How to Boost Your Tradeshow Success

A lot of time and money goes into exhibiting at trade shows, so make the most of them by following a few simple rules.

I worked my first trade show booth more than 30 years ago, and you know what? Nothing much has changed. Sure, technology has come a long way: booths are flashier and take one person five minutes to erect, instead of five hours and a team of guys who look like they just stepped out of an ultimate fighting ring.
But, when you boil it down, what is a trade show? It’s an event where a whole bunch of people with a common interest come together to look at what’s available to help them reach their objectives. Sounds a lot like sales and marketing, doesn’t it?
So, strip away all the fancy stuff, and you find nothing has changed at all. People attend an event where salespeople staff 10- by 10-foot booths waiting for visitors to come along, so they can sell them something.
I hear people say trade shows are a waste of time and money, and I agree they can be — sometimes. It all depends on how you gauge success; the first thing you have to decide is what you expect to gain from attending the show — and of course, it has to be the right show in the first place.
If you expect to make sales while at a business-to-business (B2B) show, you may well be disappointed. These events should be used to build contacts: qualified prospects with whom you will follow up afterward. That’s not to say you can’t make sales, but it’s less likely. At business-to-consumer (B2C) shows, you’re far more likely to close sales.
As I write this, I’ve just returned from a B2B show at which we secured a verbal “yes” to publish three custom books for clients, along with more than 20 strong “possibles” to follow up.
The trick, as it has always been, is to “do” trade shows better than your competitors and get in front of more people. Much has been written about getting the best out of a trade show, and to cover every aspect would take a book, not a column, so this time out I’m going to home in on what I see as game-changers — those tips and tricks that can turn a lackluster outing into a profitable marketing initiative.
{advertisement} Choose the right show. Don’t waste money on generic shows; make sure a high percentage of those in attendance need, and want, what you’re selling. The trick here is to consider your ideal target market. Then identify shows that decision-makers attend.
Produce a budget. In most cases, what you pay for the booth merely buys you the space; you’ll have to pony up for furniture, electricity, and Internet access for the booth; travel, accommodation, meals, employee wages, and parking; and, if you don’t already have one, the display booth itself. And then there’s handout materials for visitors. All of this adds up, so be aware of the total financial outlay before you sign on the dotted line.
Set goals and objectives. I like to consider what result I want right from the outset, then I can figure out how to make it happen. S.M.A.R.T. is a well used acronym, but one that has stood the test of time. It stands for: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-sensitive. So, think about what you want to achieve. How many good contacts would make the show successful? If you expect to make some sales, what is your target — in terms of revenue and perhaps individual sales?
Decide on a message. Focus on one distinct message so attendees can clearly see what you’re promoting. At our show, attended by municipal representatives, we had a 10-foot banner that simply stated, “Ask us how you can get 1,000 free books featuring your community.” It was simple and to the point, and people stopped by and asked, “OK, how?” or, “What’s the catch?” In both cases, the ice was broken and we were able to engage our prospect.
Bring enough staff. How many people will work at your booth? At most shows, attendees come by in waves, especially if the show is part of a conference where delegates will be in session some of the time and only visiting the show during breaks. The trick is not to miss people when they stop by. I’d rather have staff standing around doing nothing for an hour or two than miss an important contact because we were too busy to talk to them.
Give greeters the tools they need. 
I provide an information kit for the people staffing my booth; it contains, among other things, a list of questions I want them to ask prospects, as well as an extensive list of frequently asked questions. Nothing boosts confidence more than having all the answers to objections at your fingertips. I also proscribe exactly how we’ll gather contact information. Some booths use a prize draw to collect cards, but you end up with lots of useless cards from people staffing the other booths, along with many non-decision-makers. Focus on collecting information from decision-makers, or those who can help you reach them.
Look and be professional. Whatever your budget, make your banners, posters, displays, and handouts the best you can afford. At our show, we used a 10-foot banner made of laminated paper; it looked high quality but was very inexpensive. We also printed 2,000 bookmarks containing the key information we wanted to get across — much less expensive than a rack card or brochure, and something people will use rather than throw away when they get home from the show.
Manage the booth. Never sit down, eat, or drink while on duty. Always have a positive attitude even when you’re tired (and you will be). Dress appropriately for the show — if you’re selling chainsaws, it’s fine to wear a plaid shirt and jeans, but if you’re selling to businesspeople, wear appropriate professional attire (not business casual). Remember the three golden rules of selling: sell yourself first, your company second, and your product last. Keep the booth tidy and clean. Give something away so people won’t forget you. We gave away the bookmark, but more impressively, we gave a $40 sample book to any likely prospect!
Exude a positive attitude. Make sure everyone on your booth is chock full of energy and enthusiasm. Look around at the other booths and see how many people are sitting there looking bored, chewing gum, or worse — reading a book! Involve those passing by, smile, say “hi,” and give them something, even if it’s just a piece of candy.
Always follow up. Success is less about what happens at the show and more about what you do during the following week. If you did your job right, you made lots of contacts; now e-mail everyone and thank them for visiting your booth. Leave it for a few days, and then call them. My first follow-up call resulted in a teleconference call with decision-makers the very next day!
Choose the right trade show, plan your booth well, and staff it with enthusiasm, and you will increase your chances of getting sales tenfold. Contact every lead the show generates and you’ll soon be mining a rich stream of pre-qualified prospects.