Written by Sean McPheat |
Let’s face it – trade shows can be both a blessing and a curse. Get them right and you could collect a horde of potential clients or business contacts in a matter of days. Get them wrong and you’re going to have some very lonely, desperate hours watching disinterested visitors skirt your stand. These huge fairs can either be exhilarating or dispiriting (for attendees as much as exhibitors). It all depends on your preparation, approach and aims.
To help you get the most out of your investment, we’ve compiled a list of our top trade show tips, learned the hard way from years of attendance on both sides of the fence. For ease, we’ve divided them into categories from pre-planning to last-minute giveaways.
Let’s get started!
1: Building your Team & Sales Objectives
Here’s where you should begin. You’ll need confident, friendly, but not desperate or over-familiar people to host. They’ll need to be well-briefed and have concrete aims in mind. Are you trying to build business contacts or make some sales? Is your number one priority to establish your brand or launch a new product line? Settle upon your sales strategy and everything else will follow. Ensure everyone has some effective sales training so everyone is on the same page.
2: Divide and Conquer
As well as meet-and-greeters, you’ll need somebody with technical knowhow in case something goes wrong (believe me, it will). You’ll need runners to fetch coffees and liaise with venue staff. Maybe you’ll need someone to give a sales presentation or provide a product demo. You’ll also need to roster sufficient people to cover all the hours of the show. Don’t make people work 14-hour days, since they won’t be able to maintain that 1000-watt smile or can-do attitude when they’re dog tired.
3: Know your Enemy
Before you finalise your planning, or your display, take a tour of your competitors. What are they doing well? What don’t they provide that you could? There may be opportunities to improve your stall to maximize footfall before you open. During the event you’ll want someone to go and talk to your competitors and report back. There may also be opportunities to cross-promote with affiliated companies.
4: Schedule Events
Don’t be too ad hoc – schedule some mini presentations, product demos, or other events to both draw crowds in, and keep your team busy and engaged. Obviously, much will depend upon footfall, and what the event organisers permit in terms of PA, music et cetera. But you’ll have had all those conversations well in advance, won’t you? Any event program which stops your stall simply being a table full of leaflets, will draw eyes and bodies.
5: Get the Tech Right
Get in well in advance to test out any technical equipment you need. It’s easy to overlook things. Do you have enough power points for a printer? Where can your team charge devices? How good is the WiFi when you have potentially thousands of people using the network at once? Is your POS sale device working? Test everything… then test it again!
6: Think Video and Interactivity
We’re basically magpies, forever seeking out the next sparkly thing. Photos are better than text, videos beat photos and interactive displays, where your clientele can navigate to what they want, beat passive video consumption. Have you considered VR? There are a growing series of apps for building virtual 3D walk-throughs (make sure you have enough room for people to move safely!) Perhaps you can create an app that visitors can download and keep?
7: Make it Bright
Think about lighting, colour, and design. What would you want in an inviting space to escape the hubbub of the event venue floor? Have you got comfortable places for people to sit? Is the colour scheme dynamic and eye-catching? Does your stall have a roof, and lighting, so you can address the flat, white light these venues often have as default?
8: Strike a Branding Balance
You’ll want your brand elements to be dominant – logos and colour schemes especially. However, you don’t want to look like you’ve just plastered every surface with your corporate livery. You may also want to check the colour schemes of your neighbours (in advance, of course) so you’ll know whether you are likely to complement, clash or (worse of all) get lost. As soon as you get your event plan, check from which directions your stall will first be encountered and design something which works from those angles.
9: Add an Element of Surprise
When every stall is beginning to look the same, how do you make yours stand out? You don’t need to be too wacky – ditch the clouds and bubble machines. Some unique furniture items, perhaps a fish tank or a video wall can create surprise and create an inviting space. If your brand permits, you could potentially pick a theme – bazaar, cocktail bar, sweet shop – to draw the eye and invite curiosity. Strike a balance between surprising and outré.
Interactive experiences are a big draw too. One of the most popular features at the trade shows that precede major marathons is a treadmill set to make participants run at the speed of the fastest Kenyan champions. It’s fun, memorable – and surprising.
10: Think Instagram, Linkedin and Facebook
One of the best ways to get your brand or stall mentioned on social media is to have a feature display wall that’s “Instagrammable” – think colour, glitter, patterns. Attendees will want their friends and colleagues to know they’ve been to the trade show, so give them something to remember their visit (and you) by.
11: Don’t Be Shy
There’s no point in being a wallflower at trade fairs; a smile can go a long way to inviting a conversation. Make sure you’ve hired “people persons” to run your stall – the sort of individuals that love meeting new people and are genuinely curious about them. Remember that attendees are there to have conversations and engage with brands.
12: Don’t be Pushy Though
However, there’s a fine line between inviting a conversation and hammering home a sale. It may seem counter-intuitive, but you don’t want to come across as too “salesy” at trade fairs. People are much more comfortable giving you’re their business, oddly enough, if they believe you don’t need their money. Remember that you’re there to get contacts you can later follow-up, not necessarily there to clinch deals in the moment.
13: Get Out and Mingle
Remember to send staff out to circulate amongst attendees and initiate conversations. They can carry business cards and brochures in case they meet anyone who would benefit from visiting your stall. A gentle “make sure you visit stall X” can go a long way to imprinting your business in an attendee’s mind. That way, when they do come calling, they’re not a stranger to your brand and it’s easier to build a rapport.
14: Choose your Moment
If an attendee is browsing your stall and looking at printed materials or samples, give them some time to do so, before you interject. We’ve probably had that experience in a store where an overly keen assistant rushes up with a “can I help you?” before you’ve even had a chance to look at anything. Don’t be that busybody… but don’t let them get away without a friendly greeting either.
15: Follow Up
When you do talk to someone, and they give you contact details, make sure you store them somewhere safe and remember to follow up. Do follow up when you said you would, whether it’s during the event, or afterwards. Don’t overdo it – inviting them to connect on LinkedIn won’t always be appropriate. Match your level of follow-up to the level of interest you intuited from your contact (I know – it’s a bit of an arcane art).
16: Surprise Them!
It’s always about surprise! What can you offer that your competitors can’t? Whether it’s a branded takeaway item, or a discount code that only works for ten days after the show, make sure it’s attractive, well-designed and has that element of surprise (see our what NOT to do section below for some examples of BAD freebies).
17: Keep it on Point
Ensure that any novelty items you produce, and any printed handouts you provide are intimately connected with your product or service offering. Remember how much stuff attendees are going to be given during their visit. You’ll stand out more if your materials are to the point, brief and insightful and if any gift items make it clear what your brand represents.
18: Novelties to Remember
There are so many amazing companies producing branded gift items that it shouldn’t be difficult to craft something that really stands out, chimes with your brand values, and that your visitors will want to keep. Remember when there was a craze for branded USB sticks? That’s because these could be shaped and colored with any brand livery, fitted neatly into attendees’ pockets, and were genuinely useful.
19: Useful over Cute
Which brings us onto the next point. Items your visitors will use or consume will be more desirable than things that will only clutter up their lives. Who doesn’t like a chocolate brownie with a brand logo on the frosting? While you could create something quirky and unusual that serves merely as an ornament, a gift that’s genuinely useful will be cherished. Water bottles and reusable coffee cups, especially if environmentally friendly, are perennials.
20: Images over Words
Keep documents and brochures light on verbiage and high on graphics and photos. Again, it’s all about standing out in a crowded environment and conveying your brand message in as few words as possible. Now is not the time to hand out your 20,000-word white paper (you can follow up with that by email).
21: Reduce the Pressure
People don’t like to feel they’re being pressured into a sale and an environment like a trade fair is not an intrinsically relaxing one. It may be, particularly with B2B sales, that you don’t close any deals during the show. That’s fine, so long as you follow-up. Adopt that as a strategy, and you can literally say “I’m not here to sell you anything”. It’s amazing how relaxing those words are. If not 100% true, they at least release that pressure valve.
22: Encourage Lingering
Create an environment that encourages lingering. Soft furnishings, music, perhaps some free food or drink, somewhere to charge visitors phones, video content that’s worth watching. All these things give you the opportunity to take a soft sell approach, rather than trying to stop passers-by from doing a “grab and go”.
23: Time Limit Offers
An alternative strategy to releasing the pressure is to subtly increase it with a carrot rather than a stick. Offer a significant discount during the event, which will run out at a specified time (you could even use a countdown clock). It won’t work for every brand, but it can create a bit of a buzz.
24: Remember the Takeaway
Make sure every visitor leaves with something, even if it’s just a brochure and a business card. And don’t run out of anything. Put just enough items on your tables to present an attractive display without clutter or a feeling of things running out. Hide fresh stock out of sight for replenishment.
25: Keep in Touch
Make sure you get usable contact details from your visitors, and if you take a business card, write something on the back or staple it to a notepad with notes about each visitor. You’ll later use these notes to jog your memory of each encounter. It will be very difficult to write properly targeted follow-up sales emails if you don’t do this.
26: Pens and Stress Balls
These items are clichéd and don’t really say anything about your brand. Let’s face it, pens are commonly lost, or they migrate at random; so, while your brand identity may be spread widely, it won’t be well targeted. And when was the last time you really read what was written on a pen? Stress balls subtly suggest that your clients or customers are going to feel anxious – is that really the message you want to convey?
27: Stalk your Prey
Don’t be too hung up on making a sale, or forging a contact, with any one individual, and certainly don’t shadow them! Let people come to you where possible (with the caveat about mingling already mentioned in tip 13).
28: Look Desperate
Make sure your staff greet each visitor with a smile then give them the space they need to get acquainted with your materials before stepping in. Try to avoid overly insistent body language and speech. Be attentive and approachable but not overbearing or insistent. Yes, we appreciate it’s a very fine line!
29: Run Out of Stuff
As we mentioned in tip 24, make sure you have a hidden stock of items that visitors are keen to take. While you could print out additional paperwork in situ, you are unlikely to achieve the glossy finish of a professionally printed document, so don’t run out.
30: Close Up Early
Even if trade is thinning out, don’t be tempted to take down your stall early. You never know whether that latecomer could be your next big client or collaborator. Also, it sends a bad message, as if you’re embarrassed to be there, or eager to get away.
31: Discounts and Freemiums
There’s a reason why every SaaS company you’ve ever encountered offers either a free trial or a “freemium” subscription tier. These strategies work. They adhere to the age-old “try before you buy” principal. There’s no reason why you can’t find a similar way to really engage with your potential clients by offering an experiential sample.
32: Engage their Senses
It’s not just about sight and sound. Estate Agents often let the scent of flowers, freshly baked bread, or newly brewed coffee waft through their properties. You can borrow a trick from them by offering branded snacks or using scented gift items or flowers (be careful of common allergies, however).
33: Fun and Games
If you can gamify your product experience, so much the better (remember the treadmill at the marathon expo). Interactivity engages visitors and makes for memorable experience, and everyone loves a quiz, an assessment or game. You can also use these experiences to subtly test new products or engage in a little unofficial focus grouping.
34: Take a Tip from Ted
If the format of your trade event allows it, build a little stage and host miniature talks, presentations, book launches, product demos or interviews. Display a schedule of events and make your stall one of the liveliest in the event.
35: Notes and Follow Up
We’ve already mentioned it, but it’s so vital, we’ll repeat ourselves a little! Do keep a log of your visitor contacts, leads and prospects. If you have a junior staff-member who can log these contacts on a spreadsheet or similar tool, so much the better. You’ll appreciate it later when you have 300 follow-up telesales calls to make or emails to send!
36: Use Social Media
TikTok isn’t just for the teens – why not give snapshot updates of what’s going on at your stall. Use Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to get the word out and benefit from your audience who will spread your message via hashtags, likes and shares. Keep it brief, light, colourful and fun!
37: Create a Hashtag
Come up with a short, snappy, and unique hashtag for the event and encourage your visitors to share it. Display it somewhere prominent too. This will help spread word of mouth before, during and after the event.
38: Make it Colourful
Remember that colour palette. You want to create branding that unifies all the content relating to your presence at the event. This may mean extending the design work that’s already in your brand bible or creating something one-off and unique.
39: Remember LinkedIn
When you update your social media, don’t neglect LinkedIn. Of all the social media channels, this may be the one place you’ll encounter most of your visitors.
40: Livestream It
Why not create your own miniature broadcast channel during the show. Technologies for livestreaming can be as simple as using Facebook or Instagram on your phone or building a YouTube channel to host event videos. Think out this strategy well in advance, as it won’t work if it’s improvised on the fly.
41: Last Minute Giveaways
Leverage the “last hour panic” that some visitors feel when they are worried about missing something. After all, do you really want to take all your materials and gift items back to the office? Why not have a “final hour giveaway,” whilst making sure it doesn’t look like a clearance sale. Again, this is an area where a subtle balance must be struck.
42: Plan a Big Finale
You could end with a special event, although bear in mind the crowd may have thinned out. If attendees must book onto a closing presentation or demo, then so much the better. Give them something to remember and go out with a bang (not a whimper!)
43: Thank your Team
Remember to thank everyone who has helped make your trade show work. They will no doubt be exhausted but happy to have completed a challenging piece of work. Thank and reward them accordingly and perhaps they’ll be back, in even better form, next year!
Part of that gratitude may involve going out for a group meal or drinks. Try not to end with everyone loading boxes into someone’s car at midnight!
45: Follow Up!
Yes – we’re going to say it a third time. It’s that important! There’s no point in making all those contacts if that pile of business cards simply sits in your drawer. Make sure you leave sufficient time (usually only 3 or 4 days) to make those calls or send those emails. This is where the real work starts – converting initial interest into hard sales.
I hope that was helpful.
We offer several different courses to help you sell more effectively at trade shows and exhibitions.
This course will provide you and your salespeople with the ability to plan out and then sell more effectively. It can be tailored based on whether you are building leads or selling something there and then on the display.
After the show, hopefully you will have a load of leads that you need to follow up with. Our telesales course will show you the right way to engage with them to set up appointments or to make that direct sale over the telephone.
You might have people attending the trade show with you who are not salespeople. This course will provide them with the basic skills they need so they can hold their own and help.
Updated on: 16 June, 2022
Originally published: 18 July, 2008
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