Trade Show Exhibiting: How to Be a Star Performer

by Dana King

It’s show time, and you would love to give an encore performance. You want to attract the attention that will keep the calls coming for months. By choosing to exhibit at a trade show, you have an outstanding opportunity to give your company positive exposure, build your client base, or announce your new product to the industry world. Yet, trying to stand out in an exhibitor’s hall can be daunting. Here are some tips to help you plan, implement, and follow-up your days in the spotlight.

Before the Show

1. Decide where to exhibit. If your company has little experience exhibiting at trade shows, do your homework up front to get the most out of your investment. Contact the company or association that is organizing the show and ask for data about attendees and exhibitors. Often, you can find exhibitor lists on the show’s web site. You also may be able to find former exhibitors on the web site. Contact some of these people and ask about their experience at the previous show.

If you are an experienced exhibitor, evaluate whether or not the trade show you have been attending has met your objectives. It can be easy to settle into a pattern of attending the same trade show every year. That’s fine, as long as you are growing your business. A consistent presence can certainly work to your advantage, promoting name recognition and providing a convenient opportunity for customers to speak with you each year.

However, if you have not achieved the results you desired, the first thing to assess is whether or not the show best meets your needs. Could there be a show that better targets your market? Or, then again, could it be that you are not achieving your objectives because you haven’t assessed those objectives?

2. Define measurable objectives. The obvious question to start with is simply: “Why are we exhibiting at this trade show?” This may seem like a ridiculous question, at first glance. But, if you pinpoint your primary and secondary reasons for attending, it will help focus your planning process. The company whose main objective is to increase sales will exhibit differently than the one who wants to use the event to launch a new product, or the one who primarily wants to work on positioning or image building.

“We start months in advance and have brainstorming sessions as to what may attract attendees, what machines we should exhibit, and what machine capabilities we should showcase,” said Jennie Stevens, director of advertising for Vijuk Equipment, Inc. “Sometimes we attend industry workshops or contact a marketing company for new ideas on trade show selling, show promotion, or booth exhibit displays.”

Make sure your objectives are in-line with the company’s strategic or marketing plan. Then, write down a quantifiable, attainable objective to measure the success of your exhibit. An example of a measurable objective would be adding 30 prospective customers to the database each day. If your primary goal is sales, track how many prospects you talk with before making a sale. This will help you set your objectives the next year, as you will know how many prospects you want to meet with per day to achieve your sales objective. (Remember to track sales information over the months after the show so your figures can be accurate.)

3. Take advantage of free publicity. Promote your company before the show so attendees will plan to visit your booth. There are several low-cost or no-cost ways to do this, including the following:

  • Press releases: Ask the show manager for a media list, and send newsworthy press releases to those publications which are putting out a special show edition or new product guides. New or improved products or services, expanded product lines, and new product applications are all good topics.
  • Your web site: Check to see if the trade show web site has free or low-cost links to exhibitor sites. Then, when people click to your site, offer an incentive to visit your booth (and list your booth number or location).
  • VIP passes: Check to see if the show you are attending has free or discounted VIP passes. You can give away VIP passes through your web site, or send mailings to your current customers and prospects. Along with the pass, why not offer a chance to win something if the recipient stops by and registers at your booth?
  • E-mail and faxes: Use these avenues to promote your booth by offering a reason to visit (a new product, an incentive, etc.). Keep in mind that conference attendees can be inundated with competing messages, so don’t send e-mails often enough to cause annoyance.

4. Don’t neglect traditional advertisement. Direct mail can still be a very effective advertising medium. Be aware, though, that attendees may be swamped with mailings. Make the best use of your advertising dollars by sending to the people you most want to visit your booth-your list of customers and prospects. Then, design a piece that is customer-benefit focused. Don’t forget those incentives!

“We use our allotment of free admission passes by sending them out in direct mail letters to preferred customers and prospects, letting them know what we will be exhibiting and inviting them to our booth – sometimes offering show “specials” or a premium,” said Stevens.

There are many advertising opportunities, including advertising in trade publications, co-sponsoring the trade show, paid advertising on show web sites, or sponsoring a conference break or giveaway (such as conference notepads or lanyards). Look around for opportunities, then choose what best fits your company’s marketing plan and budget.

At the Show

1. Draw them to your booth. It’s show time-and your booth has approximately three seconds to catch and hold attendees’ attention. How do you capitalize on this brief opportunity?

  • Remember your objectives! Focus your efforts on what you want to achieve (brand recognition, introduction of a new product, etc.). Choose large graphics and pictures that make your point. Avoid lots of words – people won’t stop to read.
  • Design a booth that is as roomy as possible and that allows access to you. People probably won’t stand in line to see what you have or to speak with you.
  • Make it memorable by using demonstrations or presentations. People learn in various ways, but the more ways you present your information, the more likely people will remember.
  • Address the attendees’ needs. They aren’t as interested in your company as they are in what your company can do for them (i.e. lower production costs, increase quality, provide an innovative feature to their market, etc.). And, of course, don’t forget those giveaways or incentives. Just be sure that your giveaway is something that clearly promotes your company and product – and try to choose something people can use again and again.

2. Track your objectives. Keep track of statistics that will help evaluate whether or not you are meeting your objectives for the conference. If the conference is three days, have you met one-third of your goal by the first day? If not, are your objectives realistic? If the objectives still seem reasonable, reassess and determine if there are changes you can make in the booth. Are booth workers spending too much time speaking with weaker potential customers while those who are most interested in your product wait – and move on? Is there something going on at the next booth that is distracting from yours? Perhaps you could rearrange so your information or demonstration is at the opposite side of your booth. Try to pinpoint potential problems and brainstorm creative solutions, or give your booth staff some additional quick training tips.

“An obvious way to track objectives is booth attendance, number of qualified leads, and number of sales,” said Stevens. “We rent the lead recording device to record the attendee’s interest and purchase intentions. We also have direct communication with our home office so we are able to provide any information or service required for sales.”

3. Seek publicity at the trade show. There are several ways you can improve your visibility and name recognition at trade shows.

  • Try putting your press kit in the press room. Editors look through the press kits and may use the information during and after the show.
  • Find out if there is a daily trade show newspaper or e-newsletter. If there is, ask the manager who is producing the newspaper. If you have an idea for an article on a product or news item, you should actually contact the editor several weeks before the show. If the editor likes your idea, he might include an interview with a representative from your company.
  • Be involved in the show. Considering reading a paper at the trade show, being a speaker, or paying to enter your company in an awards competition. All these things give your company’s name exposure. Plus, attendees have another chance to ask you questions or meet you outside of your booth.

After the Show

1. Follow-up promptly! The curtain is down and the show is over. But, the week after the trade show is not the time to relax. This is the best time to follow-up on the leads you obtained at the show. It’s important to talk to people when their interest and enthusiasm is high. Plus, this is a wonderful opportunity to showcase your company’s prompt, thorough customer service.

“During the week following the show, we will send out letters with literature per the attendee’s interest, thanking them for their interest in Vijuk, and letting them know that within the next few days one of our bindery consultants will be in touch with them. It is required of our bindery consultants,” commented Stevens.

You will have a head-start on the competition if you organize a system for follow-up before you go to the trade show. Decide who will follow-up on leads and set a timetable.

2. Take another look at those objectives. Spend time looking at the results of the show. Have an employee meeting to garner feedback. Did you meet your objectives? Don’t forget to continue tracking and adding data through the coming months. Use the data you accumulated to adjust and/or redefine your objectives for your next exhibit.

If you met or exceeded your objectives, you deserve a standing ovation for your careful planning, wise implementation, and great follow-up. If you fell short of your objectives, start planning now to present a show-stopping exhibit when it’s time for the curtain to rise on the next show.