5 Tips for Making Trade Shows Work for Your Business

Don't waste time or dollars in a scramble to exhibit at every trade show that comes along. Choose wisely, then work the room and come home with guaranteed ways to grow your business.

There comes a point in every entrepreneur’s life when the idea of exhibiting at a trade show seems like a good one. And it can be, if you put your dollars to careful use before, during and after the show.

A trade show isn’t just about setting up a booth and waving hi to passersby. Most companies consider trade shows a great way to meet potential clients; find new employees; identify dealers, reps and distributors; network; troubleshoot and establish industry positioning, says Leslie Ungar, president of Electric Impulse Communications, Inc., in Akron, Ohio.

What makes trade show time successful? For starters, take the following tested tips:

Tip 1: Spend Serious Time Planning

Spends weeks, even months, preparing and defining your goals in attending, says Ray Silverstein, author of The Best Secrets of Great Small Businesses (Sourcebooks, 2006, $14.95).

Then develop a strategy. Send a pre-show postcard, e-mail or news release to clients and media who’ll be there. Set up appointments and turn meals into networking opportunities, Silverstein says.

Create specialized, eye-catching marketing materials and put a huge, two-word headline on it. The idea is to get attendees to stop. Think of your marketing materials as “bait for fishing in the aisles,” says Paul Endress, president of Maximum Advantage International, in Harrisburg, Pa.

“We line our people up in front of the booth, stick one out and say, ‘Here, you need this,’” he says. “They pick it up, read the top words, hopefully they pause and then we pull them in.”

Tip 2: Put Your Signage in Sharp Focus

While you’re at it, Endress adds, make your booth signage as focused as your overall trade-show approach. Your backdrop should be simple and concise – five or six words to tell your story; something that people cruising by will get quickly.

Also, design two-sided business cards for the event. Include contact info and a photo on one side, with a list of benefits in working with you on the other, says Marty M. Fahncke, president of FawnKey & Associates, a business consultancy in Kansas City, Kan.

Tip 3: Choose Your Floor Location Carefully

Where you park yourself is key. Paula Turner, CEO of Lexair Electronics Sales Corp., in Greensboro, N.C., attends six trade shows a year and always asks for the booth nearest the water cooler.

“A corner, an island, a peninsula is the most ideal situation because of traffic flow and visibility,” says Thomas Licata, CEO of Creative Endeavors event planners in Las Vegas.

And don’t sit. Sitting behind an exhibit booth sends the message that you’re not interested or aggressive. People will just keep on walking, says Endress, who specializes in the psychology of business.

Tip 4: Network, but do it Right

Make the most of networking, but don’t spread yourself too thin.

“People try to gather as many business cards as they can,” says Dan Coughlin, president of the St. Louis-based Coughlin Co. “They’d be much better off really connecting with five or 10 people.”

Don’t stay chained to your booth. Designate people to man it while you work the room, Turner says: “I am talking to them, inviting them to our booth, reaching out to them, not relying on them taking the time to walk by. I’m making contacts right then.”

Follow up when the show is over. A trade show is only as good as the business it generates, so don’t stash that stack of business cards in a to-do-later file. Call, e-mail or send a handwritten note as soon as you return, at most within the first week after the show. Wait too long, and you’ve lost them.

Tip 5: Can’t Afford It? Go Anyway

If you can’t afford the price of a booth at a trade show, attend anyway. Ask for a free pass to the vendor/exhibit area, suggests Karen Steede-Terry, the Austin, Texas-based author of Full-Time Woman, Part-Time Career (CMS Press, 2005, $19.95).

“Once inside, walk around and network,” she says. “Introduce yourself and tell people what you do, then exchange cards. You’ll get almost as much mileage out of being there as if you had a booth.”

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