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Published on April 28th, 2009 | by Janine Popick

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How to Work a Trade Show

Trade Show Floor Recently I visited a marketing trade show here in the Bay Area. I always get excited to learn about new marketing technologies that help businesses grow so off the exhibit floor I went. What I found was kind of lame. It seemed like none of the companies exhibiting knew how to market their company and none of the people working at these booths knew the first thing about working a trade show. It’s more than wearing a company shirt.

Sometimes I think it’s the difference between someone who is working the show who actually wrote the check for it, versus a team of people that are a few steps removed from that person. If you stuck 100 small business OWNERS in these booths or people who were trained really well by the small business owners, they’d have out-worked any of these people.

Get The Business Card – First things first, you’ve paid to be at a show, you’ve spent money on your signs or booth (hopefully), the first thing you should do is ask for your visitor’s information. In fact you should ask for it before you start to sell them if you can. That’s what you went there for right? I visited no less than 25 businesses at this particular show, walked into their booths and took their collateral (if they had any) and not ONE person asked me for my information.

Print Collateral – Printing is expensive and it harms the environment I know. But you’ve got to give at least one handout about your company so that people remember you after they leave. Make sure it’s on recycled paper! There were at least 5 booths I stopped by that didn’t have ANY collateral, just goofy giveaways.

Tell People What You Do – If you’ve got a banner stand or a sign, make sure you tell people what you do on it along with your logo. Don’t make people guess. It doesn’t have to be too wordy, just get your main points across. About 25% of the booths I walked by just displayed a logo, nothing else. It doesn’t necessarily make me want to stop and ask someone what it is they do.

Be Knowledgeable – If you send staff, make sure they are trained know what they’re talking about. If they don’t know an answer to a question they should not try to make anything up, they should just say “I’m not sure about that, I’ll take that question down on your business card and follow up with an answer in an email.” Then make sure they write it on the back of the business card. I stopped by one booth and asked the person in it a question about how their technology worked, not only did they not know how it worked, they didn’t know who their primary customer was and they negated themselves about 3 times during a 7 minute discussion.

Be Approachable, Do the Approaching – A bunch of people from the same company standing around talking to each other the entire time isn’t going to draw in a crowd. Your staff has to approach people and start the conversation. For VerticalResponse the starter question is something like “Are you sending emails to your customers?” That begins the conversation.

Pet peeve? If you have to make a call and you have other staff in the booth, step away and make the call. People don’t want to come up to ask anyone questions if they are on the phone. My favorite? One booth had velvet ropes around the booth so you couldn’t walk into it, only the people who worked there could and one person was inside the ropes on the phone!

Another pet peeve is having too much clutter around a booth. Stash your coats and bags under the table or behind the booth. No one wants to do business with a messy company. Maybe it’s the Virgo in me.

These companies may be good at providing marketing technologies, but they couldn’t bring it back to the basics of good marketing in general. I was walking the show with our head of operations and I said to him “Wow, this is really bad. You can bet that after any trade show we spend money on my first question is: ‘How many leads did we get and when are we sending our first email to them?’”

Marketing 101.

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About the Author

is the CEO and founder of VerticalResponse.



12 Responses to How to Work a Trade Show

  1. I completely agree many of the booth employees at trade shows seem to be new or low level employees that would rather be anywhere than at the show. I agree that you must be knowledgeable and approachable, those are two very important aspects of marketing and lead generation. You must be able to get the client into your booth and provide them with the pertinent information to turn that lead into a sale.

  2. Dan Z says:

    The good news is that you’ve really identified a weak spot with a large percentage of exhibitors. The bad news is that there is in fact a large percentage that do not take proper advantage of their trade show exhibition.
    Regarding “giveaways”, there is an instance when some are good. That is when the “giveaway” is directly related to your product or service. That way you know that there is at least some interest in what you are providing. If you are in the Florida vacation rental business such as me (one of my businesses) for example, it does you no good to give away an ipod. Instead, give potential clients an opportunity to win reduced rental rates or possibly a deluxe welcome gift basket when they arrive, etc.
    This way you know that there may be a need and you’ve started to qualify them. How will you know who is really interested in your product if you just give away an ipod?…..unless you’re Apple!
    Just to expand on Ed’s two excellent tips, I’d like to offer the following. It’s not the number of contacts you make, it’s the number of highly qualified contacts that you make that’s important. Too many times, salespeople get a person’s card and then automatically call them “a prospect”. Categorize people into A,B,and C. lists and spend the time on A and B. Create the list using good qualifying questions. Better to spend your time following up well with 50 truly qualified prospects than to try to enter contact info, etc of 500 business cards that you don’t know their level of interest. And no, having your admin do it is not allowed either! Make sure you’re using them effectively as well.

  3. Tom says:

    I personally think door prize registrations are a distraction. Why tie up precious seconds or minutes filling out a door prize form? Time could be better spent. I think someone working a trade show should ask the visitor “how can I help you today?”

  4. Lee Cass says:

    Great article and tragically true. Last week at the Hunter we exhibited for the first time (we’re usually the ones setting up the exhibits!). We put ourselves in our customers’ shoes. “No pushy sales techniques, minimum paper advertising.” We offered a biz card, one flyer plus as a wedding planner service we ran a ‘luxury product’ competition to get brides involved. Other exhibitors commented their day was OK but we were so busy we ate lunch at close. I agree with Bill, lots of leads – the hurdle is converting!

  5. Great article and very much correct. Now a subject for a future article is “How to follow up a Trade Show to get business” I have the names, emails, phone numbers, etc doing mostly bridal shows but fall off on getting those who stopped by to respond in spite of any follow up that I do.

  6. This is a very pertinent topic for me as I just got back from a big conference. One of the vendors was a major bank that couldn’t answer the most basic questions about mortagages, didn’t take my card, didn’t offer to get the answer – he said “check the website!”

  7. Steve says:

    Great points!! I attend trade shows and I will never allow drinks or food (for myself and helpers) in the booth, never talk on the phone, I never have a chair in the booth, I never allow a book or newspaper in the booth, I greet each person that evens staggers near my booth, I have lots of handout literature to give out (however I sort of prequalify the prospect to see if they are even remotely interested in what I have). I insist on no talk to other exhibitors or my helpers if there is anyone walking and breathing in the aisle near my booth, people will walk on if you appear busy. Our entire focus is sales and anwering questions, explaing what we are about and YES, I do collect contact info, that is the point of going, making new contacts and getting them on the mailing list!!!!
    There are lots of business owners that are not trained do a good job, they think by showing up they will have instant sucess, it is not true, you have to work at it.
    One more thing, recycled paper you say??? I thought I would do my part and buy recycled paper….it is higher than regular at my local Stapels and Offic Depot…..

  8. Janine,
    I share your frustration about the lack of enthusiasm, knowledge and professionalism found at 70% of most exhibit booths at a tradeshow. Image is everything on the show floor and an exhibitors biggest competitor is time. As prospects pass by each exhibit a company has only seconds to make an impression with a dynamic display that will compel the attendee to stop. A trained salesperson must then be proactive and engage them in conversation. I too am astonded at the behavior of many of the people staffing exhibits. It seems that instead of educating and informing the audience about what’s new and innovative at their company or industry they think their job is to hand out cute free-bees. My pet peeve is the candy at every booth. Since when did a tradeshow turn into a Halloween party? It’s funny to watch people fly by each exhibit grabbing handfuls of chocolate and the company staff just standing there watching. No engagement, no discussion, no qualifying, no leads? You wonder if the CEO or owner of the company realizes how much money is being wasted by their exhibit marketing team. As President of Exhibit Experts, http://www.exhibitexpertsaz.com, I help businesses select the display to represent them best at shows. In addition I teach seminars on exhibit marketing and the five elements that will turn an exhibit booth into a powerful profit center. So few companies give their booth staff the tools they need to succeed. They think sales experience and techniques from the field will translate onto the show floor. Unfortunately that’s not true. You offer some terrific suggestions. Don’t forget the value of emailing all those leads after the show is over. Vertical Response is how our company stays in touch with our clients and prospects. If anyone would like additional information or tips for training their staff they can check out the resources on my website at http://www.SusanRatliffPresents.com.
    Thanks for the great information on marketing.
    SR

  9. Great stuff, Janine. I produce The Tulsa Wedding Show and am always trying to educate our exhibitors about how to market themselves in such a unique situation. Where else do buyers and sellers both pay to come together and do business? What a shame when all that booth rental, personnel wages and just plain work are wasted! In this economy, tradeshows are a fabulous use of marketing dollars – targeted and personal.

  10. Gustavo B says:

    Could not agree more with the suggestions in this piece.
    My company, http://www.colorcopiesusa.com specializes in trade show digital printing and large format printing. We see many clients more preoccupied by aspects that might not have such a relevancy, while aspects as those mentioned in this article are completely overseen.
    Bravo!

  11. Rosa Taggart says:

    I LOVE trade shows!! I just hate paying for them, so when I am there every Body that comes close to the booth/table is a potential customer. I never run up and tackle them but instead try to make eye contact and a nice smile (and possible a good morning / afternoon if they are close enough). They at this point are busy looking at my products on display, and when a glance lasts more than a moment I know that they are interested. I at this point wander over and ask “are you looking at this piece” If yes then I will tell them what it would be good for etc and say “I can give that to you for less than $20 when you book a home show” Oh with a smile is the next reaction and then the conversation starts.
    At some point there is an invitation to enter the door prize draw and personal information is gathered. After the show (1-2 days) an email is sent to the effect of “Thanks for visiting my booth/table etc . . ”
    Trade shows are wonderful for meeting people in the right frame of mind – open to new products and services.

  12. Ed Alexander says:

    All good tips. Definitely follow them! Trade shows, as part of the Demand Management continuum, are a high MPG (Meetings per Gallon) way to get face time with buyers. I have *never* come away empty handed from a trade show. It’s worth the investment to do it right.
    My $.02 below.
    Tip 5: Schedule meetings in advance. Get the advance registration list from the show promoter, find your hi-pot registrants, and call them to schedule appointments onsite at the show.
    Tip 6: Hope is not a strategy, so find non-attendee prospects in the same region as the trade show, and call them too! Often, trade shows offer exhibitors complimentary “clients and friends” passes, which you can offer to those prospects to facilitate entry and meetings. Everyone wins!
    More to come. If you want my playbook, email me. All the best, -Ed

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