Tips for Making the Most of Trade Shows

Trade shows can provide great opportunities to market your products or services to large numbers of potential buyers, network with current and prospective customers, and find out what is happening in your industry. But attending conferences and conventions can also be a waste of time and money unless you choose the right events and prepare for the shows well in advance.

Rather than accepting or rejecting trade show invitations as they arrive — or simply attending the same shows every year out of habit — investigate all the relevant events taking place in the course of a given year, and select the shows that make the most sense for your business. There are many factors to consider, including cost of attendance, proximity, size, and the potential for making valuable contacts. If you are considering participating in a show you have never attended before, try to get some feedback on the show from others in the industry who have participated in the event in the past.

If you are researching a conference or convention online, start with the show’s official website, but also check out blogs and industry news websites that mention the show. Looking at lists of attendees from past shows can give you some idea about the scale of the event and the types of contacts you can hope to make by participating. Check out the topics of the seminars and informational presentations at each trade show, as well as any formal evening events that might provide additional chances to network.

The next step is to choose your level of participation for each show. Create a budget for trade show attendance, and craft a strategy for allocating the funds across all the shows you plan to attend. Depending upon your company’s resources, you may want to invest in a high-quality display that can be used to exhibit at a number of conventions, or develop special themes for each show your company attends.

Remember, however, that the largest booths and most expensive displays are not necessarily the most effective. Instead of devoting a large proportion of your company’s resources to creating big signs with flashy graphics, you may, for example, choose to take along additional staff members who can spend time talking to clients, demonstrating products, and distributing sales and informational materials. Alternatively, you may wish to participate in some trade shows as an attendee only, forgoing the costs of buying and staffing exhibition space, while still taking advantage of the networking opportunities these events offer.

Many trade show exhibitors try to attract visitors to their booths by offering special promotions or giveaways of products or promotional items. If you decide to distribute small gifts, choose items that prominently display your company name and contact details, and that people are likely to keep in their offices, such as pens, note pads, mouse pads, or stress balls. You may also want to reserve some premium gifts for large customers. Any contests or giveaways should be designed to draw attention to your company’s products and brand, not just to create a spectacle.

Once you have settled on a conference schedule, publicize your attendance and let people know where they can find you by posting the information on your website and sending out a mailing. When talking on the phone to long-distance contacts, don’t forget to ask if they will be attending a show. Whenever possible, set up appointments to meet with clients well in advance of attendance. Invite particularly important clients to meet you for a meal or cocktails, or at your hotel suite.

If you are launching a new product or making an announcement at a trade show, contact in advance any trade press writers or editors who might be interested in reporting the news or interviewing a representative of your company. The trade show organizers should be able to provide you with a list of media likely to be in attendance, and how to contact them after the conference has begun. Even if you have no news to announce, find some time during the show to network with members of the media who may be interested in covering your company in the future. Have a press kit available for distribution with information about your firm and pictures that the media can use.

Try to get to shows early to allow plenty of time to set up the exhibit and discuss schedules with staffers for manning the booth and meeting with clients. If the people staffing your booth were hired for the event, make sure they have been properly coached and know what they are expected to say to prospective customers who stop at the booth for information.

While the pace at a trade show can be busy, take some time out from meetings with clients to walk around the exhibition halls and look at the other displays. The booths of your competitors can provide you with information about their products and marketing strategies, and may give you some ideas for your own business.

If you decide to attend a number of trade shows in distant locations, consider ways to manage your firm’s travel costs. When possible, book flights to maximize the number of frequent flyer miles accrued. When reserving rooms, don’t restrict yourself to the hotels recommended by the convention organizers. You may be able to negotiate a bulk rate discount with chains that have hotels in locations convenient to several of the trade shows your firm is attending.

Following up on contacts made in the course of a trade show can help you close some additional sales. When you return from a trade show, meet with all staff members who attended to discuss what leads have been generated and how best to follow up with each prospect. Make sure that any business cards and other contact information that were collected in the course of the show are filed or entered into your contact management system. Call up any important clients you met with during the event and thank them for their time, or send them an e-mail or thank you note. These small courtesies increase the likelihood that customers and prospects will be pleased to discuss business with you again at future events.

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