Inform your Trade Show Strategy Plan with Competitive Intelligence

We’re thrilled to share first-hand tips on how to inform your trade show strategy plan with competitive intelligence from our very own Strategic Partnership and Trade Show Ninja, Kelly Kenney.

After 20+ years of trade show participation experience, Kelly’s an expert at figuring out what her clients need to know about their competitors and how to gather that information—without them even knowing she was there! We call that Ninja style.

Approaches to gathering competitive intelligence should vary

The competitive intelligence component to a trade show strategy plan should vary depending on the event and industry. In industries where competitors are head-to-head, exhibitors tend to keep information close to the vest. In less competitive markets, there’s room for cooperation—or as Kelly calls it, a “we’re all in this together” approach.

Kelly approaches less competitive markets from the perspective that “we’re all trying to help solve a particular problem in the marketplace.” She’s open about that, and asks exhibitors straightforward questions like, “how’s the show working for you?” to break the ice.

“It’s a nuance thing, but if you can get them talking and listen really hard, you pick up good stuff.”

Trade Show Strategy Plan

When the competition is more head-to-head, Kelly takes a step back to closely observe the booth offer and how the competitor positions themselves on the trade show floor through messaging.

Once she’s honed in on their trade show strategy plan, she looks for entry points around how they differentiate themselves in the market. “Sometimes there’s an offshoot component of what they do which allows me to go to them and say—I didn’t know you do that, can you tell me more about it?”

Openers like these can serve as a bridge to more illustrative questions such as: How’s the show going for you? Or, who are you meeting? The goal is to find ways to ease into the type of questions that deliver competitive intelligence.

The value of a great open-ended question

Kelly’s goal is to get her targets to talk. “Have you met anyone great?” “Did you see this content piece?” are great open-ended questions. Specifically around content, Kelly’s done her homework before the show and already knows what she and her competitors will find interesting.

“Asking them if they’ve seen a piece of content is a really useful way to get them to share their interests and what they’re following at the event. If you can get them to talk about what makes this a great show for them, they’ll often tell you a lot!”

And don’t be nervous. Kelly says that unless they’re a really astute exhibitor, they won’t know what they’re giving up or why. “I’m always amazed by how little they ask in return. They almost never say—hey, why do you ask?

When approaching a direct competitor’s booth, who do you target?

Kelly has her eye on anyone in upper management or the sales team. In a really large booth, she also targets key marketing people to understand why they’re there and what their message is.

Trade Show Strategy Plan

Pro Tip: Within five minutes of completing a competitive intelligence mission, Kelly finds a quiet place off the floor to copy down everything she’s learned, even if it seems off base, as an input to her trade show consultation strategy. “I don’t know when I’ll need that data point but it may be in the post show follow-up.”

How to open and close a competitive intelligence conversation

Kelly starts each conversation by responding in some way to the booth’s message.
When she’s not 100% sure what that message is, she’ll ask: “hey, that’s really interesting to me, what’s your message with that?”

Closing a conversation can be hard, especially for Kelly. Humor can be an easy way to disengage, especially when the conversation has gone too technical. That’s when Kelly says: “Wow, that’s way over my head, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“I try to get them to send me away by saying: maybe there’s someone I can send your way who is really interested in this.”

We interviewed Kelly on October 23rd as part of a series we’re offering at MEET: Coffee and Conversation. Inform your trade show strategy plan with more expert advice from Kelly Kenney, Strategy Partnership and Trade Show Ninja by tuning into our full interview here.


MEET ( helps B2B growth companies and pavilion hosts effectively leverage at trade shows and in-person events. MEET’s processes help its clients ramp-up sales quickly and maintain a steady stream of high-quality prospects going forward. Contact Bill Kenney at MEET today for a free trade show participation assessment or +1 (860) 573-4821

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