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How to Conduct, Get the Most From Shows and Exhibits

By: Andy Marken

In his nearly 25 years in the advertising/public relations field, Andy has been involved with a broad range of corporate and marketing activities. Prior to forming Marken Communications in mid-1977, Andy was vice president of Bozell & Jacobs and its predecessor agencies. During his 12 years with these agencies, he developed and coordinated a wide variety of highly visible and successful promotional campaigns and activities for clients. A graduate of Iowa State University, Andy received his Bachelor's Degree with majors in Radio & Television and Journalism. Widely published in the industry and trade press, he is an accredited member of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA).

Today, the trade show "business" consumes more than $750,000,000 a year from firms just like yours. Every day there are a great variety of shows going on in major show cities around the globe. For most organizations, these shows represent a tremendous expense. As such, you must make certain you are getting maximum return for your investment and minimize wasted time and money.

Show Expert

Walk down the aisle of a typical show (or think back to your last show) and look at the booth people. You'll always find several people who stand at the side of their exhibit with their arms folded while customers and prospects pass by. They have presented a territorial boundary to prospective visitors, and only the most aggressive or most needy will approach the booth.

When prospects do enter the exhibit, untrained salespeople will allow the customer to control the situation rather than taking control themselves. You have to encourage them to be active, not reactive. But, your first task is getting people to and into your booth.

You can do this with:
  • targeted, high-visibility direct mail effort aimed at specific prospective sub-markets.
  • Pre-show PR. This entails developing special publicity efforts outlining what will be shown in the booth during the show and identifying the booth number to call attention to your exhibit in the show.
  • Advertising tags. This is a simple approach which again requires at least three months' planning. Here you want to run a strip-in on your ads something like "See us at the ZYX Show, Date, Booth #1234".
  • For very special customers and prospects, initiate a computerized letter direct mail effort. This approach can be highly effective when you want to:
    • Have key people meet these individuals face-to- face
    • Demonstrate a specific product to them
    • Have management discuss specific contracts, needs, or modifications
    • Literally close a contract

Booth Traffic

A hook is any thing or action that tends to massage the prospect's ego. Use their first name (everyone has a badge), ask a meaningful question, or simply smile, reach out, and shake hands like you expected to meet the prospect.

These may sound like simple selling techniques, but you'd be surprised how often these selling courtesies are overlooked. Common sense sales techniques work here just as well as they do in the customer's office.

A show magnet is an obvious draw. Rather than using the old attraction of the beautiful or attractive girl in the booth, consider displaying your product or service in an innovative and original manner. Use color, light, sound, or visuals, and make them tie in well with your product.

Most booths are static. Movement is one of the best magnets there is, yet very few people actually blend and design it into their exhibit and display.

Another attraction is professional talent such as models, magicians, games, contests, or some type of entertainment. Keep in mind, though, that they should be pertinent to your product and display. Tailor them to the message(s) you want people to remember. Don't allow them to distract from, or worse yet, overshadow your reasons for being at the show.

Sales promotion items and giveaways are popular magnets. Such items should have little real value but considerable intrinsic value so they will be retained as a further reminder of the company and its products.


You may want to deal with customers and prospects on a one-on-one basis, but you should be familiar with group-building techniques so you can handle those instances when you have to deal with more than one person at a time.

First, stop your target customer. Next, build a crowd around him or her. This permits you to cover the audience and all of your bases more effectively. If you want to see this carried out as a fine art, go to a county fair sometime, and watch the pitch person(s) with their choppers, knife sharpeners, and similar items. Within the first ten seconds, these people know exactly who in the crowd is going to buy, and the rest of the people are simply window dressing.

Eye contact is of prime importance. For example, you are talking to one or two people, and someone walking down the aisle glances in your direction. Catch his or her eye. Briefly focus your discussion on that person. Then make a movement which invites the individual to join the group. But don't spend so much time trying to attract the new person that you lose those you already have.

Another approach is to assign people tasks. Ask one of the people in the group to assist you, hold something, or represent a point you are trying to highlight. Not everyone will accept the assignment, but many will.

Including and assigning approaches work for groups of eight to ten people. When the group becomes larger, it is better to use a platform. This soap-box approach gives the presenter an advantage over the audience. He or she can maintain eye contact while demonstrating product benefits, and the audience can usually see more of what is being demonstrated.

Holding Prospects

Getting people into the booth is only half the battle. You must hold their attention either by setting up an expectation or getting individuals involved.

To gain expectation, build suspense. Make the group wonder about the answer to a question and then promise the answer only if they listen. But make certain you pay them off with the answer.

Sequencing is another method of keeping people in the booth. This is simply a matter of organizing your presentation into logical segments and presenting them so one builds upon the other. This can succeed because it permits you to present a precise, controlled message. People know where you are going and receive minor payoffs with each point. And the prospects generally won't leave until they have received the total payoff.

To get the prospect physically involved, have him or her hold the product or an associating object. The individual will operate or study it as you carry on your discussion.

If you use verbal involvement, you're getting the prospects to do the talking instead of having your people make the presentation. As in every selling situation, this approach works because you're going to do a better job of gathering information and tailoring your presentation to the prospects.

Visual involvement directs the customer and controls the focus of the discussion/demonstration. By pointing out things you want the prospects to see, you cause them to focus all of their attention on your points and products.

Another type of visual involvement is that of A-V presentations tailored to your exhibit. No one will stand and watch a 15-minute slide presentation or video tape, but they will watch a tightly produced two- to five-minute presentation.

One thing you can't afford to do is to permit people to leave your booth until you have determined whether or not they are viable prospects. Don't let people come in and stand around without being helped, even if you are tied up with someone else. Interrupt your discussion, acknowledge the individuals, and tell them someone will be with them in a few moments.

Simply make eye contact, smile, gesture, and tell them you'll be right with them. This gives them an obligation to stay around until you are finished; just don't take too long.

In the meantime, give them something to do. Have them study a specific section of a brochure or view the A-V presentation, but keep an eye on them. As soon as you see their interest waning (assuming you haven't gotten to them immediately), get back to them.

Getting Rid of Visitors

Obviously, at a show you don't generally have the luxury of spending as much time with each individual as you might like. You will make time for the really "hot" prospects, but the others will be in and out of the booth. The key is to determine their level of interest. If it is low, quietly move on to more fertile ground.

Most people will leave after a demonstration, so summarize in a friendly manner to let them know that you are finished. If you can't close and can't seem to "shake" the individual, use some type of sign language to attract assistance from someone else in the booth. This provides you with an easy and courteous method of excusing yourself without leaving a sour taste in the visitor's mouth or leaving him or her with a poor impression of the organization.

Trade Show Selling

Time and again, we've seen examples where salespeople have spent weeks or months calling on an organization only to find suddenly that they were talking to the wrong people. While this is a strong endorsement of advertising, public relations, and other promotion, it is of little consolation to the senior management, sales management, or the individual salesperson -- especially when considering that sales calls now cost in excess of $500.

Unfortunately, this problem is magnified at a trade show because :
  • The sales situation is reversed, since prospects come to you.
  • You have a limited amount of time to present your facts.
  • Salespeople have to make more presentations per hour than they make a day in the field.
To alleviate the differences found in this selling situation, clearly define the priority of the prospects you want to reach at the show. Establish direction and focus for the sales force. Have them target and concentrate their selling energies.

Have a dry run. Part of your pre-show training should include concise presentations so you can anticipate and overcome the problems that may arise with the fast pace of the trade show environment.

You'll probably receive a lot of resistance from your best, seasoned salespeople, but they have to be reminded to ask the basics -- who, what, why, and where -- in their prospecting process.

Remind them that they have only 90 seconds to attract, qualify, and interest the attendee, so the key to their success will be penetration. Have your salespeople write out their approach. It doesn't have to be a canned presentation, but it should be prepared.

You'll find that salespeople will ultimately be able to do a better job. They have a structure within which to work. They have a solid perception of what they want from the show, their attitude will be up, and they will be more competent/relaxed on the floor.

If you want your exhibit to be a winner, develop a uniform, positive selling attitude; develop and provide clear direction; and train your people thoroughly in exhibit selling techniques.

The show selling effort and activity should be more than breakfasts, lunches, and dinners with present customers...more than late night cocktail parties. It should be a strong and effective selling event.

Exhibit Costs

Some people have attempted to put together formulas on evaluating the cost-per-person per show. Others try to trace actual sales to contacts made at the show, while still others use a mixture plus a strong dose of gut-feel. The latter is probably most typical.

Rather than looking at your trade show efforts as an expense, view them in terms of advertising and promotional investments just as you do media advertising, sales literature, direct mail, and publicity. Many people address the concept of a trade show with "what's the smallest amount of space we can use this time?", instead of "what is the most effective method of presenting our message?"

Almost anyone (except heavy equipment or mainframe manufacturers) would be able to get by with a 10x10 (sometimes 8x10) booth. But would it be a good platform for your products, your company, your message?

Once you have determined the amount of floor space required, you'll have to decide how you are going to use the space to its fullest. The variations are considerable, and they all ultimately affect the cost.

To determine your exhibit budget, what kind of selling will you be doing in the booth? Will you be handing out only literature? Will you be carrying on demonstrations? Will you be conducting semi-private meetings in the booth? Will you be spending considerable time with a few groups throughout the show?

What kind of graphics do you have planned? Signage? A-V presentation? And what mood do you want to establish?

Once you have your floor plan, selling message, product requirements, and graphic needs spelled out, you can begin to compile your budget.

Depending upon your desire, you can work with your agency in conjunction with an exhibit designer/constructor or directly with an exhibit builder.

As a rule of thumb, you will probably be able to get two years of show life out of your booth. This is assuming you participate in four to six shows a year, have the exhibit well-crated and shipped the best way possible in plenty of time, and provide adequate instructions for setup and dismantling.

For a booth of moderate quality (not outstanding, but tastefully done) you can expect to spend $2,000-$4,000 a linear foot by the time it is completed (booth, graphics, special effects, etc.). On top of this, you will have to figure that good crating will cost 25-30% of your booth cost. Since booths and crates take a terrific beating in transit and during setup, skimping in this area can be a false savings.

To avoid overtime charges and yet get the product you want, expect to spend three-plus months from the initiation of the project to completion.

The above planning and budgeting considerations are based on the design and construction of an original booth. However, options are available like:
  • Prefabricated knock-down displays
  • Prefabricated panel exhibits
  • Prefabricated free-standing exhibits
  • Rental units from the show exhibit company
  • Used/refurbished displays
While these will skew the budgeting, the same thought process will have to be used to determine if you can, and if you want, to use one of these alternatives.

Whichever alternative you use, consider the image you want to project, the image you are projecting, and the image of your competition at the show. Couple this with the task you want to perform at the show, and you can arrive at a realistic budget.

Extending Exhibit Life

If you haven't recovered from the expense of building your last exhibit, it may be possible to update and revitalize past exhibits with new graphics and remodeling techniques to produce a totally new look at a very modest expense.

Most of the time, people simply discard their earlier booths without evaluating if there is any value left in them. If the structure is still sound, at least some portions of earlier booths can be saved and reused. And maybe the back walls can be redone with new plastic laminate, carpet, or Velcro. The new back walls provide you with a canvas on which you can "paint" a totally new presentation and company/product image.

Another option/possibility is that you can save portions of earlier, large booths and construct one or more smaller, revitalized booths. This approach is especially helpful if you participate in a broad range of shows and the level of participation/commitment is not the same in every show.

For national shows you want major impact. However, with regional shows you can utilize a smaller space and show a more selected range of products/services. Finally, you may have strictly local shows where your sales people and/or representatives feel visibility in the target market community is not only important but good politics.

You could use a 40x40 booth for major shows, 20x20 or 20-foot linear for regional shows, and 10x10 for local shows. Rather than produce three-plus booths, refurbish earlier booths to put your best foot forward in each instance -- economically.

If, after examining existing and past booths, however, you determine you can't save even portions of them, be brutal. Get them out. If you don't, you're going to be paying needless storage costs for something which you cannot, and will probably never, use.

If you are considering refurbishing an old booth, keep in mind freight and drayage costs. Previously used booths may have not been designed with these expenses in mind, and the cost of shipping heavy/bulky booths does add up very quickly.

Likewise, if the booth designer had a field day in designing your exhibit and it is too complicated to set up, your assembly costs may be way out of line, and there will be no savings. KISS (keep it simple, stupid) works for booths just like it works for your advertising and the products you manufacture and sell. But revamping an existing booth can cost about 50% of the replacement costs, so the savings are worth considering. A charge of this magnitude will provide for an extensive facelift and present a totally new image and message.

Controlling Trade Show Costs

Across the country the cost of trade show services, including shipping damage, setup, tear-down, and show support have risen dramatically. It's a major concern to every manager.

But you can keep costs in line and even reduce service costs by applying a little planning and attention to:
  • Pre-show preparation of the exhibit
  • Shipping procedures
  • Information follow-through
  • Rerouting evaluation
  • Rerouting procedures
The summary below should help you curtail your trade show costs.
  • Pre-show preparation of the exhibit
    • Is the exhibit "right" for the show?
    • Does it tell the right story?
    • Are any alterations necessary?
    • Has it been inspected?
    • Is it in good condition?
    • If not, have repairs been made?
  • Shipping procedures
    • Has the quickest and least expensive method of shipping been elected?
    • Has the exhibit been shipped early enough?
    • Has it been shipped via the proper carrier?
  • Information follow-through
    • Has a bill of lading been provided to those who will set up the exhibit?
    • Have the trailer number and tracing information been provided?
    • Has the case containing set-up drawings and hardware been clearly identified?
    • Have those in charge of the exhibit setup received copies of the order forms for various services?
      1. Furniture?
      2. Floor covering?
      3. Electrical?
      4. Telephone?
      5. Plumbing?
      6. Cleaning?
      7. Special orders?
      8. Other?
    • Have those who will set up the exhibit been notified the identity of the person to be in charge of the exhibit?
    • Also, where can they be reached at any time given?
    • If an exhibit service organization is being used, has the company person in charge been notified where he can reach the organization's representative?
  • Routing considerations
    • Should you ship the exhibit back to the point of origin?
    • Should you store it temporarily in the city where the show is being held?
    • Should you ship to the city where it will be exhibited next?
    • Have clear instructions been given for rerouting?

Evaluate Trade Shows
  • Objectives
    • Were you successful in meeting the targeted prospects? Did you get your theme across?
    • Did you present the number of demonstrations you set as your goal? Were the audiences for these presentations as large as you hoped?
    • Did you distribute the volume of literature you set as an objective? Did you get the targeted number of follow-up appointments?
    • Did you meet your goal in registering new names for the company promotion list?
    • What impressions from visitors about your products did you change or reinforce? To how many visitors?
    • Did you close the number of direct sales you planned?
    • Did you find the number of new sales representatives or suppliers you planned?
    • Did you receive the editorial coverage from the trade press you planned?
    • Did you or your staff meet the number of hidden buying influences for existing customers that you planned? Were key staff members introduced to the desired number of existing customers you had set as a goal?
    • Did you learn all you planned to about competitors?
  • Attendance
    • Was the total attendance what you expected?
    • Was the attendance what you expected in terms of job title, geographical location, type and size of company?
    • Was the total number of visitors to the booth what you expected?
    • Was the cost-per-person demonstration or sales call what you budgeted?
    • Did you achieve the increased traffic through the exhibit you planned? How does that traffic compare with previous years?
    • Was the quality and quantity of exhibitors what you expected?
  • Exhibit Media
    • Did the exhibit arrive on time? Was it installed and dismantled according to schedule?
    • Was traffic through the exhibit smooth and uncluttered?
    • Was the exhibit team professional and competent?
    • Did the exhibit attract the quality and type of prospects it was intended to? Did it hold their attention?
    • Was the exhibit well-lighted, and did it provide ample space for salesmen to talk with interested prospects? Were products/services realistically portrayed?
    • Did the exhibit design adequately identify the company and fit it to the theme of the show?
    • Did the exhibit accurately reflect corporate colors, have adequate provisions for storing and distributing literature, and were products well displayed for viewing?
    • Were the exhibits of competitors more or less effective? Why? Which ones?
    • Was the exhibit constructed on time and within budget?
    • Was the overall design and appearance of the exhibit consistent with the standards of effective exhibit design?

© Copyright 1999, G.A.Marken, Marken Communications

Other Articles by Andy Marken

The author assumes full responsibility for the contents of this article and retains all of its property rights. MarcommWise publishes it here with the permission of the author. MarcomWise assumes no responsibility for the article's contents.


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