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On the road again: Our guide to planning a successful trade show appearance

In-person events are decidedly back. Over the past few months, we’ve had the opportunity to plan and execute trade show appearances for several clients. Without exception, these events have been a rousing success, and it was clear that everyone—attendees, exhibitors, and organizers—was excited to be in person again.

But attending a trade show isn’t a guarantee of success, and the excitement of IRL gathering isn’t enough to ensure you’ll get what you want out of the experience (namely, new Sales Opportunities.) In fact, if not planned well, trade shows can be a huge drain on your time and money. 

In this post, we will share our recipe for trade show success, including a detailed project plan and five tips to help you achieve your goals before, during, and after the event.


First things first: which trade shows are worth it?

Before committing to a trade show, it’s worth asking yourself: is this really a wise investment of our resources? How can we be sure?

To help sort through these important questions, we’ve developed a framework for deciding whether to participate in a trade show or conference. Check this out first before you read the rest of this post. As we note, our working assumption is that you’re generally pro trade shows (like us), but only those that help you achieve your goals within your budget. Our framework (and consideration template) helps you assess whether a given event fits these criteria. 

Now, on to the planning.


The project plan

Every trade show is indeed a different beast — with varying types of sponsorships, speaking opportunities, audiences, and more. However, in our experience, the overall plan for every show is generally repeatable. With that in mind, here’s the Blue Seedling trade show planning template.

The main categories in the project plan include:

  • Logistics: “Show Logistics” covers tasks and deliverables required by the organizers (e.g submitting the company logo and profile) while “Team Logistics” are tasks related to getting the team to the show.
  • Booth: Everything related to building your booth: designs, production, ordering, set-up, and breakdown.
  • Collateral and swag: This refers to things you plan to give away at the show, from printed assets to free stuff to high-end raffle prizes.
  • Website, content, social media: Tasks related to promoting your show appearance on your website and other channels—landing pages, blog posts, etc.
  • Email: Arguably the most important part of a successful show promotion will be directly reaching out to leads and booking meetings ahead of time (more on this below). 
  • Conference room and side events: These are common add-ons to trade show appearances. Depending on the show and your presence at it, an external conference room (or hotel suite) may be the best way to meet with prospects, whereas a well-scheduled and promoted side event—preferably with one or more partners—can be a great way to make a splash and meet new leads during the show.

Depending on your particular show, some of these categories might not apply, while others will need to be added. For example, if you plan to make a major announcement at the show, consider adding tasks related to your press release or any additional speaking engagements.

And a final note about the timeline: Executing your project plan will usually take a couple of months, so we recommend assigning owners and due dates to all tasks as early as possible. We also suggest slotting a “draft due date” for all creative tasks—especially if multiple stakeholders are involved in the approval process.


Five tips to increase your chances of success before, during, and after a trade show

Beyond a good project plan, there will always be a few intangibles that affect how successful your trade show participation will be. Here are a few tips to help you navigate your way to an A+ show.

  1. Communicate with the show organizers early and often. You’ll be working closely with various representatives from the trade show during the ramp-up to the event. Identify your main contacts—a sales representative, your exhibitor services manager, and/or the show decorator—and establish an open line of communication long before the event starts. Establishing this working relationship can make all the difference when something (almost invariably) goes awry—a last-minute change in personnel, delivery or construction issues, etc.

    Don’t be afraid to ask them questions, and make sure you know who to reach out to if subcontractors are involved (e.g. equipment rental, onsite electricians, etc).
  1. Choose your team wisely. This should be a no-brainer: staff your booth with people who can talk up the company, show off your products, and turn visitors into Sales Opportunities. Not everyone will be a good fit to be the face of the company in a trade show setting.

    Additionally, make sure that the total number of team members is just right. You don’t want to have too many people idling in the booth, but you also don’t want to be understaffed. A good rule is to staff a 10×10’ booth with 3-4 people, which should allow one person to be engaged outside the booth at any time.
  1. Set up meetings in advance. A strategic location, good swag or raffle prizes, and eye-catching design can draw meaningful attention (and leads!) to your booth. However, the best way to increase your odds of leaving the show with new Sales Opportunities is to pre-book meetings with prospects in advance.

    We recommend a targeted email campaign for booking these meetings. Here’s how to do it, in two simple steps:

    • Build your email list. Some shows will provide a list of attendees as part of your sponsorship package, or they provide access to a networking app that you can scrape for contact info. If these options aren’t available, you can also build your own list (from your database or third-party tools like ZoomInfo) of prospects who will likely be at the event.
    • Make the ask. Reach out to your list a few weeks before the show. Briefly pitch your product and its specific benefits to this audience, and suggest a meeting time  — at your booth, a common space, or an enticing location like a nearby coffee shop. Your conversion rate might be low, but if the overall contact list is long enough, you should be able to set up a good number of meetings.

    We have recently experimented with expansions to this tactic, such as using lead gen agencies and offering high-value gifts for prospects who confirm and show up for their meeting. These might not work for every company, but are definitely worth considering.
  1. It’s OK to run out. This is simple: you should strive to give away everything you produce for the show, from collateral to swag and prizes. You should not fret about running out of swag before the show ends. People who are interested in your offering will still come by, and giving everything away means that booth traffic exceeded your expectations. That’s a win in our book. 
  1. Follow up. Now. The main course. Our raison d’être. Sales Opportunities and continuing conversations. Here’s something to remember: no matter how good a particular conversation went, the person you met will have many similar conversations lined up that day. The only guaranteed way to continue these conversations post-show is to reach out very quickly and arrange a follow-up call or meeting.

    Our usual strategy is to schedule a follow-up call/meeting right at the end of that initial conversation. When that is not an option, following up that evening will also work. At the end of each day, look at the list of leads, identify who’s “hot”, and reach out to them with additional information (e.g a product overview or competitive comparison) and suggested times for a follow-up.

    Cooler leads should also be contacted quickly. If doing so during the event isn’t possible, aim to send everyone a follow-up message 1-2 days after the event. It is always preferable to include valuable content in your message, like an ebook, whitepaper, or an invitation to your next webinar or trade show.

The bottom line

A successful trade show appearance can be a great source of new leads and Sales Opportunities. However, success isn’t guaranteed, and proper planning is key. As you start planning your next event, we suggest that you start with our project plan template, modify it to your needs, and follow our tips. And at the end of the day, don’t forget to enjoy the experience and the adrenaline rush of a good show. See you on the road!

Erez is a Director of Marketing at Blue Seedling, comic book lover, and fast food enthusiast.

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