(This article will just focus on the marketing aspects of trade shows, in the full knowledge that there are significant operational tasks as well. Further, while it’s well recognized that in order to have a successful trade show it is incumbent upon sales and marketing to cooperate, we’ll leave to another time all the impediments to this seemingly reasonable task. But I will pose a question or two for you to ponder: Who’s Show is it? Marketing’s? Sales’? Where does the budget reside? To whom do the show managers(s) report? Who staffs the booth?)

Managed correctly, trade shows represent a perfect example of integrated marketing communications. Think of it. Many coordinated (all looking like they came from the same place at the same time) marketing communications tools are employed in an integrated fashion to produce a common result. This is almost a textbook definition of IMC. Examples of these marketing tools include public relations, sales promotion, advertising, direct response/databasing, corporate communications (booth design/ graphics, brochures, sell sheets, etc.) and personal selling. As a practical matter, marketing success at a trade show has come to mean executing activities before the show, during the show and after the show in order to make the best of the opportunity.


First, it actually matters what your goals are. Goals (and the size and ease of the opportunities) should determine activities and budgets. An example of a goal (and there can be more than one for a given trade show) is to introduce one or more new products. This is perhaps the most common trade show goal. Other examples are: to showcase new creative/packaging, etc., generate sales immediately (right at the show), develop future sales, generate media coverage, meet with current customers to solidify relationships, attract distributors and/or sales reps, attract international distribution, attract potential employees, gather market data on the state of the industry or on specific competitors and establish/enhance or modify your Brand’s Personality.

The goal will rarely be to convince as many people as possible to visit your booth. It will always be to convince the right people to visit the booth. Thus, it is not uncommon for a company to have a closed booth with no entry permitted without an appointment, by being on a list of customers or by being vetted at a single point of admission. At the 2006 International Toy Fair, for example, Lego had a closed booth, the walls of which were opaque and at least 20 feet high. Attendees were not allowed into this closed area unless they had an appointment or purchased at least $25,000 in the past year. Everyone else was stopped at the entrance and vetted. Many were turned away.


It is not unusual for owners of shows to begin marketing as many as nine months prior to the show date. The sooner you can be ready to respond to them, the better. There are implications for booth site and size selection and for getting onto speaking platforms. It almost always is better to be a member of the sponsoring organization, if there is one. There is usually a discount for members and the payback is instantaneous if your booth size is bigger than 10 x 10, i.e., the money saved on the discount pays for the membership.

Another pre-show activity with a long lead time is the design and construction of a new booth or alteration of the existing booth. Obviously this will be in keeping with the goals established above. My advice here is to work with experts; they know more than you. This is all they do. (Two highly regarded national players with offices in many cities are Nimlok and Skyline.) The booth should reflect your Brand Personality. It should also be themed using the same imagery and messaging as is being used in the PR, in the pre-show mailings, in the brochure materials, etc. (Integrated Marketing Communications)

Do assemble your booth prior to the show; become comfortable with its space and limitations. Test everything and plan to bring back-ups—extra light bulbs, batteries, printer cartridges, scissors, staple guns, business cards for all attendees, pens, price sheets, brochures, media kits, etc. Order the Show’s scanner system. Double check that cell phones will work on the floor.


The show is a naturally occurring opportunity to meet with existing customers. Take advantage of it. This is a good place for senior officers in your firm to personally connect with key accounts. The biggest customers get phone calls, invitations to off-site events, dinner, etc. All the rest get invited to the booth.

Of course, use the show to develop hot, tasty leads. Often this is the primary reason for attending. One sale may very well pay for the entire costs of the show. Use your database. If your database is not all you desire, this is a chance to update it by renting the show’s database (it might be of the past year’s attendees or, if you are lucky, it might be early sign-ups for the current show). In every case that I’m familiar with you can pre-sort the lists by industry segments to lower the counts and, therefore, your purchase price. Then when you get them you can usually sort them again (by hand if necessary) by company or title or name.

This mail program is designed to drive the right traffic to the booth. Vary what is mailed based on the characteristic of the recipients. Buyers at big chains get one package; independents get a post card, etc. When you mail, use a themed creative execution—the same one used in the booth design your advertising, marketing PR, etc. Determine whether you need a contest or other traffic builders/promotions. If you intend to use them, be sure to promote them in your mailing

Do establish a media list and sent out kits to key media personnel before the show. Do not assume they will pick up your kits from among the hundreds or thousands available in the Press Room. Be sure to call key media members in advance to make sure they have received your kit and invite them to your booth with an angle that meets their known editorial needs or the needs of their audiences, e.g., a personal preview of a new product, access to a key executive for an exclusive interview, etc. Remember, you must be newsworthy to be covered. That you are at the show is not newsworthy—unless it is your first appearance. The squeaky wheel gets the oil; making a telephone call improves your odds of being among the relatively few stops a reporter/editor can make at a large show.

Work with and befriend the show owners to take advantage of the marketing opportunities they are presenting; automated PR feeds, press room, daily show advertising, post show participations. Woo them just like you woo the media.

There must be pre-show meeting(s) of all booth personnel. Review the goals, review the product/line specifics, understand how small orders will be managed, how/who will deal with potentially large orders, media requests, distributor sales rep requests, etc. If there are more personnel than the booth can contain, make a schedule and assign alternative tasks to those who are not in the booth.


Travel to the show with enough time to spare so that if there is an airline weather disaster, you’ll still be there on opening day. Often times the biggest customers do not stay for the whole show so it is important to be at full strength on Day 1.

If possible, reconfirm appointments with clients, prospects and media. If you promised a contest, then run the contest.

Dress should reflect your Brand’s Personality. Formal in suits and ties, less formal in company t-shirts, or in lab coats (for a veterinary science company). Establish a look and stick to it—no exceptions.

When people visit the booth, the key task is to qualify them for your correct sales response, e.g., try to sell right now, mark as a prospect actively in the buying process for immediate post show follow-up, identify as a longer term prospect to receive information after the show and later follow-up, etc.

Work the rest of the show. Walk the isles—all of them. This includes shopping competitors’ booths and generally identifying what is happening in the industry. It may be difficult or awkward to obtain copies of competitor marketing materials so find an agent, e.g., a friendly customer or a friend of the firm, to gather this information for you.

Plan on a daily debrief—perhaps at/after dinner that night or at breakfast the next morning.


In my experience the most common trade show failure is not following-up on leads derived at shows. Ideally, every lead has been qualified by the person to whom they spoke—using previously agreed upon criteria. This might have been done as a note written on the back of a received business card or as a coded entry into the automated swipe system that can be rented or as a written entry on a call sheet, etc. Of course, if this has not been done, then there will be no way to decide who to call first. You’ll meet dozens or even hundreds of people at a large show; memory alone will not suffice later in sorting out quality leads from dross.

One issue is that, unfortunately, salespeople prefer to follow-up with those people they personally met rather than with more important leads qualified by someone else—even another salesperson.

Another issue is that prompt, appropriate follow-up is required. Since the volume of this work can be large, it must be planned before the show is attended. What kinds of leads will get what responses from your organization? Who will be called or emailed? Who will get a brochure, etc.? As everyone knows, leads decay over time; waiting too long simply sends a message that you are either not interested or not capable.


I have a client who was totally swamped by the positive response they achieved at two nearly back-to back trade shows. They had not fully responded to the first set of leads when they had to attend the second show.


Of course, there needs to be an assessment. What was spent to attend the show? Fees, shipping, allocated share of total company trade show overhead, travel, specific printing, mailing, advertising, PR, etc. And what were the results? Number of visits, number of leads (by type), and subsequently, sales dollars. Number of articles/press release pick-ups. Number of reps signed, etc. These all can be converted to per-dollar-spent ratios, so that one show can be compared to another and so show activity can be compared to other marketing activities.


Know why you are attending a trade show; what goals you hope to accomplish. Plan an integrated, coordinated marketing communications program that includes pre-show, at show and post-show elements. And follow-up in a timely and appropriate fashion or all you will have done is proved your incompetence to the very people you wanted to impress. Assess the results, and then do it again. And again.

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