How to Get More From Your Next Trade Show

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So much to learn, so many people to see, so little time. You’ll likely face this three-part predicament at your next trade show. You may even experience it next month if you happen to be headed to the International Fast Lube Expo (iFLEX) on May 9-11 in Nashville, Tennessee.

How can you get everything done in the few hours you have available while receiving the best return possible from your investment in time and money? Answering that question is important because trade shows offer benefits unavailable from studying vendor offerings on the Internet.

“The efficiency of the face-to-face model consists in more than being able to touch and feel merchandise,” said Brian Casey, president and CEO of the Center for Exhibition Industry Research in High Point, North Carolina. “It’s also about the establishment of good vendor relationships, which can put buyers in better negotiating positions.”

Here’s some tips to make sure your next trade show pays off big-time:

Tip 1: Set your goals

“Before arriving at the show put together a plan with specific ‘keeper’ ideas, then prioritize them,” said Mina Bancroft, management consultant in Palo Alto, California.

What specifically do you want to find at the show? New merchandise? Line extensions of certain categories? Lower prices in existing lines? Useful services? More reliable sources? Promotional goods? List your goals in order of their potential for increasing your business profit.

The next step is to translate those goals into an “A-list” of vendors to see.

“Review the show’s website to identify the exhibitors with the greatest potential for helping you reach your goals,” said Howard Friedman, trade show consultant in suburban Los Angeles, California.

Once you have listed your top priority vendors, do some research before you see them at the show.

“Spend some time learning about the new products or services the best vendors offer,” Casey said. “Prepare the questions you want to ask at the booths. If you’re a good way along on the buying decision process, plan for questions about matters such as pricing and delivery.”

Bonus tip: Ask yourself, “What is the biggest problem I have in my business,” then ask exhibitors for solutions.

Tip 2: Strategize your walking pattern

It’s tempting to spend the first few hours at a show performing a walk-through. That can be a mistake.

“The last thing you want to do is shop the floor as you shop a flea market, just walking down the aisles and looking at things,” said Peter LoCascio, a Salem, Oregon-based trade show consultant. That’s because the clock moves quickly, and it’s easy to run out of time before you accomplish what you need to do.

“Too often, a couple of hours before a show closes, you’ll see people running through the aisles trying to get things done,” LoCascio said.

It’s smart to be disciplined and focus on efficiency.

“Draw up a walking plan,” suggested Barry Siskind, president and founder of Toronto-based International Training and Management Company. “Get the show layout from the organization’s website. Take a red pencil and mark the booths you want to visit. Make sure to label them by priority. The result will be a valuable visual tool at the show.”

Bonus tip: Avoid duplication of effort by allocating tasks among people from your business that are attending the show.

Tip 3: Take charge at booths

Deal with booth personnel efficiently. Be especially wary of time-consuming and canned presentations.

“Many exhibitors feel the need to make a sales pitch, which ends up being a colossal waste of time for everyone,” Siskind said. “Stop them in their tracks. Say something polite but firm such as, ‘Hang on, I do not want to know all of that just yet. Here are my key questions.’”

If the exhibitor’s representative can’t answer your key questions ask for the name of an individual who can. Recognize that not all booth personnel are alike.

“A well-constructed booth staff includes people at various levels,” Bancroft said. “One person will be at an in-depth level; others will be at beginning and intermediate levels.”

An alternative tactic is to obtain the name and contact information for an individual you can call after the show. That can be a prudent step in any case.

“Exhibitors often fail to follow up trade show leads in a timely fashion,” LoCascio said.

Obtaining the name and number of a person in your territory can help you perform your own follow-up to learn more about a product or service.

Bonus tip: As you enter each booth save time by stating, “I need to make a business decision.” Then state the nature of your decision and ask how the vendor’s products will help.

Tip 4: Schedule appointments wisely

Remember that A-list of vendors you prepared? Make sure you see them all by scheduling appointments in advance.

“There’s nothing wrong with reaching out and saying, ‘I would like to meet with a specialist on product X,’” Friedman said. “Engaging before the show is completely fine. That will make your time more productive, and the exhibitor will be delighted.”

These kind of appointments are important whether you are a current or prospective customer. If you are in the former group, you will want to talk about innovations, new orders or things that are upsetting you. If you are a prospect, you will want some exclusive time in the booth.

Bonus tip: Map the show floor to identify the booth locations of your A-list. Clustering your appointments by location will reduce walking time.

Tip 5: Take notes efficiently

Haphazard note taking can result in a confused mass of documents stashed on a shelf back home. Key information critical to your business’ success can get lost in the paper shuffle.

Here’s where modern gadgets come to the rescue. All kinds of new technologies are helping show goers avoid the traditional business card exchange. These include badge-swiping technologies that allow exhibitors to send information about merchandise and services efficiently.

Electronic brochures have in many cases replaced paper ones. At some booths you can use computers to send yourself information about what you have seen. Push a button and the information will show up on your smartphone and will be sitting in your email inbox back at the office. However, old technology still has its place.

“Plenty of people still collect business cards and take notes on them,” Friedman said. “These can be great memory joggers to help connect the dots after the show.”

A stack of business cards can be a handy reference for making follow up calls, too.

Bonus tip: More attendees are entering information into iPads. Digital notes are efficient for later review and also for passing along key insights to people who did not attend the show.

Tip 6: Pow-wow at quiet times

Sometimes a vendor’s information is fairly simple to grasp. Other times, you may need to devote critical thinking time to technical details.

“Some vendor offerings can be quite complex,” Bancroft said. “In such cases you must find a way to understand just how the vendor can help your business, and you can’t do that efficiently on the typical show floor with its chaos of noise and confusion.”

What’s the solution?

“Schedule some quiet time to make rational decisions,” Bancroft suggested. “Ask the booth sponsor to meet you for breakfast or lunch where a more subdued atmosphere allows you to go through the information you need to compare products.”

Bonus tip: Save time by scouting out a convenient venue for business talks, such as a coffee area, before you meet exhibitors.

Tip 7: Allow for serendipity

While you must schedule your show time carefully, leave some open space on your calendar. One of a trade show’s strengths is its potential for serendipity or for the discovery of unanticipated knowledge or connections. So leave time for random encounters.

“Everyone at the show wants to discover new things and meet new people,” Friedman said. “That can be a productive situation. For example, you may meet someone who does something similar to you but who is not a competitor. It can even happen in a lunch line. So I encourage you to find the opportunity to say hello to people.”

Bonus tip: Once you have completed your important duties, schedule time to visit less promising, lower profile booths. Give yourself a chance to make surprise discoveries.

Tip 8: Choose seminars wisely

What seminars should you attend? Reaching a decision can be difficult. Every hour you spend at a concurrent session is an hour off the show floor. Even so, seminars are important to your bottom line.

“A good organizer will provide enough time for people to attend sessions as well as shop the exhibit floor,” Casey said.

Here’s one solution to the seminar conundrum: Attend only those that deal with topics of immediate concern to your business. Find the best presentations by asking, “Will the information help me solve a specific business problem?” Take advantage of a new trend toward the recording of seminars.

“Check the show website to see whether educational sessions will be recorded,” Siskind said. “Some shows are now putting sessions on social media, allowing people to have access to them later.”

Bonus tip: Try calling seminar leaders before the show for more details about prospective presentations.

Tip 9: Share the wealth

Productive trade show attendance is a learned skill. Pass along the talent to the next generation.

“It’s good for a senior-level person to bring along a junior one,” Friedman said. “The senior person can make introductions and put products in the context of business initiatives. As for the junior individual, relationships established at trade shows can be very helpful in the future.”

Don’t overlook the critical importance of sharing your newfound knowledge with others back at your place of business. That can lay the foundation for continuing profitability.


Hopefully these tips will help you make your next trade show visit a big success.

“Attending a trade show requires a significant investment in time, travel and expense,” Casey said. “Every attendee should get the best return possible from that investment.” S

Exploit Social Media

Conversations with other business people at trade shows can lead to profitable business insights. So can the modern equivalent of the chat over the backyard fence: the social media network.

“Social media can be useful vehicles for creating awareness of vendors and their offerings,” said Brian D. Casey, president and CEO of the Center for Exhibition Industry Research.

Exhibitors are embracing social media to drive people to their booths. A vendor, for example, may invite buyers to say a certain word to get a certain percentage off. Other social media postings help buyers understand how their peers are interacting with vendors. Conversations with buyers are sometimes shared with the public.

“Get into Twitter and Facebook and see what people are saying,” suggested Barry Siskind, president and founder of Toronto-based International Training and Management Company.

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