A trade show is an event where companies that are involved in a certain industry gather to exhibit their products, learn about current trends in their industry, and gain knowledge about their competitors. Trade shows provide opportunities for selling, reinforcing existing business relationships, and launching new products. These events can range in size from small regional shows featuring fewer than two dozen participants to massive national shows, which may draw hundreds of exhibitors and tens of thousands of visitors over a period of several days to a week.

During the 1990s, business analysts, consultants, and participants alike debated whether the surge in electronic commerce and Internet purchasing options might soon render the trade show an irrelevant relic of a bygone business era. But, after a slow down in growth in the first three years of the 21st century—due to post 9/11 decline in travel and a general economic slowdown—the trade show industry has grown steadily. These trade shows accounted for more than $100 billion in annual direct spending and attracted nearly 125 million individuals in 2004. "In many industries, the trade show has become a must-seize marketing opportunity," stated Business Week. "It's a time to meet prospective customers, get valuable feedback on your product or service, and close sales."

The continued vitality of trade show exhibitions provide small businesses with excellent opportunities to stand on equal footing with far larger competitors. For small companies with limited marketing budgets, trade shows can serve as an economical and effective pathway to new clients and increased industry visibility. Moreover, trade shows provide entrepreneurs and their small business managers with priceless opportunities to gather information about new industry innovations and competitor products and/or services.


The first step in establishing a presence at a trade show is choosing the right show. Finding the show that best meets your company's needs is crucial, since exhibiting is a costly proposition. Attending the wrong show is a frustrating waste of time and money. In order to avoid committing to a trade show that provides little in the way of new business or contacts, companies can take several precautions:

Crunch the Numbers. Businesses should request detailed statistical and other information on past trade shows from the organizers.

  • What was last year's attendance? Was the show visited most by serious buyers or by browsers? Savvy small business owners are aware that some trade shows pad their attendance numbers by counting every person who walks through the doors, including exhibitors and repeat visitors.
  • Is there demographic data available on attendees? For example, how old is the average attendee? Male or female? What is his or her income?
  • Who else will be exhibiting? Will your competitors be there?
  • How stable and successful is the show promoter? Are they experienced in managing a show and delivering an audience, or is this a new, untested exhibition?
  • What will the cost be? Expenses include booth space (typically about 25 percent of your expenses); furnishings, equipment, and other exhibit expenses (30 percent); utilities (20 percent); transportation of staff and materials to and from the trade show (15 percent); and pre-show promotions (10 percent). Booths that incorporate new electronic technologies (Webcasts, videoconferencing, etc.) will add to the expense as well. Some companies that exhibit infrequently rent displays—typically portable booths that come in easy-to-assemble kits—rather than invest in booths.

Identify target audience. If you are a small vendor with a new and exciting product seeking national distributors, then the goal would be to attend a national show with high visibility and attendance by all key players. If, on the other hand, you have an existing product that you want to expose to new markets, you would target potential buyers. For example, if a company decides that one of its software packages—originally designed for and used by the publishing industry—also would be useful to teachers and educators, the sensible strategy would be to attend trade shows aimed at teachers instead of computer software industry shows.

Scout potential shows. Experts counsel entrepreneurs to scout potential trade shows before committing resources to a booth. Business owners can often get an accurate sense of a trade show's value simply by visiting a show, sponsoring a show-related event, or participating in a show-related seminar or conference. All of these avenues can be excellent ways of gauging the quality of the attendees.

Weigh value of exhibiting. Business owners are also urged to consider whether or not he/she should even be exhibiting at trade shows. A very small business with limited funds and a clear business model might decide that the best route to go is direct mail and promotions to a well-defined target audience. On the other hand, a business that is attempting to publicize an established product with low profit margins might well decide that attendance at large national and regional shows with heavy traffic is a good strategic move. And some industry sectors—such as high tech, transportation, communications, and manufacturing—place a heavy emphasis on trade shows.


Once a small business owner has decided to attend a specific trade show, there are steps that he or she can take to ensure that it is a successful and profitable endeavor. Of course, shows will vary in content, character, and tone from industry to industry, but for the most part, these guidelines can be followed no matter what field your small business is in.

Set specific and measurable goals. Perhaps the most important first step to take is to approach the show with enthusiasm and treat it as a sales opportunity and not a money drain. To take advantage of the opportunity, set specific goals. If the purpose of the show is to gather leads, then set a number in advance that would make the show, in your mind, a success. Compare actual leads gathered to that target number to gauge whether or not the show was worthwhile.

Publicize your involvement. According to the Trade Show Bureau, 45 percent of trade show attendees are drawn to a company's exhibit as the direct result of a personal invitation (via direct mail, e-mail, or telephone), trade journal publicity, or pre-show advertising. A trade show is worthless unless prospective customers visit the booth, and the best way to ensure that those visits occur is to make them aware of your location on the floor. Indeed, industry surveys indicate that about 75 percent of all trade show attendees make out their schedules in advance of arrival. This is an important step, then, so companies should make sure that they allocate sufficient funds for marketing needs.

Prepare personnel. Staffers manning trade show booths should be personable, well-informed, and well-trained to demonstrate and sell your product and/or service. Conduct a pre-show meeting with all key personnel who will be a part of the show, from employees who will spend their time at the booth to the shipper who will send your products to the show and be responsible for set-up. Let each person know what is expected of him or her at the show, and make sure that they know about all pertinent facets of the effort, from the location of promotional brochures to products that should be highlighted. Other assignments, like observation of competitor's booths and materials or breaking down the booth at the end of the show, may be assigned to specific people.


"Getting attention on a crowded show floor isn't easy for a newcomer," admitted Business Week. "However, you can create a respectable-looking booth inexpensively without being tacky: Buy good quality, three-sided skirts for your tables and portable banner stands for signage, and make flyers on your computer to set on plastic literature racks. Don't clutter the space with lots of giveaways, but do hand out your business card and a small gift with your logo and phone number on it to qualified leads."

There are two types of booths you can set up at a show, with different sales techniques needed for each. One is designed to make sales at the show, so salespeople should be trained in "one interview selling"—quickly identifying a customer's needs and selling him or her your product to meet that need. At such a booth, it is common to have smaller and less expensive items on display and for sale at the show. Larger and more expensive items can be sold at the show and delivered later. All sales at the show should be at a discount over the regular list price, at least 20 percent. If sales are your goal, be prepared to deal with cash, credit cards, and checks.

The other kind of booth is more informational and less sales-oriented. It is primarily designed to meet people, to demonstrate a presence in the industry, to promote customer relations, or to generate new business leads. It can also serve as an excellent meeting point for people you are hoping will invest in your company or join you in a partnership. Since the focus of this type of booth is not sales, the booth personnel should approach their role differently than that of pure salesperson. Interaction produced valuable feedback. "Unlike the social vacuum of the Web, you can see immediately what customers think of your product," observed Business Week.

In the booth itself, try to have at least two people on duty at all times so that visitors receive a healthy measure of personal attention. Arrange the booth to maximize flow of traffic, for overcrowded booths will lead many potential visitors to pass on by. Booth staff should not hover over visitors. Instead, they should encourage browsing and be attentive to signals of interest in products/services from visitors. Make sure everyone who will be manning the booth understands the rules of etiquette at trade shows. There should be no eating or drinking in the booth, and no smoking. Do not spend time talking to the other salespeople in the booth. Assume friendly body posture and look receptive to questions. Perhaps most importantly, do not be in a hurry to get out of the show, since many people wait until the end of the show to make their purchases.


Small businesses that maintain a quality presence at a trade show are likely to obtain a number of business leads during the show's duration. Yet many companies never follow up on these leads. According to the Trade Show Bureau, as many as 83 percent of exhibitors do not engage in any sort of organized post-exhibition marketing to trade show visitors. This is a terrible oversight that blunts much of the business potential of trade shows. With this in mind, trade show experts offer a variety of tips to make sure that small business owners make the most of their trade show experiences:

  • Allocate money wisely. Many analysts believe that businesses should devote at least one third of their total trade show budgets to post-exhibition follow-up.
  • Separate hot leads from those that seemed lukewarm or ambivalent and concentrate on those.
  • Use a lead sheet to collect information on prospective customers who visit the booth.
  • If applicable, send new leads back to the home office every night.
  • Make sure that salespeople follow up on a lead within one or two weeks after the show; time is often of the essence in these cases.
  • Do not gather more leads than you can follow up on. Analysts contend that many businesses owners or representatives that gather a surplus of leads at trade shows are likely to break promises made (sending literature, following up with an answer to a question, etc.) at the show, which will reflect badly on the company.
  • Do not let new leads keep you from servicing existing customers. If you cannot handle new leads without neglecting the existing customer base, then maybe you should not be at the trade show.


Even if a small business owner considers trade shows to be an important part of his or her marketing strategy, there will be some trade shows that are not worth exhibiting at but that would still be useful to attend. For those shows, there are tips to follow to make the most out of the show.

The most important step is to find a good show that is worth the time and trouble it takes to attend. Watch the local papers or industry journals for leads. The biggest shows are typically held in major metropolitan areas, so concentrate on the largest cities in your region. Once you have identified a list of potential shows, contact each and ask for information.

Once you have identified a show to attend, good planning is the key to a successful trip. Make your travel arrangements and submit the show registration far in advance. Allow at least 90 days to avoid snags and delays. Decide in advance what you are hoping to get out of the show—if it is a buying trip, know in advance what you hope to purchase.

Once you arrive at the show, review the list of exhibitors to see which companies interest you the most. Highlight those companies and check them off as you visit each one. Some people like to make one general trip around the entire exhibit floor, highlighting interesting exhibits as they go and making a second, more serious trip to those booths. Be warned that this approach may not be practical for the largest national trade shows, which are often spread over several floors of a huge convention center. Also, do not ignore the seminars that are offered as part of most trade shows. These may be just as useful as the booths in the exhibit hall. The seminars are educational and are also a great way to meet people.

Prepare to spend the entire day at the show. It is often helpful to take a tote bag along with supplies you might need—a notepad and pens, a personal tape recorder to record notes along the way, traveler's checks and credit cards, business credentials (a list of creditors, for example, if this is a buying trip), business cards, and personal identification. The tote bag will also hold all the product literature you gather at the show. Finally, trade show visitors should make certain that they pack comfortable walking shoes. This may sound like a minor issue, but after eight hours on your feet walking the floor, it will seem like a very important item to remember.


Cohen, Stephanie. "The Abracadabras of Trade Shows." The Columbia News Service. Available from http://jscms.jrn.columbia.edu/cns/2005-04-19/cohen-trademagic. 19 April 2005.

Hart, Michael. "What's first? The Tradeshow or Industry?" Tradeshow Week. 6 February 2006.

Lynch, Brenda M., "Showdown: The Rise and Fall of the Tech Show Market: Why Some Survived and Others Short-Circuited." Meetings & Conventions. November 2004.

Miller, Steve. How to Get the Most Out of Trade Shows. NTC Publishing, 2000.

"Trade Secrets." Business Week. 16 August 1999.

U.S. Small Business Administration. Trade Show Bureau. "Trade Shows." Available from http://www.sba.gov/starting_business/marketing/tradeshows.html. Retrieved on 15 May 2006.