7 Steps to Prepare for a Successful Trade Show Exhibition

headshot by Brian Penny on August 27, 2014
trade show

Trade shows are an important part of business and can be ideal venues to unveil new products, network with other professionals in your industry, and buy or sell products for your business. These professional conventions can attract thousands of exhibitors and tens of thousands of registered media, analysts, and potential customers.

Exhibiting at a high-profile trade show can bring accolades and attention to your business, but it can also be expensive [pdf]. Booth space can start at $250 for a spot on the outskirts of the typical show floor and go up to $25,000 or more just to get into the main room. This doesn’t even include marketing materials, demo products, and review samples. If you think your business is ready to exhibit at a trade show, here’s how to prepare.

1. Research Relevant Shows

Every industry has at least one trade show, and it’s not uncommon to see multiple groups catering to one sector. The Trade Show News Network maintains lists of every major trade show around the world. Using its┬ásearch features, you can locate the appropriate shows for your business.

Be sure to stick to shows relevant to your business. Just because beer is often associated with sports through advertising, for example, doesn’t mean your brewery will rack up enough sales at the Outdoor Retailer show to justify the expense of exhibiting there.

2. Analyze Your Marketing Budget

It’ll cost a minimum of $5,000 to put on an exhibit that attracts attention. Skimping at a trade show isn’t a good idea. At E3, for example, smaller companies were in the back corner of a separate room from the main exhibits, cutting their foot traffic dramatically.

If you create a physical product, a simple display of your products both in and out of the packaging will do. Food companies should always bring samples, and software companies such as game and app developers should have a hands-on demo ready. If you can’t afford all of this, consider attending rather than exhibiting.

3. Register and Book Travel Early

Trade show registration often opens up months in advance. The best spots always fill up fast, and even if you do register early, you’re not always guaranteed the spot you want. Trade show organizers are notorious for last-minute booth changes.

Be sure to have all your booking info printed and handy to expedite the check-in process at both the trade show and hotel. Although they’ll often reserve hotel blocks for vendors and other attendees, these reserved spots can fill up quickly. If you’re not staying directly at the convention center — common in cities like Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, and Denver, where there’s a hotel on or adjacent to the convention center property — there will often be a free shuttle.

If you don’t stay within the reserved hotel block, you may be responsible for your own transportation, and you’ll most likely be charged for parking at the convention center.

4. Hire a PR Firm

With all the media, analysts, and industry insiders in attendance, it’s not a bad idea to hire a PR firm, if you don’t already have one. Many firms are veterans on the trade show circuit, and they’ll know how to get things done you wouldn’t have thought about, such as setting up appointments with attendees to stop by your booth.

Knowing this type of information in advance helps you in staffing your booth. The firm may also have other clients and include you in a partnership, where important booth visitors are taken on a tour of other booths the firm manages.

5. Identify and Contact Attendees

Prior to the show, the trade show organizers will usually provide access to an attendee list. If they don’t, ask them for one. This is your “who’s who” for the show, and you’ll want to review it early to identify who you want to focus your efforts on.

Provide the list to your PR firm as well, so they can send out email blasts to set up demo appointments at your booth. Many firms will also offer free swag, refreshments, embargoed exclusives, or even throw after-parties to raise brand awareness.

6. Prepare Your Booth and Products

There’s nothing worse than trade show product demos that fail or don’t capture visitors’ interest. You’re the creator and expert. If you can’t get your product to work in a live demo, you won’t get media and customers’ attention.

Make sure you order any materials needed for your booth in advance. This includes banners, business cards, brochures, a way to track booth visitors (normally this is a badge scanning app, provided by the organizers) and working products, both in and out of the packaging. Remember your competition will be prepared whether you are or not, and they’ll gain valuable traction over you.

7. Always Follow Up

After the show is over, your job isn’t. Throughout the show, you’ll be inundated with a variety of contacts. It’s not uncommon to walk away from a trade show with a briefcase full of business cards. You have a limited time to contact these people while everyone remembers each other.

Send an email to follow up with anyone who visited your booth, thanking them for visiting, providing additional information, and offering a follow-up meeting or demo sample. Keep in mind, these are your industry peers and tastemakers, so converting them to satisfied customers can be a valuable asset for your brand.

Trade shows are expensive. From tickets to parking to concessions, there are few places with more inflated prices. The value your business can reap, however, can make exhibiting at a trade show a wise marketing decision.

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Brian Penny is a former Operations Manager and Business Analyst at Bank of America turned whistleblower, consultant, troll, and freelance writer. He's a frequent contributor to Huffington Post, Main Street, and Money Side of Life.

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