Is it really the final week of January? It seems like just yesterday that my barber was asking me if I had any New Year’s resolutions (Actually it nearly was. It was three days ago and she followed that up with telling me that I was too young to have gray hair). January is one of my favorite months of the year. For one, because it’s the last full month I get to enjoy at my current age, and secondly because it’s a time of eager planning as I begin preparing for my 2012 trips. One way that travelers can kickstart their 2012 travel planning is by attending a consumer travel show. I’ve been to a few travel shows now, including a return visit this weekend to the Los Angeles Times Travel Show.

Travel shows, like the Los Angeles Times Travel Show, are meant to get consumers excited for travel in the coming year. This weekend, tourism boards, tour operators, airlines, and hotels from around the world will descend on the Los Angeles Convention Center to spur wanderlust. This is also a chance to meet and learn from some of your favorite travel personalities. The Travel Channel’s Adam Richman, who I interviewed last year, is part of a lineup of speakers that includes authors, chefs, photographers, and television personalities.

This week I’ve met with some of the exhibitors for the Los Angeles Times Travel Show, including Jim Pickell of Baja.com. An added perk of travel shows are some of the special offers and giveaways that are exclusive to guests. Baja.com is giving away multiple prizes, including accommodations, charters, cage diving with great white sharks, and surf camps. You know where to find me on Saturday!

However, with hundreds of exhibitors and an extensive schedule, consumers can come home from a travel show with more questions than answers. I often get home with a bag full of business cards, brochures, pins, and pens, and don’t do anything with it. So if you’re going this weekend in L.A., or to any other upcoming shows, as either media or a consumer, I’ve developed this guide to help you better navigate the travel show waters.

Consumer

  • Know before you go. You’ve heard it before, but I can’t emphasize this enough as an important characteristic for savvy travelers, even at a travel show. Do some research on the shows, exhibitors, and destinations beforehand. Write down some questions and have a pen and notepad handy when you arrive. This is your chance! When else are you going to have this many destinations and travel experts in the same room together who are eager to help you?
  • Make a 2012 bucket list. Make a list or even multiple lists and rank the destinations and activities on there. This can make the show feel a lot less overwhelming. Go to the exhibitors at the top of your list and work your way down. If you have more time, then you can visit some of the other booths. Even consider destinations and activities in your own backyard. You better believe I’ll be visiting the Catalina Island and Oxnard booths!
  • Map it out. Write down exhibitors and speakers you want to see and then make a plan for the day. The Los Angeles Times Travel Show also has a mobile guide with a floor plan, exhibitor directory, speaker schedule, and more.

Media

  • Have a focus and know the questions you want to ask. “Hi, I’m a travel writer and I’m going to Cancun this spring. Got any freebies for me?” That would be how NOT to approach exhibitors. Have an idea of destinations and stories you’re interested in over the coming year and ask questions based on that. Even ask if they host writers or press trips. However, also be prepared for questions they ask. They’ll be interested in things like your style of writing, your reach, and distribution of the outlets you write for.
  • Arrive early on the first day. Plan on really making meaningful connections on the first day. Make a good first impression because exhibitors will get a lot of faces and names and they aren’t likely to remember many of them.
  • Have a stack of your best business cards. Not just any business cards, but your best. Make them stand out, whether by the design or the content, because exhibitors are going to be inundated with business cards. Don’t just place in a bowl or their business card notebook, but make a meaningful connection and hand it to them so they can put a card with the face.
  • Focus on tourism boards. Don’t dismiss other exhibitors, but tourism boards are often your best resource at a travel show. You’re often talking with the very decision makers who would be helping with your trips and assignments. Larger exhibitors may have sent sales people or representatives who deal more with the consumer side of travel shows.
  • Follow up afterward. Expect your inbox to be inundated with press releases shortly after attending. However, to make meaningful contacts, make sure to talk with the right decision makers or get the contact information for those people who you can later follow up with. Be clear about your interest and communication preferences so they can best serve you.

Have you been to a travel show? What were your experiences?