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Boni and John Wagner-StaffordIf you aren’t including trade shows in your marketing mix, you may be missing out.

Exhibiting at a trade show immediately levels the playing field between you and the other guys, no matter how much bigger, richer or more established they are. Every business pays the same square-footage rate to get in front of people who are ready – or getting ready – to buy.

We developed our own best practices after several years of exhibiting and presenting at the National Home Show, Fall Home Show, International Home Show and Realtor Quest in the Greater Toronto Area, and nearly a dozen National Association of Broadcasters shows in the United States. Here’s what we learned:

Show strategy

It starts with choosing the right show for your business’s target market. Choose shows with the largest attendance, best industry reviews and biggest advertising budget. Articulate your sales strategy to staff and offer what attendees want. Set objectives. This could be number of units sold, leads generated or trips booked.

Care and feeding

Be prepared to eat and drink trade show talk for the duration and, yes, to be exhausted. Plan healthy snacks, bring water. Taking care of you first will help your clients feel your positive energy.

Don’t eat at the booth: first, it signals you are not ready to engage; second, you’ll be smiling at the most important prospect of the year with a hunk of leafy green stuck between your teeth.

Attract and engage

A professional, orderly booth with visual, audio, video, printed materials and product samples will draw and hold interest. Open, engaging and branded staff who provide an amazing client experience will set the tone for every other client touchpoint throughout your relationship.

Capture and convert

You need tools to capture lead information: pen and paper, computer, tablet or other technology that won’t fail when you can’t take the time to fix the glitch.

Shorten the gap between expression of interest and sale whenever possible. Here’s what we did while working with KANDY Outdoor Flooring and its National Home Show booth. KANDY’s sales process involves in-home consultations, so our strategy was to close the gaps between an expression of interest, booking a consultation, and the actual consultation and sale.

Before the show started, we created a list of available times that would allow us to schedule a consultation with a prospect on the spot. We didn’t make them wait until after the show, either, with early morning and evening appointments on show days.

The National Home Show is a big, 10-day show with lots of exhibitors. In our first year, we left much of the lead follow-up and consultation scheduling until after the show ended. By then, some people had forgotten who we were. We never made that mistake again.

Giveaways versus gimmicks

Giveaways should relate directly to your products or business. Don’t give away candy unless you’re a candy business. It might draw people to your booth but they will not remember you and it’s a waste of money.

Trade show etiquette

Trade shows are a competitive marketplace and some people get a little overzealous.

“There was a fellow I watched once,” McDonald recalls. “He was competing with the guy in the next booth and actually came and took over the conversation his neighbour was having with a prospect. It was horrible.”

It’s wonderful to be enthusiastic but have the good graces to recognize when your competitor is legitimately engaged with a prospect. You impress no one – especially not that potential customer – with aggressive behaviour.

Follow up

Even if you created an amazing client experience at your booth, the memory of your business will fade, so connect with leads as soon as possible.

Never forget that another “No thanks” brings you one step closer to “Let’s do it.”

Between them, Boni and John Wagner-Stafford have five decades of experience as entrepreneurs and/or providing consulting services to other small businesses across Canada.

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