Making the most of trade shows

13 minute read

Exhibiting at a trade show provides a unique opportunity to build real, face-to-face relationships with prospects, which can help speed up the process of conversion. There are many advantages; from being able to demonstrate enthusiasm for your product in person, to meeting a large number of prospects all in one place over a couple of days, therefore keeping meeting costs down. Thorough preparation before the show, engaging correctly with prospects during the show, along with the all-important follow-ups and measuring of ROI afterwards can help to make your next exhibition a monetary success.

Before the show

Once you’ve decided to exhibit at a trade show, plan ahead and organise meetings with clients and prospects that you know are planning on attending. Shows usually have an extensive website including details of the other exhibitors and some even list the visitors. Don’t leave your meetings to chance; make sure you have the prospect’s mobile number and agree ahead of time on a central networking area in which to meet.

If you’re a social media user, it’s a good idea to follow the exhibition on Twitter and any other social networks on which there is a strong, active presence. This allows you to see who else is going, which in turn helps with pre-exhibition meeting scheduling and makes for a good source of leads ahead of time. Any social engagement you can do as a brand will also help generate awareness to other exhibitors and visitors, helping generate interest in your business from prospects before you even arrive.

It’s vital to get your exhibition stand right. Your booth is your shop window, so it should clearly explain in a few sentences or at a moment’s glance exactly who you are and what you do. Pay attention to the small details. For example, an untidy booth could suggest that you’re a disorganised firm, which might put prospects off. Getting this part right will help pull foot traffic to your booth area.

Finally, a few practical considerations when you’re exhibiting:

  • Take lots of business cards. You’ll need them!
  • Take bottles of water with you. It gets warm in these places and staying hydrated can become expensive.
  • Wear comfortable shoes. You’ll be on your feet all day, so avoid anything that might distract you from the task at hand.
  • Take a four-way power adapter so you can charge your phone and other devices from the single plug usually provided with your booth. Of course you’ll therefore also need to remember your phone charger!
  • Use your mobile phone to photograph business cards if you can. I do this in case I lose a card during the event.
  • If your booth does not have any seating, take a small camping chair to use during the quiet times.
  • Do not rely on the free or even the paid-for Internet. Hundreds of other exhibitors and visitors may also be using it, and this can have a notable impact on the speed and overall access.

During the show

So, you’ve got your booth ready, meetings scheduled, you’re hydrated, comfortably dressed and the doors to the unexpected are open. When engaging with visitors it’s important to concentrate your efforts on the most promising prospects, but remember to always be professional and courteous to everyone. We’ve broken down the key types of visitors below along with some tips to help ensure you’re spending your time and energy on the most promising prospects.

Non-buying visitors:
  • Education seekers. They want to know about what you do but they are not in buying mode. These visitors can take up a lot of your time if you’re not careful, so be courteous and professional but keep yourself available for serious prospects.
  • Competition/freebie seekers. These visitors are always keen to drop a business card in your fishbowl for any kind of draw, or get hold of any good sweets or branded freebies you might be giving away. To eliminate this type of prospect, entering into competitions and giveaways should require more engagement than just a business card drop. This will deter these types of contacts from finding their way on to your follow-up list and wasting your time after the event.
  • Reinforcement seekers. These are typically existing customers who want reassurance that they made the right decision to buy your product or service. Set aside an area for reinforcement assurance and when possible introduce them to other happy customers at the exhibition.
  • Job seekers. Like education seekers, be courteous and professional but keep yourself available for serious prospects. However set aside time for them to come back and network with you at unproductive times like lunch time and the last 30 minutes of the show. Asking them to return at another time is a good test of their real interest in your business over the others at the show.
  • Competitors. These should be an easy spot once you’re in a conversation with them; they tend to ask too many precise questions. The solution here is to ask more open-ended questions back at them to avoid the chances of giving away valuable information.
  • Sellers. These visitors will come to your stand with the sole purpose of selling their products and services to you, and are very unlikely to be a worthwhile prospect. Invite these back to network with you at unproductive times like lunch time and the last half an hour of the show.
  • The disinterested. You can tell these visitors apart from their body language and avoiding eye contact. Trying to engage with these visitors will simply waste your time and could upset the visitor.
In buying mode visitors – target audience:
  • The solution seekers. These are prospects that are looking for solutions for a specific need or problem; they will want to spend time with you to get specific questions answered. Talking less and listening more is the key to these prospects.
  • Buying teams. These prospects usually represent larger organisations. A large percentage of visitors you speak with have other people involved in the decision making process and many of these will select a supplier they met at a trade show. These are important buyers, so introduce them to senior management where possible.
  • Non badge wearers, aka ‘power buyers’. These are typically upper management or key buyers who don’t want to wear a badge as they do not want to attract unnecessary attention. To catch them, be alert and approach them. Introduce yourself and welcome them personally to your booth and ask them what prompted their interest.
  • The perfect visitor. This is the type of prospect who realises how great your product is and sees the value of it without much explanation. They will ask the right questions and some may even sign up on the day.

The importance of being polite and professional at all times, even to non-buying prospects, cannot be underestimated. Just because they’re not in buying mode now doesn’t mean they won’t ever have a need for your product or service in the future. They might not remember you if you’re friendly and courteous, but you can be sure they’ll remember you if you’re rude – and they’ll avoid doing business with you in future.

Document conversations

Whatever level of detailed conversation you happen to get in to with prospects who are in buying mode, document the conversation. Rather than on the back of a business card (I see so many people do this), try a notepad or, even better, a tablet device instead. This will eliminate any illegible handwriting and can also be easily exported to a suitable format to later import into your CRM system.

Agree a plan of action

Agreeing a planned course of action with your prospect can help you to avoid getting lost amongst all the after-show email and calls your prospect will receive. Securing this after action during your conversation with them should be your priority. Some examples of follow-up actions include:

  • Telephone call
  • Meeting
  • Colleague introduction
  • Onsite or web demonstration
  • Quotation

After the show


For any contacts with whom you arrange to follow-up, make sure you meet your promises. Reference the notes you made on the day to continue the relationship after the show and work with the prospect accordingly.

Tracking ROI

Create a lead source in your CRM (we use Salesforce here at to keep track of the prospects you met at the show. Having a lead source enables you to monitor exactly how many leads the show has created, how much revenue you’ve generated from those leads and what the lead life-cycle from creation to close is like by comparison to leads gathered in other ways.

If you can clearly identify how much return you’ve got from attending the show at any point and also show what further potential business you have pending, it should be easy to get approval to attend as an exhibitor again next year.

In summary

Exhibiting at trade shows can be expensive, so it’s important to maximise the return on your investment. Proper preparation gives you the tools to have a productive few days. Make sure your booth looks great, you’ve thought about how you’re going to keep track of promising prospects and you follow-up with each of them promptly and personally when you get back to the office.