Frank Manning stood in his company's booth at the Consumer Electronics Show trying to read name tags when the top merchandising executive of a major retail chain stopped by to chat. For Manning, president of Zoom Telephonics, a small Boston-based manufacturer of telephone accessories, it was an important conversation.

Because Zoom sells its line of products through mail-order catalogs and retail outlets, Manning had already had some contact with the merchandising executive's company. But this was the first time he had been able to meet the decision-maker face to face. "That's the great thing about trade shows," says Manning. "You have a chance to talk with people you'd never get to meet anywhere else."

More than 7,800 trade shows take place each year in the United States and Canada. In 1979, exhibitors spent almost $6 billion displaying their wares, and visitors distributed almost $7.5 billion among travel agents, airlines, hotels, and restaurants.

Veteran trade show attendees have learned that the shows have their own peculiar culture and customs. For example, a trade show reverses normal business practice by bringing the buyer to the seller. Many salespeople who are used to pursuit find the role switch more than they can manage.

"I've seen some of the best salespeople in the world freeze at trade shows," says Mer Rusch, manager of marketing and sales services at Krones Inc., a manufacturer of package labeling equipment in Franklin, Wis. "People who are good at tracking down prospects in the field panic when they see hundreds of prospective buyers coming down the aisles."

A booth staffer has roughly 30 seconds to glance at a badge and decide whether someone is a qualified prospect. He or she must deliver -- on average -- 15 sales presentations in an hour, more than would normally be delivered in a full day of selling. That pace, combined with the discomfort of being on the wrong end of the contact, is enough to throw a sales pitch off the mark. Rusch feels that inside salespeople, accustomed to a heavy volume of phone contact, often perform better than their counterparts from the field.

Focusing heavily on sales can, however, be a mistake. According to a study conducted for the Trade Show Bureau by Exhibit Surveys Inc., in Middletown, N.J., purchasing agents make up only 2% of a trade show's average attendance. The largest group -- 29% -- consists of representatives from top management: owners, partners, presidents, vice-presidents, and general managers. The next largest segment includes technical people: engineers, technicians, and research and development managers. With these figures in mind, exhibitors should try to have the right balance of top mangement, salespeople, and technical staff represented inside the booth.

At trade shows, Frank Manning of Zoom Telephonics spends most of his time inside the 10-by-10-foot booth. "I will never swear off doing time in the booth," says Manning. "I don't care if you're president of IBM, you ought to keep a hand in." Manning's involvement at shows is typical of many small business people. "We find," says William Mee, managing director of the Trade Show Bureau, "that small business people are far more effective than large companies at trade shows, because they know why they are there."

Objectives, Mee points out, must be measurable. It is not enough to say, "Our aim is to introduce a new product." That may be a valid reason for reserving a booth, but before you open for business you need more specific goals. Unless the company sets conditions on how many people it wants to reach and who those people should be, it will never know what -- if anything -- the trade show contributed. What looked like success on the show floor may, when you get back home and start trying to follow up leads, turn out to have been simple crowd appeal.

It's not difficult to attract attention; performing chimpanzees can do it. The tougher task is converting interest into sales. Explains Skip Cox, a vice-president of Exhibit Surveys Inc., "A song and dance routine probably attracts a lot of guys walking down the aisle, and some products do require that, but you may be attracting too much attention. Your salespeople are going to spend more time filtering out prospects than they are selling."

The most effective attention-getter a company can use, says Cox, is a product demonstration. Usually the audience for a piece of equipment is self-selecting. Occasionally, however, even a product will exhibit such strong appeal that further screening measures become necessary. Mer Rusch of Krones came up with a solution: He set a booth within a booth to make sure that everyone who saw the equipment on display was a qualified prospect. Rusch decided to erect the double enclosure after seeing the results of a post-show audit on the previous year's exhibit. It showed a recall rate of 95% against a national average of 60%.

"I got real excited about those figures," says Rusch, "until I realized that there weren't anywhere near that many potential purchasers of our equipment. That meant we were wasting our time with a lot of people." When the results came in from the show where he had installed the doublt enclosure, recall had dropped to 65%. However, the volume of orders had risen almost four times the normal rate.

There's strong correlation between name recognition and performance at trade shows, according to Cox of Exhibit Surveys. "Small new exhibitors shouldn't worry about reaching the magic figure of 60%. The key is measuring improvement over a period of years. If a small company definitely belongs in a show and yet only reaches 30% of its potential audience, that's still 300 good prospects. Next year they can shoot for 40%."