Sooner or later you will wonder if you should attend a trade show. The Center for Exhibition Industry Research states that "trade shows contribute more than $80 billion annually to the U.S. gross domestic product". That's a lot of business - may be some of it can be yours.

It is an important decision however because it involves an expense of time, personnel and funds. Do your research before taking the plunge. A successful trade show can be very lucrative, not only in potential sales, but also in contacts and industry recognition. Here are a few tips from a long-time trade show attendee:

Do Your Homework

There are hundreds of trade shows year-round both domestically and abroad. Some of them are extremely limited in attendance and others attract thousands of attendees. There are many online resources that list the calendars of the various shows. Personally, I created a shared Google Doc of running shows and dates that I shared with our team to help keep updated. Even if an event doesn't seem like a must-attend for me, one of my employees may see a speaker or attendee that makes the show worth our while. 

Look at the attendee lists that are often posted on-line as well as the exhibitor lists to see if the show is worthwhile to attend. Online registrations very often have discounted pricing for early sign-up and if hotels are involved it is really necessary to reserve early or you will find yourself miles from the venue. Also, to keep yourself sane, try optimizing your hotel to either close to the airport or close to the venue to minimize your travel in one direction. 

Don't forget to build in the cost of travel for both personnel and also for equipment (if you are exhibiting). Trust me, it's an unnecessary headache to try and lug around bags of printed flyers and signers through TSA checkpoints. Plan ahead. Make sure it is worthwhile to invest in a trade show that is at a considerable distance. Keep a calendar reminder log so you can pre-plan dates one year ahead, if possible.  

If You Are Attending

Very often just walking a trade show will allow you to meet new potential customers and also to re-engage with current customers. It is the most cost effective way to test out a show. Be aware that major trade shows are vast and be prepared for walking long distances with a lot of standing. The first day of a show is usually the most hectic with set-up and the last day is usually shortened but slower. My own father, a longtime small business owner of Kulla's Post Ltd, has a tried and true tactic for trade shoes: do an initial walk-through of the show and notes booths to re-visit. If you are a vendor and not a customer, don't try to engage at a at a very busy booth, just return at a slower time. It's a strategy that I use for every show I attend because it really works. The International Alliance of Exhibiting Companies says that "68 percent of salespeople...indicate that they meet a quality prospect during the last half-hour".

If You Are Exhibiting  

You can gain great exposure and build credibility by exhibiting at a well attended trade show geared to your industry. It is imperative to plan ahead and verify all costs associated with exhibiting. Most trade shows will charge for everything from electric outlets, lights, chairs, tables and even table covers.You may want to bring logo'ed table covers and signage. If you feel that this will be an investment for many shows, you may want to purchase booth equipment and collateral. Don't over-invest until you are certain of the  (ROI) return that you will get for a particular show.

Account for the cost of shipping and assembling any booth equipment and pay attention to the move in regulations and times. Calculating an ROI is easy: total number of sales multiplied by the average number of sales, divided by the total investment for the show. If this is greater than 1, then you'll have a positive ROI. You'll then need to account for your investment in time since you'll be giving up a number of days for planning, attending and then following up. How many days will you need and will it be worth the potential sales and brand recognition?

Once you decide to exhibit, you'll want to make the most of your time at the show. I know it might seem obvious, but you'd be shocked how many exhibitors make these mistakes:

  • Wear appropriate dress. Wear your badge on your right hand side to increase visibility when shaking hands (IAEC).

  • Never leave your booth unattended.

  • Don't eat at your booth. If you can't step away, bring a snack that can be eaten subtly likely a protein bar or nuts.

  • Smile! Say hi to everyone who passes. Your job is to make people feel welcome. Often attendees feel shy or want you to engage first so make it as easy as possible for them to hear about your products.

  • Have some good promotional items to attract people such as edibles or small branded items like pens or pads. One of my favorites is felt-felt folios that can be use as laptop cases. It's premium enough that it is a real eye-catcher. 

  • Have your pitch down. You only have a few minutes at most with each prospects and you don't want to leave other prospects waiting because they'll leave. Practice this with your co-workers, spouse, friends and even your dog. This isn't something you should wing.

Have a System for Contacts

At the end of the show you may have many business cards and brochure material. You must have a system for remembering these contacts for follow-up. Sometimes the amount of material that you accumulate may be overwhelming and in many instances just unnecessary. Try marking the business cards of the best prospects or writing down e-mails and names of the specific target person you will need to contact. Have a very succinct pitch so that you have the best chance to get that information. The larger shows are scanning badges at the booths and you may get follow-up e-mails from these companies that may help with your contacts.

Follow Up

It might seem obvious but often the follow-up is so delayed that you lose the momentum from the show. If you have kept business cards, review them as quickly as possible so that you can contact the best possibilities within a week of the show.  Just remember that these companies also have to get back to their offices so give 3-5 days after the show before making that call. Don't let too much time go by because the lead will forget who you are. Also, send promised samples promptly -- this will also help to keep you in mind.  


Use your trade show attendance as an energy boost. Engage with other industry professionals and develop new contacts to improve your bottom line. And remember to have fun.