This year’s Toy Industry Association annual Toy Fair in New York City attracted over 30,000 people, 1,200 companies and 13,000 buyers from across the globe, making it the largest toy industry trade show in the western hemisphere.

It can all be incredibly overwhelming for a small business.

After six years of attending the New York Toy Fair with my company, Wild Creations, I have learned that preparation alone makes the difference between a wildly successful show experience and a relentlessly stressful and unrewarding budget buster. Here are ten lessons (that I learned the hard way) to make it all worthwhile.

1. Be picky.

There are thousands of trade shows every year for every industry and occasion conceivable. When we started Wild Creations, we were attending up to thirty per year (too many). These days, we attend about five of the most important shows every year, and we make the best of each with methodic preparation.

2. Set a goal.

Before you even register, ask yourself why you want to attend. The most obvious answer is to find new customers, but you may also want to network with other industry peers, set appointments with existing customers, attend seminars or simply walk the show yourself. Understanding what you want to accomplish will help you better plan.

3. Prioritize your time.

Trade shows like Toy Fair can be massive, while others are small events of a few hundred vendors. Regardless, they all typically have numerous and concurrent seminars and social events, in addition to the show itself, so prioritizing will help utilize your time.

4. Have a packing checklist.

Few things are more frustrating than forgetting sales sheets, business cards, a stapler or even pens (all of which I have personally forgotten at some point). The exuberant cost of last minute printing and overnight charges will cut into the shows success as well. To avoid this, make a detailed checklist of items to pack and bring. There are no shortage of checklists available online, but compile one for yourself with your own personal preferences. Be sure to include time for printing (brochures, sales sheets, etc.) and delivery, and always plan on comfortable shoes meant for long period of standing, such as Crocs.

5. Leverage social media.

Don't be shy about announcing your booth number and show specials regularly leading up to the show. During the show, be part of the ongoing chatter by effectively utilizing Twitter and Facebook, scheduling posts ahead of time with services such as Hootsuite and properly tagging with hashtags. See also these tips for boosting traffic while at the show.

6. Seek out other small businesses owners.

The vast majority of companies who attend trade shows are small businesses. Approach them as allies, not adversaries, and you will develop an incredible network of peers who are more willing to support you and share leads. The toy industry, for instance, is dominated by a handful of huge toy manufactures that account for seventy percent of all revenue. The rest of us share a mantra: Small Businesses Unite!

7. Network with industry professionals.

Trade shows offer unique opportunities to meet and network with ancillary service professionals, such as industry consultants, sales reps, public relations firms and other specialty services. While there are numerous to choose from, I suggest you network with companies that focus specifically on your industry. Lisa Orman of Kidstuff Public Relations and Richard Gottlieb of Global Toy Experts are two examples in the toy industry of smaller boutiques with incredibly deep relationships specific to our industry.

8. Stand up and make eye contact.

If you want to have a successful show, you need to hustle. I am often shocked to see people sitting behind a table at a booth, checking email on the phone or otherwise ignoring buyers that walk by. With hundreds of companies showing, you can’t expect attendees to notice you right away and, more important, to remember you after they leave.

9. Follow up on leads.

After the show ends, the real work begins. If you have effectively kept track of your sales leads, it is now time for follow up. Avoid generic email blasts to everyone, and remember that the contacts you are reaching out to have just spent several days at the show and have met hundreds of other businesses. Taylor your follow up to a conversation you had. Better yet, make a greater impression by sending a handwritten card.

10. Have fun.

Entrepreneurs rarely (or never) take vacations, so a trade shows can offer a break from the regular monotony. Sure, you are going to work, probably harder than most days, but take time to indulge and enjoy the show and the host city.

The right approach can make a trade show a true success for your business.

Do you have any trade show lessons or anecdotes to share with other entrepreneurs? Please share below in the comments.