Trade shows and exhibitions provide a tremendously valuable opportunity for any entrepreneur to learn about the competition and sell their products. Getting hands-on competitive intelligence is not usually easy, but it's as easy as pie at a trade show. A walk around the exhibit hall will earn you a sackful of literature on suppliers, distributors, the trade press, new market concepts-a two-pound synopsis of the market that you can review at your leisure when you get back home. You can also have yourself put on mailing lists, participate in market surveys and earn complimentary subscriptions to a handful of journals, not to mention be given more coffee cups, laminated business cards and free golf balls than you'll ever need.

Then it's time for a little imaginative self-identification. Meeting the competition after creatively introducing yourself as "Jennifer Smallwood with ABC Corp." can get you a complete review of the competition's product line. You can then ask what they think of your company's products-since they don't know who you really are, they'll tell you what they really think. It's . . . er . . . enlightening to hear what your competition really says about you to prospects. This is competitive research as its grittiest.

Exhibiting and walking around at a major trade show lets you accomplish several important tasks at once. You can:

1. Show off your product to people who are hyper-qualified as buyers (they've gone to the trouble of showing up).

2. Meet your current customers, and get a feel for how your product's really performing.

3. Spy on your competition, and either gloat over your superiority or gnash your teeth at their achievements. Some people say that investigating the competition is what these shows are really about.

4. Connect with distributors, wholesalers, brokers and others in your product distribution channels.

5. Build a mailing list for follow-up contact. This is why you're really there.

6. Schmooze with major prospects at your company's booth or hotel hospitality suite.

7. Make small or major presentations to attendees under the auspices of the show's organizers. This boosts your credibility and enhances the seriousness of the your product.

8. Meet with the movers and shakers in your industry's trade press. You'll never have a better opportunity to chat with the top editorial staff.

9. Sell some product!

Top Trade Show Tips

Wanna make the most of your trade show time? Here's a list of tips that'll help you pack more punch into your attendance at a trade show:

  • Pick the right show. Especially for small companies, the trade-show circuit can be a budget-buster. It's expensive to fly staff and materials all over the country, especially when the return may be marginal. Before you start reserving booths, strategically look at the trade show scene in your industry. List the major shows, their location and venue, logistical considerations, anticipated attendance, costs, competition typically in attendance and distribution channel involvement. Most respectable show organizers have detailed information on past attendees and exhibitors. Talk to some of your noncompetitive peers in the business and get their take, too.

Once you've laid all this out in front of you, let your overall budget guide your decision. Experience suggests it's better to have a strong presence at one important and expensive show than to try to make a mediocre impact at several smaller, inexpensive shows.

  • Decide what to exhibit. According to Susan Friedmann, founder of coaching firm The Tradeshow Coach, many first-timers make the mistake of bringing every item in their line to the show, instead of focusing on the few most exciting products. "Seventy-five percent of people going to shows are looking for something new."
  • Develop a budget. For each show, you'll have several expenses. Be sure to keep track of booth rental costs; travel, food and lodging for you and your employees; shipping costs of the booth and products; marketing materials; wages for employees attending the event; manufacturing costs for any products you sell at the show; and promotional items.
  • Get an attractive, portable, versatile booth. The display industry has a range of good-looking booth arrangements that are sturdy enough to travel well without showing their miles. You'll want a setup that gives you the room to display literature, show visuals of your product and its manufacture, take names and addresses, and put on a modest show of bustle and enthusiasm.

Don't go the bargain basement route in show booths. If you're trying to convince important prospects you offer a quality product, you don't want the letters peeling off your signs and your tables looking like pioneer-day school desks.

  • Decide what you want to accomplish and stay focused. Do you want to sell product? Some shows make that an emphasis, but most don't. Shows are mainly contact points, like the fur trappers' rendezvous of old. Everyone in the area comes together to see what the other folks have been up to-and incidentally to trade some furs. Trade shows provide a good venue for many tasks other than selling. You'll be able to:
  1. Introduce new or enhanced products to the market
  2. Distribute surveys to develop better market understanding
  3. Make strategic or key personnel announcements
  4. Bring together key players on the sales staff for networking, training and moral boost
  5. Build your contact list
  • Have your literature ready. If you have a gap in your printed marketing materials, plug it before show time. For large shows, companies often prepare special brochures or fliers that speak directly to attendees, perhaps offering special terms or discounts. If you know you're attending a particular show, mention that fact (and give your booth number) in advertising leading up to the event.
  • Allow the opportunity for serious business. Most people who come to your booth will be tire-kickers. They'll grab a handful of pistachios, cherry pick your printed materials and move on to the next booth. But every once in a while, you'll bag a live one. Know how and where you'll talk to this person at length. Will it be a spot in the rear of the booth, a nearby conference room, a table in the concession area, a later meeting at your company suite?
  • Select the right cast. Bring the most appropriate people from your staff to the show. Introverted types don't always do well in the hustle and bustle of in-your-face, show booth selling. Enlist your most experienced salespeople. Throw in key marketing staff so they can refine their understanding of the market and help you sell better. And give yourself enough crew to the get the job done. Prospects won't wait around for someone to break free from a conversation.
  • Capture business cards. You want to leave with as many leads as possible, so bait your hook with a tasty morsel. Set up a drawing with a prize. Tell people you've got earthshaking material stalled at the printer that will be available next week. Offer them a market report that's too bulky for you to take to shows. Set up a follow-up contact by your applications specialist who'll have special knowledge of the prospect's market challenge. Give out newsletter subscriptions. Offer imprinted premiums that will be shipped out to the prospect's office in three weeks.
  • Follow up. Before you go to the show, you should have decided what to do with the leads you generate. Most companies divide them into categories: hot prospect, recontact in 60 days, put on mailing list, send specific materials, and so on. You've got to move promptly and efficiently on this, while the prospect's memory of you is fresh. Many firms fax or e-mail leads and literature requests from the show to their headquarters where the support staff handles fulfillment so the literature is sitting on the prospect's desk when he or she returns to work. It makes a good second impression-your handling of requests for additional information will show potential clients you value their time and provide quality customer service.
  • Evaluate your success as soon as the show's over. Did you meet your goals? Was this the right audience? Note your successes and brainstorm for ideas while the show is still fresh in your mind.

Trade Show Nitty-Gritty

By now, you know how to cover all the major stuff-but it's the details that can really make or break your trade show experience. To make your visit go smoothly, follow these tips.

1. Remember the details. These, along with the paperwork, are a challenge for new exhibitors, says Sheryl Sookman, a principal at The MeetingConnection. The secret to keeping track of all the details and paperwork? Create a trade show notebook. Use a tab system to set up sections for contracts, invoices, contact names and numbers, travel arrangements, and general show information. Keep written notes of all phone conversations, including the date, the person you spoke with, contact information, location and a brief outline of any agreements made.

2. Read the exhibitor manual from cover to cover. In it, you'll find a wealth of information: forms to set up booth services (furniture, electricity, carpet and so on), show hours, sponsorship opportunities, and hotel and airfare discounts. Contact the event sponsor or exposition company if you have questions.

3. Watch those deadlines! "Miss a deadline, and costs go up significantly," says Sookman. Setting up show services on-site is expensive, and you'll spend lots of valuable time standing in line. Complete and submit your paperwork early for substantial discounts.

4. Pack important paperwork in your luggage, not with the booth. This includes contracts, service orders and shipment tracking numbers. Take a backup copy of electronic presentations, and make sure you have the contact numbers for any vendors you used in connection with the show.

5. Take your tools. Create a show toolbox labeled "Open First," and ship it with your booth. Include such items as office supplies, tools you'll need to set up the exhibit, a small first aid kit, preprinted shipping labels, snacks and water. Don't forget plenty of business cards.

6. Individually label each box. Include your company name, contact information and booth number. Without proper identification, it's highly unlikely the loading dock will be able to identify your shipment and deliver it to your booth. If it can't be identified, it can't be delivered.

Generating PR for Your Trade Show Visit

A well-thought-out publicity approach to a trade show can yield thousands of dollars in free advertising as print space or airtime. Plan your event with publicity in mind, seek media sponsorships, create helpful media kits, make it easy for the media to cover the event and brainstorm story ideas.

Successful publicity-driven companies start their PR planning weeks-and sometimes even months-in advance. Part of this planning involves establishing relationships with the media that cover trade shows. Sending private invitations to your booth can sometimes set you apart from the other exhibitors. Usually all trade shows have media staff or a PR contact. An important element of your PR planning should be to find out from them who'll be covering what. Ask them for specific names and find out which print media, broadcast media or online sites they represent.

It's also good to search out any story angles the trade show PR staff might be pitching. This shows a good sense of cooperation on your part and saves you the embarrassment of potentially pitching a similar story angle. If one of their angles is compatible with your company, product or service, you can hitchhike on their PR efforts. Contributing newsworthy information works with them as well as other media.

Without question, you must prepare a press release to announce your exhibit. Once again, a newsworthy angle is all editors think about here. You must be different and unique. You must give editors and producers specific reasons why they should visit you over all the other hundreds of exhibitors. Maybe you have a new product to announce, a new member of the management team to introduce or a position that you are taking on an industry issue. These are all newsworthy topics that have a good chance of getting media attention.

Another release idea is announcing that a particular expert from the company will be available for media interviews. Say something like, "Mr. Jones will be available from 2 to 4 p.m. on the first day of the show to explain the methodology used in his research. A FAQ sheet will be available for select media as well as a press kit containing all bio and company information." This indicates to the media that you are well prepared, have selected them out and are ready to help contribute to their publication or broadcast.

Book Your Booth Now

Now that you're ready to set up and man your booth, chit-chat with potential customers, and follow up with them so that they become real customers, you need to actually find a trade show where you'll show off your stuff. Your industry association may feature its own show-start there. Then, check out TSNN.com, Trade Show Week and the Trade Show Exhibitors Association to find information about upcoming shows in all industries.

Compiled from articles written by Donna Curry and Al Lautenslager previously published on Entrepreneur.com and from Knock-Out Marketing by Jack Ferrari.