How to Work a Trade Show

Whether you're exhibiting or attending, here's all you need to know to make any trade show a success.

Marilyn Simes, CEO of Digital Instincts Inc. in Tuckahoe, New York, was one of the more than 2,000 women who crowded into Navy Pier last week for the 15th annual Entrepreneurial Woman's Conference. She flew from New York to Illinois looking for prospective clients for her Internet marketing firm.

No one would believe the economy was in a slump based on record attendance at the women's conference, co-sponsored by the Women's Business Development Center and the Women's Business Enterprise National Council, which certifies women-owned businesses. After the show, when we met at the airport, Simes had that drained, post-trade-show stare, but she said she was happy she made the trip. "I made a lot of new contacts and reconnected with other businesspeople I knew," she said. Her biggest accomplishment was bumping into a running shoe company executive she was dying to do business with, on the exhibit floor.

The Chicago show was a hit because it afforded women from around the country a chance to meet with supplier diversity executives from scores of major companies ranging from AOL/Time Warner to Pfizer and UPS. "I can't believe they pay me to do this!" said Glen Mayer, corporate supplier diversity coordinator for UPS. Outgoing and friendly, Mayer said he attends trade shows for a living and loves every minute of it. But for most of us, attending a trade show is exhausting and frustrating. Your eyes ache from the bright lights, your feet hurt from the concrete floors, and your stomach hurts from eating all that free candy.

Sometimes, it pays not to give away too much for free. Chatto Wright, who runs a salon in Chicago, charges for samples of her beauty products at shows. "People have more respect for what you are making when you charge for it," she said. "The people who walk through a show grabbing whatever they can are not good potential customers. I only give samples away if I see someone with really problem skin, then I pull them aside, talk to them about their skin and offer some products to help them."

Based on my experience reporting on and keynoting scores of trade shows, I'm now producing a video called "How to Work a Trade Show" for a client. Here are some survival tips to make the trip to a trade show worthwhile.

If You're Exhibiting

  • Do your research to select the best show for business development. Talk to colleagues who have attended the same show before you make final plans.
  • Read the promotional brochures as soon as they arrive. Take advantage of early-bird discounts on booth space, travel and hotel accommodations. Try to book a booth in a busy aisle near a big corporate booth that will attract lots of traffic.
  • When you receive the exhibitor's kit, read it carefully. There are many confusing forms to fill out. You'll usually have to deal with two or more companies; one producing the conference and another responsible for renting equipment, phone lines and electrical power. In many cities, you will be hiring union workers to carry your displays and materials in and out of the convention center.
  • If you can't afford to buy a custom display, be creative and make one. We create a SBTV "studio" on the expo floor by renting stools and bringing along our own backdrop, lights, cameras and glossy "Tell Your Story" posters. Most booths come with one draped table, a few chairs and a trash can.
  • Create a realistic budget. Consider travel expenses: ground transportation, accommodations (ask employees to share rooms if possible), meals, snacks, giveaways and the cost of being out of the office for a few days.
  • Create a press kit or a press release and make sure it gets into the press room or distributed at the press conferences. Ask the show's press reps to arrange introductions to the reporters covering the show. Try to set up interviews in advance with local radio and newspaper reporters.
  • Set up a schedule that lets you work in the booth part of the day. You also need time to walk the floor to make contacts.
  • Bring a clever giveaway. The hit of the Chicago show was an elegant, battery-powered pen given to guests at a cocktail party sponsored by ING Aetna Financial Services.
  • Bring a supply of chocolate or mints to serve as magnets to passersby.
  • Bring your friendliest employees. You want high-energy, happy people in your booth. They must be well-groomed, attentive and not chewing gum, sitting or talking to each other.

If You're Attending

  • No matter how tired you are, attend a few seminars and all the group meals. Target industry leaders and contacts you want to meet. Spend some time each day circulating and schmoozing.
  • When you finally catch up with a person you wanted to meet, ask them to join you outside the hall where it's quieter. If it's an industry leader, you will only have a few minutes to make an impression before they are distracted or led away.
  • Speak to as many people as you can while waiting in buffet or bathroom lines. You never know who will turn out to be a great contact.
  • If a reporter or producer approaches you, give them a good quote for their story.
  • Rather than carrying around heavy brochures, collect the cards of serious prospects. Say, "So many people were interested in my products, I've already given all my brochures away. But, I'd love to send you one as soon as I get back to the office."
  • Distribute postcards. Unlike a heavy brochure, postcards are light and easy to carry. They are also very inexpensive to print. For about $500, you can get 5,000 postcards made by 1-800-POSTCARDS.
  • Bring three times as many business cards as you think you will need.
  • Wear comfortable clothes and a jacket with pockets. I keep my cards in one pocket to hand out. I store cards given to me in the other pocket.
  • If you don't have a stylish, comfortable outfit to make a good impression, go shopping before the show.
  • If money is tight, contact the organizers and volunteer to help in exchange for free admission. Gwedolyn Meeks, who owns and operates Gwen's Bread Pudding Crunch in Chicago, attended a show for free in exchange for helping out at the registration desk. As a new business owner, Meeks said she learned a lot by watching the thousands of women "working" the show. "The most important thing you can do at a trade show is to show up," she said. "Just being here is the most important thing."

Jane Applegate is a syndicated columnist and the author of 201 Great Ideas for Your Small Business. For a free copy of her "Business Owner's Check Up," send your name and address to Check Up, P.O. Box 768, Pelham NY 10803 or e-mail it to

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