With many small businesses tracking their marketing dollars closely, attending a trade show may seem like an ill-considered indulgence at first glance. Registration costs, travel and hotel accommodations can easily run into a couple of thousand dollars per person. If you exhibit, the total cost could be five to 10 times higher.
In spite of these daunting figures, experts say that trade shows should be part of your overall marketing program. The in-person, face-to-face nature of industry events provides key advantages that social media, print advertising, and even direct response marketing can't match. And with at least 6,000 trade shows going on in the current year, according to Trade Show News Network, ample opportunity exists for small businesses to make valuable contacts and nudge the sales process along when they're approached correctly.
"Trade shows are one of many arrows in your quiver," says Andy Birol, owner of Pittsburgh-based Birol Growth Consulting. But if you expect to show up at a trade show and have lightning strike automatically, think again. Getting that face-to-face meeting time with a customer or prospect takes planning.
Birol likes a multi-step strategy that begins with understanding how your customers and prospects make their buying decisions. Then, when you know what their buying process is, come up with your own selling process that matches it. For example, if you know that a buyer looks for suppliers with a heavy online presence, then your website could have a lot of relevant content. Or if their buying process involves reviewing third-party endorsements, you could bring your testimonials to their attention.
"If you've qualified yourself to the buyer and you've gotten the buyer to qualify themselves to you through a lot of upfront work, then it would be highly worthwhile for you to [meet them at] a trade show," Birol says. "Make sure you have a list of potential buyers, establish a conversation, and simply ask for a formal, 60-minute face-to-face meeting with them back at their office."
Most of all, leads must be avidly followed up when the trade show wraps up. "Your target is to attain a 60-minute conversation with an interested qualified prospect who has the time, need, authority, and money to hire you," Birol concludes.
Watch the little details
A number of seemingly small things—such as dressing inappropriately—can have a dramatic impact on your success at a trade show.
"I've gone to some trade shows where people look like they were going out to cut their lawn instead of to a national trade show, and I think it's a huge mistake," says Jay Goltz, CEO of Goltz Group, and a small business blogger for The New York Times. "People look at you when they come in a booth and they draw a conclusion. If you look like a serious buyer that's dressed professionally, I think you're going to get a higher level attention than if you're wearing shorts and a printed T-shirt."
As someone who has both attended and exhibited at trade shows for years, Goltz has seen this mistake over and over again. In a related vein, exhibits that are poorly designed—specifically, exhibits that don't clearly communicate what you're selling within a few seconds—can mean lost sales. Another mistake is not getting out on the floor and talking with the prospects. Too many people sit behind their exhibits and read their phone screens, Goltz notes.
Interestingly, Goltz has discovered that many trade show booths don't have a system in place to process orders—another mistake. He recalls going to one conference where Xerox was a sponsor. He and his friend were both prepared to buy a Xerox product on the spot, but the Xerox rep referred them to their local sales distributor instead. In the end, Goltz didn't place the order.
"I got some [lame] follow-up from a guy two weeks later," Goltz remembers. "Xerox lost two sales. Don't send your marketers to trade shows. Send your salespeople and have a vehicle in place to catch [buyers] when they're hot."
Ask for a meeting
"If you come back from a trade show and you're not exhausted, you didn't work it," says Curtis Greve, the managing partner of Greve-Davis. Founded in 2008, the Pittsburgh-based firm works with retailers, manufacturers, and third-party service providers to help them improve their customer returns and excess inventory capabilities.
Even smaller conferences can draw several hundred people. Without a plan—such as giving a speech or hosting a cocktail party or simply setting up meetings in advance—you could easily squander your time walking around the exhibit hall fruitlessly. Greve finds trade shows a cost-effective way to meet his existing customers and prospects, but he's careful to do prep work.
For example, he'll get in touch with customers and prospects to see if they're attending an upcoming event. If they are, he'll ask to meet them for breakfast or during a networking break. For a trade show he attended in mid-February, he set up five meetings in advance. "Each one of those meetings would probably cost me between $1,000 and $2,000 if I had to go see them individually," Greve explains. "Trade shows bring industries together."
Trade show staffs have gotten better, too, in hooking up prospects and attendees. At a conference a few years ago, Greve wanted to meet with a rep at a company that he hadn't met before. So he asked one of the conference coordinators if they could make the introductions. By the next day, the coordinator had brought Greve and his party together.
Approached thoughtfully, trade shows can be worth the investment for any small business. "The three big lessons: prepare before. Perform there. Follow up like a superstar," says Birol.
Trade Show News Network offers a list for sale of approximately 6,000 trade shows in the U.S. with the contact information of the event coordinators and other useful details. To find out about trade shows in your particular industry, get in touch with the professional associations serving your niche. You may also want to check these sources: