The Trade Show: Love It, Hate It, but Go to It

Whether you’re new economy or old, one of the staples of doing business is still the trade show. It’s a love/hate relationship. The whole grip-and-grin exercise of a trade show allows you to see the latest and greatest and schmooze to your heart’s content. But it also requires enduring crowds, overeager salespeople, cookie-cutter hotels, and travel that always seems to involve changing planes. But love it or hate it, the trade show can be leveraged as a valuable if not an absolutely required marketing tool that, when done well, can significantly advance the goals of your organization.

You don’t have to be a large company with oodles of cash and a fancy megabooth to make a splash at your annual industry confab. On the contrary, savvy planning, a bit of creativity, and understanding the show and the people attending can go a long way in making a significant impact with your customers at the show.

Ask yourself the following questions: Why are you going? What is it you want to accomplish at the show? Do you want to introduce your company to the world? Show off your hot new product? Push your holiday-season promotion? Whatever it may be, it is great to have a reason for attending and to focus your activities in a way that generates optimal results and motivates your team at the show.

Consider the following strategies when planning to participate in your next trade show:

Understand the show’s layout, theme, and atmosphere. Some shows move around, others like the swallows at Capistrano return at the same time to the same place, year after year. Regardless, it is important to know the lay of the land, the show’s theme, the way business is done, the schedule of regular events and parties, the quality of the booths, etc. This is important to the planning and execution of your trade-show plan.

Do some advance work. Advance customer contact prior to a show is a great way to stimulate interest and excitement in your company. I’ve had good luck with a two-pronged approach a personal letter from our CEO to top prospects is sent one month before the show asking to get on each customer’s dance card, then a postcard to each customer arrives about 10 days preshow. We also send out that postcard to a wider group of show attendees. Both the letter and the postcard should focus on driving results for your core show objectives.

It pays to advertise. A strong ad in the appropriate trade press is another good way to stimulate booth traffic at the show. Other great vehicles include the show directory and show daily. The earlier you commit, the better the positioning you get. For one major trade show, I committed early enough to get the first spread in the industry’s premier trade publication and the bookmark for the show directory both very-high-profile placements. Some caveats here: Many companies do similar ads and they are, in my opinion, typically terrible. Work with your agency or creative team to create ads that focus on your show goals and driving traffic while breaking through the clutter and noise.

Go for star power. If there is an industry celebrity that resonates with your audience, a booth appearance can generate excellent traffic. For example, when I was in the hand-tool business, I was fortunate enough to secure Norm Abrams of “This Old House” fame to appear at our booth to sign autographs. When Norm appeared, there was a line of 200 people already waiting to meet him (in addition to the 200 other people jammed in and around our 20 by 40 booth). It made a great impression with our customers we looked liked a major company and made them more enthusiastic about us and our products. By the way, this was the day after we had two national radio personalities broadcast their nationally syndicated show live from our booth. Yes, these things cost a bit of cash, but the return on the investment was huge.

A couple of suggestions here if you are going to do these kinds of appearances, do them earlier in the show rather than later for maximum appeal. (You don’t want to be Norm’s fourth show appearance.) And yes, we mentioned the appearances in our preshow mailings.

Show sponsorships versus guerrilla tactics. Show sponsorships can be very expensive. There are some good opportunities out there, but you can pay a lot of money and get not much more than your logo on materials that are already drowned out by 20 other logos. Look for the sponsorship opportunities that come with significant show signage, your logo on a major trinket or item (like the badge or convention-hall beverage cups), and the ability to own an officially sanctioned show event. The goal with these sponsorships is to have the exclusive showing of your name and brand in preferred show venues.

An alternative is to take that money and go guerrilla. An ad at the airport baggage claim is good. One of those drive-around billboards parked across the street from the convention center works. Handing out tchotchkes and booth invitations at show shuttle-bus pickup locations at the major hotels every morning shows great initiative. Bus, shuttle, and taxi ads work well. And creating your own party not officially associated with the show can work if you pick the right place and do it at the right time (one with the least conflict to other show events).

Boost your booth. Trade-show booths don’t have to be generic, boring, and sterile. While you need to stay within the confines of your brand and company image, push the edge to make your booth warm, friendly, and inviting. Play with the layout so it encourages interaction and flow. Create an interactive environment with your product (when applicable), and engage the senses of the trade-show attendees. Giveaways are great and don’t have to be expensive. But being creative helps. One year, I gave away stuff (high-end yo-yos and Frisbees) for dads and moms to bring home to the kids. Games for prizes can be fun, but make them relevant to your product. Back in my tool days, we had customers use our latest tool offering, then spin for prizes. We had a line 50 people deep each day of the show, and everyone got to use our product.

Press the press. Everyone at the show will be trying to attract the media through news conferences, special events, and announcements. You should not be the exception, but you need to zig when they zag to get their attention. Small companies should stay away from the big event or news conference. Better to set up meetings in advance with the press to come visit your booth on a one-to-one basis. The local TV crews will be looking for colorful, interactive, and genuinely interesting stuff for the evening news. Play to it the more visual your demo and the easier it is to understand for the layman at home, the better your chance for gaining coverage.

One trick: Work with the show’s staff members early on to let them know what new products you are going to launch so they can pitch them to the media in the press room. And on the day before the show, go to the press room and demo the products for the media-room workers so they are familiar enough to recommend to the press to come visit you.

Trade shows are here to stay and can help you accomplish your business goals. But to succeed, you must evolve beyond surviving them you’ve got to conquer them. Leveraging the opportunity, however, requires focus, creativity, and initiative. Go out and seize the day.

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