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Effective Trade Show Planning

Adapted from content excerpted from the American Express® OPEN Small Business Network

Exhibiting at trade shows, expos, conventions, fairs and other exhibitions gives you a unique sales opportunity that can also help you generate new leads, find suppliers, check out the competition, do some networking, and get publicity. In short, you can achieve at one trade show what it would take you weeks or months to do if you stayed home. And it may even save you money -- according to the Center for Exhibit Industry Research, it costs 62% less to close a lead generated from a trade show than one originated in the field.

But to accomplish all of the above you must plan carefully. That means choosing the correct show, setting clear objectives, creating an effective exhibition, and promoting your presence. All this, before you even get to the show! Click on the subjects below to learn more about getting the most out of your trade show experience.

Choosing the Correct Show

With thousands of trade shows held annually, picking the one that will net you the greatest benefit for your investment of time and money can be daunting.

Begin your search by looking for trade shows that fit your product or service. On the Web, you can try one of the trade show search sites, including

Another resource for finding out about shows is your industry's trade association, since many shows and conventions are sponsored by industry groups.

Here are some additional tips to help you make the right choice:

Don't just choose by the numbers

Big trade show crowds can actually be a waste of time if they don't include people who are buyers or prospective customers for your product or service. Look closely at statistics of past years' shows to help you evaluate whether attendees fit your customer profile. The show manager should be able to provide you with this data.

Ask your customers for help

Talk to your customers to find out what trade shows they attend, since shows that meet their needs will likely be attended by other prospects. You can also speak with your competitors to find out what shows they've found most useful.

Check it out ahead of time

The best way to evaluate a show is to take a first-hand look. Before you sign up, go to the show as an attendee. Is the show active and exciting? Are the people walking the show floor potential customers? Who are the other exhibitors and where would your product/service fit in the mix? Talk to people and keep your eyes open.

Evaluate it carefully

Once you've got a list of show possibilities, ask these questions to determine if the show is the right one for your purposes:

  • Is it big enough to draw a cross-section of prospects and vendors -- but not so large that you'll be competing against the giants in your industry?

  • Is it in the right place, geographically, to attract your customers -- whether they are local, regional, national, or global?

  • Is it scheduled at a time when you can service the new business you'll attract and follow up on leads?

  • Are the show's promoters reliable and does the management have a proven track record of success?

Don't wait until the last minute

Some popular shows fill up fast. If you wait too long, you could find yourself on a waiting list. Plus, the earlier you sign up for a show, the more choices you'll have regarding finding a good location for your booth.

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Setting Clear Objectives

To get the most out of the time, money and energy you invest in exhibiting at a trade show, it's vital that you decide what your purpose is for being there and set measurable goals. Everything you do before, during, and after the show should be evaluated in terms of whether it contributes toward reaching these goals.

Possible goals for trade shows

Here are some reasons businesses exhibit at trade shows. Your goals may include several of these, or others that are important to your small business:

  • write sales orders
  • research the competition
  • spot trends
  • generate leads for future sales
  • build your mailing list with quality names
  • find better or cheaper suppliers
  • build rapport with current customers
  • get press
  • generate excitement around a new product
  • increase company's visibility within the industry

Be sure to staff your booth adequately and smartly

You can't do it alone. No matter what your goal, you will need at least one person to "spot" you when you leave the booth to take a break or to check out the competition. A good rule of thumb is to have two staffers for every 100 square feet of exhibit space. Your staff should be well-groomed, well-trained, friendly and knowledgeable. They should understand your goals and know their role in reaching them. If you don't have employees on the payroll, hire relatives, friends, or part-timers.

Focus your message

Pick just two or three key ideas that you want to get across at the show and train yourself and your staff to "stay on message". Design your graphics, pre-show promotion, literature and show directory advertising around your message.

Create a budget

Once you know which show you're going to and what your goals are, draw up a budget. Without a budget, costs can quickly spiral out of control (last minute impulse purchases to jazz up your booth, for example) and defeat your best laid plans. One rule of thumb is that your space costs should represent about a quarter of your total budget. So when you know what you'll be paying for space rental, multiply by four for a rough idea of your expenses, excluding personnel costs.

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Creating an Effective Exhibit

Where your booth is located and how your booth looks will have an impact on your trade show success. Use these tips to help you along.

Shoot for a high-traffic location

Be sure to look at a floor plan before you choose your site. Foot traffic is heaviest in certain areas of a typical trade show floor. Look for locations near entrances, food concessions, rest rooms, seminar rooms, or close to major exhibitors. Try to avoid dead-end aisles, loading docks, obstructing columns, or other low-traffic regions.

Consider sharing a booth

New exhibitors often get the least desirable locations. One way around that is to share a well-located booth with a colleague in a related business. Talk to your sales rep, or try to hook up with an established exhibitor whose products or services complement yours.

Elate the senses

Make sure people coming to your booth can experience your product or service. Let them touch, see, feel, hear or taste it. Are you selling decorative pillows? Display them in an appropriate setting and have samples that buyers can touch. Have you developed a new software package? Be sure to have multiple computer terminals available for attendees to try the package.

Keep it simple

Don't go overboard with booth graphics. One large picture that can be seen from afar may have a greater impact than many small ones. A single catchy slogan that describes your business may say more than long blocks of text.

Gimmicks work

Gimmicks and give-aways can also drive traffic to your booth. Hold a contest; have a loud product demo; give away pieces of candy; hire a masseuse and offer free back rubs. Just make sure that the gimmick fits your company's image and the sensibilities of your clients.

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Promoting Your Presence

Remember that the best trade show planning will fail if nobody knows you're there. The CEIR estimates that as many as three-quarters of show attendees know what exhibits they want to see before they get to the show. Strong pre-show promotion will let your customers and prospects know about your exhibit. These tips will help.

Work the phones

A month to 6 weeks before the show, start calling your top customers and prospects to set up meetings. Many people arrive at a show with a firm schedule and have little or no time for other booths, so it's important to get on that schedule as early as you can. Be sure to confirm all phone meetings a week or so before the show.

Send out mailings

The show's management will often let you purchase a mailing list of pre-registered attendees. Try a simple pre-show mailing focusing on one or two benefits of dropping by your booth. Be sure to it includes show contact information, including your booth number.

Use the press

Issue press releases to trade publications and local papers that will be covering the show. Your release should highlight something newsworthy about your exhibit -- a new product introduction or a special demonstration, for example. You'll also want to prepare plenty of press kits for the show, and be sure to drop it by the press room so reporters can find it.

Look out for show publications

Advertising in publications that are distributed only at the show can be expensive and ineffective. These publications often have a narrow focus, and they get lost in the blizzard of paper that rains upon trade show attendees.

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Planning Your Follow-up Strategy

The time to plan your follow-up strategy is before the show begins. That way, you can reach prospects with your follow-up message while the show is still fresh in their minds. Here are some things you should know about follow-up.

Make follow-up a priority

According to the Center for Exhibition Industry Research, 80% of show leads aren't followed up. Make lead follow-up your number one priority after a show, taking precedence over just about everything else -- including catching up on what you missed while you were out of the office.

Write your follow-up mailer before the show

Your post-show mailing can be as simple as a thank-you note or a brochure with a cover note. Write it and have it printed out before you leave for the show, so you can send the mailing immediately upon your return.

Qualify leads during the show

Rank your leads by level of importance and interest, and base your post-show efforts on these priorities. Phone your hottest prospects within a week after the show ends -- the longer you let them sit, the staler they'll become. Send everyone else some kind of follow-up mailing.

Keep your promises

Be sure that you keep any promises you made at your booth. Have enough brochures and product sheets on hand before the show so you can send out requested information promptly.

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Damian Tremlett, North Berwick, United Kingdom  |  December 20, 2012