How to Make the Most of a Trade Show

How to Make the Most of a Trade Show

If it seems like there is a trade show for everything these days, that’s because there practically is: from international quilt conventions to high-tech manufacturing conferences. The rise of the trade show in recent years offers new opportunities for entrepreneurs to interface with prospective customers in an advantageous environment.


Trade shows are a great way to avoid the hassles—and costs—of traveling the country to meet individual clients and investors, says Brad Treat, Entrepreneur in Residence at Rev: Ithaca Startup Works and the Southern Tier Startup Alliance, and a mentor to startups throughout the Southern Tier.


“From a travel standpoint, it’s very efficient,’ says Treat. “You can fly once and get all your meetings done in one location – way better than having to fly to where all of your prospective customers are.”


The two main hubs for trade shows in the U.S. are Las Vegas and Orlando. Other cities that have emerged as frequent hosts to conventions and marketing events include Chicago, Atlanta, San Diego, New York, Houston, Dallas, and Washington.


Apart from offering access to key people, trade shows are also a great context in which to make connections. Most attendees are there for networking opportunities.


“People are in a mindset to do business development and meetings; that’s why they’re there,” says Treat. “When you go to the customer in their place of business, they’ve got their day-to-day stuff in front of them. At trade shows you can have better interactions.”


Before the Trade Show: Book Meetings in Advance


It’s important to begin scheduling meetings well ahead of the trade show. Treat recommends that entrepreneurs book around 50% of their meetings in advance. That figure ensures a base level of productivity, while allowing time for scheduling meetings on-the-spot as connections are made “on the ground.” It’s a good idea to start scheduling meetings three weeks out from the trade show — far enough in advance that people’s schedules will be open, but close enough to the event that they’re ready to commit. And don’t neglect to utilize the day before the event, when many people are anxious to fill in any glaring gaps in their schedule.


At the Event: Spend Time Making Connections


A great way to network at the trade show is to peruse the booth areas. If you can, get the business card of senior people at the booths; send them a quick email to schedule a meeting later on at the event. The beginning and end of the day are typically the best times to make the rounds.


One of the key events at a trade show are the analyst sessions or panels, where experts on a given sector make presentations and participate in discussions. Just like there is a trade show for seemingly everything, there is an analyst for everything, says Treat. Often, analysts will hand out newsletters to promote their work―if so, Treat recommends taking them, since they can offer free, detailed market intelligence.


The panel sessions can also be a time to market your own company. Take advantage of the minutes before the panel begins to introduce yourself to the analysts, says Treat. Consider bringing a camera to take photos or make a short film documenting your company’s participation.


Getting A Booth Without Bankrupting Your Company


While booths are typically expensive, they are also a great way to increase the visibility of your company. To get cheap access, Treat recommends seeing if partner firms are willing to share their space, if only for a limited time. In addition, some trade shows offer booth sharing arrangements or participation in special sections, such as “New Technology,” “Emerging Industry,” “Featured in PC Magazine,” or “Trade Association.” These can be accessed by applying to the trade show organizers in advance.

Brad Treat, left, at a his booth at a trade show.

Using Trade Shows to Scout for Talent


Trade shows also offer a great forum for startups to recruit talented people, particularly salespeople.


“These sorts of events are talent-rich environments for hiring,” says Treat. He recommends keeping an eye out for strong communicators or innovative presenters and acquiring their business cards. Even if your business is not ready to hire, it is a good strategy to have a list of talented people on file for when a need arises.


The Fundamentals of Schwag


It is also important that entrepreneurs think of “schwag” (free stuff offered by companies at events for promotional purposes) strategically.


“Startups have limited resources, so they can’t spend money on any marketing that doesn’t have a measurable outcome,” says Treat.


To illustrate strategic thinking around schwag, Treat shares an example from his days as co-founder and CEO of SightSpeed, a video-conferencing firm that was successfully sold to Logitech in 2008.


At one of the trade shows that Treat attended, Intel invited smaller technology companies to share a portion of their large, centrally located booth space, at no cost. The SightSpeed team capitalized on the opportunity by offering attendees a company branded-baseball cap, adorned with an Intel pin, so long as they recorded a short video of themselves wearing the hat.


This had two positive effects. First, Treat noticed that — after putting on the SightSpeed hat — people tended to keep wearing it around the event, at least for a while, amplifying the schwag’s effectiveness as a marketing tool. Other schwag items, like mugs, typically get stashed in backpacks and briefcases right away.


Second, because the process of recording the video took a couple of minutes, it usually generated a small crowd around the SightSpeed booth. This pleased the Intel executives responsible for the booth area, and allowed SightSpeed to get free space with Intel at other trade shows. Above all, SightSpeed’s association with Intel helped give it the credibility it needed as a young company.


“The real advantage was being visibly seen as an Intel partner,” Treat adds. “That level of endorsement was just phenomenal.”


After the Trade Show: How to Follow-Up


Once the trade show is over, it is important follow up with new connections. The best method is to follow up by email, using proper letter etiquette. One recommendation Treat gives about scheduling a follow-up call is to write with specific times when you are free; this gives the recipient something to say ‘yes’ to, says Treat, which is more likely to result in a meeting.


Another follow up strategy is to request an introduction to someone in your new contact’s company, or network. Once again, the more specific the better, says Treat. “If you can get a name or a job title, or something very specific, an introduction like that can be very useful after the event.”


By following up with new connections, you can ensure that the benefits of the trade show will last long after the event is over—or at least until it’s time for the next one!