The Trade Show – a survivors guide!

A trade show????

With my daughter getting ready for her first trade show I thought I would dig up an old post on trade shows.  You have to understand if you have never done a trade show that they are the best thing for your business and yourself and the worst thing all rolled into one.  Here are a few items to watch out for to make it the best it can be.

I have spent years running and promoting my business and helping other companies do the same at a variety of trade shows.  During this time I have had a lot of experience with what to do and what not to do at a trade show.  First what is a trade show?  It is when you invest a lot of time and money to go someplace to either promote your brand or to sell your product.  But it is also so much more as well. 

A trade show can be a way to move your business to a new level, introduce yourself or your business to new clients, reconnect with past clients, introduce new products or services, clear old stock, sell new stock or to test a market before committing to a new product or service.  I have learned a lot about trade shows the hard way, by trial and error, plus I have had a few amazing mentors that helped me to understand the little points that would make a trade show a success.

First, a trade show is NEVER a loss or a waste of time.  If you are going to one you are there 150%!!!!!  Sure some shows are busier than others.  Some shows people are there to spend. Other shows are so crazy that people are packed in like sardines.  A few shows are so slow you wonder if they unlocked the doors. No matter what type of show you are faced with you need to prepare mentally and make the best of whatever happens.

The extremes

I remember two shows that were the exact opposite of each other.  One was so busy that people would not stop at my booth for fear of loosing their place in the rush of the crowd.  Those that did stop only did so to rest or to wait for someone, not to look at my product.  The first day I was getting upset that nobody cared about my booth, then I thought if it is so busy that the only people that are coming into my booth are there to rest why not do something about it.

I had candies at a table in my booth so I would offer a candy or two to anyone that stopped.  That would usually lead to a conversation that started with “Thank you, but I am only waiting for……” or “Thank you but I am just….” and I would insist that they looked like they needed a candy to help survive the insanity and away the conversation would go. 

Did I sell anything? Nope.  Did anyone look at my pictures? A few. 

Bad for one, good for another

The next day I did up a business card and attached a couple candies.  Again I handed them to anyone that stopped. Again same conversation and a lot of thank yous for the candies.  Same results about sales and people actually looking at my work.  BUT over the next several weeks I had many calls at the studio all mentioning about the show and I did get some business.  My cost other than the booth that I already paid for was an additional $25 in candy, paid for by just one job!!


The polar opposite of that show was a show that I was talked into going into.  It was new, it promised a lot and delivered NOTHING!!!  Friday night of a three day show saw maybe 10 people, and I think that was mostly other vendors wandering around.  It was a FAILURE in so many ways.  Many vendors threatened not to come back on Saturday, more threatened to leave on Saturday night and a lot did. 

It was horrible!!!!  But as it was so slow it gave me a lot of time to meet other vendors and to hand out information.  Of the few people that did show up I could spend a lot of time talking to each one without rushing.  Did I sell anything or book anything?  Not a thing!  But again over the next few months I had calls from vendors and from a couple people that I did talk to and in the end I broke even in cost vs income and I had a lot more PR than if I had not gone to the show.

What to do and what not to do

  • So if you are going to a show what should you do and what should you not do to make the show a success?
  • Set up a nice display but don’t go overboard – You only have so much time with each person.  Show your best products, leave the rest at home!
  • Get rid of the chairs in your booth.  The fastest way to turn someone off is if you are sitting down.  Stand up (yes it is tiring!!) face everyone eye to eye with a smile (even when your feet are killing you). I bought a directors chair that is high enough that it looks like I am standing, use a bar stool.
  • Bring a piece of carpet to stand on ( I would bring carpet and underlay)
  • Dress for success!  You are the face of your business, dress like you are a professional!
  • NEVER eat at your booth.  This was always hard for me as I did shows by myself with nobody to cover for me for a break. I would leave the booth and stand in a corner, or behind a curtain to eat when it was slow. Eating at your booth lowers the professionalism of your booth and people will not want to bother you if you are filling your mouth.
  • SMILE!! Your feet may hurt, you may have a headache, sales may be slow but you need to be happy and approachable.
  • Greet everyone, give them 100% of your attention!!!  You are not there to talk to your partner, spouse or friend.  You are there for the customer!! NEVER stand with your arms folded in front of you, BIG turn off!
  • LEAVE YOUR PHONE AND TABLET under the table or in your vehicle.  Ignoring people to check your Facebook feed and you should have just stayed home! The customer is there for you, give them you.
  • Rest.  Shows can be hard on your body. Rest after the day if multiple shows, rest before if you can.
  • Prepare for the worst!!!  Bring Tylenol, extra cloths, extra shoes.
  • Think about food and water.  If you are at a show you may not have time to get something to eat or drink so bring stuff.  A friend would bring a huge cooler with frozen water bottles, juice, carrots, crackers, cheese and more.  He did a dozen shows a year and knew exactly how hungry and thirsty it would make him.
  • Bring change!!!   Nothing worse than selling and not having any change to give.  If your product is $5 make sure that you have 5’s, & 10’s.  If your product is $0.50 have lots of quarters, loonies and twoonies.
  • Bring business cards.  People may nit be buying that day but they may want to buy tomorrow or in a week.  THEY WILL NEVER remember your name or your business name.
  • Prepare for change.  You may be going to a show with the idea that your product is priced right or that there will be lots of demand for your services.  But what if there isn’t?  Maybe a two for one special, maybe a special for work booked within a week of the show.
  • Be excited about your product!!  Your excitement rubs off and people want what you have.
  • Prepare for lots of sales but don’t give up if they are not there.  I will have stock hidden under my table, behind curtains, in my vehicle just in case it is busy.  But I know a lot of times I will be going home with a lot of it.
  • NEVER ignore a possible customer!!  Sure your long lost school friend may show up, or a relative but that is not why you are there. Everyone that is looking is a possible customer!
  • Treat yourself after the show, it is something to look forward to.  My treat was a LARGE Slurpee, fresh socks and sitting down for an hour!
  • ENJOY!!!

Small Changes

At one show I was in lots of the above came into play for a booth across from me.  The first day of the trade show they did EVERYTHING wrong.  Sat in their chairs, talked to each other, ignored customers, played on laptops, looked like they just came from doing chores on a farm, smelled bad, ate at their table all night, had empty pop and water bottles on the table and on and on and on.  Towards the end of the night one of the people came over and talked to me complaining about how bad the show was.

I was not selling a product, I was there to get my name out. I really did not know if people were buying or not but I had a lot of people stop and talk to me and I was happy. A couple rows over a friend of mine had a booth selling products so I went and talked to him. He told me that he had the best show ever for sales and it was only the first night!!!  He could not believe how much he sold and in fact he was so low on product that he had to go to work that night bottling product for the next day as he was out of many sizes! 

I went back to the booth that was having issues and talked with them for a long time. After the show ended my friend came by on his way out of the show and we both talked to them about what they could do to improve their sales.  They had a GREAT product but horrible people skills and the knew nothing about selling at a trade show.  We were both blunt with them and told them many things that they were doing wrong. We left and I figured that they would not come back the next day, boy was I WRONG!!!!

The next day when I showed up for the show their booth was redone completely.  Nice table cloth, products arranged really nice, all the boxes that were in the back of the booth were gone or covered up.  Their chairs were gone and when the two owners showed up they were dressed better than anyone else in the place.  Her hair and make-up was done, he had shaved and they sounded like new people.  They also brought in samples and a silver tray to serve them on.  My jaw was on the floor.  The came to my booth and said we thought we would give your suggestions a try.  Well they went well past what me or my friend suggested!

The show opened at 10am, from about 10:05 till close their table was packed with customers.  Around 2 the guy came over with a gift package for me.  I asked why and he said they had sold 75% of all the product that they brought in the 4 hours since opening and had orders for things they were out of.  He said he never thought a few little changes would do so much. I would see them for years after and they always had the nicest booth at any trade show and were always selling.

What about “those” shows

Not all shows are a success.  I will be selling at one show and sell out, the next show I am lucky if I sell a couple products.  If you are not selling treat the show as a learning experience. Talk to people about what they want.  Find out if your price is too high. See if there is something that you can do to have them buy.

At one show I was at I found out that selling large prints did not work. The reason was people did not want to carry large prints in the huge hall, so I offered to hold the prints till they were done or they could pick-up at the studio – that helped but not 100%.  So the next show in a large building I brought some smaller prints, cards and some unframed prints – easier to carry, no having to come back to my booth!

Have fun!!

The biggest thing is to have fun! Your excitement is contagious!  You may have issues but in the end you are there so enjoy it.  Learn for next time and enjoy your recovery time after the show!!!

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