Treat Trade Shows as More Than Just a Line of Exhibits

By: Sharon Berman,

Published: Los Angeles Business Journal

Select trade shows are the cornerstone of many businesspeople’s marketing programs. If you’ve exhibited in the past, you know what a tremendous investment of time and money they are.

How can you get the biggest return even if you don’t have the flashiest booth at the show? The key is to view the tradeshow in the context of a pipeline with a “before” and “after.” Most people focus on the show itself, which is important, but you can lose a lot of value if you ignore the other parts.

Trade shows tend to sneak up on people – it’s a month or less away and you haven’t even begun to update last year’s exhibit. No matter how busy you are, don’t simply decide to put some brochures and pens on the table. Your exhibit is part of your “packaging,” and it takes some work to look good.

Let’s presume you’ve done your homework on the show and believe that your target market will attend. To maximize your exhibit’s impact, find out if the show has a theme and incorporate it in your display. It also helps to know who is exhibiting on both sides of you.

Before preparing your exhibit, know the essential logistics, such as the size of the table or booth, the kind of power and number of outlets provided and the arrangements for computer display. Note that any skilled or unskilled help you bring in, such as those who carry heavy equipment or an electrician, usually have to be in a union. Make sure you know ahead of time to avoid last-minute emergencies.

Let your important markets know that you will be exhibiting, e.g., clients/customers, referral sources and prospective clients. This is especially important if someone from your firm is speaking or has a visible role at the show, or if you’re sponsoring. This can be as simple as an attention-getting postcard or e-mail (I prefer something tangible). Enclose or attach a brochure about the show inviting people to visit you at your booth. Perhaps there is something special that you can give your audience to entice them to visit you, such as a free gadget – something other than what you may hand out to everyone at the trade show.

It’s also worthwhile to alert trade, professional or local media that your firm will be attending. Present a few bullet points about the hot issues in the field, and let them know that you’ll be happy to provide background information and will be at their disposal for commentary.

Attend to list

Trade shows are about building relationships. Rather than relying on serendipity, be strategic about hooking up with the right people. If show management doesn’t automatically provide an attendee list in advance, ask for it. Review the list, or if you can’t get one, review your own contact database to see who is likely to attend.

Determine whom you want to meet, ask them to lunch or dinner, or put together a group of people who might enjoy meeting each other. Watch your timing. Many shows have rules stipulating that a formal meal, such as asking a group to lunch, may not conflict with a planned part of the show, such as the show’s lunch.

If your firm has a tradition of entertaining your clients on a certain night of the show, ask yourself what you can do to get a bigger bang out of it this year. Have your own objectives for the evening. The idea is to generate “next step” leads – openings with a reason to follow up.

One of the key purposes of exhibiting is to generate qualified leads. It takes some brainstorming sessions to develop a great idea that cuts through the bombardment of messages show attendees are hit with. It needs to draw people to your booth and get them to stay for a few minutes so that you can qualify them as prospective customers or clients.

Open pipeline

Making contact at the show is only the first step in building a relationship. It may take many more contacts to get a sale.

First, debrief after the show. Write down what went well and what needs to be changed next year. What competitive intelligence did you glean? Then, ask yourself the bottom line question: At this point, was exhibiting at this particular show worthwhile? Remember to return to this question later in the year because your answer may change in six months if you’ve landed worthwhile business that would not have happened without the show.

Prioritize the leads you received. Some will require an immediate phone call or follow-up literature while others may warrant more exploration. Some should simply be entered in your contact management program or mailing list as recipients of information. Identify the leads in your database as coming from the show. Send follow-up letters to people you met at the show with some information of value.

Finally, to the remainder of your database, send a letter outlining information of interest you learned at the show, or key points that were on attendees’ minds with a reminder that you’re available should they be facing those issues.

If you’ve been to a trade show lately, you know what big business they are. Why not be one of the big players rather than just another company with a booth? If you’re strategic about investing your time and money, you can be one of the exhibitors who return every year because it was well worth it last time, not because you’re hoping to do better next time.

Sharon Berman is principal of Berbay Marketing & PR, a Los Angeles-based marketing consultancy based in Los Angeles. She can be reached at

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