If you have a product idea that you want to license, you should consider attending a trade show. There are people at trade shows that you would have a remarkably difficult time reaching otherwise. An entire industry is gathered in the same place for two to three days! But attending a trade show that's out of town can get expensive, fast. To make it worth your while, you need a battle plan.
My first piece of advice is, don't bother getting a booth. If you have a booth, it's not as if a buyer is going to find you out of nowhere and offer you the deal of your life. That doesn't happen. A better use of your time and money is to work the event for all it's worth.
1. Make sure you attend the right one. First, spend some time checking out the trade show's website. What companies are going to be there? Are any of them potential licensees? Cross-reference your list of potential licensees with the list of attendees.
2. Register in advance. Shows have different policies and pricing structures; you may be able to save money by registering early. Some shows only want qualified buyers, media people, and experts. Others simply require that you register online. Do your homework to find out what's required to get in. If the show is only open to retailers, there are still ways of getting in, because retailers tend to have extra passes. If you call ahead of time, you may be able to schedule an appointment with a company that is attending the show.
3. Stay at the hotel associated with the event. It's usually more expensive, but most of the retailers and buyers will be staying there because it's convenient. And after the day's events, they'll all be meeting in the lounge for a cocktail.
4. Make a plan. The worst way to go to a trade show is unprepared. You need a goal and objectives! So arrive early and get your hands on a map and a directory. I map out which booths I am going to hit and in what order, because trade shows are massive, and I can't afford to needlessly tire myself out. Start walking the floor as soon as possible. Once you've visited the companies on your list, feel free to walk the floor at your leisure.
5. Dress the part. People will take you more seriously if you dress appropriately. If the trade show is about sporting equipment and fitness, you don't need a three-piece suit. For other industries, a sport coat is more appropriate.
6. Bring two pairs of comfortable shoes and wear them on alternate days. Like I said, walking the floor will exhaust you.
7. Bring businesses cards and copies of your sell sheet with you everywhere. You could meet an important contact anywhere--like the lobby, at the bar, or even riding the elevator. You never know, so be prepared.
8. Pick up a copy of every piece of literature that is available.
9. Avoid approaching booths when they are packed. If you approach when it's busy, the chances of you getting in to the right person are slim. I plan on hitting most booths on the second day for that reason. But don't wait until the third day, because some companies will have taken off by then.
10. Wait for salespeople to engage you. Approaching a booth can be intimidating, because it feels a bit like you're walking into someone else's living room. What has worked well for me is simply observing what's going on around me and waiting for a salesperson to come to me. (They will.) When someone approaches you, compliment him on the company's products and ask questions like, "Can you show me how this works?" Be genuine in trying to get a dialogue going. Eventually, the salesperson will ask you what you do. At that point, you should introduce yourself as you normally would.
11. Always make sure to get a card. It's not enough to give someone your information. If you work a trade show hard, you could walk away with dozens of cards. That's why trade shows are powerful.
12. Follow up. Once you have someone's card, you must follow up. All of your efforts will have been for naught if you don't. I recommend waiting at least a week to do so.
13. Take it seriously. When I go to a show, I am working. I am tired. I go to bed early.
I've come to the conclusion that attending a trade show--if you make the most of it--is the number one way to get in to a company. After all, there are no gatekeepers.