Making trade shows pay: a strategy for startups

trade fair new frontiers

With the number of high-profile exhibitions and trade shows increasing, how can we be sure that participating isn’t simply a costly and time-consuming exercise, with no guarantee of success? Trade exhibitions can be very profitable for your business and the secret to success lies in good planning.

Determining whether trade fairs are to be part of your marketing strategy is not a decision to be taken at the last moment. You should allow time to research which shows to attend, assign a trade show budget, and identify and purchase the necessary promotional materials. Deciding to exhibit at the last minute may result in increased costs and inconclusive or poor results.

Who is organising the event?

The success of the show depends primarily on the footfall over the duration of the event and the footfall is the responsibility of the organiser. A good trade show organiser should provide extensive pre-event publicity with newspaper advertisements, direct mailings, billboard advertising, brochures or emails to previous year’s visitors and exhibitors, well in advance of the event.

The onus is on you to choose a trade show that will have a large relevant attendance.

Checking the credentials of the organiser is a must.

  • Have they organised the event before?
  • How many people attended and how many exhibitors?
  • Have the numbers increased over the past three years (indicative of a successful show)?
  • Ask for access to profiles of the companies that attended and those of the visitors
  • Is there an entrance fee?
  • Will you be allocated free tickets for your customers?
  • Is the trade show easy to get to?
  • Is there adequate parking?

Get in early

Once you have decided to exhibit – book early to ensure that you have a good choice of stands. The location of your stand can make a big difference to your floor traffic. Always try to choose a high-traffic location. A corner booth should be your goal, as it will be visible from all possible approach angles. The front of the hall is terrific; the centre of the hall is just as good. Other prime locations are those near major aisle intersections, coffee stations and meeting points.

Plan your show

If the exhibition is a national trade show, you should focus your efforts on your brand or company identification. If it is a consumer show then concentrate on product identification, ensuring visitors remember your products when they leave.

Have clear objectives

  • Increased sales of existing products or services
  • Launch of a new product
  • Carry out market research into client/product acceptability
  • Network with other exhibiting businesses
  • Make useful contacts with the media or suppliers
  • Establish a better profile for the business
  • Talk to existing customers
  • Identify additional products or services for your company to supply
  • To be everywhere your competition is

Plan your stand layout

You can make a lasting impression with a display of any size, just make sure that the impression made is a positive one. Whether you use posters or banners, your company name, logo or the name of your most recognized product should be highly visible. Use large fonts and hang displays as high up as possible. Colourful graphics make maximum visual impact.

Photographs of people using your product attract a lot of attention. Keep text to a minimum; specific details are for brochures. Graphics will attract visitors to your stand, your supporting documentation will give them all the details. Light up products and graphics to make them stand out more. Invest in a display system that gives you a professional look. Curtain backdrops and draped tables can look cheap and make you look less professional.

Don’t clutter or create barriers to your display with too much product, literature, or too many freebies. Present your brochures in stands rather than leaving them lying flat. Avoid putting a table at the front of your stand. Make your display area open and inviting. Save money and add value to your brochures, freebies, and samples by saving them for those genuinely interested in your product or service.

Try to engage visitors to your stand. Just leaving stuff out for people to take away often means they won’t remember you or your company when they get back to base.

Control your costs

It’s never too early to start controlling costs. If you will be doing a number of shows then choose displays which can be used many times over, are easy to assemble and dismantle, and can be transported easily. Having customised shipping containers made can dramatically extend the life-cycle of exhibits, as they offer proper protection during shipment.

Compile a checklist of all items you need to bring along. Having to source replacements for things left behind (mains adapters, etc.) can be costly and may reduce the impact of your stand. Make sure whatever power, air or water requirements your exhibits need are provided by the exhibition organisers. It may be cheaper for you to bring along your own compressors, etc., than hire locally.

If you intend giving away freebies, it is always useful to contact corporate gift specialists exhibiting with you at the show. They may be offering discounts to fellow exhibitors which you could avail of.

Consider sharing the cost of the stand with non-competing peers. For example; a florist may team up with a photographer and a bridal-wear boutique. Visitors may require all or some of their services, it also means there is somebody manning the stand at all times. It is important that each party is aware of any promotions that the other is offering during the show.

Plan your pre-show publicity

Make sure you let your current customers, prospects and suppliers know that you are exhibiting at the show. Send them invitations.

If you are offering discounts for attendees at the show, make sure they know about them. Offer the same discount to all your customers, as it may help close that deal you were working on, or gain extra business from existing customers who don’t intend being at the show themselves.

Request an attendee list from the organisers and let your fellow exhibitors know of your promotions in advance of the show. If you specialise in corporate gifts or exhibition graphics, you may pick up business from fellow exhibitors as they prepare their own stands. Make sure that you are listed in all pre-event literature and that all details are correct – contact name, telephone, email and website.

If the organisers have a dedicated website for the event, ensure they include a link back to your own website and test it out. Often visitors check websites before the event to determine which stands they will target during their visit.

Put a list of events you are attending on your web-site. But remember to update the listing as each event is over. There is nothing worse than out of date information on a company website. Prepare press releases for local and trade press. You may have a new product to announce or a new member of staff or your management team to introduce. Perhaps you have a Formula 1 car or other attraction on your stand that you wish to tell people about. These are all newsworthy topics and have a good chance of getting media attention.

Work the floor as well as the stand

Often, exhibitors stay glued to their stands all day or rush around before the event starts giving out flyers, business cards, etc. A better approach is to make a point to visit each stand and introduce yourself, to pass out and collect business cards and other info. People will remember you better and your sales material has a better chance of being kept and examined. This does require additional staff to man your stand while you are busy networking.

And finally…

Follow-up on all your leads after the show. Additional information requested should be sent through and promises to arrange meetings executed. Make notes on how the show went. What worked well, what the shortfalls were. Learn from each show you attend. Continue to evaluate your results during the weeks and months ahead. How many contacts were made? How many new customers? How many sales made? How many are still customers six months after the show? Being methodical in your approach will bring the dividends you desire and will make that trade show pay.

About the author


Garrett DuffyGarrett-Duffy-New-Frontiers

Garrett is the New Frontiers Programme Manager at Dundalk Institute of Technology. He has a background in engineering and has lectured in information systems, computer applications and new venture creation. He has been the Enterprise Development Manager at DkIT’s Regional Development Centre since 2007… [Read Garrett’s profile]

Other articles from the New Frontiers blog

How You Can Stop Bad Posture Ruining Your Workday

How To Keep Your Remote Workers In The Loop

New Frontiers companies are rising to meet COVID-19 pandemic challenges

Enterprise Ireland’s Action Plan For Women In Business