Trade Shows

It’s estimated that companies who are active in trade shows typically waste 20 percent to 40 percent of their show investment in a variety of ways. One of the most common mistakes is treating a trade show as merely a three or four day event when, in fact, it is actually the centerpiece of a much longer process.

Increasing Your Trade Show ROI

By Steve Hancock


It’s estimated that companies who are active in trade shows typically waste 20 percent to 40 percent of their show investment in a variety of ways. One of the most common mistakes is treating a trade show as merely a three or four day event when, in fact, it is actually the centerpiece of a much longer process.

Steve Hancock
Steve Hancock is co-founder and president of Divinitas, an exhibit design and consulting firm based in Orlando, with operations in New York and Las Vegas.

For most companies, trade show management is more about logistics than marketing, so the primary focus is disaster avoidance. That means getting the display and equipment to the show floor without damage or lost pieces, making sure that show setup is completed on time and that everything is working, and if nothing awful happens over the course of the event, counting it as a success. This reflects a false assumption that the serious and strategic work of selling is already baked in to the exhibit itself, and that by simply showing up, the job is done.

It is smarter to view trade shows as (at least) a 90-day event. This takes into account all three phases in which an exhibitor can shape the perceptions and behavior of show attendees:

  • At least 6 weeks of pre-show research, planning, preparation and advance contact.
  • The event itself — on the show floor, in conference auditoriums and meeting rooms, as well as the surrounding venues such as hotels, restaurants and hosted off-site events.
  • At least 6 weeks of post-show evaluation, follow-up and consummation of purchases.


The majority of show attendees are buyers, and to many, a trade show represents a serious annual pilgrimage that is immensely important to themselves and their businesses. Well before arriving, they will have done considerable research on conference topics, exhibitors and new products. And approximately 75 percent of all trade show attendees make out their schedules before arrival. So if your courtship of your targeted buyers has not commenced well in advance, you probably won’t be on their schedule.

Fortunately, most pre-show promotion is basic blocking and tackling. You can start by leveraging available merchandising and other resources offered by the show management.

  • Conduct preshow mailings and e-mailings to registered attendees — preview your product, offer a chance to preregister for a drawing (i-Pad or some other worthy prize to draw traffic).
  • Get current press kits into the show pressroom (physical or online).
  • Issue press releases on new products — announce product demos to take place at the event.
  • Announce your show participation on social media — yours as well as those sponsored by show management.

The goal is simple: Convince your target buyers they must allocate time in their busy schedules to seek and visit your booth.


Trade shows are busy, noisy affairs with hundreds of exhibitors, so you need to help attendees find you. In addition to your preshow promotion, look for ways to extend your trade show footprint beyond your booth to promote your presence.

  • Invest in on-site advertising if your budget permits, with signs, banners, rotating spots on public monitors, hotel room drops, etc. Again, start by checking what is already available in your exhibitor merchandising package.
  • Present a paper or participate in a panel discussion.
  • Sponsor an event.
  • Ensure your exhibit projects a powerful presence that engages and stimulates visitors.


Be sure to follow through on all of your pre-show and at-show efforts. One recent study revealed that roughly 80 percent of exhibitors fail to engage in critical post-exhibition marketing to attendees. Being among the other 20 percent will boost your odds of increasing your total number of sales opportunities and establishing new long-term relationships.

  • Use both email and traditional mail to follow up with prospects who visited but didn’t buy — thanking them for their time and offering them a chance to opt-in for updates on useful information, such as use cases, research, etc., as well as product information.
  • Sometimes just a simple, old-fashioned thank-you card can make a lasting impression.
  • Extend LinkedIn invitations to prospects.
  • Ask attendees to participate in a simple survey — with an incentive like a Starbucks or iTunes gift card for their time.

As a matter of ongoing policy and best practices, company management should insist on a comprehensive 90-day plus game plan for each trade show. When managed strategically, a trade show program can be the organization’s most potent brand expression — one that impresses customers, drives sales and boosts market share.


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