Bob Uhle had a challenge on his hands. As director of sales and marketing for a start-up called the Aviation Technology Group, it was his job to build interest in and book deposits for the Javelin, the company's slick new private jet. Competition in the private jet industry is pretty intense, however, and buyers certainly have every reason to eschew an unknown company. Further complicating ATG's efforts was the fact that the business was still in the prototype stage and wouldn't be able to deliver planes to customers until 2009.

With these chips stacked against him, Uhle decided to bet a big chunk of his budget--more than $200,000--on a major industry trade show held annually in Las Vegas. That's a large sum for most companies, but in the airplane business it's peanuts, especially for a launch. To introduce the brand (and maybe sell a few planes) ATG designed a 50- by 60-foot booth that included a full-scale model of the plane and a flight simulator and arranged to send 25 executives, technicians, and salespeople to the event.

These days, many companies are returning to trade shows, which slumped following the terrorist attacks and recession of 2001. Event organizers are reporting gains in revenue, attendance, and the number of exhibitors, and many exhibition halls are expanding, according to the Center for Exhibition Industry Research.

Making a trade show pay off can be tricky, however, because "the cost per contact is the highest of anything in the marketing tool kit," says Ruth P. Stevens, a professor at Columbia University's business school and the author of Trade Show and Event Marketing. On the flip side, "the benefit of trade shows is that they can be extremely efficient for having a series of meaningful conversations with a targeted audience," Stevens says.

To have a successful trade show, you should prepare months in advance. In fact, Stevens recommends that you think of a show as the midpoint, if not the culmination, of a marketing campaign. What should you hope to accomplish at each stage in a campaign built around an expo? Here are some pointers.

Before the show

An easy screwup: Picking the wrong show
At last count, there were more than 14,000 trade shows held annually in North America. In some industries, the big national shows are all but unavoidable. In others, shows addressing niches draw more attractive audiences. The website TSNN.com provides a comprehensive online directory of trade show data.

When you've identified a show that interests you, ask the organizers to provide you with independent audits of the size and demographics of the audiences they have brought in for previous shows. Based on this type of information, for example, Bob Uhle decided to commit fewer resources to the annual Oshkosh Fly-In in Wisconsin. Though the show has always attracted a large number of visitors, the audits suggested that the audience was not filled with people who would actually buy a jet.

An expert strategy: Using teaser gifts to draw crowds
In a 2004 study, researchers at Georgia Southern University found that companies that sent formal invitations with a gift to attendees prior to an event drew larger crowds than those that sent only invitations or invitations with redeemable coupons. Further, the study said that 76 percent of trade show attendees retained a favorable impression of a company that sent them a promotional product. There are myriad gifts to choose from, of course, ranging from mousepads that cost a few cents to T-shirts and flash drives for a few dollars.

At the show

An easy screwup: Small signage or bad signage
It seems like such a simple thing to remember, but when it comes to signs at trade shows, the bigger, the better. And make sure the message is as direct as possible. Henry Barbey learned that lesson as an exhibitor at New York City trade shows. Barbey, the director of the New York Center for Coaching, a group of business coaches, was looking to increase visibility for his two-year-old group. At first, he showed up at trade shows with a meager sign that proclaimed, "We Match You Up With the Right Coach." When that didn't draw crowds, he switched to a larger sign mounted high in the air and blaring, "Success: The Right Coach Makes All the Difference!" Voilà, he had a crowd.

An expert strategy: Huddling with staffers frequently
From time to time during a show, plan on huddling with your staff to share information. At the show where they unveiled their new sign, Barbey and his partners swapped suggestions every hour or so. For ATG's multiday show, Uhle organized meetings at the end of each day, brainstorming answers to particularly difficult attendee questions and talking about which staff messages seemed to have the strongest impact.

After the show

An easy screwup: Failing to follow up on leads
Don't pull off a flawless performance at the actual event only to mismanage everything that comes afterward. Follow-through and post-trade show evaluations are essential. Uhle's team asked people who came by their booth to fill out questionnaires. They also collected information saved by the trade show's infrared badge-screening system. From the two sets of data, they culled a list of 400 qualified leads and followed up with the most promising of them in the weeks after the Las Vegas expo.

Uhle recommends that you also make sure you discuss and document any mistakes you made at a show, so that you can avoid them in the future. For example, he regretted that ATG had not adequately trained all booth staffers on how to use a slick PowerPoint presentation as a sales tool. In a do-over, he'd have everyone get comfortable using the slide show.

An expert strategy: Tracking your ROI
Because trade shows are so expensive, it's important that you keep track of the resulting sales. The contacts that Barbey made using his bigger sign subsequently produced $12,000 in new business, or $10 in revenue for $1 of exhibition expenses. After the Las Vegas air show, Uhle determined that contacts his team made resulted in 17 deposits of $25,000 each on the company's new plane. Since the jet was priced at $2.6 million, that should ultimately produce $44 million in sales. That's a $176 to $1 return. The show was such a success for Uhle, in fact, that he decided to leave ATG to form his own marketing and trade show consultancy. His advice to new clients? "A commitment to excellence should be your goal," he says, "even if your booth is just 10 feet by 10 feet."

Resources

TSNN.com offers an online yellow pages of trade shows nationwide. The Center for Exhibition Industry Research (www.ceir.org) and the Trade Show Exhibitors Association (www.tsea.org) are good sources for information on how to train trade show staff.