This is article #28 out of 50 in The Startup Marketing Playbook.
Despite the incredible digital channels marketers have today, large trade shows are still a powerful force in the marketing world. These typically involve vendors setting up massive booths in a convention center with thousands of attendees (ideally target persona customers) wandering through the maze of vendors, learning about new products and sometimes purchasing on the spot.
A large trade show will likely be your most expensive marketing investments of the year. Therefore, it’s critical that you manage it exceptionally well and account for all of the little details in order to ensure you are positioned to get a high return on your investment.
When I managed Netpulse’s trade show presence at IHRSA (10,000 attendees); it was the company’s first real trade show experience and we had to define everything from scratch. In the end, the show was very successful for us, and I learned a ton of best practices. This post is a breakdown of those best practices, in chronological order, from preparation months prior to the day of the show.
1. Define goals and marketing messaging
8 months from the show, and then again 2 months from the show
This event is going to be a big endeavor and a lot of work. Clearly define what your goals are and what the core messaging is for your company’s presence at the show. Often these goals include:
- Solidify brand positioning (i.e. ensure the market knows who you are)
- Have specific customer or vendor partner meetings
- Debut a new product that drives sales
When you are creating collateral, booth design and a script for your staff to use when speaking with prospects; it’s important that the messaging is tightly aligned in each of them so the communication is clear and unified. Take the time to define this on paper before investing real time and money into the trade show.
2. Secure booth space
8 months from the show
Since these shows are enormous, booth space is booked incredibly far in advance. Getting the right space within that crazy maze of vendors can make or break the ROI on the show. If your booth isn’t in a high traffic area, you could miss many customers. Look for a booth space that is:
- Close to the front doors
- On a corner of multiple aisles
- Near other larger exhibitors that will attract foot traffic
To actually reserve the booth space, typically you are provided with a map of the booths and then fill out a request form, along with sending a deposit to the show organizer. This deposit could be 25-50% of the booth space cost. Expect the cost for just the space alone to be between $5,000 and $15,000 for a midsize booth.
3. Contract a booth vendor
6 months from the show
Once you have the space reserved, you’ll need to find and contract a vendor to create your booth. This is the largest expense of the show. This vendor will:
- Help you create a booth that aligns with your business
- Rent you the materials for the booth itself
- Use your brand assets to design the booth
- Assemble and dismantle the booth at the show
- Connect you with other vendors needed for A/V
Typically the way this arrangement works prior to the show is:
- You do a call with the booth vendor to discusses your goals
- The vendor sends examples of booth designs, and you select ones you like
- The vendor creates a customized 3D mockup of your booth
- You collaborate with the vendor to iterate on the design
- You review the costs of the design and substitute elements to reduce cost
- You agree on the booth design and pay a deposit
An important question to consider is whether to rent a booth or purchase it. As a startup, it makes a lot more sense to rent. You want to test the booth to see how it works, and because your business could be totally different in a year. Additionally, purchasing a booth requires you to pay for expensive storage and shipping fees. Assuming you are indeed renting, the cost of the booth includes quite a few items:
- Rental of the booth hardware, including furniture
- Printing of the design assets that go on the booth hardware to customize it
- Shipping materials to and from the show
- Assembly, dismantle and tech support at the show
4. Define a booth experience
4 months from the show
Once you have selected a vendor, you need to define the design concept of the booth. To determine that, you need to answer some important questions:
- How are you demonstrating your product to prospects?
- Do you need a private meeting room at the booth?
- How can you design your space to encourage as many conversations as possible?
Based on the answers to those questions, you may need elements in your booth such as:
- Demo stations to show prospects your product
- Conference room large enough to accommodate private meetings with important customers
- LCD displays that are continuously playing videos at the booth
- Tables and chairs that are sized and comfortable to have conversations
- Collateral to share with prospects
- Special experiences that attract foot traffic (e.g. mini golf)
This is an area where you want to rely on your booth vendor as a partner. They have vast experience and can share countless examples of what other companies have executed in the past. My advice is to keep things simple. The more elements you add to the booth, the more that can go wrong (and I assure you, something will go wrong). If you are a startup, try to avoid the special experiences and focus on clear messaging, having plenty of meeting space and providing ample opportunity to show off the product.
5. Design the booth
3 months from the show
If your team includes designers, they can do the design work for the booth. Typically a booth includes hardware (walls, displays, demo stations) that designs can be attached to using removable cloth, stickers or other materials. This accomplishes a finished product which looks totally seamless.
As you are designing the assets needed for your booth, keep these items in mind:
- Everything needs to able to print big, so design files that will scale
- Use colors and text that grab people’s attention (e.g. white text on a dark background)
- Keep the messaging simple and use a big font
When a prospect walks by the booth, you want something clear and simple that catches their eye. Never print tons of product details on the booth. For example, in my last booth the only text we had printed on the walls and banners was “Fitness is going mobile” and “Get your Club Mobile App.” These were super simple messages that told a prospect why we were there and what our product was about.
Aside from the design assets, there are several other booth elements to consider:
The booth vendor will rent you furniture for the show. When selecting furniture, think carefully and take measurements for how it will fit in the booth. A good rule of thumb for selecting furniture includes:
- Get chairs with 3 legs — anything less may be wobbly on a carpeted surface
- Get tables wide enough to accomodate collateral and prospect’s bags
- Ensure all furniture matches the color and style of the booth design
The show will probably provide scanners that the staff can use to scan each prospect’s badge to keep track of who you spoke to. This is typically a worthy investment to ensure no prospects get lost in the shuffle. Another option is to just take pictures of prospects’ badges with a smartphone and write down their contact information.
At a big trade show, it can be challenging to navigate the maze of vendors. Investing in a rotating hanging sign with your company’s logo is typically worth it to attract more foot traffic. When doing this, be sure to use dark colors and light text (or the reverse) to make sure it is legible from a far distance away. Additionally, be aware of the location of other vendor’s signs nearby incase they block the site of yours.
When a prospect comes to the booth, you want to have paper collateral as a visual aide to walk them through the product. The prospect takes the collateral with them, which should always include your contact information. When creating show collateral, keep things simple. I limit it to 3 items, typically 1-page flyers. It’s important to have these printed and reviewed prior to the show.
To determine how much collateral to purchase, I have found everyone overestimates the number of prospects that will actually take collateral, and ends up with excess materials. I’d recommend spending less here and saving the money for other more important booth elements.
If you sell product at the booth, be sure to have customer agreements available (if you use a paper contract) or the ability to have customers fill out a digital form on an iPad.
The convention center usually provides wireless Internet, and it is often very expensive ($2,000 – $3,000). Therefore, consider using MiFi hotspots or smartphone Internet access instead. Keep in mind though that when thousands of people are in a convention center, smartphone Internet coverage can be degraded.
Some companies like to have “swag” to giveaway at the booth. This could be pens, stress balls or some other clever item that attracts prospects. This stuff is usually junk and I try to avoid it. If you have a limited budget, it’s better to allocate that money to other elements which help you present the product. With that said, having a bowl of individually wrapped free candy is a simple and cost effective way to get people to the booth.
When we set up for my company’s trade show last year, we created an extremely long shopping list of items to have on hand just in case. These included:
- Paper clips
- Phone chargers
- Rubber bands (I still don’t understand this one)
The philosophy is that there are a myriad of things that could go wrong at the booth, so best to be prepared with an arsenal of supplies to use just in case. This is worth the minimal investment.
6. Acquire attendee list and begin pre-marketing
2 months from the show
As the show day draws closer, you must start engaging with attendees that are ideally your target customer persona. This pre-marketing should build a storyline up to the show, including:
- Email blasts to attendees
- Email blasts to your lead lists
- New product launches at the show
- Press release about the product launch
These activities should be worked into the general marketing calendar and align with the rest of the content schedule. A trade show is an opportunity to make a big impact, so consider using it for major company announcements and launches.
7. Document who is attending and coordinate travel
2 months from the show
It’s time to start thinking about the nitty gritty details of show logistics. You need to define:
- Which members of your team will be attending and what role will they play?
- What are everyone’s arrival and departure schedules?
- Where is each team member sleeping?
Some shows may have 5-15 team members participating. That is a lot of logistics for flights and hotel rooms. To cover more details:
Make sure there is availability and book in advance. It’s advisable to actually book a block of hotel rooms 6 months in advance, determine who will stay in each and cancel any that are not necessary. It’s advisable to stay at the hotel where the convention center is located. You don’t want to waste valuable time traveling back and forth.
Similar advice as hotels, get these booked in advance and ensure that the arrival and departure schedule is coordinated with hotel rooms.
It’s important to document and educate team members on expense policies. You want to to prevent individuals from booking rooms or flights that are out of the company’s price range. Ideally, the marketing / events coordinator should select flights that are recommended.
8. Coordinate meetings and create a booth schedule
1 month from the show
This is getting intense — the show is just around the corner! Many prospects are planning their travel schedules, so this is a great time to coordinate meetings. Schedules at these shows are hectic, but try to lock in a time for key prospects and customers to visit the booth and meet in the conference room. Even if the actual meeting time gets changed later, this activity keeps you on your prospect’s minds.
9. Create a rules list and logistics schedule
1 month from the show
There are so many moving parts for a show, so you must keep your team organized. I like to create a “Master Logistics Schedule” that is a reference for who is attending, timeline, setup instructions and important contact information. You should have copies of this document printed and distributed to all team members at the show as well.
Prior to the show, the marketing and sales team should define a set of rules that booth staff should follow. This may include dress code, break schedule and use of technology. Avoid unprofessional acts such as texting or chewing gum.
10. Arrive early to supervise booth setup
1 day from the show
The booth vendor typically sets up the booth several days prior to the show date. Assuming that there will be issues and delays, it’s important the marketing lead be present. During this setup process, they will ensure that last-minute decisions about booth details are made correctly. During the setup phase, the marketing team lead should plan to:
- Supervise the set up
- Review the booth and test every detail
- Make last minute adjustments or purchases
At my last trade show, booth setup was not finished until 10pm the night before the show. From missing supplies to slow printing, so expect delays and plan accordingly.
11. Ensure staff is in attendance at the booth early
Day of show
It’s show day! If the show starts at 10am, the staff should be at the booth at 9am. This ensures you have plenty of time to do a final briefing and complete any last minute setup activities. Pro tip: bring a small hand vacuum. The booth floor gets filthy and the convention center cleaning is expensive and sometimes unreliable.
Day of show
During the show itself, the team should be maniacally focused on selling and engaging with prospects. Every minute of the show counts, so plan for the days to be excruciatingly long. A typical trade show daily schedule looks like this:
- 8am – 9am: Breakfast with prospects or customers
- 9am – 5pm: Tradeshow booth
- 5pm – 6pm: Sometimes a short break, or a meeting
- 6pm – 8pm: Dinner with prospects or customers
- 8pm – 11pm: Various evening events, vendor parties
With this packed schedule, it is crucial to carefully prioritize your time. Ensure you are meeting with the most important prospects, customers and partners. To do this, you must plan in advance.
13. Coordinate booth clean up and shipping
Day of show
Almost immediately after the show ends, cleaning crews descend on the show floor to dismantle booths and clean up. The booth vendor will take care of the heavy lifting for your booth. However, your marketing team is responsible for all of the collateral, materials, and often the designed assets you used for the booth. Be prepared to run back and forth to the shipping office for boxes (ideally keep and reuse the boxes that were used to ship materials to the show).
14. Hold a post-event recap and document
1 day after show
Everyone will be absolutely exhausted the day after the show. However, while everything is fresh in your mind, do a recap session and write down everything that worked, didn’t work and suggestions as to how you would do things differently. That document will be a goldmine of tips for next year’s trade show. Consider breaking down that recap into categories as follows:
15. Ensure notes and follow up are in the CRM
1 week after the show
There were countless conversations and prospect interactions at the show — don’t let them get lost in the shuffle! After the show, be sure to review all of the notes and enter relevant details into the CRM to schedule follow up.
16. Conduct post-event marketing
1 week after the show
You still have an opportunity to capture momentum within a few weeks of the show. Consider sending post-event marketing campaigns such as a special promotion for show attendees if they purchase within the next few weeks.