I’ve attended a lot of trade shows in my life. Too many to count. So as you can imagine, I've seen my share of the biggest trade show do's and don'ts. Trade shows have been a big part of my life for so long that I can’t even remember the first one I attended. I started out with very local shows. Usually these were local Chamber of Commerce shows. Today, I fly to some of the biggest trade shows in the country all the time. Many are in Vegas of course, and one of my favorites is the annual CES (Consumer Electronics Show), a place where magic happens.
CES happens every January and walking into that show feels like walking into the future. You can feel the excitement pulsing through the show, the attendees, and the exhibitors. It’s palpable. Some of the best booths you will ever see are at CES. To give you an idea of what happens at CES, one of the featured themes of January 2023’s show will be self-driving cars.
So, I’ve really seen the smallest, the largest, and everything in between. Recently I was at a large trade show, and I saw a booth that really surprised me. The company had lollipops in a red solo cup as their giveaway. So of course I stopped to take a good look.
They had a decent branded tablecloth with clear graphics. That’s fine. Their printed marketing materials consisted of several pages that looked like they had been printed out on their office copier and encased in plastic holders they stood up across their table. That’s not fine. And of course, their “swag” was lollipops they probably purchased at Costco and put in a red solo cup. Guys, that’s not swag. That’s what kids get from their dentists for not punching them in the face during the drilling. And personally I feel that even the kids should be getting more than a lollipop for that.
This is the kind of thing I used to see at local chamber shows from very small local businesses. But this booth belonged to a national media company. That’s shocking and looks bad. If a start-up came to me with a very tiny event budget, I would tell them not to put a red solo cup filled with cheap lollipops on their table. In fact, I would tell them not to put inexpensive branded pens in a red solo cup. Red solo cups should not be on your trade show table. It looks amateur. Why are you going through the expense and work of any trade show if the end result is looking like an unserious amateur?
It doesn’t make sense.
If you google “trade show don’ts” you are going to get pretty much the same article from everyone writing about it. I’m not going to tell you that the number one trade show mistake is not having a goal. Because I don’t believe that is the number one mistake. The number one mistake is looking unprofessional and small time. The number one mistake is presenting a booth that draws no interest because guess what? It’s uninteresting.
Another thing I wouldn’t tell you is the easy one everyone repeats without thought in my opinion. “Don’t sit at trade shows.” That always struck me as so ableist. The solution to that is usually; hire young temps to staff your booth. What a bad idea! Your booth should be staffed with long term staff who know your product, services, and company culture. And if one or more of that staff can’t be on their feet for hours, or at all, then maybe your company culture is substance over style. That’s not a bad thing!
Far more important is how your trade show staff behave during trade shows. Definitely do not have two people sitting behind a table, if you have a table, talking to each other the entire time. You don’t need trade show attendees feeling like they are interrupting the deeply personal conversation between two BFF’s. Don’t have staff who cluster in the booth space talking to each other either. That’s not welcoming.
Feel free to do away with the table all together and get a podium. Something like this is perfect. Or a pedestal like this. Do have chairs in your booth. You can use regular folding chairs, and even buy full graphic chair back covers. Or you can get really cool director’s chairs, like this, or this. A few little upgrades like these and you take your booth from meh to awesome. And it really doesn’t cost much.
So we know you don’t want your booth staff to congregate in a clique among themselves, making attendees feel awkward if they interrupt. What’s the opposite of that? The overeager staff who jump out at everyone who walks by. I hate that. You should have friendly staff who love socializing and are good at it, but who don’t make people feel weird about wanting to just walk by.
Of course you should set goals for your trade shows, and you should follow-up with leads afterwards. But unless you are a start-up, companies already know this. And even many start-ups know this, some just instinctively. They are starting up a business for a reason you know. Chances are they are bringing some experience and good instincts to the table. So that is advice that sounds smart to inexperienced people but is actually what I call two cents of knowledge. I attend my own client’s shows all the time, and what I have noticed is that the companies who are best at this, are the ones who have their executive salespeople at the show. They will follow-up right there. I have watched clients of mine meet a high-value potential client who came to their booth and ask them to wait a moment while they phone their sales director who is on the floor and get them over to speak with them right then and there. That’s impressive. That makes your potential client feel valued right out of the gate. And it makes you look prepared and ready to solve their problems.
And don’t offer them a lollipop from a red solo cup while they wait. If you do swag for your booth, and you should, make it good, branded swag. Your swag should reflect your company’s culture. More on that in our next blog.