First Time Attendee? Tips For Navigating Vendor Fairs At ACUHO Conferences

Having a “vendor fair” is a feature of the the ACUHO-I annual conference and at the various regional conferences (NEACUHO, AIMHO, UMR-ACUHO, SEAHO, WACUHO, MACUHO, GLACUHO, SWACUHO, and NWACUHO). If you’re a first time attendee to these conferences, you may not be sure how to approach these fairs and how to interact with vendors. Don’t worry. We’re here to help! The vendor fair can be intimidating at first, but it can also be one of the most fun and interesting aspects of attending a conference.

What is a vendor fair?

A vendor fair is an event or area within a conference where various vendors or exhibitors set up booths or stalls to showcase their products, services, or solutions. Vendors typically represent companies, organizations, or individuals offering products or services related to college student housing. This can include software companies, furniture providers, food service vendors, and any company/consultant/service provider that touches college students or the housing field. Vendor fairs provide an opportunity for conference attendees to interact directly with vendors, learn about their offerings, ask questions, and explore potential business partnerships. They are typically scheduled for a few hours on one day (at the ACUHO regional conferences) or over the course of a couple days (at the ACUHO-I national conference).

How should you approach a vendor fair?

Before entering an exhibit hall, it’s important to think through your goals:

  • Are there certain products or services your department needs? Review the vendor list, often provided in the conference program book, beforehand. Note which vendors you definitely want to seek out and learn more about.
  • Do you not have a specific need, but just want to browse and “see what’s out there”? This is okay, too! Sometimes companies will provide products and services you never knew existed. Just walking through the fair is an excellent opportunity to learn. Don’t be afraid to approach a vendor just to learn more.

As you enter the exhibit hall, some other goals you may have:

  • Use it as a learning and networking opportunity. Even though you may not have a need for a product or service now, you may in the future. Use the opportunity to meet new people and learn about how different vendors approach the industry.
  • Connect with current vendors you already partner with. It’s likely that some of your current vendors will be at the fair. Stop by and say hi! These fairs can also be an opportunity to deepen connections with your partners and learn of any new developments.
  • Collect information to bring back to campus. Even if you’re not the ultimate decision maker on buying a new product or service, you may have voice in the process. If the vendor has printed or other materials, take some back to your home campus. Some departments even create space in a staff meeting for staff members to share what they’ve learned from a recent conference.

Remember that:

  • Vendors want to learn from you, too. Good vendors are motivated to learn about trends in the field and the experiences of individual campuses. Use the opportunity to educate vendors on what they can do to better support you.
  • Vendors are ultimately there to try to sell you something. Some vendors will be more casual about their approach while others will be more aggressive. Make sure you state your honest intentions. Most vendors will respect your level of interest. If you provide your contact information, be prepared for the vendor to follow up. If you do not want follow up, politely let them know. They should respect that.
  • There’s free stuff! Swag. Books. Raffles. Don’t forget to grab your freebies. (And ask about Roompact’s special giveaways we hide behind the table. 🙂 )

What if I’m a new professional?

Sometimes new professionals wonder what they should do at a vendor fair. New professionals are often not the financial decision makers on campus, so it’s reasonable to wonder what’s in it for you and why you should attend. Most good vendors are happy to talk with new professionals. They understand your role and also understand that even if you are not a customer now, you could be as you advance in the field into the future. Although it can be intimidating to approach a table for the first time, give it a go! Let the vendor know you are a new professional and that you just want to learn. Some conferences will even make a game of it, offering a “vendor bingo card” that encourages this exploration. Use this as your “hook” to start a conversation.

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