12 Biggest Lessons I Learned Doing Trade Shows

12 Biggest Lessons I Learned Doing Trade Shows

Thousands of businesses exhibit at trade shows every year all across the UK. The business event market is estimated to be worth £42.3bn a year. Hence, organisations invest in having a presence at business expos and the festivals. Having a stand at a prominent event is a great way to meet potential clients and generate prospects, build our network of likely partners, suppliers and the likes. You also get great exposure for your brand. As I am now on my third trade show with number four just around the corner, I have experienced first hand what goes into getting the return on my investment. I share my learning to date in this post. You will benefit from reading this if you are preparing for your first business expo. The lessons will be an eye-opener to some of the things to expect that may not be immediately apparent. Experienced exhibitors will also enjoy the post, as it could be a reinforcement of the journey you have been through to get to where you are. Let’s get into it.


Background in trade show exhibition

I have long aimed to have stands at business trade shows because I am a firm believer that conversations lead to business. After all, with thousands of visitors at business events, the chance to have genuine conversations with potential clients that trade shows offer is a no-brainer. For the record, when we generate clients’ leads online, we aim to get that conversation, either in a phone call or face-to-face with the person who is interested in your products and services.

My first trade show stand came as the event organisers commissioned us to market the event and get visitors to the expo and get local businesses to buy stalls. Our reward was a complimentary stand in a prominent location at the event. We certainly learned a lot at that initiation. We also saw enough potential to make future events more effective. We have gone on to exhibit at the much larger 2-day Festival of Enterprise trade show at the NEC in Birmingham. Some 3,500 visitors attended the event that put us in the company of industry giants including LinkedIn, FSB, and Mercedes Benz, to name a few of the exhibitors.

We have since taken on a stand and speaker slots at The South West Business Expo in Exeter with more than 250 exhibitors and nearly 5000 registered visitors. I am already looking ahead to our stand at the next 2-day festival of Enterprise trade show at London Olympia in April 2020.

Every event has been a valuable source of learning in terms of ensuring we are better prepared to attract and engage visitors. We are also improving our processes for doing the follow-ups to convert prospective clients we meet into paying customers. This list of lessons is not exhaustive by any means. Let’s cover the lessons into three categories:

  • Preparation
  • Attracting visitors
  • Miscellaneous considerations


Preparation considerations

Get ready weeks in advance

Many things go into making a trade show stand work. At the most basic, you will want to have business cards and information to hand out to visitors. You may also want branded merchandise to give away. Depending on where the exhibition is relative to your base, you may have to book accommodation for the event. It is easy to underestimate the amount of work and time that goes into ensuring you have all of the materials you require when suddenly the night before the event is upon you. 22% start planning 2-4 months before the show, while 18% are very prepared, getting ready 4-6 months before the show.

Printers and suppliers have their busy workloads. Similarly, hotels can quickly get booked out, and many places don’t take last minute bookings. So plan and be ready well in advance of your event. Early preparation will save you the stress and worry so that you can focus on delivering at the trade show. You may find it helpful to create a checklist of the things you intend to take with you to the event and tick them off as you add them to your packing.


Get professional graphics

You want to stand out at any trade show or exhibition in which you have a stand among many others. People are more likely to come to your exhibition stand if it looks interesting and professionally-designed. The need to look professional is one of the reasons I avoid table-top-displays events where it is virtually impossible to look different to everyone else. Even when we have found ourselves among smaller exhibitors, we have not been shy about getting custom-made display stands and graphics.

Furnishing any stand or shell scheme requires getting graphics to look good. The choice of design is purely subjective, so I will focus on the broader issue of getting professional design and print wherever appropriate. One of the biggest fails I have seen are exhibitors who bring the wrong display materials for their stand as virtually every event has rules about the size of the space you have at your disposal, what you can hang up and how

I have also experienced graphics designed to the dimensions that the organisers have provided to exhibitors only to find that they are inaccurate on the day. It is the simple things like if your graphics are in a continuous end-to-end banner or in section banners that make the whole, the dimensions will be different. My advice is to check and double-check the aspects to which you should design for with the organisers. If possible, get your graphics designer to liaise with the organisers to further confirm the dimensions before going to print.

Attracting visitors

Have an Attraction strategy

After all the work and the effort you put into planning your exhibition, you now want to make sure a large number of people come to your stand and engage with you and your brand. There are many ideas that you can use to attract visitors. Strategies that have worked for us include offering the chance to win a new tablet to visitors who come to our stand. Visitors must complete a buzzer game and give us their business card to be in with a chance to win. We have also hired a magician to perform tricks related to our marketing and lead generation services.

It is not easy to measure which attraction method is most effective in attracting visitors to a trade show stand. The measure of success depends on several factors, including the number of visitors at the vent and the time of day that you mobilise your attraction strategy. What is clear, however, is that visitors are quick to move on to explore other stands if you have nothing to draw them in.


Give value to visitors

Visitors love to take away free stuff that they value from trade shows. Giving advice and information to visitors counts as a freebie in my books. Moreover, you’d be surprised at how much just a bowl of sweets or snacks can attract people to your stand. Armed with this knowledge, we have gone all out in our trade show stands by giving away branded mugs, branded pens, and branded notebooks.

We have also offered t-shirts and tops, which visitors have happily gathered up. It is worth emphasising that we did not brand the t-shirts logo or name because I would not want to wear a top with a company logo. So this product was a genuine freebie that we want people to wear or give away as gifts and have happy thoughts about getting it on our stand at the trade show. If just one of those people come back to do business with us, it would have been worth the investment.


Forget selling

Of course, we all want to get paying clients at business trade shows, but selling alone will not get you the sale. If that is your sole objective, you are in for a rude awakening. After all, you are not at the event as a salesperson- you are there to help customers succeed by solving problems and educating and empowering them. John Doerr explains visitors’ readiness to buy and why prospecting should be the goal eloquently as follows:

  • Find someone who is already looking to buy, and they likely have a front-runner in mind. This front-runner is not you.
  • If you don’t sell a commodity product or service, it’s likely that the buyer isn’t considering buying what you offer because she doesn’t know much (if anything) about it, let alone how it works, and why it’s worthwhile.
  • Find someone who has the desire to solve a problem and hasn’t yet started looking into how to do it, and you’re in luck! But finding these people will be like finding the proverbial needle in the proverbial haystack.

Focus on getting to know the people you meet and prospecting (also known as generating prospects or leads) at the trade show. Sometimes, just enjoying the interaction and having fun is all you can achieve, especially if the visitor is not your target client.


Ask questions to get clients

It can be tempting to tell visitors to your stand about your services. However, more often than not, talking about me, me, me will not get people to be interested in buying from you. The risk is that you talk too much, leaving the buyer with the impression that you don’t understand their business, their industry, or their needs.

Asking questions shows you are interested in the person with whom you are talking. You may have a prescribed list of qualifying questions that can help to establish if someone fits your ideal client profile. Nonetheless, to innovate and move ahead of competitors, exhibitors need to be able to talk about topics that are beyond the ordinary and give you a genuine insight into the person’s circumstances. The more profound level of questioning will make your interaction memorable and enable you to offer how your services can help them to address their issues. In the words of Maya Angelou: I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

Done correctly, you will have potential clients who want to work with you. Similarly, you will know enough about visitors to let them walk on by if you cannot help them.


Come out of your stand’s shadows

Resist the temptation to shelter behind the false sense of security that comes from hiding behind your table at your trade show stand because you will be invisible to passers-by. Similarly, visitors will walk on by if you spend your time sitting down in your stand because you have not given them a reason to stop and speak with you. You will get a lot more interaction if you stand on the aisle-side of your stand and look ready to welcome visitors to your stand. A smile and open posture go a long way to showing visitors that it may be worth their while to give you a few seconds of their time. If you use that window of opportunity correctly, you never know where the conversation could lead.


Focus on the person in front of you

With lots of people vying for your attention at a business exhibition, it may appear logical to try to talk to as many people as possible, even if the conversations are superficial. I have learnt that it is better to come away from a business event with a few excellent prospects who fit your client criteria. A qualified leads list is always more useful than having lots of people to call whom you don’t know to need your service or meet your client profile.

The only way you will know who is worth focusing your efforts to follow up with is to give each person you speak with your full attention for the time you are interacting with them. After all, you don’t want to cut short the conversation with a great prospect and move to a passer-by only to find that your services are not right for them. When you do that, you typically end up with neither visitor wanting to do business with you.


Miscellaneous considerations

Don’t buy delegates lists

Believe it or not, some scammers make money by offering fake delegates and attendees’ lists ahead of trade shows, exhibitions and expos. Think about it: how good could it be to email visitors before the event to offer your products and services? The fraudsters typically email you asking if you are interested in their information for a price from email addresses that looks like it has come from the event organisers.

Let me make it crystal clear: event organisers do not offer delegates or attendees lists – Never. They don’t do so because of data protection policies that say that they cannot sell your details as an exhibitor or attendee to anyone. Business event organisers will typically have networking get-togethers at the end of the day so you will have the chance to meet and mingle with fellow exhibitors. You can get the names of exhibitors and delegates at any event from the event’s website, and it is likely where the fraudsters get your contact details. Don’t fall for this con trick.


Create content from trade shows

Trade shows carry on giving long after the day of the event. The brand awareness you get from people seeing your brand among more prominent and more established businesses is just as important as the people you meet. You can continue to reap the business events rewards in your social media posts, blog posts such as this and even on Youtube for weeks/months after.

The best way to acquire the benefits is by creating content at the business exhibition. Take photos with people you meet both on your stand and by visiting other exhibitors, make videos of the event and people you speak with at the event. I suggest event recording video snippets of any presentations or talks you take in at the event. An often forgotten type of excellent content is getting someone to record some of your response to visitors. You see, those moments often contain great descriptions of your services and how you help people which you can use on social networks and even on your website.

Trade show stand Neighbours

Befriend your neighbours

Wherever you have a stand in a venue, you are rarely alone. Typically you will have exhibitions stands in front of you across the aisle you and to the sides of your display stand. It is worth making friends with your fellow stallholders, even if they are competitors. Conversations with your neighbours will help to pass the time, provide some respite at exhausting events, and neighbours may be a source of help should the need arise.

Talking with your neighbours is also the best way to build your network at business events, as you never know who will become clients, collaborators or suppliers.


Prepare for things to go wrong

So you have followed my eleven commandments to the letter. Does that mean you can relax and everything will go smoothly? Well, erm, no, not quite. The twelfth biggest lesson I have learnt from running sands at business exhibitions is that you must prepare for your best-laid plans not to work out as you intend. From display graphics that kept falling off the walls to collapsing tables, running out of merchandise and no-shows by stand staff, exhibitors suffer disasters. And I can say without a doubt that nearly all of us will face even more adversity at future events.

The best advice I can give is that you have to be flexible in your thoughts and plans and be prepared to try something else if things do not go as you planned. Road testing every element of your arrangements before the trade show may help to identify some of the potential pitfalls. However, there is no guarantee that unforeseen circumstances will not arise.


Bringing it all together

Trade shows and exhibitions offer many returns for businesses, that is why so many companies invest heavily in buying stand space. Getting the benefits business events stallholders can get rarely come easily, however. Experienced exhibitors could probably tell you plenty of things they have learnt on their journey. This post has aimed to outline some of the headline lessons for you to prepare and get prospects at your next business exhibition. Learning these lessons will increase your chances of attracting and engaging visitors to your stand and turn them into prospects


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We’d love to have your feedback and suggestions about this post. What has been your experience of exhibiting at trade shows? Which strategies have you utilised to get more visitors, prospects and sales? Please leave your comments in the Comments Section below.

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