If You have to Enter A Trade Show, Here’s 12 Ways to Get the Most For Your Money

Over my career, I have seen more money wasted on trade shows than on any other endeavour. Usually it is a case of, "We have to be there or we will be noticed by our absence", I love that one, or "The competition will be there, we have to be there as well or we run the risk of losing our customers to the competition". As with any general statement this is true to some extent, but how measurable is it and at what cost?

If you approach Trade Shows the way you might any investment, there are a number of questions that readily come to mind. What are you trying to achieve and what is the return on time spent and money expended? In other words, what is your measurable objective(s), what are the costs and return on those costs and is the venture a profitable one by any measure including immediate sales, future sales or good will? If you can't answer those questions at least in part, then you have to ask yourself why are you there?

Many companies enter trade shows year after year as if by rote with little or any forethought as to what they want to communicate, project or achieve.  Because they don't give their decision the critical assessment it demands and because they fail to establish measurable business objectives, I would venture to say, based on my own experience, that as many as 90% of Trade Show expenditures are wasted money.  I find most companies with whom I have worked give soft responses as to their reason for participation; such as we participate in order to showcase our products or services, talk to potential customers, increase sales. Not good enough. Be specific. Make it measureable.

Approach any trade show as you would any other business investment. As well as the hard costs, there are lost opportunity costs as well as plenty of soft costs that are usually overlooked especially important when you take into account the planning time and lost time that sales staff actually spend in a booth shooting the breeze with each other, as well as the lost hours coming to and from the show over a two or three day period. This is especially disheartening when the sales revenue generated, if any at all, are weighted against the time and money spent. In 90% of the cases it is a losing proposition.  Although most businesses both big and small claim to evaluate their participation, I find it is usually nothing more than: What did you think of the show? Did we sell anything? See any of our customers? What did you think of XYZ 's new Flux Capacitor? Did ole Bob of XYZ Company talk to you? I heard he is looking for a job.

My first marketing job out of university was with a major business equipment manufacturer having been hired to take on the newly minted position of Manager - Research and Promotion. The job was a strange mix of functions as I would be responsible for two very disparate tasks; managing marketing research projects and promoting the company's products. But what the hey.. I had scored a marketing slot! Lucky for me, there were a number of projects already slated by the VP of Marketing that needed immediate attention or I would never have known what to do or where to have started.

I had lucked out given my boss was not only a wonderful and forgiving individual, but he had a long and distinguished career with the company. What I knew about marketing in theory he was able to balance by 20 years of practical business experience, 10 years of which included sales and sales management with the company. On my second day, he popped his head over the top of my cubical to inform me that I was handling the upcoming Montreal Trade Show and that a meeting was scheduled for later that day. Talk about baptism by fire.  With a big grin, he handed over a full file complete with a schedule and then explained that he would handle the meeting later that day but would be handing it off to me to manage from that point onward.

This was the largest and by far the most important trade show of the year. The show alternated between Toronto and Montreal providing an important selling occasion for the Computer and Business Equipment industry. The show, as important as it was, would be especially significant this year as it would provide a showcase for our new and completely revamped line of photocopying, business systems equipment and minicomputers. Key purchasing agents and buyers from government and large corporate enterprises were being flown in from western Canada on one of our American based corporate jets, while key clients in Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes were to be personally shepherded to the show by our Sales Managers in each of these regions. 

In spite of all of the really bad Ed Sullivan imitations regarding our participation in the "Really Big Shoe," it soon became apparent that this was indeed a big deal. It was a pivotal year for the company as we were introducing a complete new line of products following a series of missteps and three consecutive years of sales declines. In other words, this was a make or break year and everyone knew it.  

Once I got over my initial panic following the first meeting that afternoon, it soon became apparent that virtually all of the steps and issues that had been identified had yet to be addressed or action taken.  It looked like 8 weeks work would have to be compressed into 4 short weeks. With some guidance from my new boss, a smile and some encouragement at the right time, and with the cooperation of a great team of sales and support staff I was able to pull everything together for what turned out to be a great experience for me personally and a winning one for the company.

Here is what I learned from this and other Trade Show Experiences over the last 30+ years:

1.  Research - Why Trade Shows at all and Why this Specific Trade Show? 

I will start with my more recent experience, but only because it is important in terms of the chronological order of this piece. I was surprised to find, when I was promoted a number of years ago to Director of Marketing with a major Canadian company that Sales had finessed my predecessor's budget and I had been saddled with the expense of three different Trade Shows. In my industry, this is traditionally a sales department item not a marketing cost.   

With a little bit of digging and a few questions to the right people, I found that only 1 of the 3 Trade Shows was even relevant to our business. Hard to believe, but 2 trade shows were in the budget planning document as a carry over each year going back a number of years when these 2 industries were representative of our then channels of distribution.  We had long since given up on these markets as sales and distribution costs became financial unsupportable, yet here we were spending limited funds with no chance of any return on our "investment". Simply put this was like throwing money out the window. The exercise had me thinking in terms of the larger picture, why were we in Trade Shows at all? What was the return on our investment if any, and what about the one remaining Trade Show? No one could give me a compelling answer. Suffice to say, I had no problem cancelling the two Trade Shows, but lost the fight for the remaining third one, as I was forced to carry it in my budget for that fiscal.

Having investigated further, I found that not all Trade Shows are created equal. The numbers in terms of whom and how many prospective customers attended was next to impossible to pin down. The other Show that I cancelled could provide "solid numbers', but on closer inspection, I found that there was some double counting. If for example you left the hall to use the facilities, you were counted once again on your return, so there was the bladder effect at play here. The longer you were at the Show and the weaker your bladder the greater the number of times you would be counted ha ha... More troubling though was the way they classified visitors. The way the form was designed, virtually everyone who filled it out in order to purchase a ticket could be identified as a purchaser of those products featured at the show, or at the very least as someone who had a direct influence on their purchase. These numbers showed up in the promotional material in terms of how important the show was in reaching prospective buyers of your products. This is not to suggest that all shows are gerrymandered or rigged in some misleading way, but the lesson here is, know what you are buying into and do your due diligence. The old adage of buyer beware still holds true today as it has done over the centuries.

2.    Having established that a particular Trade Show is a good fit and having done your due diligence, then establish a clear list of measureable objectives and develop a timeline detailing each and every step. Run a brain storming session with your team keeping your objectives and timeline in mind should the discussions waver off course.

3.    Get feedback both good and bad in terms of what you personally expect from the Trade Show. If your team tells you that your expectations are unrealistic, then you have three options.  You can try and 1. Sell them with sound reasoning and passion for what you believe is doable, 2. You have to modify your expectations to be more "realistic", or 3. Seriously consider not participating at all. Sorry, but throwing up your hands and walking away is not an option.

Remember your team has to be motivated and committed to making this work from a business perspective, if not, why are you committing your money and time to a lost cause? Pick your option and commit to it, or is that committee to it?

4.    Get a buy off and a commitment to both the Sales objectives and the other Show objectives with your team in advance of signing up for the Trade Show.

This is a key component for ensuring a successful event. No matter the extent of planning and attention to detail, it will all come down to a motivated Sales team "manning the booth". I am sure you can think of recent examples of visiting booths that were "manned" by motivated and unmotivated sales staff; the difference is shocking clear and the results clearly evident.

5.    Establish clearly defined SALES OBJECTIVES:

  • Each sales person to Sell 5 Product Xs during the three days
  • Each sales person to Sell 10 Product Ys during the three days
  • Have 10  "face to face"  meetings with potential customers within 14 days following the Show
  • Each sale person "manning" the booth is to collect 50 business cards from potential customers for further follow up and meetings.

6.    Appoint a Project Manager.   This will allow you the time and the perspective needed to review the planning and execution without becoming the go to guy for any and every issue. Make sure to pick someone who has the ability to plan and who can provide the attention to detail that is needed. It is critically important that the project manager is someone who has the respect of the group and who can handle the stress that comes with the assignment.  This is also a great way to evaluate a person that you may wish to promote at some future date. It will provide a great deal of insight as to how they lead, plan, delegate, follow up, pay attention to detail and handle the stress of leading a complex, people, logistical and time sensitive assignment.

7.    If you are going to be in a Trade Show Do it Right and Be Unique!  Don't settle for the $500 Black curtain on three sides with the table up front and with your company name on a 'Show Card" hanging off the back wall.  Conduct a brainstorm session, or better yet go outside and hire creative help to develop an unique approach. Trust me on this, it will pay dividends.

Back to my firsthand experience with the Business Equipment company -

Because we had a very limited budget, I was able to talk my boss and the president of the company into allowing me to actually paint the panels of the photocopiers and computers with a reflective paint that would only show under black light. This was done in order to get the biggest bang for our very small buck. Sales were outfitted in white dinner jackets, and "manned" the booth under a blanket of black light. The effect was amazing.  The sales team looked like they were floating in among the equipment as only their white jackets and teeth showed under the black light. The tripled sized booth was outfitted like an old casino based on the movie 'Casablanca' and was painted with the reflective paint as well. The whole effect would have given goose bumps to Steven Spielberg.  If you recall the Casablanca movie stared Humphrey Bogart, who played a casino owner while spending most of the time in a white dinner jacket. 

Because we were introducing a completely new line of equipment, I themed the promotional material and the display booth as "The start of a beautiful Relationship", the famous line from the academy award winning movie itself. I was able to buy a few dozen tapes of the famous Casablanca movie as prize give a-ways and we gave those out to those lucky enough to take a turn on our booth's roulette wheel. We literally had lineups throughout the 3 days with waits of up to 10 to 15 minutes for those wishing to get into the booth.

By the way we won 1st place for best booth while only spending a small fraction of the money that our major four competitors spent. The Globe and Mail, Financial Post, two Montreal Newspapers and the full CTV network featured us with an interview with our president, resplendent in white dinner jacket and in front of our full line of new products.  In turn the president suggested to my boss that he send a copy of the CTV tape and copies of the newspaper articles to our corporate US head office.

Creativity doesn't have to cost much, but the effect can be priceless. Think creatively, it doesn't have to cost a lot to be highly effective.

8.    Leverage Social Media, Your Web Site and your Mailing List to Make Sure your Customers, both Current and Potential, Know about Your Participation in the Upcoming Trade Show.   Why?   Because these are the people that will make it a paying proposition.  GET THE WORD OUT and INSURE YOU ALERT YOUR CUSTOMERS WELL IN ADVANCE OF THE SHOW and AGAIN TWO BUSINESS DAYS BEFORE.

 9.    I find giving customers an incentive to visit your booth works wonders.  Here's a free idea. Print up half of matching promotional piece and mail that to your customers; to save money have it go out with customer invoices. The play piece could be half of the image of a product that you plan on introducing or featuring at the show; let your imagination run wild.

By visiting you to see if they have the winning half as a match to the game piece at your booth, customers are given the chance of winning a valuable prize. Even if they don't win the grand prize, the play piece should be printed with a section for them to fill out in order to win a secondary prize by means of a draw to be awarded at the end of the Show.  These entries from potential customers will provide you with contact names, companies and direct phone numbers that can be used for follow up calls once the show has concluded.

And for those who visit your booth without the play piece, simply ask them to drop their business card in for the secondary prize drawing; after all it's not the play piece that is important, it's the visit together with their name, company and telephone number that is.

The prize can be a free product, or service. But a word of caution, don't give a discount on a product or your service as a prize. Why? This forces the customer to purchase the item in order to "win" the savings - not exactly a free giveaway and in fact a real turnoff. Your customers might use harsher words.

10.    Have your Sales Team Line Up Customers to Visit Your Booth.  This is first and foremost a selling proposition, so insure your sales team lineup potential customers to visit the booth and make sure there is a quiet area for a sit down sales meeting with customers  or at least have a suite or conference area nearby where a deal came be concluded. Like the boy scouts, be prepared. Make sure everyone knows this is a selling show, so have them appropriately attired and prepared to prospect and to sell.

A trade show is great way to get that resistant customer out to see you.  They may feel cornered if they visit your office but will feel quite differently about going out to a trade show where they are free to walkabout and view the entire industry at one go. Car dealerships have found a similar approach works by locating to an auto mall. They found that their chances for increasing sales rose exponentially when buyers found it more convenient to one stop shop at an auto mall rather than hopscotching around the city to different locations.

11.   Offer a Major Show Feature.  Customers like any consumer, love a deal; so make sure you give them one.  You may consider taking a leaf from the fast food industry and offering a combo promotion on your products or services, but make sure it is a meaningful offer and not a way of dumping that dog that you can't give away. In fact, you might even consider literally giving that dog away to the first 5, 10 or 25 people visiting your booth; just another way of being creative, cutting your loses and increasing your traffic count while  leveraging your  chances for overall  increased sales.  But keep in mind; do offer a great feature Show price on a popular item. This will generate the attention you need, prime the pump and bring in potential customers and sales to make your Trade Show participation a profitable one.

12.    At Show End, Collect all the Information Generated from the Show and Do a Complete Evaluation of Your Participation.

  • Number attending the show - Number visiting your booth - % your booth vs. entire attendance
  • Number of sales by product and category and by sales person vs. Objectives
  • Number of follow up meetings established within the next 14 days by sales person
  • Break down of costs by category and line item v.s budget
  • Cost as a percentage of Sales generated directly from Participation vs. Objective
  • Number of existing Customers visiting the booth/ Potential Customers (based on purchase intent over the next 9 months or sooner)
  • Name of each Competitor Participating
  • Comments re Display Booth and Product/Service Offers by each competitor
  • General Comments - Opinions, comments and points of view welcomed
  • Should we participate in this Show next year - comments, Yes, Maybe, No rating on 10 point scale by each of your company's Trade Show participants.

Answers to the aforementioned questions should be pulled up and reviewed in advance of deciding on participating in that show next year. Once you have a factual record of what transpired and at what cost and return, you will be in an excellent position to make an informed decision about future participation.

I trust this has been some help in advancing your business. If you have any questions dealing with Small Business Management, Operations, Sales, Sales Training, Marketing, Advertising, Social Media, Web design, Direct Mail, Marketing Research, Promotions, Trade Shows & Special Events, or Public Relations I will gladly answer a select number of questions directly or in the next newsletter.  Just email your questions entitled "Ask Carl" to match@bm.ca

For more information in respect to how I may personally assist you with any of the above disciplines that I provide for small- to medium-size businesses, you can reach me by contacting, Boomer Match to Business at match@bm.ca for a FREE no obligation consultation.

Carl Cassidy: The use this material is free, provided that copyright, acknowledgment and reference by link to carl@impaqmarketing.com is provided by you in using all or any portion of the forgoing. This material may not be sold, but may be republished with written permission from Impaq Marketing & Communications Inc. Disclaimer: Reliance on information, material, advice, as received herein, shall be at your sole risk, and Carl Cassidy and Impaq Marketing & Communications Inc. assume no responsibility for any errors, omissions, or damages arising. Users of this material are encouraged to confirm information received with other sources, and to seek qualified advice if embarking on any action(s) that could potentially carry personal or organizational liabilities. Managing people and relationships are sensitive endeavors; the free material and advice available via this material do not provide all necessary safeguards and checks. Please retain this notice on all copies. © Impaq Marketing & Communications Inc.


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