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10 tips for trade show success

Sept. 1, 2010
How do you react to a trade show announcement — with anxiety and dread, or with excitement and enthusiasm?

By Connie Jankowski

How do you react to a trade show announcement — with anxiety and dread, or with excitement and enthusiasm? Trade shows can present an interruption to your daily business, involve a burdensome attack on your budget, impose on your staff, and drain your company resources. On the other hand, trade shows offer unparalleled opportunities to reach potential clients, members of the media, industry leaders, strategic partners, key opinion leaders, vendors, and potential new hires. Trade show successes can make or break a company, and successful trade show exhibits can catapult a business to new levels of industry prominence.

Attending trade shows is a "must do" for any competitive business, so understand that there is no substitute for these annoying/amazing events. Respect the value of each trade show and consider the opportunities presented as a major element in your overall marketing plan. Don't be naïve and think that just showing up is good marketing, or that opportunities will fall into your lap. You should have a trade show plan that capitalizes on each area of opportunity.

I know a product manager at a midsized health-care device company who is the guru of trade shows. She fills every moment on site with valuable meetings with key opinion leaders, the media, and trade organizations. Her booth is supplied and staffed with colleagues that know their roles, and her appearance is as professional as the language in her brochures. She has built a career benefiting from relationships started at trade shows.

Her company counterpart is a product manager on another line. She does not like the travel and the effort needed to support the trade shows. She likes demonstrating the company's equipment, so she hangs in the booth for most of the time spent away. She is courteous to those who stop by and ask for demonstrations, but she fails to make the kind of contacts that can really do something to create industry buzz.

Everyone involved with your trade show efforts must get on board with goals for planning, executing, and following up on trade show leads of all kinds. Of course, you will carefully record and track sales leads that generate from your displays and presentations, but who is keeping track of all the relationships grown with media, event organizers, speakers from the event podium, industry associates, competitors, and even from your own staff? In order to reap the benefits, someone must take charge of organizing show efforts, and monitor the tangible and intangible results of trade show activities. If your responsibilities include managing these events, you must realize that your efforts reflect on your company's image and its sales. Maximize the return on your trade show investment by carefully following these 10 Tips for Trade Show Success:

1. Recognize opportunities and set clear goals. A trade show's goals will include product sales and lead generation, but don't stop at immediate gratification. Are you focusing on a current promotion or launching a new product? Look at how ancillary activities affect corporate image, your marketing program, and future sales. Your goals should include sales measures and other valuable things, such as finding customers and influencers who are fans of your company, landing articles in the trade media, learning about upcoming trends in your industry, booking speaking engagements for your company spokespersons, becoming involved in industry organizations, and enhancing staff members' marketing skills.

2. Make a list of the categories of people who will attend the show, and understand how each group can play a role in meeting your goals. Your list might include:

a. Prospective clients — A trade show might be the place to cement an agreement, especially if you offer attractive show specials. You can introduce your products to new prospects, and let them "test drive" your products. There is no better environment than a trade show for selling, especially if your booth is filled with enthusiastic product fans!

b. Devoted product users — Remember to court your devoted fan base! Clients who use and love your products can have a huge effect on your business – if their thoughts are made known. Encourage them to spend time in your booth, and be certain to invite them to any events that you host in conjunction with the show. Develop a contact list of these "A-list" clients, and be sure to inform them that you will be at specific shows. These clients could become a strong extension of your sales force by endorsing your products.

c. Key opinion leaders (KOLs) — Medical marketers are perhaps the best users of this concept, but all industries depend on the leaders in the field to approve their products. For example, when an expert in knee surgery mentions your tool in his or her podium presentation, other surgeons hear an implied endorsement of your product. Having the expert in your booth to answer questions about the surgery procedures brings further notoriety and "buzz." Including the expert's comments in an article in a trade publication continues the excitement, and results in sales for you.

Use trade shows to develop and recruit new key opinion leaders who could become company spokespersons. Your efforts should start before the show. Knowing your industry involves continual browsing of journals, trade publications, Internet articles, and trade show catalogs. Seek out authors and others who appear in these resources, and arrange to meet with them at the show. A lunch, dinner, or other meeting should initially be informal to get to know the person, and it's a good idea to include a colleague, your PR agent, or a reliable KOL to help ease the conversation. Remember that business relationships are built on common goals — and on a likeability factor.

d. Competitors — Trade shows offer opportunities for you to keep abreast of your competitors' stance in the marketplace. Don't stick your head in the sand and ignore the efforts made by your competition. Your trusted friends in the industry will provide you with feedback about new products, sales, and statements made by the competition. Observe who is speaking on their behalf, lecturing in their booths, and attending their parties. This information will help you develop your marketing plans.

e. Media — You can bet that every major trade journal in your industry will have representation at major meetings — and your goal is to be included in pre-show, show, and post-show articles. Additionally, show dailies can appear as blogs, e-newsletters, or online video posts. Don't forget the power of tweets and Facebook entries that reach people at the meeting and those left at home. Nothing helps create buzz better than your name in the news! Don't think that these articles occur accidentally; it takes ongoing professional efforts to keep editors, producers, and writers happy and interested in your company. Make sure that someone in your organization promotes your launches and other items of interest to the media.

Your marketing staff can assume responsibility for media relations, but a professional public relations agency may be the best suited for this task. Your agent should contact each publication several months before a show to inquire about plans for trade show coverage. He or she should also provide information to the media regarding your exciting plans for the trade show (new products, presentations, events, etc.), and make appointments to meet each journalist, either individually or at a media event. Be sure to befriend these journalists, as they can be very supportive or very dismissive of your products and programs. Make time to entertain the journalist in the booth or elsewhere, perhaps including a KOL to speak about important issues. Remember that articles written can talk specifically about products, or they can be more subtle by mentioning your product within an appropriate subject discussion. Both are very valuable!

f. Event organizers — Don't forget to seek out the people who organize the trade show (organization officers, clerical and support staff). Thank them for the opportunities afforded at the show. Understand that they may be overwhelmed with activities onsite, and a thank you makes a great impression. These organizers can do a lot to make your experience pleasant. Decisions regarding everything from booth placement, to speaker selection, to getting an extra trashcan for your booth come from the organizers, and their support can make your life easier. Additionally, these people can introduce you to the movers and shakers of your industry, invite you to participate in special events, and consider you for membership on planning committees that increase your prominence in the industry.

g. Organizations — Get involved with those who are involved! Look for organizations within your industry, and encourage your team members to join. Networking within an organization allows you to accomplish many goals within the framework of industry support. Attend meetings and events that the organizations sponsor at trade shows and you will enjoy the friendships made and accomplishments gained through group dynamics.

What to wear at a trade show

  • Comfortable shoes are a must. Long hours of standing on concrete floors and repetitive trips from hotel to show floor tire the fittest individuals, so shoe selection is critical for withstanding the grueling hours spent standing on the trade show floor.
  • Establish clothing guidelines. Should booth members wear business suits or business casual clothing? Consider logo-embossed polo shirts or oxford-style shirts to unify and identify your team.
  • Pockets provide obvious value for storing cards, pens, and other necessaries.
  • Avoid overpowering colognes, excessive make-up, or ill fitting clothing.
  • Make sure that all items are clean and pressed, and a backup outfit can come in handy.

h. Your staff — Trade shows provide many opportunities for staff development and training, but don't assume that your staff members understand their roles or share your views about trade show attendance. Make a schedule for the event and clearly state expectations. Who will man the booth and when? Who will attend seminars and lectures? What will they bring back from the presentations? Marketing managers should divide their time between appointments and the booth. Sales professionals should greet their clients in the booth, and use time to explore the competition's marketing efforts. Personnel should be assigned to write up orders, keep the booth stocked with brochures, tidy up the booth, provide A/V support, greet booth visitors and direct them to proper information sources/people, take messages, and other tasks that you may include in your plans.

What to do at a trade show

  • An updated show catalog will help you confirm your show plans or revise any necessary items.
  • Keep an open and friendly attitude.
  • Take good notes – on everything!

Your efforts should also include training. Don't assume that anyone understands your expectations for dress, conduct, or actions, unless you provide training. Also clarify who is to attend events – in the booth and otherwise. For example, do you want your sales team at a media event? Send technical staff to seminars and workshops; let them know that they are expected to network. Is everyone expected to attend the event cocktail party? What topics should be discussed and by whom? You might not want clerical support expressing opinions about products or people in the industry, but sales and marketing personnel should be able to discuss and compare features of your product as compared to others on the market. Don't leave anything to chance.

i. Consultants and affiliates — If you contract with people to support you at this event, be sure that your expectations are made clear. What is their role? What is their show agenda? These should be submitted, reviewed, and approved before the show. For example, if you pay to send PR support to the show, you will want visibility in return. However, much of their activities will take place outside of your booth. PR will arrange meetings with media, network with industry people, recruit opinions of KOLs, attend podium presentations to ferret out usable statements that support your corporate goals, etc. Additionally, PR should attend your key events and spend some time in your booth getting to know your key associates and messages. Just be sure that you have a plan and a cell phone number for each affiliate at each show.

If your current staff includes few or no employees, don't feel that you can afford to miss the trade shows, even if you don't have all of the resources you'd want in place. Consider hiring temporary help, recruiting family and friends to help you out, or just plan to close shop for a day in order to attend the trade show. Chances are that your best customers are at the show and won't be available anyhow! Be sure to train your recruits as you would any employee.

j. Vendors — Don't be surprised if manufacturers and distributors of products your company uses attend shows where you exhibit. Although your primary attention should be on your clients, a few moments spent with vendors could identify ways to produce your products better, faster, or more economically. Don't feel obligated to dedicate tons of time with vendors at the show, but gather information and arrange for follow-up contact. Trade shows provide enormous opportunities to identify resources!

k. Others — Find people who can ease the trials and tribulations of trade show attendance. Will you come back to this venue in the future? Make contacts with local copy centers and business support centers. Find potential locations for company-sponsored events, including dinners, cocktail parties, and seminars. Did you find a great cab or limousine company? Gather business cards and brochures, and keep notes about logistical support.

3. Select your show; then organize your efforts! Create a calendar for pre-show and onsite action items, and meet with your staff regularly to monitor progress and discuss options.

The first step is choosing the right shows to cover. Find the shows that cater to your desired demographics, and be specific about subgroups when you evaluate. For example, if you have a product that is used by special education teachers, look for a conference geared to that group, not just generally to all teachers. If your budget and calendar allow, you can attend both specific and general shows, but the subgroup attendance should be considered in your evaluation. Don't just look at the total foot traffic estimates, but consider all opportunities associated with the show: networking, podium opportunities, media coverage, etc.

What to do after the trade show

  • Identify which of your objectives were met, and place an estimated value on each. Was the time and money spent attending the trade show justified? Consider both immediate results, such as booth sales, and positive long-term benefits for you and your company. Immediately check the show's information for the next event, and consider putting a deposit on a space for that event. Early deposits produce premium placements, and it's much easier to cancel a reservation than to get in at the last minute.
  • Revisit your show analysis in six months to disclose additional benefits that may have developed; then make a decision regarding a return visit to this event. Assuming that the event satisfied your goals, you can build and grown on the foundation you laid, making trade show participation a powerful force in your marketing plans.
  • Managing trade show efforts can be a year-round, complex task. The more effort you invest in these tasks, the greater the rewards you will reap.

Design a functional and attractive booth that fits your budget. This booth will become your home away from home, so be sure that it reflects your company's image and serves as a comfortable place to entertain customers and associates. Be sure to keep the booth serviced, and double check that you have all the pieces in the shipping container before it leaves your dock. Of course, you should consider travel costs, lodging, shipping, and booth costs, but don't choose based just on cost — base your decisions on overall value.

Once you have selected your shows, put together a master calendar that lists the show dates, and all relevant dates for action: when fees are due, paper submissions, speaker selection and training, management for any events you plan to host, travel dates, etc. Include these items on the master calendar and hold regular staff meetings to ensure that each item is getting done on time — or early!

Plan events onsite, or within walking distance of the show, and begin early. Customer receptions, press conferences, new product announcements, contests, presentations, and advisory board meetings several months in advance of the show capitalize on the availability of people needed for these events, and allow you to avoid paying travel and other expenses for events held independently. The show streamlines many producers, but you must prepare in advance for location, menu, speakers, presentations, A/V needs, staffing, training, and handouts for these events. Add these items to your master calendar.

Gather materials for the booth several weeks in advance. Include brochures and business cards, paper and pens, calculators, scissors, tape (several kinds), tissues and paper towels, snacks, and other personal items.

4. Monitor relevant podium and poster presentations. What are the information draws for the show? (What do attendees hope to discover?) Who will be speaking, and what are their topics? How do these presentations relate to your product or service? Would the speaker be willing to mention your company within relevant text? When you discover plans for a topic of special interest to be presented at a conference or trade show, consider contacting the author to offer support or information. However, you must be careful to avoid putting the speaker in a compromising position. Your public relations executive or another seasoned member of your research or marketing staff should handle these sensitive discussions, but the effort may be well worth your time. A speaker may welcome new data, products for demonstration, or other assistance preparing his or her presentation. In addition to presenting information to the target audience in attendance, your messages could repeat in transcripts, publications, and discussions among attendees. Any mention of your company in a positive light could put you on the industry map of who's who, or could help you maintain your status!

5. Look for opportunities to increase your presence. Review each show's brochure for events and programs of interest. Many shows launch their activities with a kick-off event for exhibitors and/or attendees. Be sure that your company is well represented at these informal events. This is a time to meet and greet without a set agenda; it is less threatening than walking into a booth, and you could initiate relationships with customers and others that result in sales and other valuable outcomes.

Be sure that major events are attended by all of your onsite staff. Check that properly schooled individuals attend technical or industry business meetings. Understand that even the line for coffee in the morning, or an elevator ride in the host hotel provides opportunities for important networking.

Walk the floor! You might discover opportunities to join activities that help your cause. Check out the other booths and displays. Compare your marketing efforts to those of your competition, and to others in the industry. Learn about industry developments and new products being offered. Your dinner partners will discuss what they see on the floor; don't be left out of important conversations.

6. Create "buzz" in your booth! Keep things lively with presentations, demonstrations, "celebrity" visits, autograph sessions, entertainment, and give-aways. The traditional logo-crested bag continues to be a show favorite because people using the bags become walking billboards for your products, but don't limit yourself to the old standbys. Look for items that relate to your industry, especially useful tools that will be carried back to the workplace and used for years.

People will pass by your booth if nothing's happening there. People are attracted to high-energy situations where others are engaged in stimulating conversation or having fun. Well-orchestrated publicity stunts (which can get a little crazy) really get attention, but you should be sure that they fit with your image objectives. Simple promotions often produce great returns. Consider a drawing for a sample product –collecting business cards in a fish bowl — or keep refreshments available. Even mints with your company logo on the wrapper will make a major impact. Make sure that your booth is inviting and nonthreatening. Have a little fun – or just look like it! Plan activities that engage your visitors, but remember to focus attention back to your products.

Begin the buzz by promoting your activities in advance of the show and at the show. Mailed announcements, e-blasts, news releases, trade publication or show program ads, fly-ins, door drops, and onsite fliers and posters bring traffic to your booth and start the buzz on your first launch of information. Be creative with your handouts, and people will beat a path to your booth! Whether your plans include a book signing or a raffle, understand that planning the event is a vehicle to allow you to promote and get your name out there … don't miss the opportunity to publicize your booth plans to your target audience!

7. Don't just be there! Prepare your staff to optimize "presence," strategize staff activities, and train them to execute their roles! As with any team venture, every team member must understand his or her role. Depending on the size of your booth, you can have several people share a function, or each person sharing several functions. Designate greeters, demonstrators, people to answer product questions, order takers, cleaners, and booth managers.

Create a good first impression by establishing rules for dress and behavior. Your staff should avoid excessive chatting with each other, sitting around looking bored, and eating and drinking in the booth. Personal items should be kept out of sight. Each person should prepare five or six questions to use when greeting customers, and everyone must be aware of company promotions and events tied to the show. Your staff should be encouraged to ask for contact information from visitors and to keep notes on interesting conversations or requests. Understand that good listening skills are as important as speaking skills.

Remind staff to avoid spicy foods, and to be on time for their booth shifts. Alcohol consumption should be limited at evening events and avoided during the day. Demand professional behavior, and understand that badmouthing competitors will not be tolerated. In general, professional behavior sells products.

8. Recognize opportunities and pursue media relationships. Industry shows draw the top names in trade journalism, so be sure to meet with media representatives at the show. Don't settle for the advertising sales team, but you should arrange meetings with editors and writers in attendance. Your public relations professionals may arrange meetings with editors and other journalists, and you should sit in on as many of these meetings as possible to help develop relationships and to ensure proper messaging. Additionally, your efforts to support PR measures tell editors that their publication is important to you, which can pay off in inches (of text in the publication)!

Print publications are the primary media at trade shows, but online magazines are very strong vehicles for product exposure. Additionally, more and more trade pubs are using video shows as part of their show coverage. Talk to editors before the event to schedule your company spokespersons for interview. Why not invite media to your booth for a demonstration of your products, or host a press conference to gather several journalists to observe techniques and ask questions? Trade show attendance offers the best opportunity to secure article placements for your goods and services.

9. Stay in the "best" hotel. Regardless of price, staying in the show-sponsored hotel allows you to network throughout your stay. Considering the cost of travel, a few extras spent on convenience and strategic placement of your staff can pay off in spades! You can make a friend by holding an elevator, waiting in line at the coffee shop, or hitting the treadmill in your hotel's fitness center. These casual meetings can turn into valuable friendships that could come in very handy.

Check the registration materials for recommended hotels and association discounts. These hotels are most often convenient for all show-related activities. You should also investigate online agencies (Expedia, Priceline,, etc.) to compare rates. Don't wait until the last minute to reserve a room; rooms near conference centers fill up quickly — sometimes up to a year in advance of a trade show! It's always better to make a reservation and cancel it later than to get squeezed out of the "in spot."

10. Network! Be aware of golden opportunities. Remember that trade shows draw all of the people that you want to meet. Look for reasons to be at the right place, at the right time. Are you looking to form strategic partnerships with companies that share your values and goals? You can find noncompetitive businesses that could partner with you to sponsor future seminars, cocktail parties, or special events. You could discover that the personal assistant to that doctor you've been trying to contact about giving an opinion about your latest device is seated next to you at the conference awards banquet. Don't skip the host events; you will always come away with new and important friends and ideas!

Connie Jankowski is a seasoned public relations and marketing professional. She has attended, organized, and promoted major trade shows in healthcare, education, and consumer industries. Jankowski is a partner in FredricPR, providing programs for both large, established concerns and small, emerging businesses. For more information, visit

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