Make the most of trade shows: here’s how to shake the right hands and win clients while cruising the trade-show floor

Make the most of trade shows: here’s how to shake the right hands and win clients while cruising the trade-show floor – tutorial

Daniel P. Dern

Make the Most of Trade Shows Trade shows. They’re crowded, sometimes hectic, often ovewhelming. But trade events–expositions, conferences, seminars–can play an important part in your marketing and networking efforts. By knowing how to work one of these trade events (and it is hard work), you can make vital contacts, meet new prospects, and increase your client base.

That’s what happened to me when I learned to master the art of trade-show selling–not as a trade-show exhibitor, but as one of the many business owners who are regular trade-show attendees. The half-dozen shows I take myself to each year have led to a number of new clients and projects, new information sources (essential to my work as a public-relations consultant), new suppliers, and other valuable business relationships. (Trade-show attendance is also a tax write-off. So by attending these events, I make contacts and decrease my tax debt.)

A large part of my selling success has come from knowing how to meet key people and what to do to entice prospects while in a crowded, often frenetic trade-fair atmosphere.

Based on what I’ve learned, here are a few tips for making the most of any trade show.



Don’t go to the trade show cold–practice. A Broadway show progresses from reading to walk-through to full-dress rehearsal–and often opens out of town, to get the bugs and jitters out.

By using the same method, you can successfully work a trade show, preparing your selling strategies and defining whom you want to reach at each show. The first show I tackled, half a dozen years ago, was rather taxing. It was, as my mentor told me, a “training mission.” In a year, I was a seasoned veteran–and a year later, I was the mentor, accompanying another business owner on her training mission. (After she’d done her first show solo, she agreed that the practice rounds had been worth the effort and that they’d helped polish her selling and networking techniques.)

Appealing to potential clients is always easier when you’ve had a bit of practice. You’re less stressed, so you can be more thorough and, ironically, more spontaneous. Most of us wouldn’t dream of giving an unrehearsed speech. Sales reps practice their spiels–and so should you.

When introducing yourself to a prospect, don’t waste his or her time. Like you, prospects are attending the trade event to meet as many new people as possible. Prepare a 15-word positioning statement that clearly and succinctly defines your services: “Hello, Mr. Jones. My name is Ed Lewis. I’m a marketing consultant specializing in sales and promotion for small, technology-based companies.” Your conversation should last no more than five minutes–and don’t be too aggressive. Pushiness can be a turnoff. If your prospect is interested in what you have to offer, he or she will ask questions about your business or ask you for your business card.


With so many trade shows available and so little time, how do you find out what shows are out there, and which ones hold the most opportunity for meeting the right prospects? How can you find out if there are any companies or individuals you especially want to contact? What’s the best way to discover if there are any products or services you want to learn more about, or prospects you want to research or pitch? Start by asking your peers, suppliers, and customers. Ask someone who’s a frequent trade-show exhibitor.

You can’t attend every trade show. I like hitting local shows–often. I can make a few good contacts in two or three hours. And business-to-business shows can be instructive. At the recent Small Business Association of New England’s annual show, I found new suppliers and some promising contacts. Another advantage to small, local shows is that I frequently run into industry peers and prospects that I’ve seen at previous shows. Making a second or third contact with these people keeps my company up front in their minds.

Jim Paisner, president of Synoptic Products, an Allston, Massachusetts, distributor of medical and electrolysis supplies, travels to trade shows throughout the United States. “My customers are located all across the country and Canada. Trade shows give me the chance to meet them in person. Traveling to these shows helps me reinforce client relationships and lets me learn more about my customers’ needs,” he says.

An out-of-town show, of course, costs time and money, and leaves you less time to get work done for existing clients at home. But a well-worked show can be an excellent investment in marketing overhead, so don’t rule them out. I’ve targeted a number of yearly shows as essentials, including one in the Silicon Valley, and two in Washington, D.C.; all have proven fruitful.

To reach the people who are most likely to purchase your product or service, try these strategies:

* Identify and join one or two professional organizations before you attend a large trade event in your industry. This will give you a chance to search out and meet prime prospects before the trade event. Then, when you meet these people again at the show, you’ll be beyond the initial “cold call” introduction. Use the opportunity to tell them a bit more about what you can offer them.

* Keep up with as many industry publications as possible. These often list upcoming trade events, so you can plan which ones will be the most profitable for you.

* Meet show planners and offer to speak at upcoming shows. This strategy lets you meet others in your field and allows you to be seen as a major player in your industry. You can add this benefit to your sales pitch: “My name’s Ed Lewis. I’m a marketing consultant specializing in sales and promotion for small technology-base companies. My seminar, entitled ‘How to Win Clients,’ is meeting today at 3:00 p.m. in the Davenport Room.”

* Study other people’s marketing literature to evaluate your competition. This way, you can prepare a sales pitch that sets you apart from the rest.

With these targeting strategies under your belt, you’ll have a better chance of appealing to promising prospects–but it’s also important to keep an open mind. Never underestimate the power of spontaneity. It’s perfectly reasonable to attend a trade event with no specific goals, simply to see and be seen, to stay current with industry developments, cultivate relationships, and to get ideas. Some of my best contacts have come from accidentally being in the right conversation with the right person at the right time.


An exposition can often take place on two or three floors or in two or three buildings, with hundreds of vendors and booths. Can you see them all? Maybe. Start in one place and begin working your way around methodically. With all the activity at a trade show, it’s wise to start with a system. I identify my top 10 prospects and locate them on the floor map. Then I start from the main center aisle and work out until I’ve seen each of them. This allows me to work my way through the show to meet new vendors but also gives me a point of reference so I know where I want to end up.

Once you’ve entered the show, be selective. You may not have time to see everything. If you’ve scoped out the people you want to meet, you won’t need to see it all.

I carry a stack of business cards in my right-hand jacket pocket, where I can reach them easily, and put other people’s into my left pocket. This avoids fumbling through a handful of cards–or giving away someone else’s card by mistake. When I receive business cards, I may write brief notes on the back as a reminder. I note specific follow-up to-do’s so I won’t forget who my prospects are and what I can do for them.


To complete your trade-show marketing mission, haul out your portable computer and organize your trip records while returning home. I write a summary log of meetings and other key events for my records, which I save for tax purposes, and then I organize business cards for follow-ups, which I also do using my computer. In reviewing the notes I’ve written on people’s business cards, I highlight those requiring immediate follow-up calls and mailings.

Once I’m back in my home office, I file names that I’ll contact within six months–my “lukewarm” prospects–then start writing follow-up letters to prospects who indicated “hot” interest in my services while at the show. Sometimes I put names directly on mailing labels to ensure that I won’t let my follow-up selling lag. Boilerplate files and word processing make this easy.

Because follow-up is a vital part of any sales effort, I constantly remind myself that smart trade-show selling continues long after I’ve left the trade-show floor. That’s why I tell unseasoned trade-show attendees to practice, plan, and get out on the floor–and be sure to stay in touch with those you meet during the show.

A frequent contributor to HOME-OFFICE COMPUTING, Daniel P. Dern of Watertown, Massachusetts, is a public-relations consultant and writer specializing in technology, marketing, and promotion for entrepreneurs.

COPYRIGHT 1991 Freedom Technology Media Group

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