Lesson from the Philly Small Business Expo: You can’t shake hands on the internet

The nation’s largest business-to-business trade show made a one-day stop at the Pennsylvania Convention Center on Thursday.

Vendors offering everything from IT support and website design services to pizza franchises and alarm systems mingled inside Small Business Expo, where more than 4,000 participants and 120 exhibitors traded business cards and snagged free pens.

“It is a great place to build relationships, attend workshops, seminars, and visit vendors that could help their business,” said Zach Lezberg, producer of Small Business Expo, which makes stops in cities including San Francisco, L.A., New York and Chicago.

“Some exhibitors are looking to just plant that seed,” Lezberg said. “Others do get signed deals here.”

Even though many of these companies are web-based, salespeople up and down the rows of booths attest to the lingering worth of a handshake.

“Oh yeah, the face to face is invaluable, for sure,” said Mike Ogden, vice president of business development for Act!, a contact management software company based in Denver.

Some businesses see large enough returns from these events that they travel the Small Business Expo circuit, including Alana Cloud with Revel Systems, an iPad-based point-of-sale device (think: cashregister).

“Online connections happen obviously a lot more these days, but while the value is there, there’s nothing quite the same as in-person interaction,” she said.

Organizers say the inaugural Philly convention surpassed expectations for turnout. If that translates into profit for participants, they may just graduate to a mid-size business event.

“We hope that happens,” says Lezberg. “We also want them to keep coming back and support it. But absolutely, we want them to grow out of that small business and become a big one.”

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