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10 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Started Exhibiting At Trade Shows

Trade Show newbieRecently I posted the “10 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Started In Marketing” and was amazed at the response.  So, in that same vein, here are 10 indispensable lessons I’ve learned about trade shows that I wish I’d had known before I started exhibiting.

1.  You won’t succeed at trade shows if you just show up. A trade show first-timer may think that because they’ve paid a couple of grand to rent a 10 x 10 space for a few days, they automatically will reap the whirlwind of leads and sales from the show’s attendees.  If only.  Surprise: you’ve actually only paid for access to this great audience of buyers.  Now you have to do your part, such as train your staffers, create a promotion that attracts qualified prospects, and design your trade show display to entice the right visitors to your booth.

2.  Trade shows are not as glamorous as they looked from the outside. To the uninitiated, this is what trade show marketing looks like from the outside: Flying around the country to sunny or metropolitan locations, staying in top-tier hotels and meals on the company dime, and access to top-level company execs.  But seen from the inside, trade shows are not so glamorous.  Trade shows themselves are very hard work with a lot of stressful moments before, during, and after exhibit hours.  There are so many details to master, and so many vendors you are depending on.  You can sweat more during exhibit set-up than a month of work outs.  And while travel can be exciting, it gets old fast when you are repeatedly away from home and your family.

3.  Inertia determined much of your company’s show schedule. In the many years before you were handed the reins to your company’s trade show marketing, your company cobbled together quite a list of shows.  But are they all still worth it?  Were some trade shows chosen because your target market was there, or because your competitors were?  Has your client base evolved away from the demographics of some of the shows you exhibit at?  Have some shows eroded their attendee base by not reinvesting in strong marketing and educational content?  Are there new vertical markets that you have yet to find good shows to market to?  It’s up to you to break the inertia — and create some new momentum.

4.  Trade show labor is way more expensive than you think, and sometimes it’s even worth it. It’s an eye-opener to find out how much you will pay someone else to set up your booth, hook up your lights, or rig that hanging sign, especially if it’s on a weekend, or God forbid, on a Sunday.  The union rules in most venues require that you pay labor a wage that adds up in a hurry, even if they don’t.  You can minimize labor costs by getting easier to set up trade show displays, trying to schedule your set up for straight-time labor, and by lining up dependable contractors.  I’ve found some Exhibitor Appointed Contractors are worth it, as they work hard to earn your business, show after show.

5.  You will blow your trade show budget if you don’t plan well. You can never plan too far ahead, especially for overseas shows.  Your budget was likely set with the best-case scenario for your trade show expenses, without room to pay for late fees and rush charges.  That’s powerful incentive to quickly master the show book.  Fortunately, after several shows you learn what you really need to order (electrical, leads machine, carpet) and what form pages you will likely skip (plumbing, signage, security).  A pad of Post-It Notes or a good electronic scheduling software helps you flag your most pressing deadlines.

6.  Everybody wants to help you pick the trade show exhibit color.  No one wants to help you track the leads. When it comes to exhibit design, everyone has an opinion.  And in the time leading up to the show, they will all clamor to offer their ideas, making it harder to get the booth built on time without rush charges.  Yet after the show, you will have a harder time getting similar participation in tracking the leads from the show – ostensibly the reason you designed your exhibit in the first place.  Remind your colleagues that if you can’t prove the results from this year’s show, you won’t be exhibiting at the show next year.

7.  The 10 minutes after the show closes is when most damage happens to your trade show exhibit. The show ends with a voice booming over the loudspeakers saying, “The show is closed, see you next year.” But to impatient booth staffers, it’s as if they had actually shouted, “Drivers, start your engines!”  Booth staffers hurry to win the race to the taxi stand, hotel, bar, restaurant, or parking lot.  And if you have a portable trade show display that your booth staffers pack up, this is when they break it, by shoving it in its case as fast as they can.  Close that expensive window of time by getting a more durable display, getting better packaging, or just by having a frank conversation with your staffers before the closing bell.  Or, if you’re the one who wants to win the race, take a deep breath and slow down before you make a costly mistake.

8.  Drayage is the most expensive way to move your exhibit the shortest distance. As a trade show newbie, one of the biggest surprises is that you have to pay to have your exhibit moved from the shipping dock to your booth space.  Even more shocking is just how much you’ll have to pay — about the same to move something across a convention center as it does to ship it across country.  Drayage rates have risen by double-digit percentages in some of the last few years, probably because more exhibitors switched to lighter weight trade show booths like Skyline’s.  To offset the lower weight of exhibit properties, drayage charges per pound have increased.  If your exhibit is still made the old-fashioned way, it’s a double-whammy.

9.  It’s hard for booth staffers to take their very first lead at a trade show. In our lives we go through various, potentially scary rites of passage: learning to ride a bike, going to your first day of school, asking for a date to the prom.  While all of these have been immortalized in film, no movie has yet to bring to the silver screen the epic tale of a first-time booth staffer engaging and writing up their first trade show lead.  What would yours have been, a horror film?  A comedy?  A tragedy?  Whatever kind of movie it would be, it would also be a drama, because it’s you’re likely filled with nervous energy as you go out and ask a perfect stranger face to face if they’d like to do business with your company.  Just remember that your booth visitors actually paid to visit the show, and many are shopping for solutions to their problems that your products can solve.  Practice the process of engage, qualify, present, and close, and you’ll be more comfortable taking your first lead.

10.  Trade shows can be addictive. With the hard work, long hours, and time away from home, some people can’t wait to return from their trade show.  But for others, trade shows are a calling.  They get jazzed by the performance aspect, the blitz of direct client contact, and the relationships built before and during the show.  They like the ability to create a successful marketing program in a medium built upon the value of face-to-face interactions.  And that’s when trade shows really become addictive: when you master the medium and drive serious revenue to your company’s bottom line.

I hope that if you’re an experienced exhibitor that you’ve been nodding in agreement as you read this, and that you share this with your newer trade show marketing staff.  What important lessons of your own would you add as #11?  Please add them in the comments box below.

Note:  I wrote a sequel post you can also read, 10 MORE Things I Wish I Knew Before I Started Exhibiting At Trade Shows.

About the Author

Mike Thimmesch is the Principal at Thimmesch Marketing. For over 25 years, he has created and implemented innovative marketing, lead generation, and exhibiting strategies that profitably grow company sales and brand awareness. Mike rose to Director level at Skyline Exhibits, where he helped generate over a half million leads, resulting in over $1 billion in sales. He published 11 industry white papers and eight exhibiting books, presented over 100 trade show webinars, and wrote over 200 exhibit marketing blog posts.

50 responses to “10 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Started Exhibiting At Trade Shows

  1. Mike I don’t understand point 9, could you explain what you mean?

    How this for #11: What’s your purpose? Is it to give a flyer away? Is it to collect email addresses?

    And #12: Follow up by email that night just to say hi (or delegate the task to someone in the office for first thing the next morning).

    It is shocking how few business do this after putting all the effort and money into their exhibit!

    Seriously, I put my name in for about 40 prize drawers when I go to tradeshow and hear back from 5, and only 1 within 48 hours of the show.

    1. Hello Sheldon,

      Thanks for the feedback. #9 is about being a booth staffer for the very first time, and having to go engage the trade show attendee and write up the conversation as a lead. To make it clearer, I’ve edited the subhead to say, “It’s hard for booth staffers to take their very first lead at a trade show.”

      I like your “bookend” points for #11 and #12 — have you set your objectives before you start the show, and do you have a plan for follow up after the show? Both are essential.

    2. Sheldon and Mike,

      Your points talking about setting objectives should be point 1.

      If you don’t know why you are going, what you want to achieve and measure how you did what you set out to do…it is a waste of money, resources and energy.

      Articulating this to staffers is also paramount. If they don’t understand why you are exhibiting and how it will also benefit them, they won’t engage with customers to get those leads to help close business.

      It is amazing how many companies do not train their staff on the importance of being at a trade show.

      Rick Rinderle
      Face-to-face marketing specialist

  2. Hi Mike! Excellent article, and all so true. Putting on a trade show is a lot of extremely detailed hard work, and negotiations on advertising, the labor, etc. all hits the bottom line, and you better have done your negotiations well.
    Regarding nine, I know just what you are referring to – you can’t just stand there and hand out info, these are attendees that could equal revenue for the company or person in that booth – they need to treat it as if it were they are going for the sale to close it.

    1. Hello Carolyn, your so are right that your booth staffers can’t just stand there and be wallflowers — we’ve had staffers that can go the entire day and get a fraction of the leads of a motivated, proactive booth staffer. Yet they also have to finesse just how far they push the attendee so they don’t scare them away. Their job is to engage in a meaningful conversation about how their company is well-suited to solve the attendee’s pressing needs, so that the attendee is willing to continue the conversation after the show with someone from the booth staffer’s company. You can see more about partnering with your attendees in a post from last month where blogger Brian Sommer shared how booth staffers can treat him as a trade show booth visitor. Thanks again for your comment.

    1. Hello Sheldon,

      I really like point #1 — don’t worry about where in the show your booth is. It’s much more important to choose the right trade shows than to focus on where you are in those shows. And point #4 about emphasizing benefits rather than branding is an approach worth trying — how many magazine ads do you see with a big logo on top, rather than a benefits-oriented headline? I would take points #5 and #6 and combine them — have a pre-printed note pad of lead cards to take notes about each and every lead, not just the prize-draw entries. Your best conversations will require more space to write than on a lead’s business card, especially if their card doesn’t have much white space.

    2. Love point #2!! So simple but so true, smiling and saying Hello as people stroll by your exhibit booth is a great way to get individuals to actually stop and chat; the purpose of having your booth space in the first place.

  3. Great article, Mike…I was chuckling the entire time I was reading it!

    My #11 would be “No matter how much blood, sweat, and tears you put into your exhibit design and trade show plan, someone will complain about something.”

    Whether it is not enough storage space in the booth, too much Coke vs. Diet Coke, black pens vs. blue pens, not liking the color of the carpet, not being able to get the hotel room to the perfect temperature, not liking the promotional give-away, or anything else they can think of…another company employee who has no idea how long you labored over the booth/trade show plan will be critical of something that is out of your control or had 14 levels of executive approval. This is another reason why all Trade Show Managers must have a thick skin…because they expect negative comments from everyone EXCEPT their colleagues.

    On to the next show!!

    1. So true, Emilie. It’s good to hear these comments from other trade show professionals, to know we all have the same issues to deal with.

      Great articles, Mike. I’m on my sixth year as the company trade show coordinator and there’s still so much to learn. I’m on to the next one article!

  4. Mike…

    Nice job in helping exhibitors focus on what’s truly important.

    But, #6 is the Gold Standard for our industry. What a fun diversion it is to design a new booth, when the real work is always about human, face-to-face performance.

  5. As a General Contractor I have to comment on #8 and hopefully provide a little more insight as to why it is soooo expensive. As pressure has increased to provide show management with lower pricing, it has become necessary to find profit margins elsewhere and drayage is the prime source for the lost margins.

    1. Rick,

      Thank you for honestly sharing the rare insider’s view from a General Contractor. I think most exhibitors do not realize to what extent show owners have control over the cost of drayage. However, to most exhibitors it does not matter if the high cost of drayage is caused by the show’s General Contractor or the show owner. All the exhibitor cares about is that drayage is expensive and still increasing fast.

  6. Good article. Trade shows are not as easy as one might think. I have done numerous shows with my business and think back to my very first show in Toronto. We were going to make a million bucks at that show because we showed up. Our total sales for the show was ZERO. We were in shock and totally unprepared for the show. If I had any advice for first time companies planning to go to a trade show, seek professional advice and talk to other people that have done shows in the past.

    1. Jim,

      Wow, what a story! When you got shut out at that first show, what did you not do that you started doing at subsequent shows? Did you go to more shows later, and with what results?

      1. Mike,
        The show that we initially started with was not as well suited for our product as we thought. You can have an excellent product however at the wrong show you won’t get sales. It is critical to do research on the shows you are intending on showing at and make sure the demographics etc are suited for your offering. The other things that we improved on was focusing on sales and leads at the show. When you are new to trade shows you naturally gravitate to market research at the expense of focused sales and leads. What I mean by this is you can find yourself walking the aisles talking to the other exhibitors at the expense of sales. The other thing you need to do is set goals ie: 200 leads, 10 thousand in sales, with goals you have something to focus on. When we started doing these things better our shows improved and now they are profitable adding new customers and sales.

        1. Jim,

          Thanks for telling your tale! I commend you for being so honest with yourself and taking the responsibility to learn and improve. Too often, unprepared exhibitors will blame their lack of success on the show they exhibited at, or just trade shows in general. It took real character to accept your part in the outcome and then turn it around.

  7. Mike,

    Great article. When I started doing trade shows I wish I’d read this article first. Yes, there is more than what meets the eye with trade shows, however, they can work if one does his due diligence. Thanks for the insight.

  8. What…no mention of how sore one’s feet get when standing all day on poorly carpeted floors? Or is that part of #2 (the lack of glamor)?

    Also following up along the lines of the sore feet and your #1 (showing up is not enough), I would mention that SITTING in a booth (or heaven forbid EATING in a booth) will not draw in potential buyers.

    I would also add that proper manning of an exhibit requires a minimum of TWO people, so your booth is never empty (while you eat or go to the bathroom) and there is always someone to speak to a person who stops at your booth.

    1. Thanks, Donna. All good points. Booth staffers don’t look engaging when they are sitting down, or even standing up if their feet hurt and so they are doing the not-so-happy dance trying to get comfortable. Nothing like having enough staffers to give each staffer a break.

    2. I agree that a minimum of two is necessary but watch that you don’t have too many staffers. I’ve attended trade shows where other exhibitors have had five and six employees in the booth. They spent so much time talking to each other or tripping over each other that attendees didn’t bother stopping at the booth. Make sure you have an adequate number of staffers and if you have more than needed at one time in the booth, give the others the job of being part of the crowd and chatting with attendees out on the floor.

    3. I disagree about sitting in the booth. I choose to sit forward in the booth (no table in front of me) and passersby would rather approach me than me approaching them. I still smile and say hi, make conversation. Then quickly stand once we are talking. This has worked better for me. I always have to travel alone and can’t stand the whole day, since I have to do everything.

      1. Ginger,

        That’s a good idea to have no table in front of you, so you are on the aisle. If you are welcoming and approachable while you sit, that beats cold and unwelcoming while standing any day. It sure helps that you don’t have a booth partner who wants to talk to you, so you can focus on the aisle traffic. When I staff at Euroshop, which is a 10 hour show for 5 days, I will also sometimes perch on a stool at the edge of the aisle for some of the time to give me a “working” break.

  9. Perhaps this discussion is complete with much good advice provided….but I felt compelled to share a couple of thoughts from personal show experience. It is very important to provide a SDR (show detail report) pre-show to ALL booth participants including all relevant logistics, in & out / work schedules, reservations, and cell #’s. That way everyone is kept on the same page and held accountable for their time commitment(s). Also, always have a pre-show staff training/discussion so well understood we are a “team” working towards a common business goal and objective – lead contests work great – but be sure it’s a measure of “qualified” leads. I would just cringe when a Sales Rep would balk when asked to speak to a suspect/prospect because a potential sale wouldn’t put $$ in his region/pocket. Nip that in the bud from the start! And another cardinal rule if your cell phone rings – step away to an aisle quickly… if really necessary and absolutely no calls/texting or surfing in the booth or I will confiscate @ lock it up in a cabinet until your shift ends. I know sounds like sounds like running a Kindergarten class but it works like a charm. Happy showing!! ;)

  10. Let’s not forget a contingency plan. We can only control ourselves, not others, including our shipper! Once, our booth was stuck in a snow storm on its way to Las Vegas, and there were plenty of times that one piece of something didn’t arrive as planned. Murphy reigns at trade shows! What will you do if your booth, or your graphics, or your giveaways, collateral or heaven forbid your staff! doesn’t arrive as planned? How can you still have a successful trade show? There’s lots that can be done to actually maximize your seeming misfortune! Are you prepared?

    1. Patti,

      I think a lot of trade show marketers are so busy just getting their events organized that they have little capacity to prepare for problems. Hopefully someone reading this will heed your call and take the time to “expect the unexpected.”

      In the past, mindful trade show marketers carried around a three-ring binder that had copies of all their paperwork and their local supplier contacts. Nowadays, a thumbdrive, laptop or a smart phone does the trick. The best advice I’ve heard is to bring a copy of your artwork files so if your booth and graphics don’t make it, you can rent a booth and get the graphics reprinted.

  11. I have four shows to attend within the next two months. Three of the shows I will be attending alone. Doing a booth alone is only a problem for the uninformed. Leaving a booth for breaks is an art, and a shared activity. I will make friends with other booth exhibitors, and ask them to inform people they may stop by to come back in just a few minutes. There are lull’s in every show, and that is when you take the breaks. Of course, I never eat at the shows, mainly because I don’t want to miss anything!!!

    1. Bob,

      Great tip for the solo exhibitor!

      I have the metabolism of a shrew, so I have to eat at shows with longer hours, even though like you I don’t want to miss any potential leads. When the show hours are short enough, I delay breakfast as long as possible to be able to skip lunch and stay on the show floor.

  12. Great article. We did some short videos on how to exhibit at international trade shows, especially the big industry specific ones in Germany. Here’s a link to them. Enjoy!

    1. Doug,

      Those are excellent videos about exhibiting in Germany! Thanks for sharing them with our readers.

      To provide simular information, we commissioned Tradeshow Week magazine to publish a White Paper called International Exhibiting.

  13. Great article, so much truth!

    Solve the problem of sore feet with double padding under the carpet. Costs more, but it really saves the feet!

    Buy some items instead of renting: Chairs, waste basket, some tables, literature racks. The ones you buy are probably better anyway.

    Choose shipping crates carefully: Weight, size and durability are important. That very expensive, beautiful custom crate you had made can be damaged or dropped in 5 seconds by a careless forklift driver.

    I read the article linked in the comments. I feel that branding is just as important as benefits. If your brand is weak, product benefits might need more stress; but some people buy brand because of reputation, and reputation is very important.

    I’m not impressed by fully electronic, non-paper lead retrieval systems. Many booth staffers can’t type fast enough to use them effectively, and flexibility on product feedback is important.

    Find a way to get booth staffers to comment on leads. Too many leads have no comments, making them practically worthless.

    1. Tom,

      Thanks for your comments. Agree with you 100%. We still use paper lead cards, and staple the notes (with lots of room for comments) to the print out from the electronic card scanners. We coach our staffers to take a minute after each conversation to write the most important points of the conversation, because our sales person will need that to make an effective follow up.

  14. Mike,

    I am a firm believer that even if you have done something a million times there is always something new to learn. Thank you for sharing some great points that all of us can learn from.

    I have a few to add that might seem very simple but often forgotten.

    #11 Be flexible — attitudes are easily spotted whether they are good or bad. You never know who you are having an attitude with and it can easily come back and bite you in the butt. So when things go wrong take it in stride, go with the flow and make it work with a smile on your face.

    #12 Good leads do not stop when it is time to tear down the booth. Attend as many of the dinners, lunches, receptions as possible. I might get a lead during the time I spend in the booth but there are many times I make the real connection over dinner with some really great one-on-one time.

    Again thanks for the thoughts and ideas!

  15. Good tips and SO TRUE! I’ve been doing tradeshows for almost 10 years (worked for an exhibit company and now on the “client” side of the fence). It’s interesting to see how different companies approach tradeshows.

    Personally, I think you have to learn to “roll with it”, something will go wrong, you just have to anticipate and find an appropriate solution with the resource you have. ALWAYS always have a Plan B!! I’ve seen it all, so I no longer get stressed by the little things.

    1. Kristen,

      You’re so right about the Plan B. They are so necessary at trade shows, that Exhibitor Magazine even has a monthly column called Plan B, which celebrates the ways trade show managers adapt to the unexpected.

  16. Hi Mike,

    There is something about a trade show floor just before the opening. The buzz in the air, the energy, the people, the face-to-face interactions. You can’t get this from an email or phone call. Great articles and insights Mike, keep up the great work.


  17. I’d add to engage the prospect. I don’t know how many shows I have attended that the exhibitors just sit behind a table and let you stand in front of them asking questions. Our company has a “no sitting” policy. We believe that standing the entire time keeps you awake and extroverted while engaging the prospect in a quick qualifying conversation.

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  19. I do like that you strongly recommend being careful when you’re planning out your trade-show budget. After all, with all the costs of labor, demonstration, floor space, etc. the cost can skyrocket before you know it. In order to get around this you may have to look for cost-saving measures like renting your booth.

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