Is Exhibiting at Trade Shows a Waste of Your Time? Not If You Do It Right

Early in my career, I worked as an advertising manager for Koch Engineering, a company that made mixers and other equipment for the chemical industry. I liked a lot of things about the job, but one thing I didn’t like was managing our trade-show exhibits. (I had also handled trade shows for Westinghouse in an earlier job.) Unpacking and setting up the booth was a pain, and staffing it was boring — a lot of standing around, hoping prospects would come into the exhibit and express genuine interest in our products.

But I did learn a few tricks about exhibiting at trade shows during my tenure with Koch that I’d like to pass on to you:

1. Nothing else attracts people to your booth like action does — whether it’s something that’s moving or something that’s going on. At Koch Engineering, we sold “internals” — devices that went into the innards of chemical plants, where they helped liquids react. So, we made a crude working model of a miniature chemical plant (about the size of a large desk) out of transparent Plexiglas, filled it with our internals, and ran water through it so visitors could see the liquid drip, bubble, and mist, like some mad scientist’s laboratory in an old movie. It was a fantastic attention getter. More than that, it gave a live demonstration of how our products worked, which was exactly what our audience, chemical engineers, came to see (but rarely got to see at other booths in the show, which featured mostly enlarged color photos of chemical plants and exhibitor products).

2. ROI — return on investment — is critical. Yet, most companies spend thousands of dollars to exhibit at trade shows without measuring ROI to see if it’s worthwhile. They say, “If we drop out this year, people will notice that we are not there.” Or, “If we drop out this year, we will lose our seniority and our preferential booth location at future shows.” Neither reason is a valid excuse for spending time and money on a trade show. The only reason you should be at a show is that you think the sales you will make — at the show if they permit it or as the result of follow-ups to show leads afterward — will more than pay back the cost of exhibiting (including booth space, travel and lodging, exhibit design, and production).

3. Surveys repeatedly confirm that the No. 1 reason prospects come to industry trade shows is to see new products. So make sure your newest products (or at least the new upgrades and versions of old products) take center stage in your display. Use the word “new” prominently in your booth graphics.

4. Trade shows can be dull and boring. So, anything you can do to liven up your exhibit will draw a crowd. Example: To promote a new weapons system for a tank code-named “The Gunfighter,” Westinghouse hired a real-life “gunfighter” — a professional cowboy whose specialty was quick-draw shooting — as booth entertainment. As the gunfighter demonstrated how to rapidly pull a gun from its holster and accurately hit the target, he talked (using a script we had given him) about how the Westinghouse weapons systems could do the same thing for a tank.

Other things that work well at trade shows (even though you may find them hokey): giveaways of tchotchkes with your company name on them, such as key chains, luggage tags, squeeze balls, and Frisbees a drawing for a big prize (“Put your business card in the fishbowl.”) free food — typically, candy and popcorn. short marketing videos shown in endless-loop VCRs (People get hypnotized and drawn in by anything shown on a TV screen.) sleight-of-hand magicians or other live entertainment in the booth product demonstrations.

One more tip: When someone approaches your booth, give him space. Don’t pounce on him like a piranha hungry for a cow swimming in the river. Let him look around a bit. Once he is comfortably inside your space, it’s appropriate to say something. Don’t say, “Is there anything I can help you with?” or “Do you have any questions?” The prospect will say “no” to deflect you and quickly vacate your premises. Instead, say, “What brings you to the [name of show] today?” His answer (e.g., “We need to find a way to control air quality in our office building”) will help you direct the conversation toward any solutions you can offer.

(Ed. Note: Bob Bly is the editor of Mailbox Millionaire, ETR’s program to help you start your own successful direct-mail business. For information, click on