Trade Shows Are Not For the Unprepared

"Sometimes attending a show and walking the aisles is a better use of time and resources than renting booth space."

By David P. Kowal

Trade shows can be an enormous waste of time and money. They can also provide the best opportunity anywhere to network with potential clients and to develop qualified leads.

Whether your trade shows are a waste of time or an essential part of your marketing mix depends on how well you plan for them.

The first step is to ask yourself, “Is it worth it?” Unless the trade show exposes you to a broad group of potential customers, then it is probably not worth participating in the show. If you think the show is worth your time, ask yourself whether you are better off exhibiting or merely attending the show.

Sometimes attending a show and walking the aisles is a better use of time and resources than renting booth space. If you are more interested in the exhibitors than the attendees, you may be better off attending the show, rather than participating in it. If you’re uncertain whether to exhibit, consider attending the show this year and, if it meets your needs, exhibiting next year.

If you decide to exhibit, take the time to develop a plan. Determine what your purpose is for being at the show. Do you, for example, have a new product or service to introduce? Create a list of goals and objectives, and determine what you need to do to achieve them.

Your plan should include pre-show activities, such as direct mail, advertising and publicity to reach show participants; activities at the show, and post-show activities, such as follow-up mailings and advertising. In fact, pre-show activities are as important as the show itself. Your staff should review the exhibitors’ list and make a point of contacting people they’d like to meet at the show. Unless appointments are made ahead of time, much of the time spent at the exhibit booth is likely to be wasted.

Get Your Booth Right

A great deal of time and money is usually spent on the trade show booth. A booth can be rented and adequate graphics can be designed for as little as a few thousand dollars, but it is also not unusual for a slick, well-designed booth to cost $100,000 or more – a significant slice out of most marketing budgets. It is not unusual for high-tech companies to spend $1 million or more for a trade show.

It is rarely cost effective to design a booth that will be used only once. If your company does not have the budget for a professionally designed booth, or if the money can be better applied elsewhere, determine an appropriate budget and find out what your budget can buy you. If you can’t design a booth that is appropriate to your company’s image, skip the show. There’s nothing worst than renting space and having little more than a bare table to attract attendees. If attendees see your company name and nothing of interest at your booth, you will tarnish, rather than enhance, your company’s image.

Booth graphics should be bright and attractive, and should provide a positive, benefit-oriented message. Like a billboard, your booth has only a few seconds to make a point before the aisle traffic moves on. Use those few seconds wisely. Giveaways and booth entertainment can be gimmicky, but should serve a purpose. One of our clients, for example, used bottles of water to demonstrate that its services make illiquid assets liquid.

Even the best designed, most expensive booth will fail unless it is adequately staffed with well-trained, enthusiastic professionals. Have enough staff working the show to ensure that someone fresh and enthusiastic is always working the booth. Staff should have realistic, but firm goals to ensure that they are working the show and not just hanging out.

After the show, staff should be required to follow-up with everyone they’ve met. Repeated contact is key to effective marketing. Failing to follow-up is a missed opportunity.

Will your next trade show be a waste of time and money? Only if you’re unprepared. If you choose the right show, develop and implement a plan, and design and staff your booth properly, your next trade show is bound to be a rewarding experience for your business.

David P. Kowal is President of Kowal Communications, Inc. of Northboro, Mass. He can be reached at