This week I spent time filling out the application to attend the largest trade show in my industry. The small booth costs $3,995, just for the raw space. Add to that the airfare, lodging, meals, and costs of having sales reps in the booth instead of in the office, as well as the time and labor before the show getting displays ready, and I spend close to $10,000 to get us there. While that’s a good bit of money, I know it is worth spending, because my team will typically do three to five times that in sales on the trade show floor, and that’s not counting additional business after the show.

However, there are a lot of companies that exhibit at this show which don’t do as well as we do—yet they have paid the same money, and often times, a lot more, to be there.  When they return home, I imagine they lament that it was not a good show for them and worry about how they are going to recoup their expenses.  This moment of hindsight comes too late.

Here’s how I recommend you make a trade show profitable—ahead of time:

Buy a booth you can afford (and then some).

The first mistake companies make is thinking that they have to go big or go home, often taking booth spaces that are far too expensive to make sense. Having a big booth may intimidate your competitors, but it does little to impress your sales prospects–and they are the reason you are there.  What customers want is a well-organized booth with all the products they came to see.  I have taken the same 10X10 booth at every show for the last seven years. It’s enough for us to display all our major product lines, and the break-even point is far easier to reach for us than it must be for companies with giant booths and a huge staff to man them.

Strategically organize your booth.

The second problem is how companies arrange their booths.  The typical set-up of a booth is a table at the front, providing a place to make literature easily available to passing prospects.  Note the choice of words here: “passing prospects”.  A table at the front creates a barrier to customers, and the best you can get with it is a prospect that passes you by.  When I set up my booth, all literature goes at the back of the table, and the table is turned perpendicular rather than parallel to the aisle, drawing customers into the booth, rather than repelling them.  I want them to look at my product first, then take the time to ask questions about it, and finally, once they have connected with my sales reps, to have access to the catalogues they can take with them to remember the connection they have made.

Don’t get me started about chairs.

I allow one chair in our booth—with the strict rule that it is for customers only. Sales reps who are sitting down look low-energy and their lack of enthusiasm translates directly to how their products are perceived by potential customers. Successful reps know every prospect passing by is a potential customer, and they‘re at the edge of the booth, working the aisle to convert prospects to customers.

Eliminate distractions.

Don’t allow technology in the booth. I know, I am ‘the Antichrist’.  But think about it this way. First came the scanner—that awful device that would save you from having to collect business cards and enter data manually when you returned to the office.  It eradicated the paperwork but it also eliminated the handshake.  Now, instead of putting the emphasis on making contact with prospective customers at shows, companies spend thousands of dollars to have their sales reps wave an electronic wand over someone’s badge, hoping it will magically make them a sale later.  Get real.  Most business originating from a tradeshow is done at the tradeshow—whether in the form of an actual sale, or a connection made between the seller and the buyer, communicating valuable information. Buyers go to a show and take away with them both product information and people knowledge.  They remember the sales reps who spent time talking with them about what they were looking for—not the rep who wasted five minutes of their time trying to get their badge scanner to work.  As a business owner, I never spend money on a scanner.  I train my reps on how to get the information in a way that will make a sale, not a database entry.

Smart phones are not allowed.

Not for my sales team. They cannot check their email, talk to the home office, text their significant other, or anything else while on duty in my company’s booth. They are there for one purpose—to connect with our customers. Anything that takes away from that is a liability. Most companies do not make this a rule, and even encourage distracted behavior by emailing their employees while they are working the show, or requiring them to have their smart phones on site. Can you really think of a person you are less interested in stopping to talk to than someone who is engrossed in the inner world of his phone? I can’t.

Leave laptops at the hotel, too.

Most sales reps will use a laptop for a purpose other than demonstrating something useful to potential customers. Take for example the reps whose booths I skipped at an art show a few weeks ago.  They were playing solitaire! As I looked at them, clearly wanting information about their offerings, they missed the cue—busy playing hands on their screen.  I left their booth, and did not even take a business card.  If they were too busy with distractions to talk to me at a venue specifically geared towards selling,  I already know what their customer service and follow-up is going to look like.

Choose wisely. Who will staff your booth?

A lot of company managers look at tradeshows as a place to send the b-team, telling themselves that they really just need greeters to distribute catalogs.  If you think of a tradeshow as a place to “hand out information,” you are wasting your money and would be better off staying home and doing a mailing.  A tradeshow is a place to meet customers, to make a valuable connection with them, as well as to start—and, hopefully, complete—sales.  How many times have you stopped at a booth and attempted to ask questions about a product, only to be “helped” by someone who did not know the products well enough to give you an answer?  How many trade show contacts have told you they would have to get you additional information after the show when you had been ready to purchase right there in the booth?  

No matter how good your products are, they will be dwarfed by the power of the people you put in your booth.  Give them the right tools, establish the ground rules, and make sure you put the best people you have in the booth so they come back with orders.