Tradeshow Primer

A tradeshow can be defined as an event (short or long) at which you have some sort of area to show or demonstrate your product(s) or services. Tradeshows can be very broad in nature, National Manufacturing Week, or very targeted, Automation for Rural Electric Companies. The show may be invitation-only, or perhaps any company can exhibit if they pay the required fees. You may be the only exhibitor doing what it is you do, or you may be in a room full of competitors. Tradeshows come in all shapes and sizes, but this primer will focus on smaller shows, geared toward companies using a 10 x 10 space.

Tradeshows are like any kind of marketing; there is an expense associated with every lead or customer you gain from the event. The aim of this article is to help you spend your money wisely and effectively.

What show(s) to attend?

Do your homework!  You should start by just “walking” the shows you’re considering. Visit on the second day of the show, or in the “middle”, as this will give you the best overall idea of booth traffic. By visiting the show as an attendee you’ll be able to see how many people are in the exhibit hall.
Look at people’s nametags. What are their titles? Are these the types of people who buy your product? Is the show product-oriented, service-oriented or both?  Do you have competitors there? If you do, this is a good sign. Ask the exhibitors how the show is going for them; do they come every year? Have they been busy? How many sales typically come from a show like this? How do the booths look, and how would yours look in comparison? Do you feel like you belong? If so, this is probably a good show for you to attend as an exhibitor in the future.

Tradeshow Hacks

There are three hacks to ensure tradeshow success: reserving your space, placing your orders and following up.

1. Reserving Your Space

Not all tradeshows allow you to choose where you want to exhibit. Many may just spread everyone out alphabetically, by industry, or by service. Be prepared to be located RIGHT next to a competitor. This will happen to you at least once, if not more, in your company’s life. If this happens, handle it with grace and move on. You can discuss with the planners and express your concerns after the show. Most planners will work with you to ensure this doesn’t happen again.

That said, if you get to choose your spot, spots generally are first-come, first serve. Be strategic and choose wisely. Choose the best location that you can (you’ll usually be asked for your top 3-5 choices in the hall). Keep in mind that corner booths allow access to two aisles at the same time and there is always one main isle. This main isle generally gets the most traffic. It might take a few shows to identify this area. Keep that in mind when you do your homework and are walking through shows as a participant.

You’ll be asked for a deposit to hold your space, or if you are close to the event you’ll need to pay the whole thing up front. Important: If you paid a deposit, make a note as to when your balance is due. Keep copies of your payment paperwork so you don’t end up paying for a show twice as their billing is not always accurate!

2. Setting up your Booth

Small shows typically offer little in the way of choices thus you have virtually no paperwork; the show takes place in a carpeted room, you get a table, a chair, a trashcan and a white sign with your company name. The exhibit hall should provide a list of the equipment that is included in the price of the booth space.  Also provided will be a price list for all equipment that is available to lease.  Note that items such as electrical outlets, table skirts, lighting, etc., often must be leased and requested in advance of the show. The booth itself and any audio/video equipment required must be purchased or rented prior to the show as well (see more about that below).

A large show is often accompanied by a binder full of forms, and it is important for you to go through this binder as soon as it arrives so you can determine the early-bird deadline. The early bird deadline is the date after which you pay twice the amount you would if you ordered early. Place your orders early to receive the best price possible.

Now is as good a time as any to start thinking about buying versus renting; this includes not only the items that go in the booth, but the booth itself. It is recommended that a client company rent the booth, if possible, rather than purchase it outright for a number of reasons:

  • A booth can be rented for approximately a quarter of the purchase price, and many renters will allow a percentage of the rental fee to be applied to the purchase price should the decision be made that it’s worth the investment.  In addition, the money saved can be applied toward marketing materials for a more polished presentation.
  • Renting allows different booth configurations to be tried from show to show to determine which is most advantageous for the delivery of your message.
  • Many start-ups limit trade show participation to one or two shows per year, and many never return to exhibit at a second show.  Renting can lessen the risk of poor ROI.

Now, if you plan to attend several shows each year and rent items each time, does it make more sense to purchase? It might. This can be said for any and all equipment that you may use on a regular basis including marketing materials, TV screens, standing tables, projectors, and signage to hang from rafters or space above your booth. Weigh the costs and benefits for your company and go with what works for you.

The most versatile set up is an 8ft.(w) x 5ft.(h) portable, table top booth.  This size neatly fits a typical 10ft x 10ft booth area, and resting it on a standard 8-foot table at the back of the booth provides surface area for collateral and ample room for maneuverability inside the booth. Be careful not to create a barrier to the booth by placing tables at the front of the booth and standing behind them.  The display area should be open and inviting.

If you’re thinking about buying your first booth, you should consider a used booth. In today’s economy, there are many quality used booths available as companies of all sizes are cutting back on shows. There are booths for sale on Ebay, and an Internet search engine query of “used booth” returns a nice number of websites for the purpose of remarketing tradeshow booths. A lightly-used booth can be found for $500-$1,500 and is a great alternative to renting a worn-out booth at $600 a pop!

3. Following Up About Your Booth

Assume the people whose job it is to process your booth orders did not receive your orders, and if they did, that they did not understand them. About three weeks before your show, if you haven’t received confirmation from them already, call them and make sure everything is set. Keep all of your order paperwork and take it with you (on your person) to the show—you’ll need it when the lady at the desk says, “You never ordered any electricity.”

Pre-Show Promotion

As soon as you receive your booth number, begin (free) promotion that you are attending the show. If you have on-hold messaging on your phone, record something about the show. Put it on your website. Put it in your email signature. Include it in your newsletter or other correspondence you send out to customers or prospects. Begin making appointments and meetings with customers or prospects attending the show or in the geographic region of the show.

Your Booth

What you have at your booth is far more important than the booth itself. A skirted table with a good company sign will work perfectly if it allows you to showcase your products or services. The most important thing is that someone walking past your booth can determine (1) what you do, and (2) who you are– in that order.  If you want to make sure your booth has a display that will really pop, that takes time. Below are some tips about display design and marketing collateral.

Display Design

Display design should ideally begin two months prior to the show date, and the first step should be to establish a relationship with a professional printing company experienced in large format production.  Work with the printer to determine a budget and establish a time line for having all print work completed.

Keep the printer informed when making final decisions about display color, size and materials. An experienced and involved printer will save time and money by preventing missteps that commonly occur when navigating complicated technical issues inherent in the print process.

When designing the layout for the booth, keep in mind that the average trade show attendee spends approximately 3 seconds taking in a display and 7 seconds to walk past it.  It is critical that an exhibitor’s display works quickly to capture their attention, communicate key messages and engender name/logo recognition.  Several design techniques will accomplish these tasks

  • Make the company name/logo highly visible.  It should be the focal point of the booth, displayed as high as possible, making the booth easily identifiable from a distance.
  • Use large graphics with bold colors for visual impact. All graphics should be kept above the sightline, no lower than 36 inches from floor. Avoid intricate graphs and charts that are not quickly and easily understood when viewed from this distance—save them for brochures and data sheets.
  • Keep text to a minimum, easily readable, and reusable. Try to convey key messages in 10 words or less, and choose messages that will peak interest and curiosity and draw attendees into the booth so that the details can be explained personally.  Also try to choose messages that define the business/product over the long term so that signage can be re-used and repurposed. Use bullet points when possible.  Use clean, simple fonts that are legible from a distance of 15 feet.  Emphasize benefits rather than features.
  • Use lighting for a dramatic impact.   Sensory overload is common at trade shows, and lighting can focus attention away from the chaos by adding depth and dimension to a display.

All signage should be laminated or otherwise protected and applied to the booth with Velcro to increase its longevity and usability.

While many established companies with big trade show budgets employ sophisticated and sensational multimedia show pieces, the time, energy and expense required to add quality audio/video to a display can much better be spent on refining the message and its delivery through conventional collateral and salesmanship.  The exception would be software demos conducted through one-on-one interaction.

Marketing Collateral

Ideally, it’s standard practice to have your products at a tradeshow. If you cannot, have good pictures of your products. If you provide services, have items in your booth, which describe what you offer, accompanied by testimonials from your customers. People like to touch things and interact with your display. Have product samples people can feel.  Have testimonials on a computer people activate and listen to, etc.

Literature is also great to have at your booth. If your company has a brochure, bring some along.  Documents that explain your business such as diagrams, path studies, papers you have written and case studies about your customers can be impressive additions. It is extremely important to bring along (on your person) a diskette or CD containing electronic files of all of your literature, papers, diagrams and a company logo in the event your items are forgotten or lost in shipment.

Only about 30% of marketing collateral handed out at tradeshows ever makes it back to the office.  With this in mind, the following techniques will save money and allow a more efficient use of marketing materials:

  • Run a full service booth.  Don’t spread expensive marketing literature out on tables for attendees to take as they walk by.  Interaction with attendees is the goal and will increase the ROI of dispersed collateral—be generous with handing out low-cost data and spec sheets but reserve the glossy brochures for qualified leads
  • Use a survey as a raffle entry form.  A raffle, or “giveaway,” is an effective way to generate interest and pull traffic to your booth.  It is also an excellent way to qualify leads after the show.  The entry form should serve as a survey for prospective customers, asking short, easy to answer questions that will provide insight into the customer’s needs, purchasing power and intent.  The form should also ask if follow-up literature could be mailed or emailed to the entrant. It should take less than 5 minutes to complete the form.  Ideally, the entrant’s business card is stapled to the form, but there should also be a means to gather contact info on the form itself. Choose a prize appealing to the show’s demographic and valuable enough to be worth the five minutes required to fill out the entry form.
  • Have ample business cards available to hand out.


Other Stuff to Have With You And What To Leave Behind

Other necessities include

  • Breath mints for yourself (not gum)
  • A small stapler
  • Scissors
  • Duct tape or sticky-back tape
  • Small tools if necessary
  • Facial tissues
  • Business cards for people at the show and back at the office
  • Some method to capture leads or business cards
  • Pens
  • Packing tape
  • A box cutter
  • A black marker
  • A power strip and extension cord if you have electricity
  • A lint roller if your booth has fabric panels
  • Some wipes if you have booth signs which may be scuffed or dusty.

Add to your supply list at every show, and assemble a nice little show kit, which travels with the booth in a tackle box or tool bag.

Another key to your tradeshow success is shoes. If your feet hurt, everything is adversely affected. Wear your most comfortable shoes so that you can really smile, enjoy people and talk about your products/services.

What about those cute giveaways? What about pens, key chains and balls that squeak? Don’t do it! Stocking and distributing giveaway items is an endless cycle of waste that is hard to break once you begin. If you must have something to give people at your booth go spend $1.69 on a bag of peppermint candy.

Shipping Your Booth

Since most companies have small booths, it is wise to use a service like UPS or FedEx. Not only will they pick up at your office, they are affordable and provide tracking numbers to you. The tracking numbers are important to help you know that your items arrived to the show site (or warehouse) on time and in good shape.

Where is My Booth?

No one wants it or expects it to happen, but if you do enough tradeshows, it will. You find your space and correct booth number, but there are no boxes and no booth. Don’t panic, hopefully there has just been a small mistake. A short walk to the tradeshow services desk will clear this up. Perhaps they changed your booth number, or delivered your freight to the wrong booth, or more likely they are still delivering freight to the show floor. Worst case, your booth is gone… delivered to another state, impaled on a pallet jack, stolen from the warehouse… it does happen. This is the moment when you take stock of your resources: You are a friendly, talkative person with a diskette or CD, and you are wearing comfortable shoes; there’s not much you can’t do! Find the nearest business center or copy shop to recreate the lost literature. Rent a few tables from the tradeshow service people, make a sign and do the best you can. The show must go on!

Staffing Your Booth

There are people who like tradeshows, and there are people who don’t. You want to staff your booth with people who like shows—even if they aren’t your “most knowledgeable people.” There is one big reason for this: if you send your “most knowledgeable people,” they are going to give that unmistakable impression to passersby that “this is a huge waste of my time.” And sadly, they are probably right. You want booth staff that are friendly, like to talk, and have a sufficient understanding of your products to elaborate for a few minutes. Your goal is to get people interested in your product, and get their contact information so that they can have in-depth conversations at a later date with the “most knowledgeable people” back at the office. Rotate your staff if you can, giving them a chance to remove their smile, and walk the floor to learn about competitors and other exhibitors.

Gathering Leads

If your tradeshow is a large one, you will probably have to order one of the electronic card readers to the tune of around $250 at the early bird price. If your show is small, there is nothing wrong with collecting business cards or taking down information on an index card. The important thing to remember is to be as thorough as you can, and the most important item is an email address. Write down everything you can think of about the customer and his/her needs and interests. Do it while they are there or right after they walk away—because that information will be lost when you start talking to the next person unless you write it down.

Returning to the Office, Next Steps

While the tradeshow may occupy time in preparation, the most important part is done upon your return to the office. As stated earlier, every tradeshow will be measured by how much business it produces for your company. In order to measure this, you’ll need a system in place to store, track and work your leads. If you have spreadsheet software such as Microsoft Excel, and email, you’re ready to go.
Enter your contact information into your database, noting the source of each lead, in this case, the tradeshow name. Once this is done, you can begin working your leads. Below is a sample lead process:

Immediately “Thanks for stopping by our booth” email
3-5 days Create lead form and send to appropriate distributor/rep
1 week Call distributor/rep to make sure they’re working the lead
3 weeks Follow-up email with the lead
Every three months Wireless newsletter via email

If people tell you they are not interested, believe them and delete them from your database.

Assessing the Show

Conduct an evaluation of the event, making note of positive and negative experiences and lessons learned while they are still fresh.  Evaluate the survey if one was given.  Incorporate what was learned at the show into the market and product strategy.

A few months after the show, take a look at what has come from all of your leads. Did you accomplish your goals? Make notes in your show file that will help you make a good decision for next year’s show. And, feel free to pass and try a different show! The benefits received from the show must be worth the cost.

Signing up for Next Year’s Show

Some shows will schedule sign-up times for next year’s show during the last day of this year’s show. If you can already tell on the last day of the show that this show was worth doing, go ahead and choose your booth location for next year’s show. By signing up early, you’ll have your pick of the booth locations.