to be there that day, but also their food, travel, and hotel expenses. It is easy to not think about all aspects of what goes into the glamor conventions and trade shows.

About 10 years ago, Crest + Oral-B used to have a standalone booth and products displayed like other smaller manufacturers that we see. Today, they have a line with sinks and mirrors for attendees to try their brush before you get “the free samples.” They make sure you learn about their products. This is actually a genius transition.

The entire process of conventions and the trade shows is based upon education and marketing, and of course, networking. Generally, the attendee is there for education and the company provides their employees to market to him or her.

Clinical hygienists go to the trade shows to learn about the products, but sometimes company employees are seen as unapproachable. Etiquette extends to the booth representatives too. There are many dental hygienists who have felt that companies do not value them as decision makers and would rather deal with the dentist. In response to this, dentistry is starting to see companies who actually began their business with the intent to sell to the hygienists, such as Simply Hygiene.

My first experience at a trade show was with one of the largest dental instrument companies that I was first exposed to in school. I walked up to the booth with full purchasing authority from my boss—and the sales team would not afford me the time of day. I was one of two customers; the second customer was a dentist and the booth had three or four team members working it. I picked up and looked at some instruments while three people came over to join the dentist, and suddenly the entire sales team was with that group. I walked away and never looked back. That day I joined another instrument company because they paid attention to me. I even walked away with a free (quality) instrument.

In private practice, many dental hygienists these days are purchasing their own equipment, even instruments. If they do not, the instruments are still for the clinician, which ultimately means the hygienist makes the decision on the company’s behalf.

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A few basic etiquette lessons for attendees:

  • Take samples when you have a true use for them.
  • Do not return to the same booth time and time again expecting to get multiple samples.
  • Do not interrupt others having conversations just to take samples that might not be samples.
  • Be gracious for what is given.
  • Ask politely and be nice should they not have exactly what you’re asking for.

For company representatives:

  • Treat all attendees as potential buyers.
  • If you are busy, take a second and give a smiling glance.
  • If you want to do more than give something away, then ask and do it.
  • If you do not want us to touch products on your table display, post a sign.
  • When you go to the hygiene schools, give a brief etiquette lesson.

For all parties:

  • Remember your manners.
  • There is always going to be someone . . . you know what I mean.

Author’s note: Elicia would like to thank Cindy Coletti-Manning and Lisa Stillman, who helped her acquire her trade show etiquette. Any comments or suggestions regarding this topic can be e-mailed to [email protected], who would love to hear from you.

1. Etiquette. Merriam-Webster website. Accessed January 17, 2016.
2. Sample. Merriam-Webster website. Accessed January 17, 2016.

Editor's note: This article first appeared in RDH eVillage. Click here to subscribe.

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Elicia Lupoli, RDH, BSDH, is a Fones School of Dental Hygiene graduate. She is the owner of a small LinkedIn group called "Dental Mentors." She attributes the start of her writing journey to Shirley Gutkowski, RDH, BSDH after meeting her at CAREERfusion 2016. To contact Elicia, send an email to [email protected].