Exhibiting at a Trade Show?

You’re heading to your first trade show and just know you’ll make a killing from your exhibit in that one weekend. Why not? You’ve got a great attitude, you’re marketing the best product in your industry, and you’re the master of your 10-by-10-foot exhibit-floor realm.

But Jeff Overall, founder and CEO of Polar Pro Filters, a Southern California startup that manufactures accessories for GoPro cameras, had a rookie reality check when exhibiting at a scuba-industry trade show in Las Vegas. “On the drive, we were all talking about what kind of cars we’d buy with the hundreds of thousands of dollars in sales we were going to make at the show,” Overall recalls. “Our goal was to sell a ton of [underwater] camera filters as well as get our name out there.”

The truth—as Overall learned—is that if you’re not introducing the next potion for immortality, you have a razor-thin chance of walking away with piles of cash or orders. He and his Pro Filters team realized this on Day One and wisely altered their objectives: Instead of sales, they focused more on exposure, capturing feedback about their product and scoping out the competition.

Another sobering fact about trade shows: They ain’t cheap. The Expo Group—a suburban Dallas-based general service contractor for national trade-show organizers, corporate planners and exhibitors—estimates the average cost of booth space at the 9,000 or so annual U.S. trade shows at $25 per square foot, or about $2,500 for a standard 10-by-10 booth. But that’s only the beginning. The real cost is about triple that amount, says Dana Freker Doody, Expo Group vice president. That markup accounts for shipping, booth decoration/graphics, materials handling, travel, electrical outlet access on the show floor and miscellaneous expenses, plus you’ll have to sacrifice “real work” time back at the home office. It’s no wonder many first-time exhibitors have second thoughts—$7,500 per show is serious cash for a small company.

So what’s the best way to ensure payback?

Assuming you have a great booth and display, success is all about marketing before, during and after the show, says Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association. The 2,000-plus-member CEA trade group owns and produces the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES), the world’s largest innovation trade show. Shapiro shares his insider tips for mining a show’s prime opportunities—establishing relationships, generating sales, doing business and creating partnerships.

• Start with a blitz of pre-show promotion of your presence first, Shapiro advises. Create a press kit to promote yourself and your products to the media. Many trade shows offer electronic press kits online and set aside an area on-site for hard-copy press kits. “If you have major news to share during the show, such as a new product announcement, sending press releases to a targeted list of media covering your product category is another way to promote your show presence.”

• In addition, you can often rent the show’s list of pre-registered attendees, Shapiro says, and use it to set up appointments with important customers and suppliers beforehand.

• Also publicize your trade-show plans—indicating when you’ll be there and your booth location—on your website and in emails, newsletters, publications and/or news releases. “All of these are great free options for promoting your trade-show presence,” Shapiro says.

• Then keep in touch. “At shows, most attendees will be using a smartphone or tablet to stay connected through social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Google +,” Shapiro says. “Send updates via social media about new products showcased at your booth, celebrity appearances, press conferences or special events, speaking engagements and more. Always include your booth location.”

• And put yourself out there. “Trade shows are extremely valuable for a number of reasons, one being that they allow for serendipity,” Shapiro says. “Network like crazy so you can meet key players from your industry and related industries. Attending these events helps cultivate new business relationships and encourages new audiences to visit your booth.”

• If you can afford it, raise your profile with an investment in on-site branding. You might sponsor a show floor area, an event such as a press breakfast or lunch, or a conference program session.

• As the show unfolds, carefully save the contact details you collect when attendees visit your booth or meet with you or your employees. Call your contacts after the show, tell them you enjoyed meeting with them, and continue the conversation about your product or brand.

So in essence, a trade show is all about connections. And if you need proof, here’s what happened with Jeff Overall and his team. “On our first day, we made about $500 in sales,” he recalls. “We were pretty bummed out, and on top of that we had to eat gas-station hot dogs in our crappy hotel room with no TV.”

So they dramatically changed focus—to wholesale accounts. “Most shop owners did not really take us seriously, but we convinced most of them to try just one or two filters. At the end of the show, we opened 63 accounts and got pretty fired up about that.”

He and his team walked the entire floor, and when a booth had a GoPro camera on display, Polar Pro team members introduced themselves to the exhibitors and asked whether they wanted a super-cool filter for the camera. “The most valuable thing we got from this first show was connections,” Overall says. “It definitely wasn’t what we were looking for, but in the end proved to be the most valuable.”

Check out a breakdown of Shapiro's best practices—nine simple tips on how to make the most of trade shows.


Mikal E. Belicove is a magazine columnist, book author, and blogger who writes about about the intersection of high-tech and entrepreneurship. Mikal serves on South by Southwest’s (SXSW) Accelerator Advisory Board, develops handcrafted marketing communications campaigns for a select group of companies and brands, and serves on the Board of Trustees at Keystone College (La Plume, Penn.). For more information, visit https://www.MikalBelicove.com.  

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