How To Commandeer a Trade Show: 4 Tips
Here's a typical scenario faced by many young companies: You want to raise awareness of your company at an upcoming industry trade show, but you don’t have much money to spend. You know that participating in the tradeshow is the most effective option, but you can afford neither the high cost of booth space nor the booth needed to fill it. Nonetheless, it is critical for your young company to join the fray and get in front of potential customers, partners and investors. So, what can be done?
In this situation, guerilla marketing can be a great strategy. All it takes is creativity and the ability to pull a stunt or two. No problem, right? Let’s get going.
1. Understand the geography
Before the show, visit the main venues and surrounding hotels. Figure out where people will walk, pick up buses, catch cabs, have lunch and meet for drinks. You’re trying to find the best locations for maximum visibility.
During this initial reconnaissance, make friends. Meet the bell captain in the hotels that are nearby but aren’t part of the official show, say hello to the head of housekeeping and talk with the bar staff at local watering holes. These folks are integral players in the guerilla marketing game and can often make or break your campaign.
2. Know which assets the show controls and which it doesn't
Think about all potential “logo real estate” around the show and find out what real estate you can take over that the show is not already using. Look at hotel key cards for non-show hotels ($250 plus the cards). Ask your new friends crucial questions: would the housekeeping, bar or bell staff don a free t-shirt, hat or button with your logo? Do any of the hotels have in-room programming and can you be included? A fundraising mantra comes into play here: If you don’t ask, the answer is always no.
Important note: stay clear of the things that are the purview of the trade show itself. You don’t want to get yourself blacklisted from future shows. You just want to take advantage of the larger ecosystem around a show to get some visibility for your company. There is a lot of room for everyone around a big event.
3. Play the numbers game, to increase your chances of success
Sadly, despite your research, some of the gambits you use to sneak your way into the minds of potential customers will be spotted and removed immediately. But others will succeed, as the hotel staff will naturally assume someone else authorized you to replace the hotel's normal coasters in the bar with your logoed ones. All it really took was a tip to the bartender ($50) and customized coasters ($125). Try putting large buttons on the hotel maids ($100 tip/$100 buttons) and t-shirts on the bell staff ($200 tips/$150 t-shirts). Find the popular bars and tape posters in the bathroom stalls ($150) or put logoed toiletry baskets in the bathrooms ($250) that will draw attention to your company.
Timing is everything. You want to execute your ploys in close proximity to one another and throughout the run of the show. As part of the action phase, expect some backlash. If someone gets mad, apologize and move on. Expect some losses.
4. Hijack the spotlight
Most tradeshows host large evening events. Think about how you can maximize this off-site exposure opportunity. Give out hats to the local taxi cab drivers who will be transporting party goers and offer a $100 prize to any driver seen wearing one.
Another idea is to hire a college drama group to stage a mock protest or a Flash Mob near the taxi and bus lines to highlight your product (as little as $300). Avoid impeding traffic flow and stick to public streets and you likely won’t run into any problems.
Celebrity impersonators wearing your logoed item and a photographer can attract a lot of attention. Be sure to capture the contact information from those who pose with your stars, so you can send the picture to them and begin building a more meaningful relationship. This is a perfect thing in Vegas.
While your company is starting off, these tips and tricks can make the difference between being remembered and being just another face in the start-up crowd. Later, when you're successful and the company has progressed, you’ll have the option of spending $30,000 - $75,000 to do the trade show “properly.” You'll likely look back on these shenanigans with a private smile. I still do.
This article was updated on Dec. 17, to remind readers not to encroach on display that the trade show has rights to.
DON RAINEY | Columnist | General Partner, Grotech Ventures
Don Rainey is a General Partner with Grotech Ventures, which invests in early stage technology companies. He was named to the Washingtonian Magazine Tech Titans List and earned the Northern Virginia Technology Council?s Lifetime Navigator award for his support of entrepreneurs. Don blogs at VC in DC at http://startups.typepad.com.