How Trade Shows Work

You've just been put in charge of planning the company's trade show activities for the year and you have no idea where to begin. Maybe you've attended a trade show before so you have an idea of what they are, but planning and managing the process is a whole other animal. Trade shows are one of the best ways to get in front of your customers and prospects, but how do you decide which shows are best? How do you budget for them, how do you decide what kind of display you need, and how do you make sure you get back more than you put into it?

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In this article, we'll take a look at why trade shows are so effective, how to select the best shows, and how to manage the process from start to finish. We'll also provide tips, checklists and web links that will make the job a heck of a lot easier for you. Let's start with why it makes sense to attend trade shows.


Why Do Trade Shows?

Exhibiting at a trade show offers you one of the best ways to get in front of a lot of customers and prospects in a relatively short amount of time. Trade shows give you the opportunity to not only show your product or describe your service, but also create that all important first impression. According to a Simmons Market Research Bureau study, 91% of respondents ranked trade shows as "extremely useful" as a source for product purchasing information. This was higher than any other source, including on-site visits from reps. Also, nearly half of the respondents had purchased products or services at the trade show.

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At a typical national trade show, with 10,000 attendees and 1,000 exhibitors, you can realistically have 200 visitors per day. If you were making sales calls, you could not even approach that number. Granted, you don't always have the opportunity to go into as much detail in your presentation as you would like, but it opens the door for future communications -- a door that sometimes is very difficult to get your foot into.

So for most companies, trade shows are worth the effort. In fact, before you decide to nix a show your company has attended for years, think about what that might say to your current customers who expect to see you there. This is especially damaging if your company has been through recent staffing/management changes, mergers, acquisitions, or other changes your clients may have caught wind of. Your competition will use your absence to their advantage. This doesn't mean you can't ever stop attending a show, but just be sure you think about whom you see there and what your company's absence may lead them to believe. If necessary, send a post card to your primary clients that you know attend that particular show, and explain your decision to attend show B rather than show A.

Before you even start looking for shows, you need to set your goals. To help you do this, there are four questions you need to ask yourself:

  1. Why are you exhibiting?
    Are you trying to extend your relationship with existing customers? Introducing a new product? Positioning your company within the market? Generating qualified leads for new sales? Countering a competitor's claim?
  2. Who is your target audience?
  3. What is the message you want to convey?
  4. What do you want to get out of the show?
    Do you want to bring home leads, sell your product/service, or create/improve/build upon your company image?

You need specific, measurable goals if you want your trade show activities to succeed.

Next, let's find out how to find the best shows.


Selecting the Right Shows

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When thinking about traveling to trade shows, your first thought is probably, "Okay, which shows are being held in Vegas?" However, with over 9,000 trade shows being held every year, you have to make your choices wisely to stretch your marketing dollar, because even though trade shows give you a great bang for the buck, they also cost quite a bit to attend. You and your booth staffers (those are the people who stand in the booth and tell visitors about your business -- and hopefully sell your products or services) may not want to go to Milwaukee in January; but if that's where the best show is, then that's where you have to send them. But which shows are the best shows?

The first place to start is with your industry's associations. These shows will typically be targeted right to your market, and often are reasonable in cost. You can also check with the trade publications you advertise in (or perhaps should be advertising in). Another resource is, of course, the Web. Go to,, or for directories of shows around the world in all types of industries. No list is entirely complete, however, so make sure you go to more than one directory.


Vertical vs. Horizontal Markets

Another thing to consider is whether your product or service should be presented at horizontal- or vertical-based shows, or both. Horizontal shows are shows with vendors who are selling a broader variety of products or services, and the attendees usually come from a single market segment and are looking for either very specific products or services or a broader variety. Vertical shows are more narrowly focused to just one type of product and market. The advantage of vertical shows is that the attendees are all from a very specific market, and your objectives for the show can be more focused. The disadvantage is that your product or service must fall exactly within the focus for the show, or you won't get the results you want.

Here is an example of these two types of markets: Shows for physical therapists or boating would be vertical, while shows for occupational safety and health services would most likely be horizontal because the attendees would be from all types of markets. There are also variations, with shows that bring in vertical sellers and horizontal buyers and vice versa. This is usually apparent when you look at the list of vendors and the list of attendees. Just remember to keep it in mind when making your choices.


Narrowing the List

Unless you have unlimited budgets and resources, once you have a list of potential shows to attend, you need to find out which of those shows are the best. The key to finding the best shows lies in finding the shows that pull in the most decision makers for your industry. For example, you may find that one of the very large shows in your industry brings in a lot of non-decision makers because their union specifies that members get to attend one national conference each year, and that's the show most of them choose.

To find out who attends, ask the show management for a demographic profile of their attendees. Typically, show literature will list only the numbers and general titles of their attendees. Check the titles and purchasing responsibility if that information is available.

Another route to finding the best shows is to contact past attendees. Have a list of questions ready that will tell you if they are indeed the decision makers, and what value they placed on their time spent in the exhibit hall. You can also check out the exhibitor list from the previous year, and ask those non-competing exhibitors what their impressions of the show were and whether they will be attending again. Or, if possible, go to the show as an attendee and walk the exhibit floor so you'll know if you want to attend it next year. You can get an exhibit-only pass for many shows, so you're not paying the entire fee.

You also need to check with the show managers and ask how they are promoting the show and about their strategy for getting people to the exhibit hall. If it's a new show, there has to be very good promotion to get the traffic you need to make it worthwhile. Often, the conference schedules are set up so that luncheons and socials are held in the exhibit hall to ensure that attendees spend time with vendors. While it is nice to get them into the exhibits (and to your booth), food-related functions aren't always the best arenas for talking with prospects, mainly because it's hard to handle a plate of food, a drink, and your company's literature at the same time. Make sure the schedule allows for plenty of time around those events so attendees can eat and visit your booth. If it doesn't, let the show management know so they can plan better the following year. (Or better yet, if it's a show that you do well at, volunteer for the planning committee, if there is one.)

Once you've nailed down the best shows to attend, you need to figure out what you're going to be standing in front of. Next, we'll solve that problem with information on how to design and care for your booth.


Designing and Caring for Your Booth

There are lots of things to take into consideration when purchasing and designing your booth. These include the size and type of booth; that is, do you need a floor model or tabletop model? And, if you need a floor model, does it need to be a large custom booth to communicate the right corporate image, or will a smaller, more versatile floor model work? There is a huge variety of configurations for booths. You can have a large custom booth built that will require multiple booth spaces and a crew of workers to assemble, or you can opt for a smaller, 10-foot (3-meter) size that can be easily shipped and assembled and disassembled by your booth staffers. Often, these smaller, modular versions can be broken down and used as two tabletop booths as well.

Here are some illustrations of the different types of booths available.

Table Top Model
10' Pop-Up Model
10' Panel Style
10' x 20' Modular Style
20' x 20' Custom Island Style
40' x 40' Custom Style
Photos courtesy Skyline Displays

Here are the main things to think about when deciding what type of booth you need:

What are your functional needs for the booth?

  • Do you need seating so you can sit and discuss at length with prospects the great benefits of your services or products? If your product or service is more complicated or technical, this functionality might work well for you.
  • Do you need shelving for books or product displays, video capability, or storage?
  • Do you need the booth to be easily assembled, disassembled and packed?
  • Do you need to be able to reconfigure it for different shows or other uses?
  • What kind of traffic flow do you need through your booth?

What are your aesthetic needs?

  • Do you need a display with movement to illustrate your product?
  • Does it need to be backlit to illustrate the detail of your product?
  • Does your corporate image necessitate a certain "look" that would require curves, sharp/crisp lines, or colors?

What are your marketing needs?

  • What is the message you need to communicate?
  • Do you have strong name/logo recognition already?
  • Are you a start-up trying to make a name for yourself?

What is your booth budget?

  • Booth prices vary greatly depending on the size and format. Figure $1,000 (more or less) for a tabletop (graphics make a big difference in pricing); around the $5,000-to-$15,000 range for a 10-foot (3-meter) portable with graphics; and for large 20x20-foot, 20x30-foot or 30x30-foot custom booths, the sky is the limit. (The rule of thumb is $92 to $120 per square foot depending on the design.)

Once you've answered these questions, you should have a better idea of the type of booth you need, but the trickiest part of all is determining how the booth will look.


Graphics - Less is More

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How do you get your exhibit booth to communicate who you are, what you do, and what your product or service is -- all in three seconds? Sounds impossible, but it isn't. Think about the billboards that you pass on the highway. They have the exact same job. They have to tell you who the company is and what it's selling as you zoom past at 55+ miles per hour. Some work and some don't. The key is usually in the graphics.

Graphics can communicate a whole host of impressions at a single glance. Think about the Chick-fil-A billboard with the cows painting the "Eat More Chick'n" sign. It's quick, and to the point. Think of your booth in the same way. Trade show attendees are strolling down the aisle looking at hundreds of booths, and unless you've pulled them to your booth with a pre-show promotion, you have to very quickly make them notice you and want to walk over to your booth.

To make your booth graphics have impact and work for you rather than against you, remember:

  • Focus on your product's or service's "benefits" rather than "services."
  • Use text very sparingly. You want your booth to look more like a billboard than a brochure.
  • Make sure there is a single focal point. Find the essence of your business and make sure everything revolves around that central idea.
  • Make sure your name and your positioning statement are very prominent in the design. Remember, if you're a new company, you have to create an impression, and if you're an existing company you have to maintain and build on that impression.

The trends these days in booth graphics are large visual backdrops with only the most concise, key text statements to communicate a message or theme. For example, a company that manufactures scissors or chain saws could use a single, larger-than-life photograph of its product as the background for the booth. The message is immediately obvious, as opposed to the booth that posts several small photos of its products with descriptive text along side them that can only be read at a distance of 2 feet (0.6 m).

Now, if your company is a service-oriented company, you may have more difficulty posting a single image, but think hard about it. You can usually come up with an image or simple montage that can communicate the essence of your business.


Making It Happen

So now you have an idea about the type of booth you want and how you want it to look. How do you make it happen?

First, check with booth vendors in your area. It is important to have local access to your vendor so you can easily go to the showroom to see the products, get ideas, and also be able to easily get support, extra parts, and supplies. Most sales reps will also bring a booth to your office and set it up so you can see it firsthand in your own environment. Many times, booth sales reps are also great resources for ideas for designing your booth. They know what works and how to make your booth effective. Use their experience and advice -- it's typically free! Check references of the vendors you speak with. Talk to their customers and see if they are happy with both their booth and the service from the vendor. Or, go to a local trade show and ask some of the show vendors about their booths and whom they work with. You are about to make a potentially large investment, and a little product research is very valuable.

Also, many vendors will store your booth in their warehouse or showroom while it's not in use, for no additional charge. Some will also make sure it's clean and in good shape, and ship it for you when you need it. Make sure you know what they charge for this service (if anything -- some vendors provide it free) because those fees can add up.

Usually, the booth vendor can either create your graphics from images you supply, or they may offer services to create the images for you. Here, cost is usually the key difference. If you have an internal graphics staff, you'll save money, but make sure they are in good communication with the vendor graphics staff to ensure that the appropriate sizes and formats are supplied.


Other Things to Keep in Mind

It seems there are always little things you didn't think about that greatly affect how much you love or hate a product you've purchased. Exhibit booths are no exception. First, if you plan on shipping the booth yourself, know the size and weight limitations of your shippers, as well as the conference locations for the trade shows you are attending. One company purchased a large custom 20-foot (6-meter) booth that could be broken down into two 10-foot booths for smaller shows, but didn't take into consideration the weight and size of each of the 10-foot sections. The company shipped a 10-foot section to a small regional show that did not have the equipment in their facility to move a 700-pound (318-kg) carton into their exhibit hall. The company's sales reps had to quickly and creatively come up with a good reason for why they were standing in an empty booth space!

Second, know the tools you need to put the booth together, as well as the muscle required to do it. This comes into play both from your booth staffing standpoint, and the convention center requirements. Always check to see if the conference facility requires that union labor assemble the booths. Typically, if a facility has an agreement with the labor union, then anything that requires tools to put together or can't be carried without the help of a hand truck or dolly must be put together by union labor.

Third, if you get a portable booth, make sure the cases that your booth ships in are very durable, as well as replaceable. Shippers never give your shipments the tender loving care you would like, and it won't take long for cases to start showing wear. Once this happens, you stand the chance of having your booth damaged, which can be a disaster if it's en route to an important show.

Now you have your booth, and it's time to start getting out there in front of customers. How do you manage this process? Let's go over the nuts and bolts of paperwork, scheduling, and all of the other dirty work of trade shows.


Managing the Show Schedule & Materials

The most tedious part of any job is usually the paperwork, so if you're involved in managing the company's trade shows -- be prepared! There are forms to be filled out for everything imaginable.

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So, where do you start? First, you'll contact the show management for the shows you've planned to attend, and ask for an exhibitor application. You should do this as soon as you know you are attending the show because many show managers require paperwork to be turned in and deposits to be paid months in advance. Plus, some shows base your booth location on a first-come, first-served basis. (Others use a point system based on the number of years you've attended the show. You put down your choices, but if someone with more seniority wants the same spot, then you're out of luck and get the next closest thing.)

The Exhibitor Application Form
Fill out the forms completely and carefully. It is usually with the application forms that you have the opportunity to choose the all-important booth location (if not, it will be in the exhibitor package, which we'll talk about next). Usually, you'll list at least three locations in order of preference, and list any competitors you don't want to be near. When choosing the location, think about the traffic flow into the exhibit hall. Select areas toward the front, near food stands, near restrooms, break areas, etc. -- any area that will naturally have more traffic. Also, try to get a corner location. A corner gives you twice the visibility and usually costs more, but is worth it. You also have a better opportunity for traffic flow through your booth.

At this point, you also need to know how big of a space you need. If it's a large show and you expect a lot of traffic, then you probably want the most space you can afford. Fortunately, there is a formula the help determine the necessary space, as well as the number of booth staffers to send. It goes like this:

    Studies by CEIR have shown that, on average, 16% to 20% of the show attendees will have a special interest in your products/services. Therefore, multiply the number of show attendees by .16 to get your "high interest attendees." Take this number and multiply it by .53 for vertical shows or .37 for horizontal shows, and you get your "potential audience." Divide the potential audience by the total number of show hours and you'll get the number "visitors per hour." Divide the visitors per hour by the number of presentations your booth staffers can do in an hour, and you'll get the number of staff you need. Multiply the number of staff you need by 50 (square feet) and you get the amount of open space you need. Add the space your display and the space your products will take up to this number and you'll get the total space required. Presto!
    [Source: Skyline Displays]

Or, you can assume that since you only have a 10-foot booth, then your booth space only needs to be 10 to 20 feet, and you only need two to four people. But the formula is there if you need it.


The Big Book

Shortly after the application has been sent in and processed, you'll receive your exhibitor packet/binder/folder of information. Unless you're a paperwork junkie, you may be a little overwhelmed by the volume of information you're going to have to wade through. The show information will include forms for everything from booth cleaning and rented floral arrangements, to advertising and promotion opportunities. Just take them one at a time and flag all of the deadlines. Some shows will actually provide you with a checklist and schedule of deadlines. If they don't, take this advice: Create your own! Also, be sure you really need all of the services offered. You probably only need your booth vacuumed after the initial setup day, and you may want to just purchase and ship some of the other things you can rent, such as trash cans and power cords. Those items can easily be packed among your other booth items and will save considerable money over time. (Check out the Trade Show Tool Kit checklist.)

What If You Miss a Deadline?
It's amazing how things like deadlines will creep up on you. Missed deadlines aren't always a catastrophe, however; you'll just have to pay more for the service if you sign up for it later, and even more if you decide you need it once you get to the show. Many times, there are early-bird discounts or prepayment discounts for a lot of the show items, so flag all of those so you won't miss out on some savings. Also, be aware of the convention centers that require you to use union labor. Usually, for those locations, if your booth requires any tools to be put together, union labor must do it. If you have a portable, pop-up or modular panel system booth, you're probably fine. Just check the requirements before you go so you are prepared.

Booth Staffing
Part of the paperwork you'll be filling out in "the big book" will be the total number and the names of the booth staff you will be sending to the show. Assuming you worked through the formula provided above, you now know how many to send. The problem now is to decide whom. This is always one of the trickiest parts of managing your trade show activities. Depending on the locations of the shows you have planned to attend, you may have people begging to go, or begging not to go.

So how do you decide which of your sales reps to send? The first thing to think about is who among your sales reps are the most "people-oriented," and who are the most knowledgeable about your company. If those two overlap, problem solved! If they don't, and if you have your sales staff divided up as product specialists, it may make sense to send someone else who has more of an overall knowledge of the company (unless it happens to be a very specialized show). Putting your technical people in the booth isn't always the answer either, because technical people often don't have those very necessary people skills. If yours do, you're very lucky!

Packing and Shipping
You've sent in all of the forms, everything is ready and paid for, so now you just have to pack it up and ship it. Your show paperwork will have explicit instructions for precisely how and when your booth must arrive. Make sure you review them. If your booth arrives early, you may have to pay to have it transferred and stored; if it arrives late, well... you don't want that to happen. Make sure you know all of the requirements for your shipper, as well as the convention center. Also, make sure you send everything together in the same shipment. Your drayage charge (what the convention center charges you to take your booth shipment from the loading dock to your booth space) works on a minimum charge basis. Every time something comes in that has to be taken to your booth, there is a minimum charge of usually about $200 or more. If you can keep everything together, you'll just get charged once based on the shipment's weight. So remember to send last minute incidentals to the hotel where your staff is staying instead of the convention hall.

The Trade Show Tool Kit
Another thing that will help your booth staffers is a Trade Show Tool Kit. This kit includes all of the incidental things you never remember and always need. It should include: packing tape, scissors, Band-Aids, aspirin, extra extension cords, extra light bulbs, business cards of various staff members, pens, paper, a highlighter, a stapler and staple remover, shipping labels filled out for the return shipment, extra lead forms, a disposable camera... There could be a long list of things your staff may need, but not always the space to include everything. Decide on the most important items, and make sure the supply is always replenished and packed with the booth. Your booth staff will thank you for it. (Check out the Trade Show Tool Kit checklist.)

Company Literature, Giveaway Items, etc.
How many brochures, giveaway items and other handouts you need to bring depends on how many people you expect to see. Once again, you can refer to the handy formula listed above. If you expect to see 12 visitors per hour, then estimate how much literature you'll need based on that number. Keep in mind that about 90% of all literature never makes it back to the attendees' offices anyway. Depending on the quality and expense of your company literature, perhaps it's best to train your staff to always offer to send the literature by mail to the attendee's office. Many times, attendees don't want to lug your precious marketing materials all over the exhibit hall and will jump at the chance (and sometimes request it themselves) that you send the information to them the following week.

Back-to-Back Shows
So many trade shows are scheduled in the spring that you're bound to have problems with scheduling. Usually, the best thing to do is take advantage of the storage services and have your booth and supplies shipped directly from one show to the next and stored until show time. Make sure the staff from the first show makes a list of everything that needs to be replenished, like literature, candy, giveaways, etc., so you can pack it up and send it to the second show. If it's not too bulky, your booth staffers may be able to take it with them when they travel to save the additional drayage charges, or it could be shipped to the hotel where they are staying.

Training Your Booth Staffers

One of the most important steps to take in order to have a truly successful exhibiting experience is the training of your booth staff. Your staff accounts for 90% of the "positive feelings" that show attendees have about the show and your company, making the people you send to represent your investment extremely important. Trade show attendees usually go to shows to get detailed information about products and services they need, so they expect your booth staff to be very knowledgeable.

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It's really not enough to just send your top sales reps and hope for the best. Engaging a trade show attendee takes a different approach than a typical sales call. For instance, you have to engage the attendee very quickly and in a way that pulls them into a conversation. Simply saying "Hi. How are you today?" opens up the opportunity for the show attendee to say "fine" and keep on walking.

The First Cut
As we mentioned previously, you want to send your most "people-oriented" representatives, as well as those who know the most about your company (and if you're lucky, they'll be one and the same). You should also look for enthusiastic, high-energy representatives who have a naturally positive attitude and an air of confidence about them. Because a large part of any type of sales presentation includes an element of consulting, your selected representatives must also be good listeners.

Sending the Message
As we discussed earlier, part of your show planning process is setting the objectives for the show. Do you want to take orders on the spot, build your brand awareness, introduce a new product and gather leads, etc.? Whatever your goal for the show may be, make sure your booth staff understands exactly what the goal is. You should arm them with the message you want to send, along with specific details to back that message up. They should also be armed with information about your competition and the competitive advantage your product/service has. Examples and stories they use to illustrate should be about people (whether fictional or not) rather than abstract ideas. Finally, make sure they can emphasize the benefits of your product or service instead of simply regurgitating the product "features" list from your brochure.

Basic Training

So you've selected the most promising candidates, detailed what the show goals are, and explained in detail how the company should be presented. Now you need to put your candidates through some simple training exercises to show them how to engage show attendees so that they actually get to use the information you've armed them with. There are four phases in trade show selling:
  • Engagement
  • Qualification
  • Presentation
  • Closing

First, as we mentioned above, engaging the show attendee is not as simple as you might think. Assuming you don't have a magic show, a live animal promo, or other crowd magnet, the burden of getting people to stop at your booth is on your booth staff. The first rule of engagement is: Don't ask a question that will allow the attendee to simply give you a one word answer and keep on walking. Ask them what product they are looking for at the show, whether this show has been as helpful for them as another show, if they are familiar with your company, etc. Be creative -- this is a critical step, and the goal is to get them to stop and talk to you.

Phase two is the qualifying phase. You certainly don't want to waste your time on someone who isn't really interested in your product, so it pays to ask some qualifying questions right off the bat. There's nothing worse than seeing six good prospects walk by while you're politely listening to someone who you suspect doesn't even need your product. (Yes, this can happen, especially if you have cool giveaways at your booth.)

So to qualify your prospect, take one to two minutes to ask some specific questions like, "Tell me about what you're looking for at the show." "Tell me about how your company does ." Essentially, just ask them whatever you need to ask to identify whether or not they need your product or service.

Phase three is show time! Time to do your tap dance and dazzle the prospect with the many benefits of using your product as opposed to the other guys'. Remember to limit your presentation to about five minutes or less and make your message as memorable as possible. If you've done a good job identifying your show goals, product message and competitive advantages, then this phase should be a cake walk. It's typically the easiest phase for your staff because, if they're sales reps, it's basically a condensed version of what they do every day.

The final phase is probably the most important of all, and the key to a successful closing is making sure you and your prospects are in common agreement about the next step. Ask them how they would like for you to follow up. That puts the ball in their court and forces them to say, "Yes, send me a package of information" or "Yes, call me on Tuesday about a quote." And yes, you do want to get specific with call back times. The more specific you can get, the more likely they will remember who you are when you call.

So those are the basic steps involved in trade show presentations. Go through the process with your booth staff and rehearse with each other. Pull in office mates to play the role of the trade show attendees and assign them personality types to make it more fun and challenging for your booth staffers. Having prepared booth staffers can make the difference between a very successful show and a not-so-successful show.

Organizing Your Staff

Now that everyone is trained and ready, you need to get them organized. First you need to assign a Show Captain to be in charge and manage the other staff members. Even if you are attending a small show and are only sending two staffers, it still makes sense to do this so they know who is responsible for what.

Part of the Captain's job will include organizing booth rotations and breaks. There are always other activities during the show such as vendor meetings, client luncheons, training sessions, etc., that warrant sending a booth staffer to attend. The Captain should review the show schedule and set up an appropriate schedule for the booth staff based on the exhibit hours and competing events. Once everyone arrives, the captain will also lead a pre-show meeting to go over the show objectives, strategies, special booth presentations, etc., and to answer any last minute staff questions. It's also a good idea to meet each morning prior to the show to talk about experiences and problems from the previous day.

You'll also need to assign someone the job of managing the show leads. This person will ensure that follow-up letters are written, information packets are prepared for mailing, and lead forms are filled out correctly and completely (including assigning a priority code based on your own pre-determined system). You'll find that a lead management system will work much better and you'll have a much higher percentage of closures if you assign one person the responsibility of managing it.

Additional Tips
Here are few additional tips that your booth staff should keep in mind while at the show.

  • Don't eat in the booth.
  • Don't talk on the phone in the booth.
  • Watch your body language. (Don't stand with your arms folded across your chest -- it's not an "inviting" stance.)
  • Remember breath mints!
  • Take breaks -- about five minutes per hour.
  • Wear comfortable shoes.
  • Dress depending upon your industry and market.
  • Don't carry on conversations with other booth staff while prospects are walking by.
  • Don't sit down while attendees are in the exhibit hall.
  • Do venture out into the aisle to greet attendees.
  • Make sure you have a pen and a lead form handy at all times.

Okay, your staff is armed and ready. Now go make some money! Next, we'll help you set up a system to get the most out of your show leads.

Lead Tracking

Did you know that 79% of all leads are never followed up? If you've ever attended a trade show and asked for information from a lot of vendors, then most likely you've personally experienced that response rate (or lack of response). Did you make the effort to track that company down and ask for the information again? No, probably not.

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So, now you're in charge of the lead management process for your company. You know you don't want that feeble level of responsiveness to be the case for your company. But, how do you set up a system that ensures adequate follow-up, and ultimately closure of sales, without overtaxing your resources and sending materials to people who really don't want them? You know that lots of people dropped their business cards into the fish bowl at your booth so they would be entered into your drawing for a free Palm Pilot, but they have no interest whatsoever in your product. While fish bowl giveaways are a good way to get people's business cards, they don't qualify prospects and they don't guarantee loyal customers. The dilemma you're faced with is how to determine who is interested and who isn't when all you have is a pile of business cards.

There are some steps you can take to make the lead management process a lot easier and your trade show (and other lead-generation efforts) much more profitable.

First, assign one person the responsibility of managing your company lead system so you won't have so many leads falling between the cracks. If you've followed the previous session on training your booth staff, you may have already assigned one of your booth staffers the responsibility for managing the leads for a specific show. That person should work closely with your Lead Manager.

The Lead Manager should be responsible for:

  • Writing/editing lead response letters
  • Determining the fulfillment package contents
  • Making sure the fulfillment packages are sent out in a timely manner -- not a month after the show, but a week after the show
  • Distributing leads among sales reps (or, if your budget allows for lead-qualification staff, managing the qualification process and then distributing the qualified leads to sales reps)
  • Developing a lead form to collect exactly the information your company needs (or, reviewing the individual show's electronic lead collection systems that are usually available for rent)
  • Setting up a timetable/flowchart for following the leads once they hit the field so you can come up with a return on investment for the show

Writing Response Letters
Writing a lead response letter is usually a much less painful process than writing letters for direct response mailings or other media. In the case of response letters, you know the people have shown interest in your product or service, and now you just have to make sure you answer all of their questions and give them the desire to act on your offer. A few quick tips include making the letter short, your voice and verbs active, and making the closing compelling.

Filling the Fulfillment Package

About 90% of all literature picked up by people at trade shows never makes it back to their office.
How do you decide what to put in your fulfillment packages? It's never as easy as it sounds. For one thing, you don't want to simply send the same things your visitors picked up at the show (reason number one for not displaying every piece of literature your company offers at your trade shows). You also don't want to overload them with expensive literature that they will just throw in the trash.

For these reasons, a well done but economical overview piece for your company is essential. It can be used for either pre- or post-show mailings, as well as for a simple informational piece for your "general" response packages and other mass mailings.

There should be some variation in the contents of your fulfillment packages. If you did a pre-show mailing, you should first take that mailing list and pull out the names of those who actually came to the booth (excluding the fish bowl people). To the remainder of that list, send a very basic package outlining your company's product or service line. Speak specifically about the success of the show and make sure you include an offer in the letter to encourage the reader to act.

To the contacts you made at the booth, send letters and contents specifically addressing their requests. These packages need to be personalized and should also include a specific offer that will encourage the contact to take action. Also, remember to state that a representative will be contacting the person by phone, and provide a range of dates for the contact time.

If you don't have phone numbers from the show, invest in one of the business directories on CD, such as those available at, that provide company contact information.

Following Up After Follow-Up

You need to make sure your sales reps are actually calling the contacts you've turned over to them. The top reasons sales reps give for not following up on leads are that the leads haven't been qualified, the information is not complete, or they just don't have the time because they're following up on leads they feel have more potential.

Sometimes, the electronic lead systems that trade shows rent to exhibitors don't collect phone numbers because the attendees do not want to provide them. Make sure you know exactly what information the system automatically collects, and pay the additional charges to customize as much as possible the information your booth staffers can add.
If you've provided your reps with phone numbers, then you have a better chance of getting somewhere. If you have a telemarketer in place to qualify the leads first, even better. Having a person dedicated (or at least responsible) for lead qualification is a luxury for many companies, and often is not an option. However, selling the idea for the position can be made easier if it is identified that it is also instrumental in the building of a client/prospect database. (In some companies, lead qualification is part of the client database manager's job.)

One solution is to have your booth staffers ultimately responsible for following up on their own leads, which makes sense from a consistency standpoint. Many show attendees will expect to get follow-up information from the same person they spoke with at the show. But, what if your sales organization is divided up into regional territories, and the show attendee fell into another rep's territory. These are all questions you have to wrestle with when coming up with your own system. The main thing is to get these contacts called. A personal phone call is typically the best way to get the response you want.

The Lead Sheet

To address one of the complaints of sales reps about the contact information not being complete, you can develop a lead sheet that includes spaces for all of the specific information your reps need in order to make a sales call. These sheets should be small enough to fit in a coat pocket, and typically work best in a notepad form. One critical piece of information to add to the sheet is the priority code (or lead assessment). Come up with a simple 3-to-5 level rating system to assess how "hot" this lead really is. Make sure your booth staffers understand and use this rating system when they talk with show attendees.

If you are planning on renting one of the electronic lead-collection systems that gather information from the attendee's swiped nametag, pay the additional costs for customizing the data that it can collect. All of these systems tend to be slightly different, so study the literature well, and make sure you can record as much specific information as possible. If you can't customize the information, it might make sense not to rent one at all and simply use your own lead sheet.

Follow-Up Flow Charts
Before you know it, hot prospects will be cold, and lukewarm prospects will have absolutely no recollection of who you are. Therefore, it behooves you to move quickly with your lead follow-up process. Make sure you have a schedule in place for lead follow-up. This means:

  • Getting fulfillment packages out within five days after the end of the show
  • Allowing two to five days for lead qualification (if you have that option)
  • Allowing no more than two weeks to pass before phone contact is made by your sales reps
  • Getting an initial sales report on the likeliness of a sale
  • Closing the sale
  • Getting the final report of closed sales for the show report

Time spans will vary quite a bit with different products and services, but here's a general overview:

Day 1 Day 5 Day 10 Day 14 Day 30 Day 45 Day 60
Show ends Packages mailed Leads qualified Sales contact Initial sales report Close sales Final report

For more information on trade shows and related topics, check out the links on the next page.