Sales & Marketing

Learn to Make the Most of Trade Shows

Learn to Make the Most of Trade Shows

Learn how to identify trade shows that will offer you the most ROI. Also, learn how to decide whether it's best to participate as a vendor or a visitor at different kinds of industry trade shows.

By J.D. Piland


For a lot of people, trade shows mean some relaxing time out of the office. And even though it is work, you may have heard someone say he or she is going on a trade show “vacation.”

Or you could actually use the trade show for work.

Trade shows can be invaluable events that can achieve months’ worth of marketing concentrated into two or three days. Networking, buying, selling, gathering leads or unveiling your new product all can be accomplished during a trade show.

“Trade shows are industry-specific shopping centers,” says Stephen Schuldenfrei, president of the Chicago-based Trade Show Exhibitors Association.

But, it’s important to have a plan, whether attending or exhibiting, to make the most out of your time and reap the most benefit.

Where To?
Just about every industry has a trade show on some level: local, regional, national or international. Where do you fit in? Your goals will help determine that.

“How many exhibitors are there?” Schuldenfrei suggest asking yourself. “What products are there? What kind of show is it? You have to do your homework.”

Just going to a show because it is in your market doesn’t make sense. Your show destination depends on what you are interested in, not how close it is to your office. If you are only interested in your specific region or market, then you wouldn’t want to go to a national or international show, says Susan Friedmann, CSP, The Trade Show Coach, who is based in Lake Placid, N.Y.

You should ask yourself, “How do I find the show I want to go to?” Schuldenfrei says.

First, look in your trade publications, which typically have a calendar of upcoming events, he says. If you are a member of an association, it, too, will keep track of relevant trade shows, especially its own.

So, now that you have narrowed down the show you want to attend, visit its Web site and look at who will be exhibiting. Will the exhibitors there be able to help achieve your goals?

What To Do?
Oddly enough, goal setting has become a trend. One might consider that common knowledge, but it wasn’t always the case, especially when exhibiting at trade shows.

“Most people don’t know their goals; that’s a problem,” Schuldenfrei says. “They don’t know why they are there. They are there because they were told to be there; they are there because they have always been there. Those are terrible goals because those aren’t goals at all.”

Ironically, the goal-setting trend has emerged because average attendance for shows has stabilized, or even slightly declined. The larger companies — the ones that can afford to send 15 employees to one show — are now sending fewer, Schuldenfrei says. With fewer attendees, you have to be more pointed with your efforts.

To help determine what you want to accomplish, consult the exhibitors list that each show provides. These are updated as exhibitors commit to booth space and most likely can be found on the show’s Web site.

Now that you have your list of exhibitors, decide which companies you must visit and which companies you want to visit; your “must” list takes precedent, Friedmann says.

Next, look at where the companies are located on the trade show floor plan, which is typically available on the show’s site. With the floor plan in hand, map out your route for walking the show. Don’t see someone in row 100, trek across to row 1,200, and then go back to row 400; make it a progression. Include in your mapping how long you want to spend with each company on your list.

“Going in with a plan will save you a huge amount of time,” Schuldenfrei adds.

Should I Exhibit?
This really depends on your goals. If you are looking to get 100 leads, then you should be an exhibitor. If you want to educate yourself on the future of the industry, then you should attend.

A booth at a trade show, Schuldenfrei says, is “a medium through which even the small guy can be very prominent.” This means that even with a 10-foot by 10-foot booth — compared to 100-foot by 100-foot booths — you can compete.

But, you must realize you can’t and won’t see everyone at the show, and not everyone coming to a show is a prospect. “Remember, attendees have that list of people they have come to see,” he adds, “and if you can get on their short list, you’ll have a much better chance of seeing them, and therefore, selling your product or service.”

To get on that short list and to draw in potential customers, you have to market to them. Send out invitations to visit the booth, advertise in your trade publications, anything that will get their attention and let them know you will be at the show they are attending. Often, shows will allow you to rent attendee lists, complete with demographic information, so you can target your customers effectively, Schuldenfrei says.

You need a specific strategy for what you are going to do before the show, at the show and after the show (this, again, is how your goals drive your trade show experience). So, it’s not just buying space and showing up; you want to focus on something specific, Friedmann says. “One of the biggest mistakes that exhibitors make is that they think they need to bring everything that they’ve got to the show.”

You’ve really only got three to five seconds to grab an attendee’s attention, she adds, and showing them all your services at once will confuse them.

But the most important thing to remember when attending or exhibiting at a trade show is that you represent your company, and it takes more than just putting on the company shirt.