5 Tricks to Help You Stand Out at a Trade Show

Go beyond the norm and invest in something unique to make trade shows worth your time, energy and hard-earned money.

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By John Ruhlin

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

For all the innovation most companies preach about in board meetings, they sure do find a way to fit in during trade shows. You've seen the standard approach: a company buys the biggest booth it can afford, gets its logo printed on some trinket and sets up dinner with a key client at a local steak house.

Sure, the strategy may pick up a few clients and provide minimal growth, but because everyone's doing the same vanilla things, your ceiling is pretty low.

According to the Center for Exhibition Industry Research, B2B marketers used 39.2 percent of their budget on exhibitions in 2011. If you want to stand out among all the big spenders, you need to invest in a different hunting plan. True success comes from breaking the mold.

Related: 10 Questions to Ask When Preparing for a Trade Show

Here are five strategies you can use to stand out:

1. Unshackle yourself from the booth.

In most cases, a booth is used as a crutch. You sit there waiting for your dream clients to walk by and (hopefully) stop and talk. However, staying in "hope mode" is neither a strong recipe for success nor a strategy. You can put your booth money to much better use.

For instance, apparel company Cutter & Buck went against the grain in its efforts to land top promotional companies during a trade show in Las Vegas. It ditched the booth in favor of a decked-out suite and only invited its key targets. The company ended up spending less money and securing better connections than it ever would've made while tethered to a booth.

2. Avoid the pissing match.

Companies fork over millions of dollars annually to get massive booths and sponsorships strictly because of ego and fear. But a brand is built through great relationships, not fancy signage. While sponsorship fees get added to the budget every year, most companies fail to figure out how many qualified leads they're getting and closing for all the money they've spent.

Instead of going for more signage, concentrate on improving your follow-up process. A lot of meaningful conversations start at trade shows only to die on the vine. An effective and immediate follow-up plan will keep momentum going. Plus, you'll get much more out of custom follow-up gifts and handwritten notes than you will out of a boondoggle that results in no major sales growth.

Related: 4 Ways to Grow Your Business at Trade Shows

3. Be the shepherd, not the sheep.

Hiring a team of people to help you write a book or create content is a much more efficient use of your money than a pricey booth. Nothing earns you more credibility than great content, and your publishing success will give you a better chance of speaking at the trade show itself.

Who would you rather be: the person jostling for a position among the 1,000 other competitors with booths or the person on stage who just taught everybody something brilliant? Speaking will send your key prospects to you, not the other way around.

4. Get chummy with the board members.

The trade show's executive director and board members are some of your most important targets. They know the players, so you need to get them in your corner. Look for ways to add value that nobody else sees. For example, use your company's expertise to provide a service or product to the show. Having your efforts praised on stage can be worth much more than an old-fashioned booth.

5. Throw safety out the window.

Take risks and have fun. Trade shows are hard on your team, so it's up to you to pull off a world-class show to break up the monotony. Remember: The biggest booth doesn't win; the company that generates the most buzz does.

That doesn't mean you should forego crafting a plan, however. The best way for a small company to succeed is to allot at least six months for planning pre-, during- and post-event strategies.

A lot of companies are truly operating in the dark. They don't know where their clients are coming from, and they have no idea how much money is being wasted on branding. Go beyond the norm and invest in something unique to make trade shows worth your time, energy and hard-earned money.

Related: 7 Ways to Get the Most Out of Exhibiting at a Trade Show

John Ruhlin

Founder and CEO of the Ruhlin Group

John Ruhlin is an entrepreneur, international speaker and author of Giftology. More relationship and referral strategies can be found at Giver's Edge.

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