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How to Work a Trade Show Before you invest your time and money on a trade show, read this guide to learn how to make the most of it.

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Trade shows and exhibitions provide a tremendously valuableopportunity for any entrepreneur to learn about the competition andsell their products. Getting hands-on competitive intelligence isnot usually easy, but it's as easy as pie at a trade show. Awalk around the exhibit hall will earn you a sackful of literatureon suppliers, distributors, the trade press, new market concepts-atwo-pound synopsis of the market that you can review at yourleisure when you get back home. You can also have yourself put onmailing lists, participate in market surveys and earn complimentarysubscriptions to a handful of journals, not to mention be givenmore coffee cups, laminated business cards and free golf balls thanyou'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 acomplete review of the competition's product line. You can thenask what they think of your company's products-since theydon't know who you really are, they'll tell you what theyreally think. It's . . . er . . . enlightening to hear whatyour competition really says about you to prospects. This iscompetitive research as its grittiest.

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

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

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

3. Spy on your competition, and either gloat over yoursuperiority or gnash your teeth at their achievements. Some peoplesay that investigating the competition is what these shows arereally about.

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

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

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

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

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

9. Sell some product!

Top Trade Show Tips

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

  • Pick the right show. Especially for small companies, thetrade-show circuit can be a budget-buster. It's expensive tofly staff and materials all over the country, especially when thereturn may be marginal. Before you start reserving booths,strategically look at the trade show scene in your industry. Listthe major shows, their location and venue, logisticalconsiderations, anticipated attendance, costs, competitiontypically in attendance and distribution channel involvement. Mostrespectable show organizers have detailed information on pastattendees and exhibitors. Talk to some of your noncompetitive peersin the business and get their take, too.

Once you've laid all this out in front of you, let youroverall budget guide your decision. Experience suggests it'sbetter to have a strong presence at one important and expensiveshow 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 TradeshowCoach, many first-timers make the mistake of bringing everyitem in their line to the show, instead of focusing on the few mostexciting products. "Seventy-five percent of people going toshows are looking for something new."
  • Develop a budget. For each show, you'll have severalexpenses. Be sure to keep track of booth rental costs; travel, foodand lodging for you and your employees; shipping costs of the boothand products; marketing materials; wages for employees attendingthe event; manufacturing costs for any products you sell at theshow; and promotional items.
  • Get an attractive, portable, versatile booth. Thedisplay industry has a range of good-looking booth arrangementsthat are sturdy enough to travel well without showing their miles.You'll want a setup that gives you the room to displayliterature, show visuals of your product and its manufacture, takenames and addresses, and put on a modest show of bustle andenthusiasm.

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

  • Decide what you want to accomplish and stay focused. Doyou want to sell product? Some shows make that an emphasis, butmost don't. Shows are mainly contact points, like the furtrappers' rendezvous of old. Everyone in the area comestogether to see what the other folks have been up to-andincidentally to trade some furs. Trade shows provide a good venuefor 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 yourprinted marketing materials, plug it before show time. For largeshows, companies often prepare special brochures or fliers thatspeak directly to attendees, perhaps offering special terms ordiscounts. If you know you're attending a particular show,mention that fact (and give your booth number) in advertisingleading up to the event.
  • Allow the opportunity for serious business. Most peoplewho come to your booth will be tire-kickers. They'll grab ahandful of pistachios, cherry pick your printed materials and moveon to the next booth. But every once in a while, you'll bag alive one. Know how and where you'll talk to this person atlength. Will it be a spot in the rear of the booth, a nearbyconference room, a table in the concession area, a later meeting atyour company suite?
  • Select the right cast. Bring the most appropriate peoplefrom your staff to the show. Introverted types don't always dowell in the hustle and bustle of in-your-face, show booth selling.Enlist your most experienced salespeople. Throw in key marketingstaff so they can refine their understanding of the market and helpyou sell better. And give yourself enough crew to the get the jobdone. Prospects won't wait around for someone to break freefrom a conversation.
  • Capture business cards. You want to leave with as manyleads as possible, so bait your hook with a tasty morsel. Set up adrawing with a prize. Tell people you've got earthshakingmaterial stalled at the printer that will be available next week.Offer them a market report that's too bulky for you to take toshows. Set up a follow-up contact by your applications specialistwho'll have special knowledge of the prospect's marketchallenge. Give out newsletter subscriptions. Offer imprintedpremiums that will be shipped out to the prospect's office inthree weeks.
  • Follow up. Before you go to the show, you should havedecided what to do with the leads you generate. Most companiesdivide them into categories: hot prospect, recontact in 60 days,put on mailing list, send specific materials, and so on. You'vegot to move promptly and efficiently on this, while theprospect's memory of you is fresh. Many firms fax or e-mailleads and literature requests from the show to their headquarterswhere the support staff handles fulfillment so the literature issitting on the prospect's desk when he or she returns to work.It makes a good second impression-your handling of requests foradditional information will show potential clients you value theirtime 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 yoursuccesses and brainstorm for ideas while the show is still fresh inyour mind.

Trade Show Nitty-Gritty

By now, you know how to cover all the major stuff-butit's the details that can really make or break your trade showexperience. 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, aprincipal at The MeetingConnection. The secret to keeping track ofall the details and paperwork? Create a trade show notebook. Use atab system to set up sections for contracts, invoices, contactnames and numbers, travel arrangements, and general showinformation. 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 boothservices (furniture, electricity, carpet and so on), show hours,sponsorship opportunities, and hotel and airfare discounts. Contactthe event sponsor or exposition company if you have questions.

3. Watch those deadlines! "Miss a deadline, andcosts go up significantly," says Sookman. Setting up showservices on-site is expensive, and you'll spend lots ofvaluable time standing in line. Complete and submit your paperworkearly for substantial discounts.

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

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

6. Individually label each box. Include your companyname, contact information and booth number. Without properidentification, it's highly unlikely the loading dock will beable to identify your shipment and deliver it to your booth. If itcan'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 yieldthousands 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 theevent and brainstorm story ideas.

Successful publicity-driven companies start their PR planningweeks-and sometimes even months-in advance. Part ofthis planning involves establishing relationships with the mediathat cover trade shows. Sending private invitations to your boothcan sometimes set you apart from the other exhibitors. Usually alltrade shows have media staff or a PR contact. An important elementof your PR planning should be to find out from them who'll becovering what. Ask them for specific names and find out which printmedia, broadcast media or online sites they represent.

It's also good to search out any story angles the trade showPR staff might be pitching. This shows a good sense of cooperationon your part and saves you the embarrassment of potentiallypitching a similar story angle. If one of their angles iscompatible with your company, product or service, you can hitchhikeon their PR efforts. Contributing newsworthy information works withthem as well as other media.

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

Another release idea is announcing that a particular expert fromthe company will be available for media interviews. Say somethinglike, "Mr. Jones will be available from 2 to 4 p.m. on thefirst day of the show to explain the methodology used in hisresearch. A FAQ sheet will be available for select media as well asa press kit containing all bio and company information." Thisindicates to the media that you are well prepared, have selectedthem out and are ready to help contribute to their publication orbroadcast.

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 thatthey become real customers, you need to actually find a trade showwhere you'll show off your stuff. Your industry association mayfeature its own show-start there. Then, check out TSNN.com, Trade ShowWeek and the Trade Show Exhibitors Association to find informationabout upcoming shows in all industries.

Compiled from articles written by Donna Curry and AlLautenslager previously published on Entrepreneur.com and fromKnock-Out Marketing by Jack Ferrari.

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