This is the 28th post of a 50 article series for beginners building marketing at B2B startups.
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 the #1 most expensive marketing investments of the year. Therefore, it’s critical that we manage it exceptionally well, account for all of the little details, and ensure we are positioned to get a high return on our 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 we 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. We need to clearly define what our goals are what the core messaging is for our company’s presence at the show. Often these goals include:
- Solidify brand positioning (i.e. esnure the market knows who we are)
- Have specific customer or vendor partner meetings
- Debut a new product that drives sales
When we are creating collateral, booth design and a script for our staff to use when speaking with prospects, it’s important that the messaging is tightly aligned and all of these assets are telling the same story. 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 our booth isn’t in a high traffic area, we could miss many customers. Look for a booth space that is:
- Close to the front doors
- On a corner of multiple aisles
- Near larger exhibitors that will attract foot traffic
To actually reserve the booth space, typically we are provided with a map of the booths and then fill out a request form, along with a deposit to be sent 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
Now that we have the space reserved, we need to contract a vendor that will actually build us a booth. This is the largest expense of the show. This vendor will:
- Help us create a booth that aligns with our business
- Rent us the materials for the booth itself
- Use our designs to create the booth
- Assemble and dismantle the booth at the show
- Connect us with other vendors needed for A/V
Typically the way this arrangement works prior to the show is:
- We do a discovery call with the booth vendor and discusses our goals
- The vendor sends examples of booth designs, and we select ones we like
- The vendor creates a customized 3D mockup of our booth
- We go back and forth to optimize that design
- We review the costs of the design and swap elements to reduce cost
- We agree on the booth design and pay a deposit
An important question to consider is whether we are renting a booth or purchasing it. As a startup, it likely makes a lot more sense to rent. We want to test the booth to see how it works, and our business could be totally different a year from now. Additionally, purchasing a booth requires us to pay expensive storage and shipping fees. Assuming we 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 to and from the show
- Assembly, dismantle and tech support at the show
4. Define a booth experience
4 months from the show
Now that we have selected a booth vendor, we have to actually define what we want the booth to be. To determine that, we need to answer some important questions:
- How are we demoing our product to prospects?
- Do we need a private meeting room at the booth?
- How can we use our space to have as many conversations as possible?
Based on the answers to those questions, we may need elements in our booth such as:
- Demo stations to show prospects our product
- Conference room to have private meetings with big customers
- LCD displays that are playing videos at the booth
- Tables and chairs to have conversations
- Collateral to share with prospects
- Special experiences that attract foot traffic, like mini golf
This is an area where we want to rely on our booth vendor as a partner. They have tons of experience and can show us countless examples of what other companies have done. My advice is to keep things simple. The more elements we add to the booth, the more that can go wrong (and I assure you, it will go wrong). If you are a startup, try to avoid the special experiences and focus on clear messaging, plenty of meeting space and ample opportunity to show off the product.
5. Design the booth
3 months from the show
If our team has designers on staff, they can do the design work for the booth. Typically a booth has hardware (walls, displays, demo stations) that designs are affixed to using temporary cloth, stickers or other materials. The finished product looks totally seamless.
As we are designing the assets needed for our booth, keep in mind:
- Everything needs to print big, so design files that scale
- Use colors and text that pop out (i.e. white text on a dark background)
- Keep the messaging simple with big font
When a prospect walks by the booth, we want something simple that catches their eye. Never try to print lots of product details on the booth. For example, for 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 are super simple messages that tell a prospect why we are here and what our product is.
Aside from the design assets, there are several other booth elements to consider:
Our booth vendor will rent us furniture for the show. When selecting furniture, think carefully and take measurements for how it will fit in the booth. My rules for furniture include:
- Get chairs with 4 legs. Others might be wobbly on a carpet.
- Get tables wide enough to hold collateral and prospect’s bags
- Ensure all furniture matches the color and style of the booth design
The show will likely provide scanners that the staff can use to scan each prospect’s badge so we remember who we spoke to. This is typically a worthy investment to ensure no prospects get lost in the shuffle. Other options are to just take pictures of prospects’ badges with a smartphone and write down their contact information.
At a big trade show, it can be difficult to navigate the maze of vendors. Investing in a rotating hanging sign with our company’s logo is typically worth it to drive foot traffic. When doing this, be sure to use dark colors and light text (or the reverse) to make sure it is readable from afar. Additionally, be aware of other vendors nearby incase their signs blocks ours.
When a prospect comes to the booth, we want to have paper collateral as a visual aide to walk them through the product. The prospect takes this collateral with them, which ideally includes our contact information. When creating show collateral, keep things simple. I limit it to 3 items, typically 1-page flyers. Have these printed and reviewed prior to the show.
To determine how much collateral to buy, I always find we have leftovers as everyone overestimates how many prospects will actually take collateral. I’d recommend going light here and saving the money for other booth elements.
If we are able to sell product at the booth, be sure to have customer agreements (if you use a paper contract) or the ability to have customers fill out a digital form on an iPad.
The convention center usually has wireless Internet available, and it is often very expensive ($2,000 – $3,000). Therefore, consider using MiFi hotspots or smartphone Internet access as well. Keep in mind, 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 a more clever item that prospects are interested in. This stuff is usually junk, and I generally try to avoid it. If we have a limited budget, I’d rather allocate that money to other elements that help us present the product. With that said, having a bowl of free candy is a simple and cheap way to get people to the booth.
When we set up for my company’s trade show last year, our Demand Gen Manager, Joe Lee, created a ridiculously long shopping list of items we should 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 or break, so let’s have an arsenal of supplies we can use just in case. Probably worth the minimal investment.
6. Acquire attendee list and begin pre-marketing
2 months from the show
We’re getting closer to show day which means we must start engaging with attendees that are ideally our target customer persona. This pre-marketing should build a storyline up to the show, including:
- Email blasts to attendees
- Email blasts to our 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 splash, 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. We need to define:
- Who from our team is attending and what role will they play?
- Who is arriving and departing when?
- Where is each team member staying?
Some shows could have 5-15 team members participating. That is a lot of flights and hotel rooms. To get into more details:
To make sure there is availability, book in advance. It’s advisable to actually book a block of hotel rooms 6 months in advance, and then determine who will stay in each and cancel any that are not necessary. Always stay at the hotel where the convention center is. You won’t have time to travel back and forth.
Similar to hotels, get these booked in advance and ensure that the arrival and departure schedule is coordinated with hotel rooms.
It’s important to document policies on expenses. We don’t want individuals 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 pin down a time for key prospects to visit the booth and meet in the conference room. Even if the actual meeting time gets changed later, this activity keeps us top of mind with our prospects.
9. Create a rules list and logistics schedule
1 month from the show
There are so many moving parts for this show, so we must keep our team organized. I like to create one “Master Logistics Schedule” that is a reference for who is going, timeline, setup instructions and important contact information. We should have copies of this document printed and distributed 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. We want to make sure to avoid silly stuff like texting or chewing gum.
10. Arrive early to supervise booth setup
1 day from the show
The booth vendor typically sets up the booth during several days prior to the show date. However, assume that there will be issues and delays. Furthermore, it’s important that the marketing lead is present during this setup process to ensure that last-minute decisions about booth details are made correctly. During the setup phase, the marketing team lead should plan to:
- Supervise 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, expect delays and plan accordingly.
11. Ensure staff is 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 we 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 day looks like:
- 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 our time. Ensure we are meeting with the most important prospects, customers and partners. To do this, we must plan in advance.
13. Coordinate booth clean up and shipping
Day of show
Nearly the minute 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 our booth. However, our marketing team is responsible for all of the collateral, materials, and often the designed assets we used for the booth. Be prepared to run back and forth to the shipping office for boxes (ideally reuse the boxes that were used to ship materials to the show).
14. Hold a post-event recap and document
1 day after show
I guarantee everyone will be absolutely exhausted the day after the show. However, while everything is fresh in our minds, we need to do a recap session and write down everything that worked, didn’t work and how we 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
We still have an opportunity to capture momentum within a few weeks of the show. Consider sending post-event marketing campaigns like a special promotion for show attendees if they purchase within the next few weeks.