Q: I am a college student interested in attending trade shows. The problem is, I don't even know where they are held or what the criteria are for such events. Do I need to be part of a major company or manufacturer to attend a trade show? Where can I get more information?
A: To answer the first part of your question, you don't need to be part of a large company to get into a trade show. You just have to be ready to showcase a new product, which is exactly what these shows are for--retailers attend them to find and buy new items, and suppliers like you (assuming you have a product ready to exhibit) attend them prepared to sell.
The key word here is prepared. The last thing you want to do is just throw together a booth with a tablecloth on it, set out your products, prop up your feet and expect buyers to rush over and gush. Plus, there are a lot of details to consider--paperwork to fill out, travel arrangements to be made and so on.
It's imperative, then, that you are organized and prepared for anything that comes your way. Keep track of everything, down to the person you talked to at the convention center who told you what you need to do to become an exhibitor. And make sure you are in close contact with the event sponsor, taking care to read through the exhibitor's manual carefully and follow whatever guidelines the sponsor has set forth. You can find out more about the technicalities of exhibiting at a trade show in the article "Show 'Em What You Got."
Trade shows themselves are easy to find; nearly every major city hosts at least one show relevant to a particular retailer. Contact your local chamber of commerce or convention and visitor's bureau to find out about upcoming events in your area. You can also find them via online searches; use the trade show finder tool on Entrepreneur.com, or at Tradeshow Week magazine online or EXPOguide.
As for your actual display, unless you're skilled in graphic design or visual merchandising, I would recommend getting help from an exhibit designer. They will know what kind of signage you need and how to display your product. But don't let your display speak for itself--you need to talk to people about your product, demonstrate if necessary, answer any questions, collect business cards, network. Get help with the exhibit so you will have adequate staff available--don't let anyone come by your booth without getting an acknowledgement from someone. And when the show is over, remember, it's not really over--you've got all those leads to follow up on in a timely fashion.