Trade show tips & advice

A step-by-step guide that can turn any event into a showcase for your business

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

For a small business owner, trade shows can seem overwhelming. They often require a lot of additional work on top of the day-to-day running of your business, not to mention adding complications of travel and other unforeseen expenses. Because of this, participating in fairs, markets and events may seem difficult to justify. However, with proper planning, the right attitude and an effective follow-up plan, they can open up your business to countless new opportunities you may not have considered.

The benefits of participating in a trade show or event are vast, including many opportunities to do the following:

  • Meet new customers and clients
  • Expose yourself to new industry trends
  • Discover fresh ideas for your business
  • See what competitors are doing

Whether it’s a national event that covers hundreds of thousands of square feet or a local event with a dozen other exhibitors, any chance to be seen by potential customers is an opportunity to make a great impression.

Setting up your trade show display

The first thing you should do when preparing for any event is to determine what your goals are and then build your exhibition display and marketing materials around them. Think about what matters to your small business in the context of the event.

What kind of event is it? Is it business-to-business, such as an industry-specific exhibition, or business-to-consumer, such as a local trade show? Are you looking for new leads, just trying to get the word out, or are you trying to make sales right on the floor of the event? Once you have determined exactly what you want to get out of the event, be sure to tailor your stand and materials accordingly.

Someone seeking out leads for their accounting firm at a business-to-business event may opt for an event stand that’s more open with a table and chairs in the corner for quieter conversations with potential clients. A landscaper working a neighbourhood event, however, may choose to go with a more traditional stand with a table in front of them on which they can place their marketing materials and giveaways.

Similarly, the accountant will likely want well-designed marketing materials in a presentation folder because that offers a polished look that speaks to their business’s professionalism. Moreover, the landscaping company may want to hand out business cards, folded leaflets and promotional products or giveaways like keychains that can fit in a pocket, purse or tote bag.

Making these choices early on helps you prepare well. Ordering your marketing materials and promotional products well ahead of time is important especially if you need to get them delivered directly to the event.

Thinking about the type of people you want to see is also key, whether they’re potential customers, partners, or vendors. It’s far too common for small business owners to tell other attendees that they’ll “see them there” but never manage to connect. If you can, book time with them before the event.

Updating your website and social media with information about your presence at the event is a good idea, as is sending out an email to your contact list. Sending postcards ahead of the event lets your customers know you’ll be there. If you’re looking for new contacts to send postcards to, larger trade shows frequently have a mailing list you can access.

Consider using these mail-outs as a chance for a special offer or a giveaway that’s exclusive to people who come to your stand with a postcard. Just be sure to include dates, location, time and your stand number on every piece.

Before you leave for the event, pack a tote bag filled with essentials, such as water, snacks and device chargers that can help to keep you going all day.

Maximising your trade show presence

Remember that you’re representing your small business and that means that you need to be at your best. Arrive to the trade show or event in plenty of time in order to set up and take in your surroundings.

The people manning your exhibition stand are just as important as your signage and your marketing materials. If you need more people at your stand, make sure that you have clear goals and tasks for everyone. Take a little time and assign tasks to individuals, whether it’s collecting addresses, organising your printed materials or keeping the stand clutter-free.

Other tips to have a good trade show or event experience:

  • Don’t spend your time looking at your phone. That shows you’re bored and uninterested in potential customers.
  • If you’re demonstrating a product, post a schedule letting passers-by know when they can come back.
  • Make it easy for potential customers to give you their information. A bowl for business cards (with a giveaway for a T-shirt or water bottle or another promotional product) can help you build leads for your business with little effort.
  • Take the time to visit other small businesses at the event. Many businesses find potential business partners and clients just by stopping by and saying hello.
  • If this is an event with presentations and talks, make time for at least one. They can be a fantastic opportunity to hear industry leaders speak about things that can affect you.
  • When you take a break, make it work for you. Check out how the competition’s tables are set up. What are they doing that you’re not? Is that working for them?
  • Take notes when you speak to someone and don’t be afraid to ask questions. It can be hard to keep track of everything that’s said at an event and a notebook can be your best friend at the end of the day. If you make a promise to follow up with a customer, keep it.

Following up after the trade show.

It’s important to keep the momentum going once you’re back home. If you make connections, make sure to follow up with them promptly after the event. If you’re building a contact list, add them after the initial contact and make sure you note how you met them.

Other ways to follow up on potential leads from a trade show:

  • Send an event-specific postcard with a personal note thanking them for their time.
  • Post a personalised, hand-signed letter with additional marketing materials.
  • Follow your leads on social media such as Twitter and LinkedIn.

These types of personalised follow ups are certainly time-consuming, but done right they’ll be worth your while.

Finally, take the time to reflect on the entire event, from start to finish, to identify opportunities to improve for the next one.

Too many small businesses do the same things at every event. By taking what you’ve learned and applying it to your next event, fairs, markets and events can be more than just profitable – they can be fun.

Want more help to make sure that you’re ready for your trade show? Download our ultimate trade show checklist.