In an effort to rebrand and expand her practice at East West Veterinary Service, Dr. Jena Questen skipped the large pet expo she had previously attended, and opted for a smaller niche trade show that focused on horses.

“I chose that one because of the people who I thought would be attending,” said Dr. Questen, “I was under the expectation that there would be more foot traffic.  But, so many people who I had spoke to had not heard of the event.”

The low turnout, coupled with a missing order of business cards and signage, turned what should have been three days of magical marketing into a tradeshow nightmare.

Entrepreneurs can avoid such costly nightmares by implementing a trade show success strategy long before the event.

“Trade shows are an incredible marketing tool, but they are not the cheapest marketing tool out there,” said Susan Friedmann, founder of The Tradeshow Coach. “Business owners have to understand what they are looking to achieve by going to a show. Is it for brand recognition, to educate a target audience or do they just want to collect leads that they hope will turn into sales?”

Once entrepreneurs identify their goals and objectives for the show, they should make sure that their target market will be there. Asking organizers for the attendee list, consulting with previous exhibitors and walking the show before committing to a booth can give entrepreneurs a glimpse into whether potential customers will be there.  

Exhibiting at a trade show always costs more than just paying for the booth. Eddie Lange, vice president of Exhibit Experts in Arizona, recommended exhibitors get a good understanding of what the booth rental includes.  

‘Will I need electricity? Is the hall a union hall that has to be put up by union labor? Will I have to hire cleaning services?’ are some of the questions Lange said he helps his clients answer, as well as looking at hotel, travel, printing and staffing costs.  

A trade show budget also needs a line item for marketing a business’ presence at the show. Steven Hacker, president of the International Association of Exhibitions and Events said most exhibitors fail in their trade show strategies because of lack of promotion.  

“Engage in pre-show, on-site and post-show promotion,” recommended Hacker, “If you want to get people to your exhibit, offer them an incentive.”   This could be a discount or gift offer, something that they know they need to stop at the booth for.

Once showtime comes around, it’s all about the booth and the pitch.

“We tell clients, ‘you have between a few seconds and half a minute to get somebody’s attention,’’’ said Lange of Exhibit Experts, “When we are designing the booth, it has to have a real ‘wow’ factor.”

The team inside the booth also has to be prepared to draw in potential clients and extract the right information.  

“You have to know what you are going to say once you have made eye contact. What is your lead-in question?” advised Lange, “Equally important is a considerate, quick, but respectful exit strategy.  The next lead may be walking by so have a statement that will allow the conversation to end.”

By the time the conversation ends inside the show booth, the staff should have all pertinent information recorded and an idea of what type of lead they just encountered so that the conversation can continue long after the show.

Exhibitors often fail at post-show promotion, a critical step to closing the deal. “Leads are not homogenous. You will have A, B and C leads,” said Friedmann of The Tradeshow Coach. “Some people may not be ready to buy right now. Some you have to reach out to in six months. But, you have to follow up on those leads.”