Trade shows offer inventors and entrepreneurs the opportunity to reach a large number of potential buyers and retailers. They also provide a marketing-sales double whammy: You'll meet buyers seeking products like yours, and even if you don't make a sale on the spot, your presence creates awareness about your product. You should also use trade shows to scout out similar products, make new contacts and gain general knowledge about your industry.

Here are some strategies for maximizing your trade show experience.

Find Shows That Fit
The most important thing you can do before attending a trade show is to make sure you choose the right one. You need to make the most of your time and money, and a poor choice can be a waste of both. Be sure to make your choice based on the potential returns. To choose appropriate trade shows, consider the following:

  • Ask your best customers (or target customers) which trade shows they attend. For example, if your best customer is a locally owned housewares store, ask the owner which trade show she attends to choose her products. Chances are, there'll be other buyers like her there from around the region or country interested in your product, too.
     
  • Consider cost. Smaller, regional shows are often less expensive than larger, national ones. Your booth rental can cost anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars, depending on the show. Historically, my company has paid about $1,000 per 100 square feet at trade shows (primarily juvenile and housewares shows), but major shows can charge up to $10,000 for a booth. That said, less may not be more. When you consider the time and preparation involved, a bigger, more costly show may be a better investment.
     
  • Examine the nature of the attendees. Some shows, for instance, may be dominated by buyers who represent regional or independent stores, while others may be mainly attended by mass retailers. Still others will target niche buyers like grocery or drug stores. Be sure your product is a potential match for the buyers who'll be attending.

To find potential trade shows in your industry, visit www.tsnn.com , where you can search by industry, show name, date or state. You should also visit the website of the industry association related to your product; most sponsor trade shows for members and buyers to come together.

Make the Most of Your Booth
So you've chosen the show you'd like to attend. Now you need to determine what you'll do when you get there. It's important to maximize your booth space by presenting a professional, eye-catching image. While your booth design doesn't need to be elaborate, try to creatively make the most of your space.

In a basic package, the trade show will probably supply you with a table and skirt and some chairs. You can add stands and shelves you can buy at a discount store to further display your wares. Bring pretty tablecloths to cover boring tables. Create signs, banners and graphic elements to convey your brand and your products. You don't need to spend thousands on high-end panels--there are many thrifty ways to make your booth stand out.

For instance, we bought $79 white wooden shuttered closet doors at The Home Depot to use at our first show and placed them directly behind us in our booth space. I was able to display my packaged products by hanging them from S-hooks on the doors, similar to how they'd be sold in stores. I then spent the majority of our budget on high-resolution graphics of our products, which I also hung around the booth. The result was a professional-looking booth in a homey setting at a relatively low cost.

The location of your booth can also be critical to your success. When registering to exhibit, get a map of the show layout to choose your preferred locations. Here are a few things to remember when scouting your site:

  • Locations near the main entry are typically highly desired.
  • People tend to veer right after entering rooms.
  • A corner location can benefit from traffic coming from multiple directions.
  • You can request placement near specific vendors at some shows. Avoid being placed near a huge booth that will dwarf yours, near direct competitors or at dead-end points in the traffic pattern.

Working the Show
A few weeks before a trade show, you can start creating some pre-show buzz. Send a letter or postcard to key prospective customers to let them know you'll be at the show. Include your booth number and information on what you'll be exhibiting. Also, consider including a promotional element to entice them to come visit your booth--a drawing for a prize or a small giveaway to all visitors.

Once you're at the trade show, make the most of your time. Engage with potential buyers as they pass by. Appear friendly and interested and offer a quick product demonstration. Develop some show specials, such as free shipping or discounts for orders placed at the show. Remember that at your first show, your goal is to establish new relationships and open new accounts--not make a killing on profit. Don't sacrifice a potential long-term relationship for a few dollars.

Tools of the Trade
Remember to bring these key items to the show:

  • Receipt book
  • Order forms
  • Stapler
  • Organizer or folder for orders
  • Product sell sheets
  • Business cards
  • Product samples
  • A bowl of candy to entice people to stop
  • A promotional giveaway, usually a small, inexpensive item with your logo
  • Supplies including packing tape, scissors, pens, a dolly and a small broom

Can't-Miss Tips
We've also learned a few additional lessons along the way about dos and don'ts for exhibiting at a trade show.

  • Wear comfortable shoes. The high-heeled Jimmy Choos may look fantastic, but your look of anguish at the end of the day will surely undermine your sales efforts.
  • Bring someone along so your booth is never unattended. Take occasional breaks to walk around the show and regain your energy.
  • Don't eat in your booth.
  • Try not to chat too much with your booth neighbors, especially when they're speaking to potential buyers.
  • Consider doing a prize drawing giveaway. Think of what's hot and what people would want to win and consider your audience. Giveaways to bring home to the kids are always popular.
  • Look into travel deals negotiated by the trade show for hotels, car rentals and airlines. Then search on your own for potentially better deals through discount travel sites.

Keep it in Perspective
While trade shows can be a great way to make sales, be sure to set realistic expectations. A trade show should be one component of your overall sales plan. In other words, don't expect to make your entire investment back at your first show. In addition to potential sales, remember to value what else you can gain by exhibiting at a trade show--new contacts, industry knowledge, feedback about your product, and product and brand awareness.