Trade Shows – The Real Winners and Losers

By March 29, 2017Marketing

Trade Shows and Events have been around for a long time.  They happen in every industry. They are fun to walk around, maybe have a chat or exchange a few business cards. In the evening there are always a few parties and dinners to attend.  If it is a big show then you are more than likely to go back home with a bunch of T-Shirts, mints and pens that light up.

Aside from a few exceptions, most of the companies attending these trade shows never even get close to covering their expenses from the additional business they have generated from the show.

So why do they attend in the first place?  More often than not it is the principle of keeping up with the Jones. In other words, if the big names in the industry are all there and your competitors are all there so the adage is you have to be there.

Startups are the worst perpetrators.  The ones with some solid financial backing and suddenly increased marketing budgets make a point of attending as many trade shows as they possibly can.  You can tell which ones they are because these guys often have the best T-shirts and gadgets to give away!  But what does it get them in return?

These events can get expensive very quickly and as a startup or any company you have to look at the opportunity costs involved.  If it is costing $50,000 to be present at an event, then you have to automatically ask yourself where else could that money be better strategically invested in order to provide the best return possible? In looking at this I will concentrate on Business-to-Business trade shows.

As an example, here are the costs that I was dealing with while managing a trade show in Europe for a startup I was with:


  • Booth                           $12,294.00
  • Hospitality Suite            $11,741.00
  • Stand Decoration           $9,185.00
  • Rental Furniture               $825.00
  • Rental Hardware             $1,100.00
  • Shipping                          $1,100.00   


  • Hotel                          $3,300.00
  • Flights                         $1,650.00
  • Transport                      $550.00
  • Perdiem                      $1,650.00


  • Giveaways                 $2,200.00
  • Print                           $2,200.00
  • Advertisement            $1,375.00
  • Shirts                           $1,100.00

Total                          $50,270.00

Note: These figures did not include PR that was scheduled to occur during the event or the travel and expenses of other employees coming from other departments as they are normally considered different cost centers.

You can see that the figures could add up quickly and this is probably a conservative amount in comparison to what some companies spend.  I could even factor in the weeks of effort and employee time required to organize such an event, which would increase the amount considerably.

Having attended and managed quite a few of these I started to understand what was working and what wasn’t. This is what I found.

1. Choose the right targets

If you are going to attend a trade show or event then it should be because everyone in the industry that you are targeting are all going to be congregating at the same spot.  This alone should save the company time and money from traveling all over the country to see these people for a first meeting (assuming you can meet with them).

2. Fill up that agenda

Everyone attending, from management to sales people, should all have their meetings blocked and confirmed weeks before the event even starts. If you are attending the event in hopes of making contacts at the event then you are set up for failure.  The guys you are hoping to meet will most likely be all booked up before you even get there. If you are not able to fill your agenda up, then you should think seriously about whether or not your company should be present at all.

3. Set your goals

Everything that happens at the event should be tied to a goal.  If you have set up a meeting then know what you want to achieve from that meeting.  Don’t waste too much time before getting to the point and don’t block somebody in for 1 hour when you only need 30 minutes (If they even give you that much in return).

We were trying to meet with the Director of a large French company at an event in Cannes one year.  We got through to him well before the event but he told us he could only give us 10 minutes in the lobby of one of the busy large hotels where he would be between meetings. We said fine. It only took as 10 minutes to capture his attention and an invite to Paris where we were able to build a relationship.

4. Marketing and Branding

I am always amazed at how much some companies spend on branding at these events.  I also made the mistake of throwing away good money on bad investments such as buying ad space on huge banners at the events, or large ads in the Event newspapers.  These investments never brought anything.  Business to business trade shows are not selling to the mass markets so as a company you should not be marketing your brand as if you were Coke or Pepsi. Your products, services and the way you manage your relationships will be the way you brand yourself.

5. Use your booth wisely

I have seen so many booths with 2 guys sitting behind a counter waiting for attendees to come and discover their brilliance.  Quite often those stopping by are often other company participants asking, “Are you having a good show?”

Your reach at these shows is limited to the total attendance.  You are then limited to the number of people who walk by the stand. Then you are limited to the amount of people who stop by to inquire about your product.  You only have so much time so the number of people you can talk with on a booth is limited.

The greatest weakness to this kind of booth strategy is that you are not able to target the decision makers.  Quite honestly, I have had people come by, ask a few questions, then ask for a t-shirt or a pen that lights up (yes, I was guilty of giving out my share!).  In all honesty, looking back at all the shows I have attended, this type of activity never brought anything but sunk marketing costs.

The best way to use your booth goes back to the preparation before the event. Have your meetings booked solid and have all the marketing tools necessary to best present your products or services to them.

6. Evening events

Everyone likes to get out and have fun and relax after spending the day in meetings in a noisy conference hall.  There are always shows and parties organized at these things where attendees like to get together and hang out over a drink.  However, I have found that there are always these high-powered guys that just can’t turn off the sales pitch, and everyone ends up trying to avoid them.

There may be a bit of business talk that happens but often a much better strategy at these evenings is to just hang out and have fun.  If you run into someone that you had a meeting with earlier don’t keep trying to close the deal.  The best method is to develop more of a human relationship.  You can gain a lot of confidence from people just being yourself.

7. Leverage your investment

A smart strategy is to leverage your investment in these trade shows.  The biggest bang for the buck that we got when attending a large industry trade show was to time an important news event or product launch for the company at these events. Once again, most of the preparation came before the event.  We were in contact with most of the media attendees (who are always looking for a story), informing them that we were intending to launch a new important product.  This got us many “free” write ups in important industry publications and exposure at the trade show that was much cheaper than what we paid for our large banner with our company name!

In the end however, if you are not able to quantify your presence at these trade shows and have not idea what your ROI is then you probably should not be attending.  The money would be better spent building up your business one client at a time.