Congratulations! You have arrived at the industry trade show. There are lots of people in suits sporting lanyards, clacking on Blackberries and forming small circles of conversation. There’s energy in the air that is propelling you forward to a full day of prospecting.
But, wait. You’re starting to notice something. Something is a little “off”. Those small circles of people are starting to walk away together. Off the show floor and straight out the entrance to the show itself! Where are your shiny, new prospects going?
They’re going with people who prepared for the trade show.
When you see promotional photos on a trade show website, you will typically see a packed floor full of impressive booths, people engaged in conversation, and a general feeling that simply being at the show will net the reward of new business. However, as wisely put by Thomas Edison, “Good fortune is what happens when opportunity meets with planning.” So, before you end up watching your investment in a trade show booth (or even simply attending a show) walk out the door with your competition, there are some simple strategies you can employ to focus your plan of action.
- Establish contact with trade show organizers. As soon as information is posted about the trade show you are interested in is posted to the organization’s website, make contact with the person in charge. Ask about speaking opportunities. Ask about electrical hookups. Ask for a map of the show floor and strategize your booth space – being close to the entrance is great, having a corner booth that allows upwards of three lines of sight from your booth AND being close to the entrance is ideal. Many people will tell you that placement by the water cooler is great. These people attended trade shows in 1965 and are still employing the same strategy. If prime space is already taken, ask about the best available options and, when possible, leverage your company’s historical support of the trade show organization for the best spot. Remember that the more this person connects with you, the better shot you have at getting a call when a great opportunity opens up.
- Identify your target prospects and find out if they are attending. Ask the show organizer for a list of attendees every week leading up to the show. Narrowing your focus helps you better organize a game plan for meeting up with them at the show. Call your prospects and set up meetings somewhere off the trade show floor . Lunch, dinner, even just having coffee, as long as you’re away from the noise and distractions (i.e., your competition vying for attention) of the show floor. This is how the lion’s share of actual business deals get done at trade shows so make this one of your top priorities.
- Don’t take an ugly date. If you have a booth, especially one you’ve trotted out at several shows prior, always remember that it is the first impression many of your prospects will have of your company, regardless of how mundane it may seem to you. Before shipping it to the show location, take it out of the container, assemble it at your office, break it back down and pack it again. This way, you can identify any potential issues you may encounter while assembling it on the show floor. There is literally nothing worse than having a vital piece either missing or broken when you arrive. Think in terms of a potential client. Would they want to do business with a company that can’t even plan ahead for it’s own booth?
- Target your message. You should always pack plenty more marketing materials than you plan on handing out. But, more importantly, make sure the ones you bring are targeted to the audience at the show. For instance, your company might offer industry-leading services in financial planning and IT solutions for healthcare groups. But, if the trade show theme is “HealthNet: Integration Technologies for Growth in Private Healthcare”, the delegates sent from your prospects’ companies will likely be IT directors and are probably not too interested in your financial planning abilities. Many of your materials will be food for landfills and, more importantly, be wasting the money you spent printing them. If you have special novelty items with your logo, make sure the messaging is appropriate. Actually, having bags with your logo is a great idea. People get tired of carrying around pamphlets and trinkets. You’ll have a roving billboard throughout the show.
- Pack your survival kit. You wouldn’t plan a journey into the woods without first packing some essentials appropriate to the situation. A trade show is no different. Before you ship your booth the show, plan and pack a survival kit to help you navigate all things foreseen and unforeseen. There can be several versions of this list but here are some essentials everyone should bring:
- BUSINESS CARDS – whatever you think you need, pack 25 more
- Pens and notepads – the basic theory that fueled the entire US economy for the past 25 years was scribbled on a napkin. Take notes.
- Tape – have you literally ever been in a situation where it hurt to have extra tape?
- Scissors – See “Tape”
- Extension cords – just because your booth has “electrical access” does not guarantee it is reachable with a standard. 6 ft. cord.
- Velcro – many booths are held up and together with Velcro and, as anyone who’s ever put it through the washing machine will attest, it’s just impossible to untangle anything that gets caught in it. Having extra on hand helps make sure the booth stays looking neat and sharp.
- Nuts, bolts, screws and tools – the frame of your booth is likely held together with these fasteners. If the shipping company jostles the booth too much in transit, these can come loose. Failure to pack extra may result in a mangled heap of metal.
- Extra light bulbs – to better illuminate a booth’s messaging, many companies use spotlights at the top. Pack replacement bulbs. There really is a difference when your booth is not lit.
- Aspirin, Pepto and bandages – loud show floors, bright lights, late nights, cafeteria food and assembling/disassembling your booth all contribute to this necessity.
- Chocolate – who doesn’t want to stop at the booth with chocolate?
- Build excitement. Send out email blasts to your target audience each week for 3-4 weeks prior to the show, inviting them to stop by your booth to find out how you can solve their problems in a revolutionary new way. Make them simple but informative and tease them with thought-provoking questions like “Can you honestly say you’re 100% satisfied with your telecom services?”
- Pre-show meeting. Years ago, a young man playing for the University of Michigan ended what could’ve been the one of the most fabled runs in college basketball history by calling a time out in the waning seconds of a game wherein his team was down by 2 points. The problem? Michigan was out of time outs. The resulting technical foul ultimately lead to a victory for the opposing North Carolina Tarheels. Michigan’s coach had been over what to do in a pressure situation several times prior and the player was simply doing as he had been taught. My point? Planning is wonderful. Making sure everyone is on the same page is golden. Have a strategy drawn up and on paper to go over. Have your time mapped out to the letter. Booth schedules for each person attending, appointments with prospects, down time (you do actually need some time allotted to digest not only the cafeteria food but also the communications you’ve had), time for checking in to the office and checking emails, etc. Make sure you identify any potential snags or obstacles that could keep you from your goal. Which brings me to the final and most important point…
- Set goals. What do you want to accomplish at this trade show? What are some benchmarks by which you can gauge your success? The simple act of identifying and prioritizing the results you hope to achieve by attending a trade show can help you put everything into perspective and help you feel more relaxed once you are there. Something will go wrong. A scheduled dinner will be canceled because the prospect is stranded in the Atlanta airport. But you know your goals. You have a vision and a plan for what you want to accomplish and, hopefully, it isn’t completely contingent upon one appointment.
So, now, shift your scenario. You’re part of the small circle. You’re walking out the door, ready to make the deal that takes your company to the next level. Congratulations.