Tricks of the Trade: 7 Secrets to Conquer Your Next Trade Show

Ah, yes, the trade show circuit. If you're a small- to medium-sized business just breaking into the scene, it may feel as though you have quite a steep learning curve ahead. But it’s one that’s well worth your while, as few events can compete with trade shows in the sheer volume of exposure and opportunities for networking with clients, prospects and industry leaders that they offer. And with careful planning and strategic execution, your company can be well positioned to go head-to-head with even the most formidable Goliaths in your field.

But wait, you say, how can I hope to compete when they have far more money and resources to spare? Here’s the secret: what really gives the big firms their advantage isn’t necessarily their gargantuan budgets; it’s their experience. They’ve been in the game long enough to know what works and what doesn't, which allows them to sharpen their focus and avoid potential pitfalls.

To help level the playing field, here are the insider secrets that you need to know to conquer your next trade show without blowing your budget.

Secret #1: Bring plenty of firepower.

By firepower, I mean people. You can't just park a couple of employees in your booth and hope for the best.

Of course, you should man your booth at all times, but it takes more than that if you want to play ball with the big boys.

First of all, you need the right people at the booth. Not everyone can talk with potential customers, understand their issues and respond with helpful solutions on the spot. You must call on your most experienced, most personable front-line employees to fill these slots.

Second, you need another team of people circulating the trade show. It’s up to you to seek out and create opportunities, not sit back and wait for them to come to you. So make sure you have another string of well-spoken, outgoing employees working the floor for you.

Secret #2: Attend alternate events.

Most trade shows include alternate events either on- or off-site. Always make sure your company is being represented at as many of these events as possible.

The trade show floor has its own tone and formality, but when you can get in front of potential customers – and competitors – in a less rigid corporate setting, you can often strike up casual conversation that plant the seeds for valuable long-term relationships.

Many trade shows also offer classes and workshops. Even if you don't need the information being presented, show up and meet people. See who’s there asking questions and follow up with them afterward. These kinds of conversations are critical for building relationships, and they're never going to happen spontaneously at your booth.

Secret #3: Corner your customers at their booths.

Another way to open the door to new sales opportunities is to go to meet prospective customers at their own booths.

It takes a special finesse to pull this off well. Companies attend trade shows to make sales, not to be sold to.

The key is to carefully select which prospects you should approach prior to walking the floor. Then be mindful of your timing. If your potential customer has a small crowd around their booth, it’s not the time to jump into the fray. But if they're sitting around and the crickets are chirping, then that’s your cue to walk up and introduce yourself.

Keep in mind, too, that as the trade show winds down, activity dwindles. This can be an excellent time to make the rounds to the prospects you've scouted out. You don't want to interrupt folks if they're breaking down their booths, so be considerate. If you have lots of customers you want to network with, save your coldest leads for the end of the trade show so that you don’t risk missing an important connection.

Secret #4: Collect contact information.

Always obtain information from your new contacts in any and every way you can – whether it’s by gathering business cards or just jotting down handwritten notes on the fly. It's not enough to collect the information, though. You need to have a plan.

Make sure you take notes as you go, for example. Develop a keyword system so you can move quickly while still providing useful cues to help you remember important details of your conversation.

Purchase a business card scanner that will scan and automatically populate the information from a card into your contacts system. Anytime you get a break during the day, scan your cards and augment each one with all of the details that you can remember from your encounter. When the day is over, it's going to be hard to remember which card belongs to the man you met at 8:30 a.m. who asked you to call him on Monday morning because he is highly interested in your services.

Secret #5: Garner intelligence on competitors.

While you’ll want to maximize the time you spend with customers and prospects, it’s also worth your while to make time to research your competitors. After all, how often do you get direct access to potentially senior-level sales staff in your competitors' companies?

Be ethical, but don't be afraid to hide your badge, either. You may only get a few brochures with their latest product details, but with a few well-placed questions, you could also uncover other critical information that could have a far-reaching impact on your business.

Secret #6: Don't skimp on printed materials.

Can you imagine the embarrassment and frustration of having a juicy prospect right in the palm of your hand only to have nothing to offer him as a take-away?

That’s why you never, ever want to run out of brochures, business cards and other printed materials. Have more than you need on-hand. Be sensible, but it's better to over-estimate than to run out.

Be very aware of your supplies, especially if you have multiple trade shows on the horizon. If you're getting low, now’s the time to order more – not when you’re trying to pack and ship everything to your booth.

Secret #7: Communicate with the event coordinators.

The most important people you can know before you arrive are the event coordination staff for both the event and the location. Often this may be the same person, but always find out for sure. The trade show itself sometimes has its own staff to help coordinate logistics and other details while the venue where the trade show is hosted may have a separate group. If something goes wrong, you need to have these people on speed dial (and, more importantly, you need them to know who you are when they answer the phone)!

Don't wait until a few days before the event to introduce yourself; be the early bird that gets the worm. Yes, these event coordinators may hear from hundreds or thousands of attendees, but reaching out never hurts. These folks can save your entire trade show because they know all the tricks and where to find things if something of yours is missing or needs to be replaced at the last minute.

Bonus secrets

Finally, here are a few more tricks you should have up your sleeve to help grease the gears at your show:

  • Run a contest or drawing for a prize that people actually want.
  • Offer coffee and snacks for those who stop by your booth.
  • Arrange your booth in an open floor plan.
  • Make eye contact with those walking by and greet them with a smile.

While these small details won’t necessarily make or break a sale, they all contribute to making your booth a place that feels welcoming and approachable to prospects. Remember, at the end of the day, we’re all just human, and sometimes a simple smile can be all that’s needed to disarm a passer-by and open the door to a great conversation.

Don't let a moment of your next (or first!) trade show event go to waste. Use these secret strategies to make the most of every opportunity it affords. With a solid plan of action and plenty of preparation, you’ll return to the office with a proud feeling of accomplishment and a large stack of valuable contacts that will make all of your planning and strategizing well worth your while.