No matter what sector your B2B business serves or what type of product or service you deliver, there will be an industry conference about it.
Even in today’s hyper-connected world, professionals need the opportunity to rub elbows, make new connections, learn about the latest developments, and showcase their brands and businesses IRL.
As a B2B marketing leader, the prospect of exhibiting at a trade show can be both exhilarating and daunting.
A successful trade show can bring tremendous value to the company—often accounting for a significant chunk of your annual lead generation target—but doing so requires meticulous planning and flawless execution.
Here are some important things to remember so you can deliver the most ROI on your trade show investments.
Your trade show presence must grab attendees’ attention. Think: bold graphics, engaging visuals, unusual displays, and strategic lighting.
The design must align with your brand identity but also differentiate you from the competition.
Choose a functional layout over anything too complicated. Your space should accommodate product displays, demonstration areas, and private spaces for one-on-one meetings, if possible.
Open and inviting layouts draw more visitors than ones with narrow entrances or where booth staff sit behind a table like immigration officials.
If your budget allows, incorporate interactive elements like touchscreens, VR/AR experiences, or hands-on product demos to engage attendees and create a memorable experience.
Finally, your position on the show floor can significantly impact foot traffic, so choose your booth location carefully. Focus on high-traffic areas near entrances, the main aisles, coffee and cocktail bars, and foodservice areas.
Sponsoring items or events at the trade show can increase your brand visibility.
Whether it's lanyards, tote bags, or networking events, find opportunities that align with your brand and use them to drive traffic to your exhibit and your website.
Sponsorships often come with perks like access to exclusive networking events, where you can build deeper relationships with potential customers or partners, and the opportunity to insert promotional material into delegate packets and on-screen rolling displays.
Think carefully about how you will grab the attendees’ attention and prompt them to pay you a visit; simply using a cool design might not be sufficient. You must introduce some sort of hook to join the dots in their mind between something of value and making contact with your company.
One of the surefire ways to attract attention at a trade show is through the strategic use of giveaways, colloquially known as "swag."
Most companies will employ giveaways to attract foot traffic because, well, people love free stuff. Just remember that this won’t necessarily draw in high-quality visitors. You’ll get your fair share of “trick-or-treaters” as well.
High-quality branded merchandise, which you can restrict to qualified visitors (e.g., those who engage in demos or sign up for a future meeting), typically draws the best attendees, and increases brand visibility post-event, provided you give them something useful that they will keep.
You want the attendee to continue using the item long after the event, offering you extended brand exposure, so opt for items that are not only branded but also useful and relevant to your target audience. For instance, tech companies might consider branded phone chargers, while a healthcare company might offer eco-friendly water bottles.
Ensure your giveaways reflect your brand values. For example, if you champion sustainability, offer items made of recycled materials.
Swag represents your brand, and thoughtfully chosen items can create a lasting impression.
By far the most potent opportunity offered at trade shows is the opportunity to appear on stage, either as a keynote speaker or as part of a panel discussion.
If your target event offers speaking slots, take advantage. They help to position your company as an industry leader and drive traffic to your booth.
Unsurprisingly, given their value-creating potential, speaking slots are usually reserved for higher-tier sponsors and other VIPs. This might mean spending more to participate at a flagship event while exhibiting at fewer events overall.
How should you strike this balance between the number of events and potential impact at each?
The answer will be different for each company, but I recommend thinking carefully about who you expect to attend each event, your objectives (for example, concentrating on one geographic region versus generating national or international awareness), and other channels you might use to reach attendees in areas where you can’t afford to exhibit.
This is where most marketers experience cold sweats and nightmares.
Turning a bare conference hall into a brightly lit, carpeted bazaar featuring several hundred vendors is nothing short of a miracle.
For that process to go smoothly, event organizers enforce strict move-in and set-up rules and schedules, so familiarize yourself with the trade show's policies well in advance.
Be sure your team and any third-party contractors involved in set up or tear down are familiar with the timing and your requirements.
Since each show is a little different, double-check the need to separately book things like power outlets, carpet, and wi-fi access. Don’t be surprised if some places charge extra for each of them.
Carefully plan how your booth components will get to the show and be assembled.
Shipping crates and boxes to the venue usually requires timing their delivery to a 3 or 4 day window, when show organizers will receive and store them.
Taking them with you can be fraught, especially if they exceed normal airline weight limits—either in actual weight or so-called ‘dimensional weight’, which the carrier calculates based on the product of their length, width, and height.
Maneuvering from airport to hotel to conference center with your personal luggage and a couple of large rolling exhibit containers is easier said than done.
Consider who in your party will organize transportation, what vehicle will be rented—often the best solution for moving people and boxes around—and how everything will be conveyed from parking lot to booth space.
Do not assume you will be able to beg, borrow, or rent a dolly or cart. Even if there are some available, dozens of exhibitors will be squabbling over them.
Modern trade-show booths fall into two categories: those that are designed to be assembled and disassembled by two people, and those that require a team of trained engineers.
If you’re in the latter category, pay the extra to have your booth stored, shipped, assembled, disassembled, and returned to storage by the exhibit company. It might sound expensive, but it saves a huge amount of stress.
If you’re marketing a small-to-medium sized business, you’ll be managing some sort of self-assembly booth. These range from simple pull-up displays (affordable, does the job, not going to impress anyone) to metal frameworks, complete with internal lighting, stretch-to-fit graphics, cupboards, TV mounts, and more.
To say that these kits have come a long way in recent years is an understatement. I remember spending hours with boxes of parts, a toolkit, and several pages of instructions, trying to set up a relatively simple booth. Today, it’s a world of plug-and-play parts, a couple of tools, and “your Grandma could do this” step-by-step videos.
Once again, you get what you pay for, so work with a professional exhibit company and choose a robust booth system that will survive many set up and rig down cycles without showing wear and tear.
The graphics you display on your exhibit should be easy to replace. This allows for updates in response to new product launches, brand updates, or simply a new look to attract more visitors.
Final note: remember to pack tools, plenty of tape, and a set of steps. Unless you’re exhibiting at a unionized facility where on-site workers are required to do anything more complex than tying your shoelaces (and don’t you dare try to “save them the bother”), you’ll need to assemble everything yourself and make running repairs if anything gets damaged.
People turn a pretty set of walls and carpet into a living representation of your brand.
Your staff on location should be knowledgeable about the company, your products and services, and your objectives for the event.
They should be trained to engage visitors, qualify prospects, and capture leads.
Consistency in appearance, whether it's company shirts or just color-coordinated outfits, will make your team appear professional and approachable.
Be sure to have enough staff on the booth to handle high levels of traffic during conference breaks but send some of them off to explore when times are quieter; walking up to an army of branded salespeople is far too intimidating for most potential buyers.
Create a schedule that shows who will be working at the booth and when so that your team gets regular breaks, but the right people are manning the booth during busy times.
Refreshed team members are much more effective at engaging prospects than tired ones.
The point of exhibiting at a trade show isn’t just to look pretty—although you will grow brand awareness just by being there and being seen.
To achieve next-level performance, which normally means generating a healthy number of qualified leads, you should document an engagement strategy and go through it with your onsite team in advance. I recommend revisiting it each morning as well, just before the show floor opens to visitors.
Plan how you'll attract and engage attendees. Will you be giving live product demonstrations? What about technical presentations? Who will staff the interactive displays to help participants if they get stuck? Will you be showcasing any exclusive offers or running competitions to entice people onto your booth?
Whatever else happens, it’s vital that you return to the office (or your place of remote work) with a solid list of qualified leads.
Manual lead capture can be prone to errors, leaving you with unusable contact details, and booth staff are notorious for getting caught up in the conversation and forgetting to write down pertinent information.
Take advantage of lead capture technology, such as rented lead retrieval systems or subscription phone apps (my personal favorite is Popl) to efficiently gather attendee information.
This can mean scanning their badge, capturing their business card, or trading electronic information between their device and yours.
Whichever mode you employ, be sure to annotate the information with pertinent details from the prospect’s visit and your conversation with them.
Not all leads are created equal. Train your team members to qualify leads on-the-fly, based on a set of pre-agreed criteria. This ensures the most valuable prospects are given priority treatment on the booth, and helps your sales team prioritize the most promising leads when you get back.
When it comes to following up with leads, time is of the essence. Research shows that leads who receive a follow-up message before they have left the show floor, and again within a day of the onsite meeting, are much more likely to continue the conversation (and become a customer) than prospects who don’t hear from you until several days later.
Plan your in-event and post-event follow up campaigns in advance, so there's minimal effort or delay involved in reaching out to the leads you’ve captured.
In addition to the points we’ve covered so far, here are a few more to help maximize the value you generate from your trade show investments:
Set Clear Objectives: Know what you're looking to achieve—whether it's a specific number of leads, meetings, or simply brand awareness—and how it will be measured.
Manage Your Budget: Trade show participation can be expensive and has a habit of ballooning unless closely managed. Watch out for hidden costs like shipping, drayage, utilities, and last-minute additions, such as sponsorship packages, that the event organizer will try to upsell.
Measure and Learn: Track lead outcomes carefully. Hold an after-action review to assess your objectives against outcomes. What went well? What could be improved? How will you refine your strategy for future trade shows?
Like most complex endeavors, if something can go wrong at a trade show, it will (eventually). So, go prepared.
Technical difficulties arise whether we’re working from home, in the office, or on the road. From damaged booth components to presentation equipment failures to malfunctioning displays, technical glitches can be a marketer's nightmare.
Where possible, take backup equipment with you, such as an extra laptop or display. Carry offline copies of all presentations. Consider taking a cellular hot spot device to provide connectivity if the on site wi-fi service is poor or overloaded. If time permits, run a full technical rehearsal before the event starts to identify and fix potential issues.
It's not uncommon for display materials, products, or even booth components to get lost in transit or be damaged during setup.
If you are shipping your booth, pay for a trackable service and consider insuring valuable items. Familiarize yourself with local print shops (e.g., FedEx Office) where emergency banners or graphics can be printed if needed.
Another unpredictable element is your onsite team. Staff members can get sick, miss flights, or encounter other unforeseen circumstances that prevent them from attending.
Consider having a backup team member on site (if costs permit) or ready to travel if timing allows. Train your backup staff the same as your primary booth staff to ensure everyone can perform at a high level.
A first-class problem arises when your booth gets overwhelmed by foot traffic. An unexpected surge in visitors is a good problem to have but can result in missed opportunities.
Agree a communication protocol between your onsite team members so that anyone who is on a break or enjoying another part of the conference can be quickly summoned back to the booth. Train your team to efficiently qualify leads, ensuring that high-potential visitors get the attention they deserve. If you anticipate overcrowding, use a digital scheduling tool where interested attendees can book a timeslot for more in-depth discussions later in the day or after the event.
As a growing company, you will often be competing with companies that have a more significant booth presence, better locations, and more engaging attractions.
This can be demoralizing to staff who aren’t used to the trade show environment.
Remember—and coach your team—that bigger isn’t always better. Genuine, valuable interactions leave a more lasting impression than flashy displays.
Large booths have a nasty habit of looking really empty when the show floor isn’t busy—and an unemployed army of booth staff hanging around in the corners only serves to amplify this impression.
Focus on what sets your brand apart and engage attendees with a high-quality display and compelling story, rather than hard selling and big company bravado.
Trade shows are dynamic environments, filled with opportunities, but even with meticulous planning, unforeseen challenges can arise.
The key is to plan carefully, remain adaptable, and approach the event with a solutions-oriented mindset.
Your ability to handle situations gracefully and deploy a pre-agreed contingency plan can leave an even more lasting impression than a flawless event.
Trade shows also represent a significant investment. However, when executed correctly, they are an unrivaled source of brand exposure, lead generation, and relationship building.
By focusing on booth design, efficient logistics, trained staff, and strategic sponsorship opportunities, you can elevate your brand's presence and achieve excellent ROI.
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Image credits: Adobe Stock