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Read This If You Think Trade Shows Don’t Work

skeptical about trade showsIf you are reading this article, chances are you actually don’t think trade shows don’t work. 

Why?  Because, as two show producers recently told me, it’s exhibitors who most need trade show training that avoid it, while good exhibitors seek training to keep sharpening their skills. 

Don’t get me wrong – I know trade shows take a lot of work, and the costs are high.  But trade shows get you face-to-face with qualified buyers for much less than the cost of direct selling — value you can’t get anywhere else. 

Those same two trade show producers also know trade shows work, because they witness the difference between unmotivated and successful exhibitors at their shows.  Traci Browne even took pictures.

But if you really do think trade shows don’t work, let me ask you six brutally tough questions.  And please listen to the questions, with the thought, “Those who truly listen are open to change.”  

1. How do you select the trade shows you exhibit at?

  • A)  Even though you grumble that they aren’t as good as they used to be, you still have the same trade shows on your schedule, because that’s where your competitors are, and your absence would make you look bad.
  • B)  You choose shows based on where your target market will be, and willingly readjust your show schedule and booth size based on the ROI from each show’s leads.

2. How do you choose your trade show booth staffers?

  • A)  You bring your drinking buddies with you, so after standing around all day waiting for the show to end, you at least can go bar-hopping together.
  • B)  You pick staffers that actually want to staff the booth, who are approachable, client-focused, with good product knowledge and a great attitude.

3.  How proactive are you at getting traffic into your booth?

  • A)  You shouldn’t have to do anything special to get attendees to cross over from the aisle into your booth, because you already paid the show to deliver those interested buyers to you.
  • B)  To transform trade show attendees into booth visitors, you sent intriguing pre-show promotions with valuable offers, designed your trade show display with bold, compelling graphics, and trained your booth staffers to engage visitors in the aisle.

4. How do you spend your time in the booth?

  • A)  Because you already are so sure that trade shows are a waste of time, you spend your booth staffing shift on your laptop, smart phone, talking with your fellow booth staffers, or wandering away from your booth space.
  • B)  You know trade shows deliver a quality audience, so to welcome them you stand smiling attentively on the edge of the aisle, ready to engage attendees who show some interest.

5. When you return from the show, where do your trade show leads go?

  • A)  On a corner of your desk, because you’ve got to catch up on all that real work that was left waiting while you were at the show. 
  • B)  Into the hands of an eager, pre-assigned team member, who already has the follow-up letter and fulfillment packets ready, and who will quickly enter the leads into your database and forward them to the appropriate sales people, who know they are accountable for following up and reporting the results.

6. What are the most valuable things you get out of trade shows?

  • A)  The few leads that were in your territory, the time spent with your best customer, and dinners on the expense account.
  • B)  Besides the big pile of sales leads for the team, you get to take the pulse of the industry, learn about new competitive products, and gain a better understanding of your customers.

If you selected mostly the B answers that describe proactive trade show marketing practices, and still think trade shows don’t work, then trade shows may actually be a poor marketing medium for your company. 

But if you answered mostly A’s, then perhaps you’ve realized that trade shows aren’t the problem. Maybe you will begin to consider that there are proven trade show methods that you’ve overlooked, and that it’s finally time to re-tool your trade show program.  And make trade shows work for you.

What's Working In Exhibiting White PaperIf you’d like to make trade shows work better for your company, then ask for your free copy of our 32-page white paper report, What’s Working In Trade Show Exhibiting.  It is filled with insights and proven methods of over 170 exhibitors.  Click here to get your copy. 

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.

17 responses to “Read This If You Think Trade Shows Don’t Work

  1. Hi – I have a couple of questions I hope you can help with:

    Can you give some examples of some pre-show promotions to get the RIGHT people to your booth? We go to a lot of shows and I am concerned about constantly sending out emails saying, “Stop by our booth.”

    I wonder about the effectiveness of giveaways that may attract people that only want the free gift or chance to win something larger.


    1. Joanne,

      If you want to attract only people who are qualified, then offer a free sample of your product, or a discount, or if it’s an expensive product, a chance to win one. Then only you target market will enter the contest.

  2. The article has a good message! Trade shows are a competition where everyone wins if you put out the effort. The loosers are the ones who sit at their exhibit talking to each other. The winners engage everyone from the crews to the CEOs. Make it fun going to market.

  3. The B answers are theoretically relevant and a few years ago I would agree. However it is my observation that even though shows are selected based on the presumed audience they will deliver both the quality and quantitiy of attendee is way down. I am constantly looking for that “sleeper” show that may not be the industry norm, but with no success, maybe the norm really is the only game in town.

    1. Hello Gordon,

      Hopefully the shows in your industry will pick up soon. There have been a lot of shows reporting growth in attendance in 2010, but your construction industry is still very hard hit. I wish you the best of luck.

  4. Our problem with trade shows is getting the “leads” to return a phone call. We can never get in touch with them after the show. Voice mail or email. Any ideas on this?

    1. Hello Yvonne,

      On your website you list your show schedule, and without a doubt you have the most international schedule of any exhibitor I have ever seen! I think that alone introduces greater obstacles for follow up. You have the issues of time zone differences, language barriers, and just the big difference of distance — do people who you meet in their country want to do business with you once they absorb just how far away you are? One way around that is to have key staffers plan to stay in the show country for a week or two after the show ends, and then set follow up appointments right at the show. So instead of trying to get a reply to an email to advance the next step after the show, your team is in the lead’s office talking to them.

      Beyond the international aspect, you can get better follow up on your leads with two more things. First, take more time to qualify your leads in the booth. Go ahead and bring up what the most common objections people have with your company and see who really is still interested. Then you should have higher quality leads more likely to respond. Second, take more detailed notes about what each booth visitor’s situation and challenges are, and what your booth staffer discussed with the visitor about how your company’s products and services can solve those problems. Then share that specific info in your follow up emails and calls, giving your leads more reasons to reply to your post-show messages.

  5. Key missing point: How well do tradeshows work compared to (…)

    Tradeshow organizers are living in a different universe wrt cost. Tradeshow equipment manufacturers are also living in that alternate universe.

    It’s not clear that either understand their competition.

    1. Hello JP,

      Amazing coincidence, but your question, “how well do trade shows work compared to …” was the subject of my post from just yesterday. Here’s the link: . And as a custom modular exhibit and portable display builder, we know how important the issue of costs is, so it’s in our DNA to deliver exhibits that lower exhibitor’s total operating costs, while helping them achieve their marketing goals.

      I agree that trade shows have become expensive. It was only during the downturn that show producers made price concessions on space or added value for exhibitors to keep them returning. However, show producers will continue to charge what they do to maximize their own revenue because they know that trade shows deliver so many valuable face-to-face connections in such a short time.

      As an exhibitor, be sure to join your show’s Exhibitor Advisory Committee and let them know how you are comparing the overall value of exhibiting to other b2b marketing media. Ask for concessions and extras before you sign your booth space contract. I attended a class at Exhibitor 2010 where one exhibitor with a lot of equipment said they negotiated their drayage bill from $800,000 down to $50,000!

  6. Nice tips, Mike, but most of us trade show veterans learned this long ago.

    The real problem does not exist with exhibitors but with the organizations and associations that run the trade shows. For example, direct mail pieces often arrive late as names and addresses are provided too late.

    Trade show organizers — not attendees or exhibitors — are the ones that need to adapt to the new economy. It’s not solely a cost issue but the manner in which they that requires major overhauling.

    1. Frank,

      Thanks for sharing your veteran perspective. I think trade show organizers are shaking out into camps. There are some that are aware of the shifting ground of customer expectations and new media opportunities. They are taking steps to ensure they thrive.

      About your mailer example — I came back from the TS2 Show last week, only to find some pre-show promotions that arrived on my desk after I left for the show. I think many trade show marketers could solve that problem themselves by ponying up for First Class (old school term) postage on their promotions, to ensure they don’t sit in post office warehouses for a week or two, or even more. And show producers can help by also providing emails, or even access to attendees’ emails, so there is a quicker way to reach them.

  7. I believe the value of trade shows is a myth. Such like marriage, prom night and the Caribbean (paradise? No hot, humid and mosquitoes). There are much better ways of generating income than exhibiting at a trade show. Meeting people is great but if it doesn’t go to your bottom line it’s a waste of money as far as your business is concerned.

    1. Hello KR,

      Just like with marriage, the myth of trade shows that you may be referring to is that once you are in it, you are set for life. But like in a marriage, the reality of trade shows is that it requires work. You have to dig to find the right shows where your target audience gathers, reach out before the show and give your prospects a compelling reason to visit you, distill your marketing message and make it immediately explicit on your exhibit, find and train motivated staffer willing to engage attendees, and then persistently follow up with your leads after the show.

      So I agree with you that meeting people in and of itself doesn’t help your the bottom line. But it does if at trade shows you make sure you do meet the right people, and that you further develop those relationships after the show. Again, like marriage, trade shows require effort, not wishful thinking that all you need to do is just show up.

  8. Love this post Mike! You nailed it on every point. I have this discussion so many times with so many B2B Marketers and business owners and quite frankly I was sick of trying to argue with them because of the fact they were doing everything wrong and then putting the blame on trade shows in general. Now I can just refer them to this post.

    Point 2B is soooooo important! Many issues could be resolved if only companies sent people who were jazzed about being there instead of sending people who saw it as a waste of their time. Personality is also so important when choosing staffers or even what their responsibilities are within the booth. Some people are not comfortable working the aisles and doing crowd gathering and no amount of training will fix it. So don’t make them do it. They are probably great at in depth conversations in the booth once a visitor’s been qualified…leave that responsibility to them.

    1. Thanks, Traci. Thanks for your pictures and your blog post which got me going on this.

      About point 2B — after I wrote this blog post I attended another show where it was even MORE apparent just how crucial it is to bring willing booth staffers. There were staffers with their heads down, eyes on either their laptop or even their feet. They did not want to be in their booth, and so no one else wanted to, either! All that money wasted, only because the company lacked the foresight to choose staffers who actually wanted to be there.

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