Trade_Shows_body.jpgby Iris Dorbian.

Once a much vaunted marketing staple, trade shows have largely fallen out of fashion the past few years. There are two reasons for this: first, the cost for exhibiting can be prohibitive for some firms, particularly cash-strapped small businesses. The second is due to the rise of virtual conferences and webinars that have all but eliminated the need to attend trade shows. Yet when you consider the potential return on investment that can result from attending a trade show, these drawbacks can seem short-sighted.

Ben Landers can certainly attest to that. As president and CEO of Blue Corona, a digital marketing and analytics solutions provider, he attends three to five trade shows a year. For him, trade shows offer excellent opportunities to meet face-to-face with prospects that virtual conferences, e-mails, and phone calls simply can’t match.

"We are typically able to talk to and engage with 30 to 50 qualified prospects per show," says Landers who has two offices (one in Maryland and the other in North Carolina) and approximately 30 to 40 employees. "Some of the people we have met have become clients shortly after the show and we usually get another sale or two up to 12 to 18 months after the show."

So how can small business owners contemplating attending trade shows figure out how to get the best return on the time and money involved?  Following are a few tips from trade show veterans and experts.

Do your research
The first step after deciding to attend a trade show is to find one that targets your desired customer base.

Marc Scherer, president of Event Management, a trade show producer, agrees. “Select an event that has a proven track record of delivering the decision makers that can effectively purchase your products or services,” he advises.

If you’re undecided about which trade shows are worth your while, call their PR contacts and ask them to send you recent registration or post-show survey results that contain specific demographic data. Scherer, who will be hosting the 10th New York Business Expo and Conference this October, says this information should be easily obtainable.

“Annual revenue, industry, decision making authority, years in business all can offer insight into what is and is not a targeted lead base,” he notes. And, always check the attrition rate among exhibitors. “Ask for the exhibitor list of the previous year's show and compare it to the current exhibitor list,” suggests Scherer. “A significant fallout (over 40 percent) is a good indication of a show not delivering on its exhibitors’ expectations."

Trade_Shows_PQ.jpgAsk clients which trade shows they attend
In addition to scouring demographic data or statistical surveys, talk to existing clients and customers about which shows they attend. This is another effective way of ensuring that your business is getting in front of the right audience for your product or service. Justin Dixon, president of Little Rock, Arkansas-based Snyder Environmental, an asbestos removal firm, echoes the sentiment. When his company experienced a change in leadership over five years ago, the new owner identified trade shows as a key marketing tool.

“At that time, no one in our industry, at least in our region, was participating in trade shows, so it seemed like a good opportunity to get out of the gate in front of the competition,” says Dixon.

To determine which shows would be worth his firm's attention, he asked some of his school clients for their recommendations.

“By talking with these folks, we learned that most school district facilities managers are members of their state's school plant managers association, which puts on an annual trade show,” he continues. “By sponsoring and exhibiting at this trade show, we get front and center access to the key individuals that purchase the services we offer for their respective school districts.”

Don't view it as a numbers game
Think about why you're attending the trade show. Is it to build awareness of your company? Increase your customer base and boost sales? Most likely, it's for all of these reasons. If so, then you will need to look at the bigger picture.

Landers contemplated these questions after his first trade show, which he says cost his firm more than $10,000, an expense he attributes to having to purchase his firm’s initial display.

“Post show, we thought it was a disaster because we only generated about 15 qualified prospects,” he recalls. “Within six months of the show, we'd gotten one client. Within another 6 months, we'd landed a second client. To date, they've both generated more than $50,000 in revenue and $20,000 in gross profit. That's an incredible ROI when you consider that half our cost was buying the tradeshow display—a display we've continued to use in all shows since.”

Steve Levine, CEO of Fairfield, Connecticut-based Atmos Air Solutions, which makes air purification products, keeps an open mind when participating in trade shows. Whether it's to educate customers, introduce new products, or meet potential clients, influencers and vendors from around the world, Levine makes attending trade shows a mainstay of his company’s marketing strategy. He attends about six trade shows a year and at most of them he is an exhibitor.

Although he has often used the number of clients and prospects he has engaged with as metrics in figuring out if a show has been successful, he recently discovered that this particular benchmark is not always an accurate indicator of ROI. Sometimes, piquing the interest of one or two important contacts might be all you need, he says.

For example, at the last trade show Levine attended, both the engineer and architect of a specific project that his firm was working on were present.

This gave us the opportunity to explain to both of them the value of our system,” says Levine, who has a staff of 15. “Now they were able to go back to the end user and say with confidence, yes this is the right company to do business with. It was great to have both influencers at the trade show that validated our technology.”

Trade shows can be a highly effective marketing vehicle for your company. But always do your homework beforehand. As Levine cautions, “The right trade shows can be very meaningful to any business; and the wrong trade show could be a potential waste of resources.”