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Plan for a Successful Trade Show Experience

Updated on March 24, 2017
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Michelle is a marketing professional with experience in B2C/B2B. She volunteers for a non-profit to help create awareness about veterans.

Reasons Your Company Should Exhibit at a Trade Show

Trade shows are a great way to generate new leads and meet potential vendors and partners. Exhibiting at trade shows takes a considerable amount of planning time, strong project management, the ability to plan and manage a budget, and to work with a variety of people. Because trade shows are an investment, careful consideration should be given to the location, audience and other exhibitors.

If you know that your customers and prospects attend a particular trade show each year, and you have a product, service or solution that is a clear differentiator than your competitors, then you should register to exhibit. Depending on your industry and service offering, don't expect to close deals at your booth. Rather, look at it as the start of a new relationship.

Reasons Your Company Should Not Exhibit at a Trade Show

If your company exhibits at the same event year after year and gains no new business, there should be a discussion about whether or not to continue exhibiting at the event. If the audience doesn't change, the exhibitors don't change, and you have nothing new to offer, then you can probably find a more effective way to spend those budget dollars. If you plan to attend because you want access to price lists and the secret sauce of your competitors, you won't find it at a trade show. If you aren't interested in building relationships, then a trade show is probably not a good investment.

Poll Question

Does your company exhibit at one or more trade shows each year?

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Planning

Planning for a large trade show can take several months, and it is important to have a project manager head up this type of event planning. This will ensure that timelines are met, budgets stay on track, and all opportunities are thoroughly vetted.

Most industry trade shows follow a calendar year but vary by location. For example, a trade show is usually held in the fall each year, but the dates may fluctuate by a week or two. This may occur due to the venue scheduling, or simply because the show always starts on a Sunday, and always ends on Wednesday.

Booth Size and Location

Industry trade shows tend to be held at either a convention center or a hotel. The size of the trade show and number of exhibitors determine those locations. The location may impact the size of a trade show booth. For example, if an event is held in a hotel ballroom, then all booths may be limited to a 10x10 space. However, if the event is held in a convention center, the floor space can be expanded from a 10x10 to a 30x40 space or even larger. Companies with a long history of exhibiting, sponsorship, and advertising are given the opportunity to select their space first. Once they have committed to their booth space, then companies at the next tier-level will be offered remaining exhibit space, and so on until all available space has been filled.

I managed the planning, shipping, booth location, contests, landing pages, email marketing and every other aspect of trade show planning for three years for a company in the healthcare industry. We had three different size exhibit booths that ranged in size from 6'x8' to 10'x10' and a 20'x30' display. The purpose of the different sizes was to fit the different sizes offered at various events. The two smaller displays were a pop-up style which could typically be handled by one person. They were small enough to be portable and shipping costs were affordable.

The booths were housed at an exhibit company in Houston, and we paid an annual storage fee. The exhibit company had the capability to print new panels if necessary and had the capacity to reskin each booth with updated branding and messaging. They have an online portal that effectively manages all aspects of a booth shipment, including ship to and from dates, addresses, and an 'a la carte menu' to select various accessories to ship with the selected booth.

Booth Layout Should Have Seating

Attendees will appreciate the chance to sit down for a few minutes.
Attendees will appreciate the chance to sit down for a few minutes. | Source

How to Select Exhibit Space

Selecting exhibit space takes careful planning. If a competitor with a long history at an annual trade show has first pick of their space, then you may not want to be across the aisle or next to them. The company that is managing the exhibit space will typically post a floor layout on their website, with booth space selected, and company names of other exhibitors. It is impossible to compete with a company that has large LED displays and two dozen salespeople. So, it is very important to carefully select your space. Otherwise, your booth will get lost in the noise.

Storage is a Cost of Doing Business

It's easier to pay for storage and let professionals manage your crated booths.
It's easier to pay for storage and let professionals manage your crated booths. | Source

The Benefits of Paying for Booth Storage

The 20x30 booth was packed in several large crates and required a forklift to move. It was too large to house or manage in the corporate office. We could have brought the 6' booth in-house and managed the shipping to and from different events. The benefit of housing it at an exhibit company meant that the booth panels and frames were inspected for wear, and damage each time it was returned to the warehouse. If a panel was damaged, they could print and replace it before returning the booth to storage.

After information was entered into the online portal, and 'a la carte' menu items were selected as part of the shipment, the exhibit company would email a proposal to me. The proposal was an estimate for round-trip shipping. The proposal included packing, shipping, and the return of the booth.

The Trade Show Prospectus and Exhibitor Service Kit

The company that is hosting the trade show will have a Prospectus and an Exhibitor Service Kit. The Prospectus has information about the dates, location, booth space assignment, and hotel reservation information. It will also contain information about Partner programs, statistics about the prior year, attendee demographics, and opportunities for advertising and sponsor during the event.

The Exhibitor Service Kit has more detail and is more relevant to specific costs and opportunities at the show. The Kit will also contain information about the show suppliers. If your booth has lights, you will need to order electricity. If you plan to use scanners at your booth to capture visitor information on their badge, you will need wireless internet or Wi-Fi. If you plan to use greenery in the form of fake plants, the show decorator will have bountiful options available.

If the trade show is hosted at a convention center, you will need to understand the expectations about onsite labor. Many of the large shows use union labor to assemble and break down the booths. If that is the case, it very important to know what you can, and cannot do in the form of set up and break down.

Advertising is Expensive

Spend your advertising dollars where it will be seen by your audience.
Spend your advertising dollars where it will be seen by your audience. | Source

Sponsorship and Advertising Opportunities

During the time you are planning the hundreds of details surrounding your booth at the trade show, you will receive many emails and phone calls about opportunities to be a Sponsor and to advertise. The difference between Sponsoring and Advertising can be $10,000 - $25,000. The benefits of sponsoring the show will be offered in the form of tiered spending. A $25,000 sponsorship may give you the benefit of pre-show emails, and placement of your company logo in various places around the convention hall or hotel ballroom. You may be given the opportunity to advertise in the organization's magazine, and you may receive digital space on the trade show website (with your sponsorship level), and on the organization's website. Non-sponsored advertising is self-explanatory. You are simply paying for print or digital space without the benefits of sponsorship.

Responsive Design is Important

Test your email to ensure that it renders properly for all devices.
Test your email to ensure that it renders properly for all devices. | Source

Use a Call-to-Action

You need to understand your audience and the attendees at the event. The host company will usually email an exhibitor list 30 days prior to the event. However, the list will usually be limited to the following: First Name, Last Name, Company Name, Job Title, City, and State. The Terms you agree to abide by with the host company will usually include the stipulation that you (the company) will not email the other exhibitors. But there may be a caveat to the agreement if you are a Sponsor company.

One of the benefits of being a Sponsoring company may give you access to a third-party, pre-show email deployment. In my experience as a Sponsor company, we were given the opportunity to provide email text and links to an approved third-party company. The company had access to the email addresses and would deploy two emails on our behalf. I worked closely with the company to schedule the dates and times, and to test the emails across multiple channels to ensure the message worked as responsive design for different devices, and for different browsers. I would include a Subject Line, the email body, a call-to-action, and a link to our landing page for both emails.

The goal of both emails was to redirect the recipient to a specific landing page on our website. The Subject Line was designed to pique the interest of the recipient, so they would open the email. The call-to-action was an invitation to Register To Win a high-tech prize at a drawing that would be held after the show. Three different links within the email would drive the recipient to the contest landing page. Submitting their information, including their email address and phone number would automatically enter them in our contest, and they could pick up a $5 Starbucks card during exhibit hall hours.

The other call-to-action was an invitation to request an appointment at the booth during exhibit hall hours. The first year I used this tactic, we received 24 appointment requests. In the second year, we received 48 appointment requests. Each morning of the event, I sent personalized emails to the people that had requested appointments, as a reminder of the time they had requested. We had a strong showing both years, but not everyone showed up as scheduled. However, those missed appointments were given to our sales team to follow up, after the show.

Trade Show Collateral Versus Product Giveaways

Printed collateral is expensive, and is instantly dated. The only people that were given printed collateral are those that showed up for an appointment or requested an appointment when they stopped by the booth. We included a folder that contained the company brochure, White Papers, Case Studies and a sheet with the Executive Team. We also gave them a very nice branded Balmain pen that included the company logo, phone number and website. We also gave them a matching USB drive. We had other items to hand out to people that just wanted to have their Trail Map signed. Each year we handed out dozens of less expensive branded pens, hundreds of $5 Starbucks cards and buckets of candy.

The point is to only give printed collateral to people that are truly interested in the company's solution. Otherwise, all that printed material gets thrown in the trash and takes up space in our landfills. The goal of the less expensive pens was to give booth visitors something small enough to take home, that was branded and had the website URL and phone number. The item was something they could use every day and was nice enough for the home or office.

Staff Functions and Booth Size

Booth Size
# Booth Workers
Function
10x10
1-2
Sales
10x30
2
Sales
20x30
6-8
Sales / Marketing

Lessons Learned From Exhibiting

One of many lessons learned is to stop doing what you've always done if it's not working. Evaluate the success and failures of each trade show and use those lessons to determine if it is worth investing in the following year. Try new tactics such as being a company sponsor. Sponsoring is very expensive, but it may provide visibility and benefits that you didn't have before. Don't give printed material to everyone, because not everyone is a potential customer. Post-show follow up is important. You'll meet dozens of people during the show, so make sure you follow up within a week or two before they forget you. Schedule time to send emails to potential clients and partners, or follow up with a phone call. And most of all, take a few moments to reflect on the perfect execution of the event before you dive into planning for the following year.

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