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Trade Show Pests: How to Ditch Them and Get to Selling

Updated on February 20, 2019
heidithorne profile image

Heidi Thorne is a business author with 25 years experience in marketing and sales including a decade in the hotel and trade show industries.


Trade shows can bring out the best and worst in attendees. But there are just some attendee pests that derail a sales teams efforts and waste marketing dollars. Let's discuss a couple of particularly difficult pests and some "pest control" strategies...

Promotional Product Thieves

She's hovering around your booth. Big bags. Zero eye contact. In fact, eyes are focused about three feet off the floor, scanning your tables and displays. Eureka! Found your stash of promotional products. Then the dreaded question, "Is this free?" You've just been approached by a trade show promotional product thief, a show attendee who is there only to collect your promotional products and not your business card.

Every tradeshow has them, but some more than others. These thieves are more prevalent in consumer shows, but have been spotted at B2B (business-to-business) events as well. They are there to swipe as much "free stuff" as they can for their personal use and usually have no intention, authority, ability or need to buy.

Plus, it's likely they wouldn't refer business to you either. Some of these petty thieves are courteous enough to ask for the items, as in the scenario above. Others grab bunches of giveaways, stash them in a bag, and dash to the next booth.

Trade show promotional product thieves waste your money! They are also a distraction that can keep you from identifying and spending time with valuable tradeshow visitors. But how can you ditch them?

  • Make 'Em Earn It. Post a sign that show visitors will receive a free item if they fill out a survey, participate in a game, listen to a presentation, etc. Make them do something that helps you such as collecting survey data. They may not want to waste time doing what you ask and move on.
  • Make 'Em Wait. Think about offering a freebie that you send after the show. Like with making them earn your giveaway, this delays the instant gratification of grabbing the goods. As well, it gives you a great follow-up opportunity for those show visitors that are truly qualified.
  • Prep Booth Personnel to Weed Out, Not Give Out. Booth personnel, especially if sales is not their main job or they haven't been trained properly, fall into the habit of giving a freebie to everyone that wanders in the booth. They feel that giving out all the giveaways that were shipped to the booth is doing the right thing and getting the word out. Train your booth personnel to qualify, qualify, qualify! Preparing a script or list of questions to quickly qualify booth visitors will help. If the visitor qualifies and provides complete follow-up information, he's eligible to receive a giveaway. If not, train booth personnel to politely send the thieves on their way.
  • Don't Put a Table in Front of the Booth. Not only does a table in the front of a booth discourage interaction with valuable show visitors, it makes promotional product theft a crime of opportunity. If you have a stash of giveaways just sitting on the edge of your table, what's to stop a tradeshow thief from grabbing a bunch and stuffing them in a bag? If you use a table, place it at the back of the booth with your booth personnel stationed in front of it. Similarly, don't place giveaways in a bin at the front of your display. Too easy for a thief to grab and go.
  • Only Exhibit at Shows that Reach Your Target Audience. When considering exhibiting at a particular event, take time to carefully evaluate the market demographics of the audience and how show visitors will be invited to the event. Highly qualified attendees are there to do business; the freebies are just a bonus, making thieves less prevalent. If it is a free event open to the public without qualification, you can expect more promo poaching behavior. If the type of business you are in requires attendance at public events, utilizing the above strategies can help reduce loss.

Some Tips for Dealing with Promotional Product Thieves at Trade Shows

Trade Show Booth Clingers

Spotted a trade show booth for a unique USA-made product line at a promotional products trade show. I had previously seen promotions on this upscale line in magazines and was anxious to check it out for real.

As I approached the booth, the lone company representative was engaged with a guy who wanted to tell the rep his entire career history, a recap of all his current projects, his opinions on everything... I hovered for a bit, hoping the guy would move on. No such luck.

Finally the rep hastily asked me if I'd like him to scan my badge. Sure, why not? Looks like that's about all I'm going to get out of this booth. Pity, it was a cool product.

Poor rep, he was dealing with a trade show booth "clinger." As salespeople at trade shows, we have a tough balancing act. How do you engage with booth visitors while at the same time connecting with the maximum number of high potential customers? Trade show booth clingers monopolize your time and guarantee that you will see only a handful of attendees. Here are some "pest control" strategies for the clingers:

  • Adequately Staff Your Booth. If the show is one with high traffic, it's probably worth it to have more than one booth staffer. That way one rep can spend more time with the hottest prospects while the other handles the marginal potential visitors.
  • Develop a Procedure for Handling the Clingers. In advance, devise a method for handling those visitors who want to share their story—their entire story!—with you. When they start to become clingy, politely hand them a project questionnaire that they can fill out right then and there or fill out later. For example, you might say, "Wow, sounds you have a lot going on! [Hand over the form.] Could you take a moment to give us some details about your upcoming projects? Then let's talk after we all get back from the show." You accomplish a number of things with this: 1) You get clingers to focus; 2) You get the most important thing you want out of your encounter which is a lead (if there really is potential); and, 3) You get your time back.
  • Remember Why You're Exhibiting. You are exhibiting to make sales, not friends, although that does often happen at shows. You are also not a show visitor's on-demand consultant or therapist. Be polite, be professional, be productive.
  • Get Your Story Straight. I've seen a lot of booth reps who set up their booths, sometimes very beautiful booths with lots of product to show, and then they screw it up by not having a clue as to what to say when someone arrives at their booth. If you prepare proper qualifying questions to weed out those with low potential, you'll be spending more time with those prospects that matter. Qualifying questions also help direct your interaction with booth visitors so that you can quickly assess their needs, gather the information you need, and send them on their merry way.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2014 Heidi Thorne


Submit a Comment
  • heidithorne profile imageAUTHOR

    Heidi Thorne 

    2 years ago from Chicago Area

    Hi Carrie Lee! Glad you ran across the article, and thank you for your kind comments. Thank you for chiming in and have a lovely day!

  • carrie Lee Night profile image

    Carrie Lee Night 

    2 years ago from Northeast United States

    Was browsing for some new reading material and came across this informative article. While I normally don' t attend trade shows, it was interesting to learn the inside scoop of challenges while promoting a product or service. While getting free stuff is attractive to any consumer, taking advantage of it can be frustrating when your trying hard to make a living. I thought your suggestions were brillant ! :) Thank you for sharing !! A lot of thought and expertise went into this article :)

  • heidithorne profile imageAUTHOR

    Heidi Thorne 

    7 years ago from Chicago Area

    Hi Elizabeth/epbooks! You definitely felt the curse of the clingers! Sure, you want to have meaningful conversations... but at events like these, the point is to see lots of people. Save the longer chatting for afterwards. Hope you won't have any of these clinger pests at your upcoming book signing. Good luck with the event!

  • epbooks profile image

    Elizabeth Parker 

    7 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

    Oh this is perfect. I had a "clinger" at one of my events. He was blocking people from asking about my books, and was there for a long, long time. I so enjoy talking to those who attend my book signings and hearing about their pets, or their stories, or even their books, but this guy prevented so many from stopping by to talk. They were able to buy my books, but some never got a chance to stop and say hello. I felt awful!

  • heidithorne profile imageAUTHOR

    Heidi Thorne 

    7 years ago from Chicago Area

    Hi purl3agony! I can only imagine how many clingers you encounter at art shows. Yikes! But you're right, having them do something (sign up for email, etc.) does help refocus the conversation. Thanks so much for sharing your experience and sharing the post. Have a lovely day!

  • purl3agony profile image

    Donna Herron 

    7 years ago from USA

    Hi Heidi -Great hub with a lot of valuable information. I've had to deal with "clingers" at art fairs and festivals, who want to tell me me all about their art work but don't show much interest in mine. I love your suggestion of having visitors fill out a survey (or in my case, having them sign up for my mailing list, blog, etc) to focus them and give me a chance to interact with other potential customers.

    I'm pinning this and sending it to my sister who visits and works at a number of trade shows. Thanks for another great hub!!

  • heidithorne profile imageAUTHOR

    Heidi Thorne 

    7 years ago from Chicago Area

    Hi Bob Bamberg! Thanks so much for adding your "war stories" to the conversation!

    Trade shows and in-person events are STILL amazing opportunities to connect with peers and suppliers, opportunities you just can't get online. I always like to chat with reps, too, since I get a whole different and more in-depth perspective that just accessing the info online. I've also been able to score some helpful resources and tools for my business by doing so, too.

    Isn't it ironic that we Baby Boomers have become the "back when I was a kid" storytellers. ;) It sometimes is challenging to walk away, but it sounds like you're handling it in a courteous way that ends the conversation without ending the future connection.

    Speaking of thieves on steroids, we once had a guy at a chamber expo who picked up a candy display and dumped the entire contents in his trade show bag. He was promptly escorted out the door. But more importantly for this discussion is that the exhibitor enabled that kind of behavior with how they handled their booth.

    Indeed, I've buddied up with fellow exhibitors at events to watch each other's booths for the benefit of all of us. Nice to have others in the industry who've got your back. As I've noted elsewhere, making exhibitor-to-exhibitor connections at trade shows can be VERY helpful. I've gained some great contacts that way.

    Again, appreciate your kind comments and excellent insight!

  • heidithorne profile imageAUTHOR

    Heidi Thorne 

    7 years ago from Chicago Area

    Hello FlourishAnyway! Clingers can be really problematic on multiple levels. Glad you found it helpful. Have a great day!

  • heidithorne profile imageAUTHOR

    Heidi Thorne 

    7 years ago from Chicago Area

    Thanks, RTalloni, for kind comments! Indeed it can be applied to a variety of scenarios in business and elsewhere. Have a lovely day!

  • profile image

    Bob Bamberg 

    7 years ago

    Great hub, Heidi...a lot I could identify with. Especially the thieves and clingers. When I had my feed and grain store, I loved to attend trade shows, and did so about 5 times a year.

    I seized the opportunity to talk with the reps about their products and how to display, advertise and sell them. I learned a lot of useful information and established solid relationships with reps, who appreciated my interest. That often led to my getting free display racks, product, co-op money, etc. But, sometimes I had to wait for my turn because of the clingers.

    Now, I rep for a high-end pet food company, visiting stores and doing events. I sell a lot of product by engaging customers and talking about nutrition, behavior, feeding protocols, etc. Clingers, especially those of my generation (baby boomers) love to tell stories about how when they were kids, the dog lived for 20 years on table scraps, never got sick, had the shiniest coat, blah, blah, blah.

    But, I don't let them delay me from talking to real prospects. I just give them a conspiratorial look and say, "Excuse me...gotta suck in another one here..." They nod knowingly and release me.

    We also see "thieves on steroids" at events. They've all got bags given out by pet some food companies and fill them with enough product samples to feed their dogs for free for a few weeks. They also grab as many trinkets as they can while the reps are engaged with prospects.

    There is "honor among thieves" though as we reps sort of look out for each others' booths when clingers and thieves influence the normal flow of things. Voted up, useful and interesting.

  • FlourishAnyway profile image


    7 years ago from USA

    What superb advice. I especially like the recommended procedure for handling clingers.

  • profile image


    7 years ago

    Really good, practical ideas here, and the concepts can be applied in other situations.


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