How to Make the Most of Trade Shows

The Internet may have profoundly changed the business of marketing, but the trade show endures. In fact, it thrives. In many industries, attendance is practically mandatory — if you’re not there, you’re not anywhere.

For many seasoned companies, however, trade shows are less an opportunity to book new orders than a time to strengthen relationships, according to Jonathan Smiga, vice president of marketing for Chuao Chocolatier, of Carlsbad, California. “We’re all so busy,” says Smiga, “but for those two or three days, we’re all gathering at one place.”

Because trade shows draw a lot of industry press attention, along with potential customers, companies often use them to unveil new products. But savvy companies aim to make a broader impression as well. “It’s a great time to show the marketplace that you’re improving your business. Maybe you’re in a bigger booth than last year,” says Smiga. “You are a material player who’s evolving, with more resources that you can bring to their needs.”

Still, the trade show is a costly marketing channel. “Compared to other options,” says Ruth P. Stevens, a New York City — based consultant, “exhibiting at a trade show is the single most expensive medium choice.” One option is to concentrate your firepower. “Do fewer shows, but do them better,” says Smiga. “Pick the ones where you can be a star.”

Trading Places

1. Lay the Groundwork
A commitment to a trade show begins months before the opening day. “The worst thing you can do is show up at the show, set up your booth, and stand there and wait for people to show up,” says Stevens.

Set specific goals. The most obvious objective at a trade show is acquiring qualified leads that can be converted to sales. Decide in advance how many prospects you want to acquire. If you are unveiling a new product, you might define your goals in terms of the number of product demonstrations you conduct. If publicity is your aim, set targets for media interviews.

Invite prospects. Stevens recommends making advance appointments with key customers and prospects, with enough meetings to fill your days. At a minimum, send out advance invitations to draw visitors to your booth. A 2004 Georgia Southern University study found that companies that coupled an invitation with a gift drew larger crowds than those that sent invitations with redeemable coupons or no gift at all. Further, more than three-quarters of trade show attendees retained a favorable impression of a company that sent them a promotional product. If you are courting the media, set up those interviews in advance as well.

Train your booth jockeys. The key to an effective trade show is focus. First, avoid wasting time with visitors who aren’t serious. Second, complete the interaction with a true prospect in 10 minutes or so. Douglas MacLean, a South Carolina consultant who trains exhibitors, recommends listening, not talking — skip the small talk and dive into questions that will quickly establish why the visitor is at the show, the role the visitor has at his or her company, and whether your products might be of assistance. If it’s not a good match, say goodbye. If it is, then move on to a product presentation, delivered by a peer. Booth staff, says MacLean, should be able to tailor the pitch to the four kinds of customers who typically walk the aisles: the manager with a cost-benefit perspective, the product user, the tech enthusiast, and the generalist who may refer your company to others in the organization. (Retailers should emphasize the brand messages they have adopted for the show, says Smiga.)

At the show, take a few minutes at the end of each day for a staff huddle. Review the interactions, with an eye toward making improvements the next day.

2. Look Your Best
A small company at a major trade show can easily be overwhelmed by the competition. The trick, says Smiga, is to somehow become “a show within a show. You’re creating more disproportional energy to your brand and your booth than you should merit.”

Do more than the minimum. For starters, consider upsizing from a 10-foot booth to a 20-foot booth. “You double your billboard,” says Smiga. And “it looks like you spent more than the minimum to get in.” (You can then divide the space into direct selling and relationship building areas.) Customize the booth with your own signage, tables and chairs, and displays.

Attract those you want; repel those you don’t. “The rule of trade show design is that a person ought to be able to walk by your booth and in five or six seconds have an idea of what you’re selling and whether it applies to them,” says MacLean. Signs and displays, adds Stevens, should be explicit about who might benefit from your product and how (as in “The Best Software for Accountants”).

Obviously, you want to drive as many qualified prospects to your booth as possible. Get people’s attention with guerrilla marketing. Creative stage setting and displays that reinforce your messages are a must, and even gimmickry works, Smiga says, when it is deployed in a way that reinforces brand values. On the other hand, avoid decorating your booth with hired models who know little about your company. They may lure visitors in, but they won’t keep them there for long.

Consider freebies. A compelling giveaway can make a small claim on a prospect’s loyalty, but it can also do more. A smartly designed tote bag, for instance, may actually get attendees to advertise for you. Like good booth design, a creative gift can highlight your brand’s qualities, even in relatively unglamorous industries. Smiga, for example, owned a decorative-stone company that handed out 4-inch coasters made of inlaid stone. You can spend a lot of money on freebies that generate little return, however. At shows where much of the audience is unqualified, Stevens recommends keeping the tchotchkes behind the desk and using them as a thank-you gift after a conversation.

Make a good first impression. Be at the front of your booth with a welcoming smile. If your booth is easy to decode, then when people pause as they walk by, “that’s the nonverbal signal for you to introduce yourself,” says MacLean. Always keep your personal belongings out of sight — never be caught reading, eating, or talking on a cell phone. Perhaps most important,never sit down — “it suggests you’re not available,” says Stevens.

Have a hideaway. Certain relationships will call for longer, more intimate conversations. If your booth is crowded or busy, hold these elsewhere. Scout in advance a quiet place to sit, and assemble a tote bag or packet you can bring.

3. Always Follow Up
In most cases, a trade show encounter is just the beginning of the sales process. Immediately after the show, compile a register of everyone whose badge you scanned or who otherwise expressed interest and quickly follow up with those who expressed the most interest. For the most promising leads, Smiga suggests sending out a personalized package with a small gift.

Record your score. Be sure to track the results of your efforts: how many trade show leads resulted in sales worth how much and how long it took to close those deals. Not only will the data give you a sense of the return on your investment, but you can use them as a benchmark against next year’s show and various other shows.

Pick your trade show

Businesses in most industries have their pick of trade shows — for instance, there are six in the U.S. just for funeral directors, according to the Trade Show News Network’s website ( In all, some 9,000 trade events are held each year in the U.S. For many small companies, making a big splash at one or two shows will mean not attending others altogether. So, how to choose which to attend?

Consider your objectives. Companies hoping to expand in specific parts of the country should consider regional shows.

Get closest to your product niche. At trade shows, it’s all about the quality of the visitors. In many industries, the more specialized the show, the more qualified the prospects are at the outset.

Get the numbers. Some shows are audited by independent organizations. The audit should report audience size for past shows as well as important demographic information such as job titles and functions, industries represented, and where visitors are from. Taken together, an audit report should give you a sense not just of how many people are likely to show up but also of how many of them are likely to buy. Ask the organizers how many journalists attended (as opposed to merely registered for) the most recent exhibition.

Know where the “in” crowd goes. Shows often cycle in and out of favor. Keep current by checking in with the past attendees of the shows you are considering.

Put Your Best Faces Forward

The formula for staffing a booth is one person for 50 square feet of space, plus perhaps an extra person for the peak times of the day.

Mix and match: Experts recommend sending a mix of leadership, salespeople, and others. Your booth staff should mirror likely visitors so that, for example, engineers speak with engineers, decision makers with decision makers.

Charisma versus concision: Though they may lack the charisma of your field salespeople, your inside sales team — the people who spend their days making and taking phone calls — are often best suited for rapid-fire conversations.

Other specialists to consider: If making news is part of your mission, keep a publicist on hand. A support team is helpful for giving out product samples or managing demonstrations.