Years ago as GM Marketing of the Dairy Farmers Co-Op, I had a significant chunk of my marketing budgets taken by the involvement Dairy Farmers had in the Sydney Royal Easter Show, and associated conference sessions.  This was an institutional investment, beyond the control of my marketing programs, as a Co-Op, the board was committed to it beyond any debate.  After a couple of years of whingeing, I took it on as a challenge to generate a return from the investment, that I would rather not have made.

In more recent years, I have attended many industry conferences, organised a few, and spoken at several, so have had plenty of opportunity to see what works and what does not.

Following are some of the lessons, the things you should have sorted out before you make the significant commitment to exhibit.


Have a clear objective.

Build brand awareness, find new distributors, generate leads, position yourself as the industry expert, whatever it is, without an objective you may as well save your money. Your objective will drive the manner in which the investment is made, the size, type and the way you manage it.

Be strategically consistent.

Ensure the show activities and presence at the show itself is aligned with the rest of your marketing activities and programs. Doing a one-off industry show because everyone else seems to be doing it is a basic error to make. It is almost always harder to say ‘no’ than to just go along with the crowd.

Market your presence in the show.

Use the investment in the show as a reason to contact all your networks, inviting them to the stand, to the functions you have organised, or to the sessions of the conference that you think may be of interest and value to them. Trade shows are really just very expensive and expansive networking opportunities, so the greater the awareness amongst current and potential customers that you will be there, available ready to talk, and even ‘do a deal’ the better.

Follow up, follow up, follow up.

Persistence pays off, although you do need to have a ‘tyre-kicker’ identifier in place, as you can spend a lot of time following up people with little real intent of a commercial relationship and transaction. Similarly, following up your competitors neighbour, or committed customer is just a waste of your resources. However, this is no different to the normal situation,  every business needs some sort of lead scoring system. It is just that at a trade show, the numbers can become overwhelming very quickly, and it is easy to lose focus and waste resources.

Automate the contact collection process.

Most conferences these days have entrance tags that enable direct input of a visitors details in your CRM/lead management systems. Use them, it makes little sense having people copying out business cards after the day has finished, or getting visitors to fill in a form. Simple automation improves productivity enormously, freeing you up to engage with visitors without interruption.  Trade shows are great opportunities to build your contact data base, and as the old saying goes,’the money is in the list’.

Relationships are crucial.

Trade shows are wonderful opportunities to strengthen existing relationships and forge new ones. It is a huge networking opportunity, all those interested people coming to you, rather than you having to trawl through LinkedIn one by one, spend advertising funds. The opportunity to forge relationships with a wider group than you would normally interact with, particularly with businesses with complementary services to yours can be gold.

Learn about the innovations in your and complementary areas.

Exhibitors typically show off their latest and greatest, so it is a great opportunity to see what is evolving in areas that may impact you, and that you might be able to pass on to your customers, building on your position as a trusted advisor, rather than just a supplier.

Learn about the problems current & potential customers have.

It is casual, ‘non-salesy’ conversations that often uncover the problems that are the sources of value you can add,  and opportunities to be followed up. Have as many of these conversations as possible, always seeking to understand the problems others have, rather than flogging the features of whatever it is you sell.

Ensure the elevator pitch is clear, and delivered by all in the same way.

Having a clear, well tested elevator pitch is crucial at all times, but never more important than at a trade show, when it  will need to be delivered many times, and by different people manning your stand. Not only do you want to grab the attention of those to whom you can add value, and the elevator pitch is a terrific filtering device, you want those who hear it to remember the salient points so they can relate it to others in their networks. Trade shows are meeting places, and nobody attends without meeting up with someone they have not seen for a while, ex colleagues, customers, old friends, and having them able to recite your pitch acts as a strong referral.

In addition, ensure that your elevator pitch is reflected in the exhibitor listings, so the scanner who may be your ideal customer can see clearly the value you deliver. Flick though any exhibitor listing, and you remain in the dark about what half of them actually do, and very few make the listing sufficiently compelling so  that you file it away as a ‘must visit’ stand.

Collateral material.

Ensure the collateral material, be it analogue or digital is in order, and created thoughtfully, and differentiates you from your competition, rather than putting some generic stuff together as a last minute rush.

Provide a next step for everyone who engages towards a relationship.

Successful B2B selling is a process, rarely a once-off interaction. It makes sense therefore to be very clear about the next step towards a transaction that may arise during the show, from more detailed information available on the stand, to follow up visits, availability of engineering resources, referrals to existing customers who will support your claims, and many others.

Make your stand compelling.

It does not have to be the biggest, or most lavish,  but it has to stand out, and particularly be attractive to  your ideal customers. Having a clear definition of your value proposition and ideal customer profile, then spending a few dollars on designing the stand to be particularly attractive to that group will pay big dividends.

Leverage your relationships

Sharing your relationships with other exhibitors, is a powerful strategy to position yourself as an expert. Take opportunities to speak at the conference sessions, which further positions you as an expert, and make sure you do a lot of preparation to make the presentation a good one

Keep metrics of follow up and conversion success.

Understanding the dynamics of your conversion funnel is vital at all times, but never more than when you are following up a large number of potential leads generated in a short time, where the opportunity to waste time on tyre-kickers is geometrically increased. A significant change in your numbers may be an indication that your lead scoring systems are in need of review.

Measure the ROI of the show,

Apply the measures over a long period to allow sales conversion and retention to be a part of the equation. Sales is a process, and depending on your product, can have long gestation periods, so ensure to accommodate the average gestation in your calculations.

Plan everything,

Leaving organisation of the detail to the last moment will not work. Spend time up front planning, not just your presence, but who else is going, decide who you want to connect with.  Too many times I have seen last minute printing errors, poor editing leaving spelling and contact detail errors, wasteful premiums, redundant material, and obvious absences from stands, just because nobody thought it important enough to do the detailed planning, and allocate responsibility to get the job done in plenty of time. Sensible planning also increases the productivity of your investment, as last minute rush jobs always cost more, and are never as good as when real consideration is applied. Be prudent, but be prepared to spend that bit extra to leverage the investment already made.

Be early for everything.

Often that is when the best casual conversations happen, when there is few pressures of time and other people.

Have a senior management presence.

Often I have seen stands at trade shows manned by bored sales people who would rather be elsewhere, or casual staff who know very little, and have no authority to do anything. Success comes from commitment, and the presence of senior management is a sign of commitment, to everyone. Besides, most bosses spend way too much time closeted in their offices and meetings, when they need to get ‘out of the building’ and talk to real people, those who do not see things as they do, and who have no institutional pressure to agree.

The costs of trade shows are significant, not just the stand, and material, but in the costs of planning, manning, travel and accommodation, and following up. The investment can be easily wasted, or alternatively, it can just as easily be turned into a marketing goldmine with a little thought and planning.

Photo credit: Joe Flood via Flikr