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Trade Show Tips: Should You be Selling, Networking or Both?

Updated on February 20, 2019
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Heidi Thorne is a business author with 25 years of experience in marketing/sales, including a decade in the hotel and trade show industries.


Beer, Burgers and Babes

Got a call from a long-time past client. After updating each other on what was going on in our lives and the industry, he commented that he was having difficulty deciding on whether to exhibit at an upcoming annual trade show... well, maybe it's not actually a trade show.

The show in question was one for a largely male audience in the construction arena. Vendors would display their latest equipment and products. But the main attraction was free beer, free burgers and "guy food," and booth babes (especially in years past).

The reasoning of my client friend and several other vendors in the industry was that the show probably had limited value because it was just a bunch of guys looking for free chow and brew. It wasn't a high lead generating event.

Wrong attitude!

What I emphasized to my client was that the show was really a networking party! A few thousand (literally) members of the industry gather in this place to talk shop and reconnect with friends and vendors. The backdrop of the displays just helps to maintain vendors' image and place in the industry.

As well, on both sides of the sales table, there were not a lot of new companies entering the fray due to challenging economic times and changes in the industry. In fact, many were going out of business or getting acquired. So maintaining standing relationships would be important. Attendees would be "taking attendance" to see who was still around.

Justifying Trade Show Expenses

In all reality, all trade shows offer a wealth of networking and public relations opportunities. But is difficult to justify the expense of exhibiting at shows that offer limited selling and lead generation. Here are some tips for evaluating trade shows:

  • Clarify Objectives. Be extremely clear about the purpose of having a presence at a particular show, whether it's lead generation, networking or public relations. This is actually a huge problem! Companies may decide to exhibit for public relations reasons, but then are disappointed when the qualified leads don't come in.
  • Establish How Success Will be Measured. One of the problems, particularly for networking and public relations events, is that it can often be nearly impossible to determine the long-term results. And most business owners and sales managers want results reports within the week after the show! Using metrics such as new contacts added to email marketing lists might be a more tangible and easily measurable result that can keep owners and managers happy.
  • Set Up a Tracking System. Regardless of the objectives or how they will be measured, setting up a tracking system for results can avoid confusion and provide a way to measure year to year statistics. If adding contacts to an email marketing list, segmenting the list for each show can help measure return as these contacts move through the sales funnel.
  • Be Realistic. Even if the show offers high lead generation possibilities, being realistic about what can be achieved at the show and shortly thereafter can avoid disappointment. It is a rare show indeed (except for swap meet type events) that can result in on-the-spot sales. This is particularly the case in B2B (business to business) which can have long sales cycles.

The Trade Show Within the Trade Show

Of course, companies want to get attendees into their booths at trade shows. But there's a secondary event that's running in the background of every show: The networking between exhibitors.

Granted, exhibitors don't want to be divulging company secrets to competing vendors at a show. But here are some networking opportunities that can be gained:

  • Referral Partners. It is difficult to be all things to all people! Make connections with competent competitors who can either handle overflow business or leads that are not a good fit. This builds the referrer's reputation as a well connected and knowledgeable expert!
  • Joint Partnerships. Again, because it is rare that a company can provide everything that a customer could need, establishing relationships with complementary products and services can help build both businesses.
  • Friendships and the Future. Again, while not disclosing confidential or inappropriate information, knowing others in the same industry can provide friendship support and build a reputation. With economic challenges at almost every turn, a positive reputation and a strong industry support network could provide career or business opportunities should current situations take a dramatic downward turn.

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.

© 2013 Heidi Thorne


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