Smart Trade Show Follow-Through

Expositions can be expensive to attend but are a great way to discover new goods and services and make profitable contacts. Here are six steps you can take to ensure the investments in time and money pay off

Editor’s note: While we hope this article is useful to attendees of ISPA EXPO 2020, the advice and tips outlined are intended for a general audience and may not apply to a broad range of trade shows.

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Trade shows offer many opportunities for meeting new vendors, learning from seminars and hobnobbing with colleagues. All those activities can pay off with a fatter bottom line.

“A trade show is the best place to see everything that is happening in the industry and to learn what companies have to offer,” says Alice Heiman, founder of her own sales consultancy in Reno, Nevada. “Your presence at a show brings you face-to-face with three groups of people: attendees, speakers and exhibitors. You can learn from each.”

Despite their attractions, trade shows can toss a monkey wrench into any organization’s operations. How can you spare the time and money required to send yourself and staff members to a show? And how can you maximize the return you get on all the time and money spent?

The answer lies in smart follow-through when you return. That means keeping the dialogue going with vendors, passing along lessons learned to co-workers and sharing the hottest industry trends with customers.

Doing all that in a way that boosts profits is a continually evolving skill: Like expert golfers working on their follow-through, successful trade show attendees always are improving the quality of their after-show swing.

Here are six tips for doing just that:

Tip 1: Prepare to win


The best follow-through begins before you leave the office. Each person attending the show must plan in advance to take the right steps after returning. That means having an answer to the question: How will I maximize the contacts I make with show exhibitors and other individuals I meet?

“Trade shows provide the chance to communicate with the entire industry under one roof,” says Peter LoCascio, a Salem, Oregon-based consultant. “Each attendee should assume accountability for the time spent away from the workplace, and for travel and hotel expenses. There needs to be a personal commitment to spending the money well by following through on new contacts.”

Some companies are cutting back on expenses by sending fewer people to each show, LoCascio notes. That makes it more important than ever for each person to get the most out of attendance.

Every attendee needs to exercise the best techniques for maximizing their time. Maybe that means collecting business cards, having their badges scanned to receive product literature, scanning QR codes in booths, or taking smartphone photos of new and interesting products (but check the show rules to make sure photography is allowed).

“Weeks in advance of the show, bring your people together to make your expectations known,” Heiman says. “Tell them how you expect them to dress and to conduct themselves. What kind of notes should they take and what reports will they be making? Suggest they consider recording sessions and taking photos of the visuals that speakers put on the screen and that they pick up any interesting handouts that would help their team learn.”

Bonus tip: Have experienced attendees brief novices on the best techniques for getting the most from a trade show.

Tip 2: Set specific goals 

General goals are important. But translate them into specific actions. Define your game plan in detail and be able to answer the key question: What do you intend to achieve?

“Develop specific answers in advance to critical questions,” says Nancy Drapeau, vice president of research for the Center for Exhibition Industry Research in Dallas. “How many booths will you visit and which ones? Are there specific educational seminars you will attend? And how about networking events? How will you track your activities?”

Plan your time in concrete terms. “Get an advance copy of the exhibitor list from the show sponsors,” LoCascio says. “List the products and services you are looking for and draw up a plan to visit the booths of the exhibitors. Avoid walking the aisles aimlessly.” (For more information about ISPA EXPO 2020 exhibitors and activities, see the EXPO section beginning on page 65.)

Reaching specific goals will require effective networking skills. “If people don’t know how to network, they will not know how to obtain valuable information,” Heiman says. “Teach your staff how to start productive conversations with strangers and how to keep people talking. Make sure they can answer the question ‘What do you do?’ ”

Networking goals also can be specific. You might require your staff to find 10 new people with whom they can develop continuing relationships. They can do this by attending various networking events, and by splitting up to sit with different people at lunch, dinner and cocktail hour. “The idea is to learn about the industry trends that will be affecting your company and your customers,” Heiman says.

Bonus tip: If you are going to the show as a group, get more done by splitting up and pursuing individual goals. Don’t walk the show in a pack.

Tip 3: Debrief co-workers

When the show’s over, ask attendees to share what they learned with their co-workers. What were their impressions of the show? What did they learn from exhibitors about new products? What did you glean from seminar speakers?

“Set a date and time for a follow-up meeting before you go to the show, to make sure the job gets done,” says Meridith Elliott Powell, a sales and leadership strategist based in Asheville, North Carolina. “Decide in advance how the meeting will be structured and how you will debrief. It’s important to tell not only what happened, but also to share your leads. Whom did you talk to? What did you discuss? What will the next steps be? What topics were of interest to you?”

When talking about vendors and their offerings, Powell says, it’s important to go beyond a list of new goods and services. Explain how purchases will integrate into your current structure. What will it take to earn back your investment?

Encourage attendees to present their findings in a way that engages their colleagues. That means more than just standing and reading their notes.

“One approach is to present findings in the form of a quiz,” Heiman says. “Or engage the audience by repeatedly asking for ideas on how what has been learned from the show can be applied to current operations.”

If the show has been particularly extensive, avoid overwhelming the audience with too much material. “Consider having each attendee pick two or three vital insights discovered at the show, then do a deep dive into each one — perhaps doing additional research on the topic before the presentation,” Heiman says.

Bonus tip:

Schedule the follow-up meeting within 48 hours of the time people return from the show, while memories are still fresh.

Tip 4: Review performance

Good trade show follow-through includes reflections on how well the attendees used their time and how they might improve their technique the next time around.

“There should be a post-show discussion about how participants performed, including what worked and what didn’t,” says Orvel Ray Wilson, an international speaker and coach on trade shows based in Boulder, Colorado. “Which steps were effective and which were not?”

Consider what you were looking to achieve and assess whether you were successful. “If something worked, point it out and plan to repeat it in the future,” Drapeau says. “If something did not work, discuss the reason. Was the problem with the show or with your team’s performance?”

Answer the tough questions, such as: How could attendees have improved their use of time? Should the business send more or fewer people to the next show? Or perhaps not attend the show at all because there are not enough potential contacts? 

Bonus tip:

Have each attendee prepare a short report on three ways the business can improve its return on investment by attending the next show.

Tip 5: Follow up with vendors 

Once you’ve briefed colleagues on the show, follow up with important vendors. Trying to reach out to everyone can seem overwhelming when you have regular duties to attend to at the same time. So, start with a few that have the most potential.

Above all, the experts advise: Make it personal. Remember that the most important reason to attend a show is to build relationships.

“Write handwritten notes,” Heiman suggests. “In an age of email, these can be especially effective because no one does them anymore. Say things like ‘It was nice to meet you. I had so much fun discussing how the industry has changed over the years. I look forward to continuing our relationship and discussing business trends.’ And include your business card.”

Social media also can personalize your feedback. “Are some vendors active on LinkedIn? If so, connect with them,” Heiman says. “And don’t just connect. Interact by liking or sharing posts they have made that would be interesting to people who follow you.”

In some cases, Heiman says, it is appropriate to schedule a phone call: Maybe the person has special knowledge and you want to know if she will present virtually to your company.

Bonus tip:

Never rely on vendors to follow through. “We have found that exhibitors fail to follow up with 80% of their leads,” Wilson says. “Always take the initiative.”

Tip 6: Share with customers

Maybe co-workers and vendors are the most obvious people for follow-up. But don’t overlook customers who could not attend the show and would appreciate your thoughtfulness and expertise if you share what you learned.

“Communicating your show experience with customers can be one of your best marketing tools,” Powell says. “You want to stay visible to your customers, and you want them to see you are staying knowledgeable about the industry. Consider sharing the top three things you took away from the show and explain how they will benefit your customers.”

Bonus tip:

Updating your customers in person always is preferable but consider including some select information in your social media posts and newsletter. Or cover the topic in a webinar or video you email to customers.

The big picture

Getting the biggest bang from the bucks invested in attending a trade show depends on how you sweep up after the dust settles and the glitter fades. Smart trade show follow-through begins before you leave for the show and continues long after you return to your workplace and debrief your co-workers.

Done right, the time and effort involved in attending a show can pay off in happier customers and a heftier bottom line.

“The convening of such a large audience at a trade show creates a profound and impactful experience for everyone attending,” Drapeau says. “Face-to-face marketing remains very strong in today’s world, despite the explosion of digital communications such as social media. In fact, the two channels complement each other.”


So You Are Going to Exhibit…

Smart follow-through gets the most bang from your buck if you are a buyer attending a trade show. But what if you are an exhibitor? You still can take steps to make your show experience worthwhile.

“Given the time and expense involved with traveling to a trade show, you want to make sure you have a plan for getting the most return for the investment you make sponsoring a booth,” says Peter LoCascio, a Salem, Oregon-based consultant. “And you want to follow up with every prospect after the show is over.”

LoCascio offers these tips for success:

Be alert to the best prospects. “You want to be able to quickly identify target prospects when they enter your booth, and you can prepare for that by doing your research,” LoCascio says. “Analyze the attendees. The show salespeople will be able to provide a list of attendees showing their titles and specialties. Maybe you are interested in speaking with only 5% of the people attending the show. Know who they are.”

Communicate your business mission. Avoid the flashy activities too commonly seen in trade show booths in favor of professional presentations that appeal to prospects’ needs.

“The trade show isn’t a carnival or circus where you can use any form of borrowed interest just to generate booth traffic,” LoCascio says. “The people you want to see are the people who want to talk business, not be entertained.”

Know your business objectives. “What are your goals and objectives from a sales point of view?” LoCascio asks. “And what will be your return on investment?” Finally: “How can you train your staff to meet those goals?”

Emphasize personal networking. Train your staff to communicate well with strangers. “Many members of the younger generation are no longer interested in, capable of or comfortable dealing face-to-face on a trade show floor with prospects,” LoCascio warns. “They are accustomed to texting and social media. But the trade show is a living experience and you must be prepared to look people in the eye and discuss products and services.”


Trade Show Readiness Quiz

Will you get the most profitable return you can from your investment attending a trade show? Give yourself 10 points for each affirmative answer to these questions. Then total your points to see how prepared you are for the next show.

1. Have you decided on a general goal for attending the show and communicated it to your staff?

2. Have you set specific goals for each attendee in terms of the number of booths to visit and specific vendors to see?

3. Have you assigned specific seminars to each attendee?

4. Have you trained each attendee on how to collect information at the show?

5. Have you trained each attendee on effective networking techniques?

6. Have you assigned attendees to specific networking events?

7. Have you drawn up a list of the most important colleagues to see and contacted them in advance if appropriate?

8. Have you drawn up a list of customers you will contact with news about the show?

9. Have you set a date and time for a follow-up meeting with staff to share what was learned at the show?

10. Have you set a date and time for a separate post-show discussion about staff performance?

What’s your score?

Over 80: Hooray! You are ready for the show. Between 60 and 80: Time to fine tune your planning skills. Below 60: It’s a good idea to re-gear by instituting ideas from the accompanying story.

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