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Observations of a First-Time Trade Show Attendee

For the past few months I’ve been reading blogs, marketing brochures, newsletters, and white papers filled with information on how to have the best trade show possible. I’ve absorbed countless tips and ideas and have a good understanding of what needs to happen to make a trade show successful.

I was given the opportunity to attend my first trade show with the marketing department at Skyline and I was blown away at what I saw; the trade show etiquette that I had read so much about was missing from too many booths. I witnessed two major fails that probably resulted in a failed trade show for a large number of exhibitors at this show.

If and when you exhibit, there are two things you need in order to get the results you want and to keep your company coming back for competition. Keep in mind these are not the only things that will make your show a success, but they will make or break your show experience, and potentially your reputation.


1. You need an objective, and it can’t be because every one of your competitors is doing it. We asked multiple companies why they were exhibiting at this particular trade show and what they hoped to get out of it. The response will surprise you. The first said, “We’re here because everyone else is here, and if we don’t show up people will talk.” WHAT? The second said, “It’s not really our biggest show and we don’t get a lot of leads out of it, but we’re here every year so we can’t just stop coming.” My ears hurt.

First off, how do you plan to exhibit if you don’t know what they’re doing it for? If you don’t know what you’re hoping to take away from the show, your attitude, your booth, and your actions will show it.
Are you looking for higher and more qualified leads? Are you promoting a new brand or a new product? Are you hoping to beat out the previous year’s numbers? Whatever your objective is, make it clear before your booth lands on the show floor. Having an objective means you have a goal. You can’t measure your results if there is no goal in sight.

2. Your booth staffers need to actually staff the booth. This sounds like an obvious statement, but I couldn’t believe all of the “staffers” that occupied the booths. People who staff your booth are the representatives of your company. They represent your brand, your products, your customer service, and most importantly, the type of relationship you should expect from the company itself if you decide to partner with them.

When walking past a booth, eyes darted down to cell phones and iPads. Booth staffers were more concerned about avoiding eye contact than greeting or acknowledging myself and my colleagues. We decided to play a little game to see what it would take to be engaged.

I walked up to a booth and took a piece of candy while my eyes were fixed on the staffer in the booth. I said “hello” and a got a glance up and then he glanced back down to his phone. People, this is when smart phones are stupid. So many staffers were more into their phones than they were into trying to make an effort of starting conversations. I walked away and tried again. I walked straight up to another booth and grabbed a freebie, but only after I had made eye contact with the staffer. I expected a smile and a conversation starter, but the booth staffer said, “Please, take another one. I don’t want to bring these back home.” The game went on with my colleagues and not much changed. We were avoided, quite awkwardly actually, and then were rarely given a “hello” in return for stepping into a booth. I should also mention the countless staffers we passed that were eating their lunches and snacks in their booth. On the display tables. We decided not to interrupt them.

Here are some conclusions I gathered from these encounters: Booth staffers need to be present, but more than just physically. A staffer needs to be actively searching and welcoming prospects into a booth. As an exhibitor, choose booth staffers who want to be there. From what I could tell, none of these staffers wanted to be there and their actions showed it. Willing staffers are better for your brand, your reputation, and ultimately for your trade show results. Keep your booth staffers motivated and train them in interpersonal skills. If I had been a real customer and I walked into a booth where the staffer avoided eye contact or told me to take more candy, that company would lose my business.

Needless to say, my first trade show experience was not what I expected. I did learn that our resources on our blog site are extremely valuable and I urge you to take advantage of these. These posts are written for a reason and are here to help you. I also learned that there is always something that can be done to improve your trade show experience, no matter how much you benefit from a show. Always challenge yourself, take note of what is around you, and build off past and present experiences. Ultimately, always ask yourself what your objective is, and always be excited about what you’re doing inside and outside the booth.

boothstaff_smLooking for ideas to make sure you find the best fit for your trade show booth? Get your hands on the Booth Staffing Guidebook for techniques and strategies to guide you to the right decision. Click here to request your free copy.


About the Author

Jennifer Snyder was a Marketing Associate and Project Manager at Skyline Exhibits, based at Skyline's International Design Center in St. Paul, Minnesota.

6 responses to “Observations of a First-Time Trade Show Attendee

  1. Great article Jennifer. I’m with you. If you aren’t there to engage people, why go at all?

    Booth etiquette is a huge issue at shows and it seems most booth staffers either don’t know or don’t care.

    Welcome to the industry Jennifer. Sounds like you’ll go far.


  2. So very true! I witnessed a lot of this also, Jennifer, at a fitness show I went to earlier this year. It’s amazing that these folks spend so much on hauling all of their stuff to the show, have beautiful exhibits, fantastic product, but then do everything you described. On top of it all, many of the staffers were fitness enthusiasts who were so happy with themselves demoing what they were selling (and basically showing off,) that they forgot why they were there, and weren’t actually engaging the people once they had their attention. (Yes, I played the same game you did!)

  3. I spend a lot of time trying to encourage my staffers to engage people, but they are so worried about the amount of work they are leaving at work. I get so frustrated. They believe that trade shows are dead. They eat with their work friends, rarely encounter people outside the booth and invite them to come to visit us in the booth. The show is a chance to encounter people everywhere and invite them in. I never leave the booth because I am the only one generating leads. They don’t understand why I never go to lunch, but it’s because I can’t get any ROI when I leave them alone in the booth. I want energy and passion in my booth.

    1. Deb, I feel your pain! How much control do you have in choosing your booth staffers? Can you find people in other areas of your company (customer service, for example) who would be honored and excited about representing your company at the trade show? Can you convince your upper management to give you more authority to choose booth staffers, because you can demonstrate the significantly better ROI potential of more leads for the same cost?

  4. As a booth staffer of many years experience in shows large and small, I’ve certainly seen what Jennifer describes. I offer these ideas: 1) If the show hours are so long that standing is impossible, use stools instead of chairs. At least you’re near eye level with the attendees and appear more involved. 2) No food or drink should be visible in the booth at any time. Even a bottle of water should be kept out of sight. 3) Yes, make eye contact! I like to smile and politely say “Hi, can I answer any questions for you?” It’s an effective, non-threatening, ice breaker to involve the attendee.

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