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10 Tips for Working Trade Shows

By Carol Tice Edited by Dan Bova

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Aren't trade shows supposed to be dead? More than a decade ago, with the rise of the Internet, many predicted trade shows would go the way of the dodo.

But instead, they've flourished. I think people long for personal contact more than ever in our era of Webinars, video calling, and instant messages. Also, the more global business becomes, the more convenient it is to meet everyone at a trade show in Las Vegas or Boston, rather than trying to see customers one at a time. So, no surprise trade-show organizers report stable revenue, even through the downturn.
Still, it's a serious financial commitment, and it's hard to know whether attending a particular trade show will be worth the expense.

I've been to dozens of trade shows over the years. Here are my tips for how to decide which ones to attend and get the most out of the ones you choose:

  1. Review the speaker list. Are these thought leaders you respect?
  2. Look at the attendee list. An online registration page will often show you who has signed up. I recently did this with a convention I'm considering and immediately spotted people I would love to spend time with in person.
  3. Check out the seminar list. What are the topics? A single great session that answers business questions you have could make the whole trip worthwhile.
  4. Consider renting a booth. Yes, it costs a bundle. But a booth can be a home base for your team and it can leave a big impression on attendees. For instance, entrepreneur Scott Friedman of SoulR Products in Hermosa Beach, Calif., bet $75,000 on a booth at the recent Consumer Electronics Show to introduce a new, high-quality speaker. His haul? More than 700 business cards to follow up on, a few orders, and solid connections with major retail chains.
  5. Schedule appointments. If there are important people to see, don't wait until you get to the trade show to set up a time to chat. Arrive with a schedule.
  6. Eat lunch for two hours. When I want to meet a lot of people at trade shows, I hit the food court around 11:30. I sit down at a table, and then as others sit down, chat them up. I often stay until 2 p.m. or so. People are a a captive audience once they sit down and most are pretty amenable and friendly when they're at lunch.
  7. See booths systematically. You can save a lot of time and shoe leather if you have a logical game plan for visiting booths.
  8. Wear comfortable shoes and clothes. You want to project positive energy, so make sure you don't have tired feet or a pinching waistband. I did years of trade shows in a fabulous turquoise silk suit that had a hidden elastic waist. I felt like a million bucks and was completely comfy.
  9. Watch your liquor consumption. I think everyone who's ever been to a trade show has a story about watching an executive who got too drunk at a mixer event. Keep it professional, even in the event's "off hours."
  10. Follow up and connect. The real work starts when you get home. If you just throw all those business cards in a drawer, the trip may well have been a waste. Find creative ways to follow up -- connect on LinkedIn or Twitter, send prospects an interesting article. Develop ways to stay in touch that go beyond saying, "Why don't you buy something from me?"

Going to any trade shows in 2011? Leave a comment and let us know.

Carol Tice

Owner of Make a Living Writing

Longtime Seattle business writer Carol Tice has written for Entrepreneur, Forbes, Delta Sky and many more. She writes the award-winning Make a Living Writing blog. Her new ebook for Oberlo is Crowdfunding for Entrepreneurs.

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