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Grow Your Business Sales & Marketing

How to Make Your First Trade Show a Success

Successful first trade show
Credit: Pla2na/Shutterstock

Trade shows offer businesses a chance to showcase their services and meet potential clients in a competitive, yet extremely beneficial environment. While it's never easy to set up shop alongside competitors, performing well at a trade show can lead to noticeable increases in sales.

Like many facets of running a business, your performance and comfort level at trade shows improves with time. Running a booth for the first time generates feelings of anxiety. Between the logistics of travel plans, setting up your booth, worrying about your display's appeal and interacting with customers, there's no shortage of stress when it comes to attending a trade show. Luckily, there are several ways first-time trade show participants can hit the ground running and turn their first experience into an instant success.

You never want to go into a trade show blind. Learning, and understanding, the different rules of the trade show should be your first step. The rules for each venue and show vary, which means you should start with this step for every trade show you attend. Thoroughly review the list of rules and regulations to ensure you don't face unwelcome surprises when you arrive to the show.

"When [exhibiting] at a trade show for the first time, it's important to communicate directly with the trade show staff to understand what your booth comes with and what you have to pay extra for," said Nellie Alkap, CEO of CorpNet.com. "Some shows provide carpet; others you have to buy it [for] extra. Some provide a table and chairs; others you need to source. Every show is different, so don't assume that your booth will come with the necessities. Have your team and the trade show staff on the same page so there are no last-minute issues when you arrive."

If you're having concerns imagining what a trade show atmosphere is like, you might want to go to a different show with similar participants and wander around the different areas.

"I always recommend [attending] a show as an attendee first before committing to a new show," said Jacqueline Voss, the director of marketing and business development at Russo's Restaurants. "That will give you an idea of the attendees and what other vendors are doing to attract attendees to their booth."

When it comes to drawing people to your booth, it's about standing out. Handing out flyers and business cards may boost exposure of your business a little bit, but nearly every booth will have these basics. Ask yourself the question, "What can we do to get noticed?"

Editor's note: Looking for a trade show display service? Fill out the below questionnaire to connect with vendors that can help.

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"Think of what you can bring to the booth that's completely out-of-the-box," said Ben Hindman, the CEO of Splash, which sells event marketing technology. "For example, indulge all five senses by exposing attendees to a specific scent, giving them something textured to hold or offering unique foods. Provide entertainment that will shock and delight your booth visitors, such as having food prepared by a local chef."

Depending on your budget, hiring a chef or even a magician can easily attract crowds to your booth. Once other attendees see a swarm of people crowding your booth to get a taste of fresh food or view a magic trick, they'll make their way to your booth to avoid missing out on the fun. If it's not affordable to hire a chef for the event, there are other ways to think creatively and draw a crowd to your booth.

"When business owners attend their first trade show, they should think about what to offer at the booth that will attract the attention of attendees and also coordinates well with their brand," said personal brand consultant Devoreaux Walton. "For example, a helicopter supplier can have little helicopter key chains or bottle openers as giveaways and have a remote-control toy helicopter race with prizes for each winner."

Trade show attendees realize that you're hoping they use your business for its services or products, but that doesn't mean you should become an overly pushy salesperson. Focus most of your conversations primarily on interested potential customers, but don't blatantly ignore those that likely won't buy from you. A friendly conversation and interaction can still help boost your brand's overall reputation. There's no downside to having memorable conversations with trade show attendees.

"Build relationships," said Jonas Sickler, the marketing director at ReputationManagement.com. "Don't try to close a deal, or you'll drive people away. Trade shows can be a sensory overload, and potential customers are wearing their sales armor most of the time. You're more likely to stand out and be remembered when you build personal relationships. This may not lead to an immediate deal, but it could result in new sales down the road."

Make sure you jot down the information of these customers and follow up with them when the event concludes. Including a personal note that addresses your previous conversation with them can go a long way toward their willingness to do business with you.

This step should occur both before and during the trade show. By researching your competition before the show, you can craft a message that addresses why you're the best solution in your industry.

"Begin by completing an audit of attending competitors," said Nick Holland, an account coordinator and marketing master at ARPR, a public relations firm. "This audit should include a deep dive into their messaging, branding, booth location, pre-show visibility, etc., so you can position your company and booth accordingly."

At the show, it's important to visit the booths of your competitors. Consider taking notes on what you like and don't like about their display. By observing competitors, you gain valuable insights into their marketing tactics, and you may leave with display ideas that you want to implement at your next trade show.

From budgetary restrictions to travel time, there are plenty of reasons why some small businesses can't, or don't, participate in trade shows. If you're fortunate enough to attend a trade show, be grateful for the chance. Despite all the logistical stressors involved, trade shows serve as an opportunity for you to build relationships with potential customers and eventually turn those leads into actual customers.

"With so much interaction going digital, trade shows are a rare opportunity to get some face time with your customers, the media and even your competitors," said Michelle Barry, the founder of Mesmerize Media Consulting. "It's a chance to put faces to your company's brand and show off what makes you unique. Also, think of attendees as your captive audience, all in one place. How often do you get a chance to do that?"

Bennett Conlin

Bennett is an editorial assistant based in New York City. He graduated from James Madison University in 2018 with a degree in business management. During his time in Harrisonburg he worked extensively with The Breeze, JMU’s student-run newspaper. Bennett also worked at the Shenandoah Valley SBDC, where he helped small businesses with a variety of needs ranging from social media marketing to business plan writing. Contact him through email or Twitter.