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I remember sitting down to play the Shoots and Ladders games with my daughter many years ago. It was a lot of fun to see her mind at work, but she had one annoying peculiarity: She was continually bending the rules, reshaping roles, changing the boundaries, looking at the game from a different viewpoint. Everything I took for granted, she challenged. Cheating? I think not.

When we compete, I think we implicitly agree to play the game the way it has always been played, to abide by the formal and informal rules and roles as well as the unspoken rituals. Although competing can be fun and exciting, it’s not very creative and definitely can limit the imagination. In essence, competition – especially when responding to formal RFP’s for example – encourages conformity.

Kids are always changing the rules and the way the game is played. I suspect that they spend more time creating and recreating a game than actually playing it. It occurs to me that perhaps adults should follow their lead…why not ignore the competition and start to recreate the way the tradeshow marketing game is played?

When we compete head-on we’re agreeing to play by the old rules, to conform to the way it has always been done – to stay in the lines. In this battle there are no winners, and you tend to lose any advantage you ever had in the marketplace. Look at what corporate purchasing departments have done with the implementation of reverse auctions – the only thing that matters in that competition is how low you are willing to go on price. Intellectual capital and marketing expertise mean absolutely nothing.

Innovation simply means to change the way we do things. Someone once said, “There is no such thing as a new idea, only new ways of presenting old ones.” This hits right at this point: How do we present our businesses in a new way in this new economy?

Once you make the decision not to ‘compete’ but to define your own space in the market and set up your own parameters, you can find solace in the fact that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel to be successful. You can approach the market with the mindset that you are simply going to find new ways to use old ideas.

I’m not suggesting that we ‘don’t compete,’ but I also realize that anything we can do to beat our competition to the punch can give us some advantage in the marketplace. Competing will never give you the breakthroughs that you’re going to need to really move ahead of the pack, nor the staying power needed to survive in business.

Every new and innovative idea in any business has always broken with tradition. If your time is spent focusing on who is getting into your business, or if you rely on the way things have always been done in your company, you are not prioritizing your energies. Instead, ask yourself: How can I present my business, my product, my service or myself differently than all the others professing to be tradeshow marketers?

By the way, my daughter is now in college, and she is still questioning, bending, reshaping and changing the rules in her chosen field of study. Only now, it is not annoying to see. I am consistently impressed by her creativity, by her ability to look at the same situation I am looking at and yet come up with a completely different solution – and usually a much more creative one.

See you on the show floor.

Jim Obermeyer has been in the tradeshow industry over 30 years, both as a corporate tradeshow manager and exhibit house executive. He is now a partner in a new company: Reveal: Exhibiting a World of Difference. He can be reached at jobermeyer@revealexhibits.com.

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