10 Tips for Working Trade Shows

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

But instead, trade shows and conventions have 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 thattrade-show organizers report stable revenue, even through the downturn.

Still, trade shows often represent a serious financial commitment, even if you don’t rent a booth. Sometimes, it’s hard to know whether 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 evaluate trade-show opportunities, and how to get the most out of the trade shows you decide to attend:
  1. Check out the speaker list. Are these thought leaders you respect and would love to hear speak? 
  2. Check out the registration list. Often these days, an online registration page will show you who has signed up. I recently did this with one convention I’m thinking of attending and immediately spotted people I know and would love to spend time with in person.
  3. Check out the seminar list. What are the topics being covered? A single great session that answers key questions you have about how to do business better or more cost-effectively 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 that you can use to leave a big impression on many 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, which he used to introduce a new, high-quality speaker. His haul? More than 700 business cards to follow up on, a few orders, and solid connections made with major retail chains.
  5. Make appointments ahead of time. If there are important people for you to see at the trade show, don’t wait until you get there and then hope you can set up a time to chat, or that you’ll just randomly run into each other. Arrive at the trade show with a schedule of key appointments already scheduled.
  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. You can sit at one table and meet dozens of people — they’re a captive audience once they sit down and start chewing, 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 looking at all the booths, rather than circling through the exhibit floor over and over as you backtrack to see that one vendor you overlooked.
  8. Wear great walking shoes and comfortable 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 and made a complete ass of themselves. Not only can you blow some chances to make good connections this way, but you won’t be effective the next day if you’re hung over. Keep it professional, even in the event’s “off hours.”
  10. Follow up and connect. Trade show pros will tell you 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?”

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