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Getting the Most From Trade Shows

Don't show up empty-handed. Make sure you're fully prepared to maximize your time at this annual event.

Trade shows can be a tremendously powerful marketing tool or a tremendous drain on your time and resources.

There are many excellent reasons to exhibit at trade shows. They're great way to connect with customers and prospects, launch new products and catch up on the industry buzz.

But never attend a trade show "because we go every year," or just because you think it's expected. Always have a specific goal in mind and prepare a strategy for achieving it.

After all, exhibiting at a trade show represents a large investment for a small business. It entails all kind of expenses, from preparing and shipping your booth and materials to travel and entertainment costs, not to mention your lost work time.

To get something out of a trade show, put something into it. Plan your trade show activities from start to finish, before, during and after the event.

Before the Show
Before you even register, identify your trade show goals. This makes all your future decision-making easier; all the choices you make afterward should be geared toward achieving your objective. In addition:

  • Promote your attendance at the show through e-mails, newsletters and on your website. Encourage customers to visit your booth through a contest or promotion.
  • If your goal is meeting with clients, don't leave it to chance. Set up those appointments well in advance, including time and meeting place.
  • Don't wait until the last minute to check out your booth. If you need to spiff it up, you'll need time to do it right. A shoddy, outdated booth is a real liability.
  • Ditto your marketing materials. Are they current? Do you have enough? If you need a particular marketing piece, now's the time to do it. Be sure to give yourself enough time to do a good job.
  • Between the event ad book and expanded trade pub circulation, trade shows offer unique, once-a-year advertising opportunities. Determine if advertising will help achieve your goal, and if so, have a compelling ad ready before that deadline sneaks up on you.
  • Devise a strategy for collecting contact information at the show. For example, a prize drawing--with a trendy, sought-after prize--motivates prospects to part with their business cards.

It's Showtime
If you've done your planning, you'll be well positioned to make the most of the event. Keep your goal in mind throughout the show. For example, while it's tempting to socialize with your pals, don't be sidetracked from connecting with new prospects.

Because you're talking to so many people, it's easy to forget parts of conversations. After meeting with each contact, take a moment to jot down some quick notes. At the end of each day, review and expand your notes. It's important to do it while everything's fresh in your mind. If you're a scribbler, transcribe them onto your laptop. That way, once you get back to your office, you won't be scratching your head and wondering what you were trying to tell yourself.

After the Show
Plan in advance to spend your first days back fulfilling all the commitments you made. Do it first, before you get drawn back into your day-to-day activities.

Follow up with prospects or clients who asked for information. If you do it while the subject's still in their heads, it's more meaningful--plus you get points for follow-through.

Hopefully, you collected some business cards during the show. Follow up on them right away, too. A smart way to do this is to create an e-mail template or follow-up packet before you go, and all you need to do is personalize it upon your return.

It's essential that you do some Monday morning quarterbacking and review your trade show performance as objectively as possible.

  • Did your booth do its job? Are improvements required?
  • Were your materials effective? Does something need to be changed or added?
  • Was your advertising worth the investment?
  • Were your meetings effective, or is there something you should do differently next time? Did you miss anyone?
  • Most importantly, did you achieve your goal?

This isn't a rhetorical exercise. Think deeply about each question and commit your notes to paper. Start a "trade show" file. This way, you'll have a place to begin when the next show rolls around and you start the process all over again.

Ray Silverstein is the president of PRO: President's Resource Organization , a network of peer advisory boards for small business owners. He is author of two books: The Best Secrets of Great Small Businesses and the new Small Business Survival Guide: How to Survive (and Thrive) in Tough Times . He can be reached at 1-800-818-0150 or ray@propres.com .

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