Exhibiting at your first trade show

This past week I attended the 2011 Land and Wildlife Expo in Nashville, TN. The Quality Deer Management Association National Convention was held in conjunction with that event this year. QDMA has inspired a lot of the work I have done. They are also a popular organization with a lot of members that could be customers. There were about 200 exhibitors and ten to twenty thousand attendees.

What follows is a post-mortem that includes my experiences running a booth at a trade show, useful tips, and data I collected.

Should you be at a trade show?

The best way to answer this question is to run the numbers.  What is the total cost to go and run a booth? Include printing brochures and business cards, banners or displays, demos on TVs or laptops, and the cost of services from the contractors for the show. Internet access can cost you hundreds. Travel expenses? Food?

Do your research. Ask the other show attendees what kind of traffic they have seen and if they have conversion data. How many prospects can you speak with at the show? If you sell to 0.5% of the people you speak to can you break even? 1%? Talk to some sales people with experience at trade shows and try to learn what kind of conversion rate you can expect in your industry. It will also vary based on how well the show fits your customers.

If you don’t have a product to sell or you don’t have any customers: don’t spend the money on a trade show with an unproven idea. You may get some benefit from attending a trade show in order to network or learn from other attendees, but I wouldn’t invest in that too early.

Dressing up the booth

This bit can get expensive, but you need to do some things to attract attention and be taken seriously. It is important to get quality materials that make you look professional and attract attention. It is also important not to go overboard. If you spend thousands on the show, you need to make a lot of sales to break even. Rent most materials before you buy. If you have a quality product and look professional, you can do well. Don’t go overboard here. My booth got as much traffic as most of my neighbors and my setup was dramatically simpler. I brought a banner and some brochures. I got a great deal on design and printing from my friend, Chad Wright. I don’t have any kind of referral deal with Chad.

Connecting to walk up traffic

Be active. I read the blog post from RJ Metrics before I ran this show and I tried my own experiments. Asking specific questions that cannot be answered with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ makes a big difference in how many people will speak to you. You don’t have to be a carnival barker, but if someone looks passingly interested or at least isn’t looking away and rushing past then you should ask them a question from a list. Make several options that you know (or expect) will connect to your customers. I run software to manage records and trail camera surveys for hunters, ranchers, and breeders. I asked a few questions:

  • How many trail cameras do you have in the field?
  • How many trail cam photos did you take last year?
  • How much time do you spend sifting through trail cam photos?
  • Do you know your average main beam length for the last 5 years?
  • Can you say if your food plots have improved antler characteristics?
  • How much time do you spend generating reports each year from your records?
  • What do you use to manage your records now?

Notice that none of these questions have a yes or no answer. Don’t let prospects off the hook that easily. All of these questions address specific needs for the people in my market. If a prospect was disinterested by these questions I knew I could move on.

Data Analysis

I kept stats on:

  • how many people I spoke with
  • what questions I asked
  • interest from a question
  • how many business cards I gave out
  • how many people I signed up on the spot (or immediately after)
  • how many people took a flyer

We spoke to 105 prospects. We gave out 65 flyers. I handed out 23 business cards. We asked the trail camera questions 52 times with 28 positive responses. We asked the records questions 34 times with 16 positive responses. The first and last questions in the list were the most effective and most common we used. We signed up 6 at the show or immediately after.

Amusing Stats

We kept a bowl of candy on the table for Saturday and Sunday. About 45 people came just to take some candy and didn’t end up talking seriously with us. 10 of those people were what we termed ‘ashamed candy grabbers.’ They asked about the product because they felt like they had to in exchange for the candy. Snickers was by far the most popular candy. All of the chocolate was taken before the hard candy.


Before I went to the conference I got some advice from Harry Hollander of Moraware. He had a few tips I’d like to pass on that really helped me.

  1. Don’t go alone. Just don’t.
  2. Keep the messaging clear, don’t overuse text.
  3. ‘Always be leaving’ — keep a look out for people losing interest and let them go
  4. Rent equipment and watch your costs. Be cheap. If you have a compelling product, it’ll work.
  5. Use parties and seminars to socialize. Network.
  6. Find a way to become a speaker.

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