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Trade shows: 6 tips for finding potential customers

Use these tips to get the most out of your trade show investment

4-minute read

Trade shows provide face-to-face contact with people who are looking for products, expertise and solutions.

So how can you tap into this rich source of potential customers? What investment is required and what return on investment can you expect?

Veteran trade show consultant Jonathan Denman shared these six tips.

1. Calculate what it costs

“Booth rental is really only part of the total cost of exhibiting,ˮ Denman says. “There’s travel to the show, customer hospitality and many other expenses.ˮ

Denman is a member of the CAEM (Canadian Association of Exposition Managers) Hall of Fame. The association provides the following cost breakdown for a typical industrial trade show. This data can be used to estimate your total show cost.

Exhibit space (the rental of space)


Exhibit design (the design, rental, construction of a booth)


Show services (power, telephone, table and chair rentals, etc.)


Travel and entertainment (the cost of sending staff to the show)


Shipping (shipping your booth, products, literature, etc.)


Promotion (pre-show promotion, literature for the show, etc.)




So for instance, if booth rental costs $5,000, your total cost is likely to be around $17,250. Sounds expensive. But let’s say over three days you discuss with and acquire contact information for 150 good prospects, your cost of acquisition per lead is $115. You can further apply your conversion rate to give you an idea of your cost per sale. If your conversion rate is typically 10% (10 leads to get one sale), then you can expect to have 15 sales at a cost of $1,150 which may or may not be unreasonable for your product.

2. Find the right shows

“Every year there are between 14,000 and 15,000 trade shows across North America,ˮ Denman says. “You need to focus on specific shows that attract the right audience.ˮ

“Given enough time, the Canadian Trade Commissioner Service can sometimes provide you with market information and contact lists for the geographical area covered by a trade show,ˮ Denman advises.

The Canadian Trade Commissioner Service maintains a list of major trade events around the world. The Government of Ontario also maintains a list of international trade shows.

3. Design your booth for maximum impact

You may not have a big budget, but what you do have should go toward maximizing the impact of your back-wall signage. “The sign at the back should take up 70% of the back wall and feature your company name and what your company does,ˮ Denman says.

  • Don’t clutter it up with small photos and descriptions. Choose one good image to blow up and make sure your company name can be read from afar.
  • Keep your table and chairs away from the back wall and make sure there’s enough room for visitors to move around inside your booth.
  • Try to get as much frontage as possible and try to be situated near high-traffic areas.
  • If you have the budget for a big booth, you may be able to include a quiet corner or even an office to negotiate with potential customers.

4. Make sure you have enough staff

Show organizers should be able to provide you with the estimated number of visitors to the show. From that, divide the number of visitors by the number of show hours. That gives you the average hourly flow-rate, which can help you decide how much staff you need.

It’s really difficult for one person to engage more than six visitors per hour in meaningful conversation. So, plan accordingly and remember there will be peak times when you may be swamped, and there will be times where there are no visitors at all.

“The challenge for the small exhibitor is they will only be able to have two or three people managing the booth,ˮ says Denman. “They can only talk to 12 people each hour. If the flow rate is 600 people per hour, they’re missing out on important opportunities.ˮ

5. Staff your booth with experienced people

This isn’t a typical sales environment. “Most sales people are trained for one of three things: Either they’re on the road, or on the phone or in a showroom,ˮ Denman says. “Trade shows require a different approach.ˮ

“You’ve got to have an opening line… something like ‘have you seen our product before’ or ‘are you familiar with our company’... something to draw visitors into conversation.ˮ And once you’re conversing, you have to have something to say. “Unfortunately, many exhibitors staff their booths with junior people who may not know a lot about the company or its products.ˮ

“Imagine a buyer who’s an engineer: This person needs technical advice. They’ll be disappointed if the only information they can get is a pamphlet that they could have downloaded from your website.ˮ

So it’s better to staff your booth with technically proficient, senior people.

6. Always follow up

Remember, at the beginning and end of every sale is a person who wants to feel good about his or her purchase: They may want a deal but what they’ll remember is the way you made them feel.

Before the show, you can demonstrate you’re thinking of your customers’ needs by sending a personalized invite to the show—perhaps with a redeemable beverage ticket.

After the show, a good way to show that you’re working on finding them a solution is by sending a follow-up email within 72 hours.

Trade shows can be cost-effective venues for establishing face-to-face relationships. A little forethought and preparation will go a long way to converting booth visitors into buying customers.

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