I admit it. I suffer from booth fatigue. If you see one trade show you more or less have seen them all, so you're less inclined to pull yourself away from important work to rub elbows with vendors and potential partners. But I know that face-to-face interactions mean more in business than cold emails or even colleague-of-a-colleague referrals, so these events represent an opportunity -- as long as you approach them with a plan.
Even if I don't personally attend shows on behalf of my business, I make sure the folks I do send are fully aligned around these strategies to make their experience fruitful, not painful.
Be selective about which shows you attend -- there are too many of them as it is.
Trade shows and events can be a great outlet for learning and networking. That doesn't mean we need to learn and network every single weekend. Many of the folks who organize these events probably assume that theirs is the can't-miss show, but the formats, content and speakers tend to be cut-and-paste from one to another (though some groups are trying to buck the trend).
We developed a benchmark at my company for deciding which shows to attend: is it going to deliver 10x ROI? Of course, we only came to that conclusion after attending a few too many shows over the years and watching the expenses outweigh the benefits. For my money, there aren't a ton of high value shows out there (SasStr is the only one I personally attend without having an exhibit for my organization), but learn to curate your involvement. Here's how.
Figure out who's going to be there ahead of time.
Get a sample of the attendees to determine if they're people you want to network with and learn from. If you don't recognize names, or it's not relevant to your interests, skip it. You should always put yourself in the best position to be comfortable and have a game plan of who you want to "bump into" at the bar.
There are two efficient methods of conducting this homework. First, check the website for logos -- if a vendor catches your eye, chances are pretty good they'll be at the show. Second, find out what the official show hashtag is (past and present) and monitor the social chatter. You'll find out who has attended in the past. Additionally, people talking about the upcoming show online are likely to attend, and may even go into some detail about what they're hoping to learn or who they're excited to meet. Arm yourself with some icebreakers and put faces to names ahead of time.
Send the right people to represent you. Hint: it might not be you
Whoever you send needs to be cool with the fact that trade shows are 18 hour workdays and should be treated as such -- not as a treat or perk for good performance at the office. You want employees who are good salespeople and good schmoozers in equal measure, because at these things, the real show starts at 5pm.
If you're sending multiple representatives, they must understand that these events are not team building exercises. If you do it right, they won't even see each other during the duration of the show. Divide and conquer -- if I send three employees out to a show, I better get three expense reports from three different dinners with customer or prospect names attached.
And for goodness sake, don't send anyone who has pressing deadlines back at the home office. They don't need to be holed up in a comped hotel room in a far-flung city working under deadline. Shows are all about face time and engaging with people you wouldn't otherwise see -- don't give them an excuse not to.
Set up a meeting space/home base.
These shows are a cluster. It's impossible to meet with anyone if you don't have a designated base camp you can tell people about before you even arrive. Ask the hosts or a trusted partner also attending the show if you can have a space to hang out at and hold meetings during show hours.
I often hear people suggest "why don't we catch up in person after the event is over," to which I reply, why were you at the show then? Catching up afterwards can be accomplished in an email. Make the effort to put meetings on a calendar and you'll actually stick to them.
Budget for high value conversations.
If you're not willing to buy someone a drink or a $300 dinner, why are you even talking to them? Everyone goes out to dinner every single single night; you should be fighting for the right to pick up the tab and happy when you get to. These are investments in the form of lobster tail -- schmooze better so you can get that 10x return. It's a great gut check to ensure you're talking to the right folks.
At the same time, don't be afraid to jump into someone else's dinner, too. Just as you'd want to make a good investment, leverage your position if someone else is willing to pitch in. We often receive invites from a partner who only asks that we bring a potential prospect along. Done. Just make sure you're bringing a real prospect. It's the golden rule of executive dinners, no one likes a free-loader.
Trade shows may blend together but that doesn't mean you can't make stand-out connections that take your business to the next level. Learn how to handle the common trappings of these networking events and you'll find yourself getting back on the plane a few pounds heavier but also with a spruced-up contact list.