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Top 10 Tradeshow Essentials for Success

Tradeshows generate income and improve the bottom dollar. Tradeshows are a great way to meet new prospects, connect with clients, position your firm as experts in the market and gather competitive intelligence. Unfortunately, we often see firms spend thousands upon thousands on tradeshows, without maximizing their time and money to ensure top results. In the past two decades of exhibiting at tradeshows and conferences, I have learned a lot of lessons – most of them the hard way.

Here are my Top 10 Tradeshow Essentials for Success:

1.  PLAN FOR THE WORST, EXPECT THE BEST

Make some goals. Every solid plan starts with clear goals in writing. Goals guide important decisions, helping you determine the best decisions on everything from booth placement to giveaways and provide a yardstick to assess whether the tradeshow was ‘successful.’ Some sample goals could include:

  • Get at least 20 genuine prospects.
  • Ask customers 3 specific things about their business or buying habits.
  • Find 10 good recruiting prospects
  • Talk with 10 industry leaders.


Set a schedule.
Remember, a failure to plan is a plan to fail. Create a schedule for everything from securing your exhibit space, to producing pre- and event-marketing materials, including the day of set-up, etc.

2. DEVELOP YOUR MESSAGE

You have 3 seconds. Three seconds is about all you get to attract attention with your booth space. You need to decide what your message is early on, and use it often and consistently.  Hint: a photo collage of all your past projects is not a message. The goal is to get people to stop, not to explain everything about who you are and what you do.

3. DON’T FORGET TO PRE-MARKET

Send a personal invitation. Reach out to clients and prospects ahead of time to let them know that you will be exhibiting and give them a good reason to stop by. Direct mail can, and does, work in this instance. Offer something cool and expensive at your booth, but only if they bring the postcard to you. Then, because you collect their card, you have their contact info to follow up later. Don’t forget to put provide your booth number! Emails work as well because you can use the tradeshow’s name in the subject of the email inspiring people to likely read your email blast.

Promote the show. Add a line to everyone’s email signature with the show info and your booth number. If you have a giveaway or something else interesting, say that, too.

Make a date. Set up meetings ahead of time with existing customers, new targets, vendors, editors/publishers and potential alliances.

4.  HAVE A BOOTH THAT STANDS OUT IN THE CROWD

Location, location, location. Pick your booth location wisely. Think about how people move through a show. They have to pass by end caps, are likely to visit the restrooms, and will gather at food stations. Be in their way. Also, avoid being clustered with your competitors, and try to be adjacent to teaming/project partners.

It’s all about the design. How is your design conveying your one message? How is it showing the unique offerings of your firm? Attendees will see a ton of booths, all essentially identical. You have to do something different. It doesn’t have to be amazingly unique, just different.

5.  SWAG AND TECHNOLOGY, DONE RIGHT

Everybody loves swag, right? No! Most of us have many pieces of useless plastic. Try and relate your swag to your message. For example, if you tout technology, don’t have basic pens and notepads – have a cool techy device instead.

Moving pictures work. We tend to look at moving images, especially when they’re bright. Your booth should have a big monitor or a bright projector using video to tell your story. And remember, your story isn’t all of your past projects/experience, it is bigger than that. It should be focused on your UX or unique selling position.

6.  PROPER STAFFING

Plan on at least three people to staff the booth. One person should be walking around and going to meetings, and two people at the booth consistently allows for busy times, restocking items, and taking breaks. Most attendees don’t want to talk to sales people; they want to geek out with their peers so make sure you have staff ‘working the room.’

Invest in some pre-tradeshow training. Just because staff have attended a conference before, don’t assume they know what is expected of them when exhibiting (as well as attending). Go over the expectations with staff, review the tradeshow plan with them (see #1 on this list). Take the time to honestly assess if they have the business development skills needed to do well as an exhibitor. In other words, don’t put your most introverted person in the booth just because they are the subject matter expert. If they need to be there, pair them with seasoned business developers and marketers who will help them make connections.

7. MAXIMIZE YOUR TIME THERE.

Have a pick-up line. What gets people to stop? To laugh? To say, “Ok, fair enough, tell me more.” Test your pitch all show long. After the 100th pitch, you’ll know exactly what gets people’s attention — now put that on your marketing materials! Your opening line should engage them with something you specifically have to offer. Do some research and develop 3-5 questions that you’re going to ask of people who walk by the booth, then ask away.

Ask questions. Instead of constantly pitching to prospects, have a real conversation. Be genuinely interested in the other person — what do they do, what are they interested in.  If you’re good, they will actually ask you for a pitch as a form of reciprocation.  Don’t ask how they’re doing.

Take names instead of pushing brochures. How often do you dump all of the printed materials you received before you head back home? Do you think your prospects are any different? Scan their badge or get a business card and mail them something after the show.  Remember quality over quantity; if you take their info vs handing them materials, you now have a reason to follow up with them with materials that are customized to their unique issues that, obviously, only you can solve.

Wear comfortable shoes. Stand, don’t sit —sitting looks like you don’t want to be there. Get your body into the aisle. Just because there’s a table there doesn’t mean you have to stand behind it.

Use the time to gather competitive intelligence. Walk the floor and talk to everyone. You can commiserate about how the show is going and how it compares to others. Scope out the competition.

Build your own party. Who can resist free booze and free food? Rent a room at or near the conference site with wine, beer, and basic food. Pass out invites at the show and on your pre-show mailers.

8. LEAD TRACKING*

Take notes. You’ll talk to 100s of people: write it down within 10 minutes. How often do you finish a conversation and then can barely recall it? Use their business card to take notes on what you discussed as soon as possible. Use LinkedIn every night to follow up with contacts quickly.

Have a system for lead tracking and train all your staff on how to use it. You have likely spent thousands of dollars to exhibit, make sure you get your money’s worth by tracking all of the contacts you have made and any
potential leads. This is the #1 missed opportunity at tradeshows and the #1 reason why you are there.

*Sample tracking tools: CRM database, card scanner, tablet, or a simple lead sheet.

9.  FAILURE TO PLAN IS A PLAN FOR FAILURE

If you don’t plan for an emergency, the likelihood of it happening is 10x greater (note this is not scientific, rather based on personal experience). Prepare a tradeshow emergency supply Box of Everything. Here is a starting list for you:

  • Pens (multiple, different colors)
  • Sharpie
  • Scotch tape
  • Masking tape
  • Zip ties
  • Extension cord
  • Batteries
  • Electric plug bar
  • Post-it notes
  • Rubber bands
  • Tiny stapler
  • Highlighter
  • Paper clips
  • Scissors
  • All-in-one tool (screwdriver, can opener)
  • Medicine (Tylenol, Advil, Motrin, Dayquil, etc.)
  • Generic business cards (in case anyone runs out)


10. FOLLOW UP FAST



The key to getting your money’s worth from exhibiting at a tradeshow is to capitalize on every encounter there. Sadly, more often than not, firms return to the office after a show and get right back to business as usual. It is not surprising, you all have been out of the office for days and there is work piling up! Really, what is the point of all of that time and money if you do nothing with what you learned at the show?

External tasks. The marketing department can do a direct email campaign with lessons learned at the conference, who won your giveaway, or just a Thanks for stopping by email. This is a good time to get prospects integrated into your marketing process. Your business development team should be scheduling follow-up meetings, making CRM entries and sending any follow up information that was promised.

Internal tasks. Don’t forget to debrief internally to improve your processes and make decisions on next year’s attendance. Did you meet your stated goals? Why or why not? What could you do differently?  Also discuss the competitive intelligence you gathered (see #7 on this list). And lastly, apply what you learned. You talked to many firms, pitching a hundred different ways. What did you learn?  How can you use it to improve your firm?


Deirdre Gilmore, CPSM
Founder of Tank Girl Marketing and Co-founder of TGM Development
Deirdre is a Certified Professional Services Marketer who understands all aspects of marketing, from business development through research and operations. She specializes in setting strategies, business and marketing planning, training and coaching, strategic project pursuits, strategy, and brand development.  Deirdre sits on the board of the Arizona Association of Economic Development and received their Member of the Year Award in 2015. Furthermore, Tank Girl Marketing won three SMPS marketing communications awards. When not fulfilling her duties as Sergeant Strategy, Deirdre enjoys spending time with family and traveling the world.

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