They're a lot of work, involve long days and can be expensive.
That's why some companies are hesitant to participate in trade shows, says Kim Livengood, owner of Sarasota-based public relations firm The Eclipse Agency. She's a frequent attendee of trade shows for clients.
But, she says, the benefits can be enormous. “Where else are you going to have the opportunity to get what it is you're selling in front of thousands of people across the country?”
Scott Fulton, vice president of strategic accounts for Venice-based drinkware manufacturer Tervis, says the company attends about 30 trade shows a year to market to retailers. The shows present an opportunity to reach “the right people at the right time.”
Andy Yochum, owner of Sarasota-based Boardwalk Food Co., says trade shows are a substantial part of his company's growth strategy. The company, which makes pretzel baking mixes that incorporate craft beer, has seen solid results from trade shows.
He estimates 60% of his wholesale business originates from trade shows, either from orders written at shows, referrals or follow-ups later. “Shows, especially for small business,” he says, “are the best way to get product in front of multiple buyers and have a captive audience, at least for a few minutes.”
Picking the right trade show can be a make-or-break decision.
Yochum, in an early lesson-learned, says he started with a show that was too big — a prominent international gift show in Atlanta. “For a brand new person it was hard,” he says, and it was difficult to cover expenses.
“If I were to do it again, I would start with smaller, more regional shows,” Yochum says. They're less expensive, he adds, and give companies a chance to test booth design, marketing materials and order processing. “Then when you go to a bigger show,” he says, “you're more prepared.”
When considering which trade shows to attend, Yochum says homework is key. That includes researching who is scheduled to be at show and who would have the opportunity to place orders. “I will usually try to spend at least two or three months getting ready for a show,” he says.
Before a show, Yochum sends notes to customers and potential customers asking them to stop by Boardwalk's booth. “Really work hard for those couple months ahead to see if you can increase traffic.”
When some people think of trade shows, the first thing that comes to mind is swag.
Lucy Costa, president of Cape Coral-based promotional products company Promotional Incentives, says before clients go to a show, she consults with them to determine the best promotional product to give away. She suggests two levels of giveaways: one for everyone to take and one that's more substantial. The more substantial item should require action to get, such as signing for a mailing list, filling out a questionnaire or watching a presentation, she says.
The main goal with giveaways, Costa says, is as a tool to get people to think about the brand again or remember the experience they had at the booth.
When Venice-based window and door manufacturer PGT Innovations prepares for a trade show, Senior Vice President of Marketing and Product Management Danielle Mikesell says the first thing her team does is get tactical. Says Mikesell: “The company needs to strategically decide on what they want people to walk away with.”
She tells her team: “A customer can go anywhere and get a brochure and go online and read about the company. What do you want them to experience?”
Space is often limited at trade shows. That can make it challenging to stand out.
Yochum built a bar for his booth where beer pretzels are passed out for samples. The setup doesn't break the bank, he says, and it's unique.
“Like anything,” Livengood says, “you have five seconds to capture someone's attention and draw them into your booth. You really have to work to stand out.”
Companies can do that through graphics and large versions of products. Tervis, for example, has used a giant tumbler with color-changing liquid to draw people in. Free cocktails always help, too, says Livengood, who has done work for Tervis and Boardwalk, among other clients.
Mikesell says PGT tries to debut new products at trade shows. It also incorporates thought leadership. At the International Builders' Show in Orlando in January, for example, PGT hosted a speaker series at its nearly 5,000-square-foot booth. Topics included regulation, code compliance and innovation. The talks had great attendance, Mikesell says, and got good feedback, too.
During a trade show, every moment is crucial, Yochum says. He researches the group hotels for a show, and at the end of the day, he goes to the hotels to talk with attendees in the common areas. With a pocket full of business cards, he asks people he meets to stop by his booth the next day. He does the same thing in the mornings at coffee shops and at the entrance of the show.
“You're spending a lot of money to be in an area with a lot of buyers,” Yochum says. “For me, every single second while I'm there is an opportunity to find a customer.”
When the curtain falls
The work isn't over when the show shuts down. Yochum says after a show, companies should pivot to order fulfillment and follow-ups. He says he tries to contact everyone who visited his booth within a week. That way, the experience is still fresh in their mind. “If you're really on top of it,” he says, “you get some people who might have been on the fence say, 'let's try it.'”
When evaluating whether a trade show experience was successful, Livengood says it's important to pause. “Sometimes they're hard to judge immediately,” she says. A company may not walk away from the show with lots of purchase orders — but it may receive big orders later.
Fulton, at Tervis, says purchase orders can be good judges of trade show success, but not the only metric. “It's also about interaction with customers and follow up afterward,” he says.
After it evaluates a show, Tervis isn't afraid to make changes to its lineup. “There are shows that we add in or drop all the time,” Fulton says.
Sometimes it adds a show, such as the Global Pet Expo, because it wants to reach a new target customer segment. “It's a great way to prospect new customers,” Fulton says. “You'll get new retailers and new customers all the time. If you're not showing, you'll have less of a chance of landing those new customers.”