10 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Started Exhibiting at Trade Shows

January 11, 2012

Recently, I posted the “10 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Started In Marketing" and was amazed at the response. So, in that same vein, here are 10 indispensible lessons I’ve learned about trade shows that I wish I’d had known before I started exhibiting.

1.  You won’t succeed at trade shows if you just show up. A trade show first-timer may think that because they’ve paid a couple of grand to rent a 10x10 space for a few days, they automatically will reap the whirlwind of leads and sales from the show’s attendees. If only.  Surprise: you’ve actually only paid for access to this great audience of buyers. Now you have to do your part, such as train your staffers, create a promotion that attracts qualified prospects, and design your trade show display to entice the right visitors to your booth.

2.  Trade shows are not as glamorous as they looked from the outside. To the uninitiated, this is what trade show marketing looks like from the outside: Flying around the country to sunny or metropolitan locations, staying in top-tier hotels and meals on the company dime, and access to top-level company execs.  But seen from the inside, trade shows are not so glamorous. Trade shows themselves are very hard work with a lot of stressful moments before, during, and after exhibit hours. There are so many details to master and so many vendors you are depending on. You can sweat more during exhibit set-up than a month of work outs. And, while travel can be exciting, it gets old fast when you are repeatedly away from home and your family.

3.  Inertia determined much of your company’s show schedule. In the many years before you were handed the reins to your company’s trade show marketing, your company cobbled together quite a list of shows. But are they all still worth it? Were some trade shows chosen because your target market was there, or because your competitors were? Has your client base evolved away from the demographics of some of the shows you exhibit at? Have some shows eroded their attendee base by not reinvesting in strong marketing and educational content?  Are there new vertical markets that you have yet to find good shows to market to? It’s up to you to break the inertia - and create some new momentum.

4.  Trade show labor is way more expensive than you think, and sometimes it’s even worth it. It’s a eye-opener to find out how much you will pay someone else to set up your booth, hook up your lights, or rig that hanging sign, especially if it’s on a weekend, or God forbid, on a Sunday. The union rules in most venues require that you pay labor a wage that adds up in a hurry, even if they don’t.  You can minimize labor costs by getting easier to set up trade show displays, trying to schedule your set up for straight-time labor, and by lining up dependable contractors.  I’ve found some Exhibitor Appointed Contractors are worth it, as they work hard to earn you business, show after show.

5.  You will blow your trade show budget if you don’t plan well. You can never plan too far ahead, especially for overseas shows. Your budget was likely set with the best-case scenario for your trade show expenses, without room to pay for late fees and rush charges. That’s powerful incentive to quickly master the show book. Fortunately, after several shows you learn what you really need to order (electrical, leads machine, carpet) and what form pages you will likely skip (plumbing, signage, security). A pad of Post-It Notes or a good electronic scheduling software helps you flag your most pressing deadlines.

6.  Everybody wants to help you pick the trade show exhibit color. No one wants to help you track the leads. When it comes to exhibit design, everyone has an opinion. And in the time leading up to the show, they will all clamor to offer their ideas, making it harder to get the booth built on time without rush charges. Yet after the show, you will have a harder time getting similar participation in tracking the leads from the show – ostensibly the reason you designed your exhibit in the first place. Remind your colleagues that if you can’t prove the results from this year’s show, you won’t be exhibiting at the show next year.

7.  The 10 minutes after the show closes is when most damage happens to your trade show exhibit.The show ends with a voice booming over the loudspeakers saying, “The show is closed, see you next year.” But to impatient booth staffers, it’s as if they had actually shouted, “Drivers, start your engines!” Booth staffers hurry to win the race to the taxi stand, hotel, bar, restaurant, or parking lot.  And if you have a portable trade show display that your booth staffers pack up, this is when they break it, by shoving it in its case as fast as they can. Close that expensive window of time by getting a more durable display, getting better packaging, or just by having a frank conversation with your staffers before the closing bell. Or, if you’re the one who wants to win the race, take a deep breath and slow down before you make a costly mistake.

8.  Drayage is the most expensive way to move your exhibit the shortest distance. As a trade show newbie, one of the biggest surprises is that you have to pay to have your exhibit moved from the shipping dock to your booth space.  Even more shocking is just how much you’ll have to pay - about the same to move something across a convention center as it does to ship it across country. Drayage rates have risen by double-digit percentages in some of the last few years, probably because more exhibitors switched to lighter weight trade show booths like Skyline’s. To offset the lower weight of exhibit properties, drayage charges per pound have increased.  If your exhibit is still made the old-fashioned way, it’s a double-whammy.

9.  It’s hard for booth staffers to take their very first lead at a trade show. In our lives, we go though various, potentially scary rites of passage: learning to ride a bike, going to your first day of school, asking for a date to the prom. While all of these have been immortalized in film, no movie has yet to bring to the silver screen the epic tale of a first-time booth staffer engaging and writing up their first trade show lead.  What would yours have been, a horror film? A comedy?  A tragedy? Whatever kind of movie it would be, it would also be a drama, because it’s you’re likely filled with nervous energy as you go out and ask a perfect stranger face to face if they’d like to do business with your company. Just remember that your booth visitors actually paid to visit the show, and many are shopping for solutions to their problems that your products can solve.  Practice the process of engage, qualify, present, and close, and you’ll be more comfortable taking your first lead.

10.  Trade shows can be addictive. With the hard work, long hours and time away from home, some people can’t wait to return from their trade show.  But for others, trade shows are a calling. They get jazzed by the performance aspect, the blitz of direct client contact, and the relationships built before and during the show. They like the ability to create a successful marketing program in a medium built upon the value of face-to-face interactions.  And that’s when trade shows really become addictive: when you master the medium and drive serious revenue to your company’s bottom line.

I hope that if you're an experienced exhibitor that you've been nodding in agreement as you read this and that you share this with your newer trade show marketing staff. What important lessons of your own would you add as #11? Please add them in the comments box below.

Note:  I wrote a related post you also can read, 10 MORE Things I Wish I Knew Before I Started Exhibiting At Trade Shows.

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