A trade show is like a circus,” said an observer. “You’ve got a massive parade in one big area, with all the hucksters and dazzling displays. And, of course, there are many clowns!” This sentiment is felt by many trade show visitors, even though they may not express it in just that way to vendors.

All the “free” stuff everywhere — and the competition that it creates — makes for a frenzied environment. It’s hard to compete with free, except with more free, more noise, and better displays. Where does it stop?

Look at your costs. The booth rental, displays, sheer manpower, travel, shipping, and all the giveaways can make for an expensive time. A vendor must get a financial return or it isn’t a good marketing exercise. Worse, he may not be back. So let’s make some money by doing it right.


Making more out of less

Trade-show expenses must be considered marketing costs. In my view, all marketing “costs” should be termed “investments.” Marketing is to get leads, leads are for sales, and sales are … if I have to tell you this, you’re not really in business.

Think of your trade display as an advertisement. A “headline” of focus should immediately grab the attention of — and demonstrate a benefit to — the trade show attendee. The money-loser displays are almost always self-impressed shrines to their creators. The “we, me, us, our” mentality that dooms advertising does the same to your trade show display. Focus on your strongest immediate benefit to the attendee, and don’t lose sight of it.

This can be done with a written headline that tops your display, or a clearly demonstrated benefit that attracts the most attention. Sadly, in 90% of the cases, your company name is not a headline.

Have secondary benefits displayed smaller and more specific. Any highly specific items of interest should be only available at the counter, within physical contact range of the booth. This is where your rep is able to communicate personally with prospects. This contact is where 70-80% of your prospects step toward (or away from) a buying decision.


Knowing who’s out there can be very profitable

Trade show crowds move in three segments. The aisle of walkers farthest from your booth do not want to be bothered. They’re “strollers” who are only mildly interested, yet are mostly looking for their benefits from a distance. That’s why your headline needs to grab them. You will not have a chance at attracting them otherwise.

The middle group — slightly closer to you — are “feeders” who meander in and out of booth range. They stop at more booths than strollers, so you must quickly assess their interest level. These people swoop in, walk by several booths, and then swoop again. These people can definitely be sold with the right script and follow-up.

The closest group is comprised of two types. The first type is the “takers” who are out for free stuff — the more, the better, and as often as possible. I personally advocate the use of stun guns for such, but absent that, I’d be inclined to reserve handouts for real prospects.

The second type within this group is the “buyers.” They’re fast, on a mission, and are there to experience full value from their attendance. Buyers generally state their cause at introduction. (They’re often former salespeople or business owners who don’t care for chit-chat. Thank God.) Be ready for these people, because doing business is why both of you are there. Shake hands. Tell them their gain. State more benefits. Set up the close.

Never let a buyer slip by without action. Make an appointment for follow-up. Find out whom you should call on. Set up a way to accurately determine their “true gain.” (They’ll love you for this.) Give them your contact info and support material, thank them, and — unless you’re engaged in heavy discussion — let them move on. The worst mistake you can make is talking too long and having them mentally begging you to shut up. Be professional and friendly but concise.


The 3 questions that lead to trade show sales

Have three questions your reps are prepared to ask to determine highest-probability customers. Otherwise, you’ll waste your day. Ask: “Hi there, are you looking to <increase sales, reduce overhead, get more customers>?” (Make this question an obvious “yes” question.) It must be quick and clear.

The next question is to ferret the problem, such as, “And what methods are you currently using to <overcome, beat, win, solve> that?” His answers will reveal his inadequacy, your competition, or simply that he needs help. No matter what the answer is, your product or service should solve it or do it better, cheaper, faster. If you’re not convinced it does, you don’t have a prospect. Let him move on.

The third question of the real prospect is, “If I could show you a better <answer, solution, benefit>, would it make sense to you to try it?” You’ll get all sorts of answers from, “Yes, absolutely,” to the smart aleck who says, “Maybe, depending on how much it costs.” To these people, the response is along the lines of, “It’s not how much it costs — it’s how much it pays. Let’s take a look.” Move to the trial close.


What about handouts?

Ah, the Great Debate. Do you give lots of things with your name on it in hopes that these people will develop a need? Or do you reserve freebies for more likely prospects? I’ll let you read this before I give my answer.

Often, those of us in marketing read great insight from surprising sources. A trade show management company had weighed several tons of “incoming literature and packaged material” for handouts. The company also weighed the outgoing trash, mostly comprised of these materials, and it revealed that as much as 77% of the handouts never even made it to the hotel room. Ouch.

Here’s the remedy:

Rule No. 1: Make your handout inexpensive. Two-color handouts on 11-by-17-inch paper are just as effective as expensive, four-color, die-cut pieces.

Rule No. 2: Make it interesting and beneficial. Drab copy about how you’ve been around for 75 years, or pictures of your latest acquisition, are big-time yawners. Just tell people what they get, how they get it, and why any of this matters. That’s interesting.

Rule No. 3: Increase its “shelf life” and value by calling a handout a “Special Report” (or other) with a provocative subtitle like, “The Truth Behind Buying ‘Too Much’ Plumbing Equipment,” or “7 Ways to Outsell Your Competition.” Customers want and expect information that helps them. Weave your sales message into this report, and you’ll look far more like an “expert advisor” than a “salesperson.”


The most valuable part of any trade show

If you don’t get contact information from prospects, you may as well stay home. Getting a business card that entitles them to a discount, more info, a free survey, or whatever is absolutely the most important thing you can gain.

The next most valuable part is using that information. An alarmingly high number of vendors have little or no systematic follow-up. That’s why it is imperative that you break that substandard performance. Send them the literature, call them, and put them on your e-zine list, but stay in touch with them or you can rightfully consider your efforts wasted.

Trade shows are exciting, fun, and can be extremely profitable. Our company’s most profitable three weeks are those following trade shows. But you must do it right. Since most don’t, that makes your good efforts even more rewarding!