A trade show may be the single best place to collect data about your industry—and your rivals. It teems with chatty salesmen, knowledgeable exhibitors, industry insiders, and high-level executive speakers. To John Nolan, a 22-year military intelligence veteran and business consultant, that's a "target-rich environment." Define your goals and do some homework beforehand, and you will come home with a lot more than a stack of business cards. The secret, Nolan says, is to position yourself (and your comrades) at the following key places. Then, listen very closely.
The Breakfast Buffet
This is a great place to eavesdrop on participants as they discuss the day's meetings and plans. Nurse a cup of coffee at an adjacent table.
Conferencegoers tend to be oblivious to the hotel's "civilian" guests. As a result, a well-placed "tourist" just might overhear sensitive discussions that begin on the show's floor and continue into the elevator. (Or the lobby or restroom, for that matter.)
Your Command Center
Protect your own meetings. Splurge on a suite or other private meeting place so that you can entertain vendors and clients in a location that's both swank and secluded. Have your colleagues debrief there, too. And be sure to shred the trash on your way out.
Truth follows booze, as the saying goes, and an educated eavesdropper can pick up useful tidbits when conventioneers let loose at the bar during the evening. Better yet, a friendly stranger (who has done his or her homework) can engage in some casual banter about a favorite sports team or hobby and eventually guide the discussion toward more pertinent information.
The Organizing Committee
Before the conference, volunteer for its organizing committee, which helps plan the program and choose speakers. It will bolster your rep among your peers—and provide access to attendees' names and lodging information. Use this data to identify your targets and plan how you will intercept them.
After a keynote speech, attendees either head straight for the coffee urns or wander away from the crowd, where they whip out their mobile phones and touch base with the home office. An inconspicuous listener (who, perhaps, is pretending to call home him- or herself) can overhear what's happening back at headquarters.
The Smoke Break
Booth exhibitors, though polished on the trade show floor, love to vent while off duty. Approach these individuals when they take a smoke or coffee break. Commiserate with them to get the unvarnished truth.