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

Updated on September 27, 2015
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.


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.

Click here for trade show booth ideas on a budget.

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.

Disclaimer: Any examples used are for illustrative purposes only and do not suggest affiliation or endorsement. The author/publisher has used best efforts in preparation of this article. No representations or warranties for its contents, either expressed or implied, are offered or allowed and all parties disclaim any implied warranties of merchantability or fitness for your particular purpose. The advice, strategies and recommendations presented herein may not be suitable for you, your situation or business. Consult with a professional adviser where and when appropriate. The author/publisher shall not be liable for any loss of profit or any other damages, including but not limited to special, incidental, consequential, or other damages. So by reading and using this information, you accept this risk.

© 2013 Heidi Thorne


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    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 3 years ago from Chicago Area

      It sure is, epbooks/Elizabeth! I seem to remember you said you're doing some book signings and events... all great networking opps. Thanks for stopping by and comments, as usual!

    • epbooks profile image

      Elizabeth Parker 3 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

      Wonderful hub. Networking is the name of the game and these days it does have to be done everywhere, especially at trade shows.

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 3 years ago from Chicago Area

      Hi AliciaC! I think a lot of people, especially writers, are unaware of the great connections that can be made at trade shows and conferences. They've been great for my business. Thanks for stopping by! Have a great day!

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      This hub contains some very useful information, Heidi. I've never thought much about trade shows before, but I found your article useful, especially as it relates to networking. Networking is valuable in any type of business!

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 3 years ago from Chicago Area

      Hello FlourishAnyway! With as expensive as trade shows and conferences are, to not take advantage of these additional opportunities just wastes the investment. As you note, career fairs are also excellent networking venues, even if you're not hiring or looking. In today's swiftly changing marketplace, taking an adversarial approach to competitors will close future doors. As you note, today's competitor could be tomorrow's coworker... or even employee, employer or business partner? :) Thanks so much for your insightful comments as always!

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 3 years ago from Chicago Area

      Happy Monday, billybuc! How true it is that so many limit their "networking" to Facebook! It's efficient, but not always effective. Social media and such are initial connection points. In fact, it's so fun to meet your social media pals at trade shows and conferences. The hermit writer archetype just doesn't work in today's marketplace. Thanks for stopping by and have a lovely week ahead!

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 3 years ago from USA

      You provide superb clarity on the multiple purposes of trade shows and similar events depending on your industry. (Career fairs are another example. Sometimes companies go even when they are not actively hiring.) There aren't many places where you have direct contact with competitors. With all the changes that take place with acquisitions, mergers, and businesses folding, it's an excellent chance to connect with likeminded others. Today's competitor could be tomorrow's coworker.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      There are so many networking opportunities that are missed simply because of being unaware. Writers today believe networking consists of making comments on Facebook; there is so much more to do, and so many true chances for valuable connection if approached with the attitude you mention in this fine article. Well done my marketing guru.

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 3 years ago from Chicago Area

      Hello Suzanne! I thought some folks would get a chuckle from the subtitle. ;) So agree that we need to weigh the social factors against the numbers. It's all PR! Appreciate you stopping by and chiming in!

    • Suzanne Day profile image

      Suzanne Day 3 years ago from Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

      Love the beer, burgers and babes subtitle! Yes, it can be difficult to justify some networking events, especially the dinners....but if you have networked a team of potential clients or employees for the longer term, it is worth not having a few sales on the day ;)