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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 of experience in marketing/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


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