Booth review

Experts offer advice to beef up the trade show booth.

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Trade shows are not all alike. Or are they?

Granted, Madison is no Las Vegas or Chicago and doesn’t attract grandiose trade shows like the Consumer Electronics Show; or media-darling events like NATPE, the National Association of Television Program Executives, where television stars and network executives mingle with station clientele anxious to purchase the latest sitcom in syndication; or even the Kitchen & Bath Industry Show, promoting the likes of Kohler and other global companies that spend millions on expo booths.

Dane County lays claim to the World Dairy Expo and the Midwest Horse Show, arguably the best global trade shows on hooves, and multitudes of other excellent business, education, and consumer events suited to the Midwest’s “whey” of life as it is and as we hope it will be.

In fact, it’s okay to be smaller. Most events are. “Eighty percent of trade shows occur in venues under 20,000 square feet,” notes Michael Nelson, president of Valley Expo Displays of Rockford, Milwaukee, and Chicago. “There’s typically a trade show happening at least once a week at local hotels, event centers, or malls or table tops. The goals are still the same.”

Even the largest or savviest of companies can fail at trade shows if strategy is lacking. Mindy Feih, president of Skyline Southern Wisconsin in Pewaukee, says the “little guys and the big guys” all have one thing in common when it comes to trade shows. “If you don’t plan properly, you won’t see results.”

Over the next several pages, we offer suggestions to help your business stand out from the swarm. Here’s a hint: it’s not all about the free candy.

Service the servicers

Both Feih and Nelson are in the business of trade shows so they’ve likely seen the biggest, the smallest, the worst, and the best when it comes to trade show exhibits.

Nelson’s first piece of advice to companies choosing to attend: follow the details specifically outlined in the exhibitor service kit, which he considers the bible for any trade show. It comes in a variety of formats, he says, depending on the show organizer, and is distributed to event exhibitors well in advance of any event to clearly identify all deadlines and rules, the show itinerary, directions, and whom to contact on-site for any issues or services needed.

“Follow every deadline,” he cautions, particularly if your event is in a larger city. “If you miss a deadline it will likely cost you money. After 40 years in this business, I can guarantee that 30% of exhibitors will still order their services late and pay more for them.” Late changes can also be affected by union wages and rules, so be mindful, he cautions.

Valley Expo provides and handles logistics for trade shows, from set up to tear down to booth design, graphics, and rental, and late changes hurt his company. “We lose money because we can’t plan ahead. If we have 15 shows in the same week and 2,000 booths, and 30% of the people order tables the week of the event, that’s a lot of tables,” he says. It’s a huge, unnecessary expense that inexperienced or unorganized exhibitors pay every year because they aren’t prepared. Nelson adds that when things go right, “we’re the people you never see and nobody pays attention to.”

Line item outlay

No matter the size of a trade show, Nelson says it’s important that companies establish a trade show budget, not just a display budget, because there’s a cost for everything. Allow for employee time out of the office, transportation needs if they apply, hotel costs, or dinners for staff.

He also reminds companies to plan for the worst-case scenario. If your booth is being shipped to another location, what if it doesn’t make it? “All of the sudden you have nothing, and frankly, nobody cares.” It’s happened, he says, so always have a plan B.



Plan to profit

Feih says the first thing exhibitors need to do is often the last thing they do. They need to plan, and that planning shouldn’t happen a month before the event. Why are they exhibiting in a particular show? What’s their reason to be there? What’s the company’s end goal? Set objectives that can be measured at the end of the event. Conduct booth staff training in advance of the show, or take advantage of staff training sometimes offered by show sponsors. “Management and staffers need to be on the same page because companies that are successful exhibit smart,” she says.

It always helps to qualify leads in A, B, or C categories. This might seem elementary for seasoned sales staffs, but for those new to the scene it means quickly determining the likelihood of converting a visitor into a prospect. An “A” prospect already knows about the business and may have an immediate need; B prospects might need the company’s services in the next 12 to 18 months; and C prospects have no need but offered their name or business card. Companies should determine in advance what the goals are as part of the planning process.

“When a trade show isn’t a success, it’s likely because you didn’t prepare and didn’t qualify your leads,” Feih observes. “The booth doesn’t matter. Your staff didn’t do their job.”

Nelson believes smaller events actually offer better opportunities for engagement compared to mega-shows because they’re more personal. “Exhibitors need to always look at their booth as the ideal marketing opportunity. There’s no better way to market and sell your product than face-to-face. People want to talk to others,” he insists.

To booth or not to booth?

At a trade show, everyone needs a booth, or some way to display the company’s product or expertise. What a business does with that booth space can make all the difference to a successful or unsuccessful experience. “Companies tend to forget that this is their façade for the day, so everything [in their booth] must look precise, neat, clean, and presented with nice images and good graphics,” Nelson says.

Feih agrees. “A booth is your billboard. If you’re driving down the interstate at 70 miles per hour, a billboard has to capture your attention in three to five seconds. It must tell people who you are and why you’re better. A driver doesn’t stop on the highway to write that information down.” Exhibitors must ensure that their messaging is the best it can be.

“Leave the company branded pens and notepads at home,” suggests Feih. “It’s a waste of money.” Her point is that attendees often come just to hoard the freebies on the first day, and while a company logo may be printed on those trinkets, “they’re not necessarily getting into the hands of the right people.” The problem, she explains, is that giveaways aren’t given much thought.

In fact, Feih suggests that giveaways don’t even have to be tangible. They might be certificates for something relating back to the company. An HVAC dealer might offer free duct cleaning, for example. A landscaper might offer a complimentary yard treatment. “Your giveaway should directly tie back to your business,” Feih notes. “In all honesty, this is probably the biggest challenge for most companies.”

Another option is offering an experience rather than an item. Schedule a client meeting at the company booth and when the invitee arrives, offer them coffee, a pastry, and charge his or her phone while they’re chatting with you. “This gets them spending time with you,” she says.

What do successful exhibitors do right?

“They plan. They contact their clients in advance. They invite those they want to meet with to stop by at specific times,” notes Feih. Many of her clients have gone back to using direct mail rather than email when it comes to sending a pre-show invitation. “That’s what people are looking at again. Email is very much like direct mail used to be. Much of it is instantly deleted.” A personal phone call inviting a client or potential client to visit you at an event can be very effective as well.

Nelson suggests going a step further. Add a hitch. “When you come and see me, I have something to give you,” he suggests, then present them with something special when they stop by. Be strategic about who receives that special invitation — whether top prospects or the largest clients. “Larger companies might ask prospects to fill out a specific form to receive a 30G USB cord, for example,” Nelson says. It may not even matter what that special “gift” is, only that it makes the client or potential client feel special enough that it was worth their time to stop by.



Looking good

We’ve all been there, walking into a trade show with aisles upon aisles of exhibitors vying for your attention. That’s okay. That’s what trade shows are about and frankly, that’s why you’re there.

But as an exhibitor, what makes your company’s booth stand out from a sea of red drape and piping? How can you convert walk-bys into winning leads?

Dos and don’ts may seem obvious, but Feih offers the following tip. “If it makes sense, don’t put your table in front of your space,” she advises. “You need a nice backdrop that can identify who you are, what you do, and why you’re better in just five seconds, but that 8-foot table just creates a barrier and makes the booth staffer unapproachable.” Place the table in the back of the booth, for example, so people can venture into your space. If possible, have your product on hand, but place it on the side of the booth so it doesn’t distract from the center area and conversations taking place. If available, consider bar-height round tables instead, which present a more inviting area for conversation.

Rules of engagement

A successful booth needs a successful team working it. The goal, Feih says, is to engage visitors with open-ended questions. “Frankly, you don’t want to talk to me if I’m not your customer,” she notes. “So don’t just ask me to register for something, because I can still walk away.” Instead ask something like, “What brings you to the show today?” Once you’ve engaged them and understand that they may have other needs you can better determine their potential as a future client. Perhaps then you can also have them sign up for a special giveaway or service because they chose to engage with you.

Collateral literature [brochures, price lists] costs money to print, Feih says. “If you’re handing it out to unqualified people, you’re just burning marketing dollars.” She suggests qualifying people first, then offering any pertinent material, and following up with them within a week of the show. Nelson agrees. “Nobody reads at these events. If they want to learn something, they’ll read it online.”

Table manners

There may be nothing more frustrating for an exhibitor than feeling it wasted its money on an event that produced no significant results. Before pointing fingers at the show sponsor, the booth designer, or the lack of attendees, do as Michael Jackson would do and start with the man in the mirror.

“How many of these complainers are following up with leads after the show?” Feih asks. “That’s very important. It’s not just what you do at the show but how well you follow up after the show.” In all likelihood, a company may not know the true success of an event until several weeks afterwards.

She relates the story of a long-time client who purchased a beautiful booth through her company and used the booth in several trade shows but eventually reported that it just wasn’t doing the job. “They thought the booth would sell for them,” Feih says, “and their staffers were complaining at how lousy the shows were.” Finally, she took matters into her own hands and became a secret trade show shopper for a day.

She anonymously approached two staffers sitting behind a gorgeous custom counter in her client’s booth. “I asked how the show was going for them,” Feih recalls. The staffers nodded and proceeded to suggest that Feih visit a booth down the aisle where she could get her jewelry cleaned for free and another booth around the corner where tasty food was being served. “I was stunned!” Feih admits. “Never once did they qualify me for what they were selling or even try to see if I was interested in their own product.” Things significantly improved after that revelation, she reports, and the company remains one of her best clients to this day.

First impressions

Just as a person may assume that a house with a messy front yard will be equally messy inside, a poor booth presentation can portray a similarly negative vibe. “Don’t bring wrinkled banners,” advises Feih. In a sea of great companies at a trade show, a wrinkled banner equates to a wrinkled company. At a minimum, consider printing the company’s name and logo on a foam core sign rather than a rolled up piece of vinyl. “Based on your company’s budget constraints, do the best you can, but have a little respect for your brand. The only way to grow a business is to grow your brand.”

Sometimes trade-show organizers have a list of preferred providers that might be willing to offer exhibitors specials on printing or other services in advance of the show. It’s worth asking, Feih hints, because it’s not about having the most expensive booth, just an effective one. “In many cases, it’s not the lack of funds, it’s the lack of preparation.”

Other no-nos Feih says seem obvious but happen with surprising regularity: “Don’t chew gum. Wear appropriate and neat clothing and don’t eat your McDonald’s lunch or drink a soda or coffee at the booth. If you’re giving out trinkets, don’t just empty them on the table and then sit back and talk with your coworker or play on your phone. Put those phones away!”

Nelson agrees, adding: “Stand up! You’re open for business! When’s the last time you walked into a McDonald’s or Wendy’s and people behind the counter were sitting? I wouldn’t bring my own cup of coffee and a bagel and consume them during a meeting. It’s just amazing what people forget, but you have to be a serious businessperson. Plan and be productive. That’s your image. Your image isn’t the old banner that’s been rolled up in a back room all year long.”

Games people play

Care to spin the wheel? Sink a putt? Make a basket? Choose a card, any card? It’s not uncommon for companies to encourage game play as a way to attract customers to their booths. Attracting people is important, but what are they playing for? “Don’t have a big sign or conduct an email campaign offering someone the chance to win the newest Apple or Google gadget if they play your game,” Feih suggests. “Doing so only helps Apple or Google, and likely attracts people for entirely the wrong reasons.”

Using her HVAC example, Feih suggests a dealer might rather offer various discounts off duct cleaning because it’s important to make the game relevant to the business while not distracting from the brand. “You don’t want 400 people coming to win an iPad, you want 40 people coming to get their ducts cleaned,” she says.

What about bringing the company CEO or other dignitaries in to meet with attendees? “That depends,” Feih says, unless specific client meetings are scheduled at the show with him or her. “What benefit is it to me to meet the CEO? If there’s a benefit, great, but consumers are greedy people. What’s in it for them?”



What were they thinking?

It doesn’t take much Googling to find examples of trade show fails. Here are five selections from just one site:

1. Awkward dancing girls. Seriously, if a company is un-PC enough to use female dancers to attract people to its booth, it should first make sure they can dance. [For a good laugh, search YouTube for “Alpine Girls Dancing Awkwardly.”]

2. Giveaway foul. If contest rules state that the winner of a prize drawing must be present to win and also wearing the company’s t-shirt, make sure that’s the case or face the wrath of attendees.

3. Toilet paper sponsorship. One company branded information on toilet paper in the conference’s public restrooms, but the heavy-duty paper it used ended up clogging toilets.

4. Dubious extras. A Russian company invited Barcelona trade show attendees to a free, fine-dining experience with champagne. Not on the menu were the female companions offered to male diners. The company was cited
for “dubious practices.”

5. Breaking bad. One company paid actors to portray themselves as hackers who had taken over the company and promoted their stunt throughout the venue, breaking rules. The booth was shut down as a result.

Source: “5 Epic Trade Show Fails,” Sharon Rondeau, The Post & Email (

The swagger

If a company wants to hand free items out at its trade show booth, do it strategically. The best swag items are cost efficient, unique, and branded with company information, and consider having more than one giveaway on hand.

Here are some of the best and worst giveaway ideas we found online from Johnny Bravo of The Sales Pro Blog, and Rachel Sprung of HubSpot:

The best giveaways

1. Breath mints. Good while at the convention but the logoed container likely gets tossed immediately after the last one is consumed. Bravo suggests giving each customer two packets — one for their pocket and one to keep in the car to extend the brand’s shelf life.

2. Mobile Car Chargers. A favorite on several sites. These chargers can be easily logoed and provide the energy boost needed at a show when phone or laptop batteries are dwindling. One problem, though, is that logos are frequently printed on the side that slips into the socket, causing the branding to disappear from view. Bravo’s advice, “Control their distribution and use them with targeted prospects. They usually aren’t the cheapest trade show giveaway.”

3. Headphones. If the actual earphones can somehow be logoed, they’ll be visible longer. If just a container is logoed, it may spend more time in a pocket. “The only problem is that the ones you are likely to have in bulk tend to be of low quality,” Bravo says. Still, they can make an excellent spare pair.

4. Branded notebooks or tablet notebooks. In a simple color with a simple logo, this is a favorite item, Bravo suggests. But some people prefer to take notes the old fashioned way, on paper. Rachel Sprung of HubSpot suggests moleskin notebooks which, she says, are one of the most popular items for note taking. They’re “a lot nicer-looking than a classic spiral notebook, making them more of a novelty.”

Here are some other good giveaway options depending on budget, of course:

  • Lip balm
  • Promotional pens
  • Reusable water bottles
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Touch screen cleaning cloths
  • Tablet stylus pen
  • Small flashlights for key chains
  • A reusable bag or tote (Bravo’s top choice in 2016)
  • Luggage tags
  • Emergency packets (Band-Aids, tweezers, alcohol wipes, and first-aid tips)
  • Umbrellas (one can never have enough!)
  • T-shirts, but with minimal branding so someone will actually wear it.

The worst giveaways

  • Key chains, even if they double as bottle openers
  • Stress balls
  • Pens (Sprung suggests they’re outdated in the digital age)
  • USB flash drives (being replaced by the Cloud)
  • Phone cases
  • Disposable water bottles (see breath mints, above)
  • Backpacks
  • Paperweights
  • Elastic wrist or ring bands (unless used as an entry ticket to a special event)
  • Large items
  • Alcohol (good at beer or liquor trade shows, bad for obvious reasons)

Sources: “Top Trade Show Giveaways 2016,” Johnny Bravo, The Sales Pro Blog; “Event Swag Your Attendees Will Love … and Loathe,” Rachel Sprung, HubSpot

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