Making Trade Shows work for you!

I was privileged to attend a Hardware Trade Show recently in Johannesburg. Over the past thirty odd years I have attended many of these types of shows, and I have to say that this rated as one of the best. It all started with an exciting and dynamic invitation process, with a ‘teaser’ campaign that started about three month prior to the event. The invitation targeted specific customers in person – not by company! The Hall was full, with no empty stands and there was adequate ‘aisle space’. The flooring was comfortable, which is very important when you consider how many hours your prospects and customers have to trudge around looking for something new and exciting! The majority of the exhibitors were sleek and professional in both their presentation and stand appearance, however there were some that ‘missed the boat’ and I fear went back to their offices the next day and reported that it ‘was a waste of time’!

Exhibiting on trade shows can be very expensive, time consuming and demanding, so it’s really important to get as much from them as possible. Most companies have a brand worth protecting, and its visual identity is a huge part of that. This remains the case at a live event – any old furniture and fuscia coloured carpet shouldn’t suddenly become acceptable. Such  events  may be one of the few times a year you have a physical presence in the real world whereby you can meet your customers and decision makers face to face. Think about investing in design and stand customisation. Begin with a brief and a blank piece of paper, and then work out what you want to achieve, but more importantly what will your customers and potential customers want to experience at your Stand.

We often talk about short print runs helping relevancy. Making postcards specifically, or tailoring your business cards to the trade show you are about to attend helps you to stand out and get noticed. The same should go for when you are exhibiting – marketing materials shouldn’t be left over from a different exhibition – the money you save handing out the leftovers may well be negated by the customers who take their business to someone with a more relevant offering. Make sure everything you hand out is fresh, current and targeted to its recipient.

If, for example, you are targeting creative people, it helps to speak their language, and prove you understand their values. Make the effort to be creative. Some display stands pop out from a mile away, even if they are tiny – because they look vibrant, or clinical or crazy or fun – what matters is that they support the company brand, and appeal to the type of customers you want to engage with.

Some prospects walk up to a stand and ask ‘what are your show specials?’ – you need to decide if discounts and specials are part of your events plan and strategy, but you can be generous in other ways. Give people some time, listen, ask them some questions and find out a little about them. If a prospect leaves your stand with a firm idea in mind that might benefit their business it is far more powerful than a discount flyer or another pen! The best ‘gift’ I received at this show was a memory stick from a cement manufacturer! (my family shared out the pens and key rings!)

So what works best at a Trade Show? This one is simple – the best way to learn what works well at any specific show is to see for yourself. Look at every stand (both the busy ones and the quiet ones), and speak to the teams working there. Here are my five top tips for any exhibitor, bearing in mind that in my history of retail I have been on both sides of the Show Stand!


Spend  months, preparing and defining your goals. Then develop a strategy. Send a pre-show postcard, e-mail or news release to clients and media who’ll be there. Set up appointments and create networking opportunities. Plan to create specialised, eye-catching marketing materials and put a huge, two-word headline on it. The idea is to get attendees to stop. Think of your marketing materials as “bait for fishing in the aisles.”!


Ensure that you  make your  signage as focused as your overall trade-show approach. Your backdrop should be simple and concise – five or six words to tell your story; something that people cruising by will get quickly. Think about  designing  double-sided business cards for the event. Include contact info and a photo on one side, with a list of benefits /products on the other.

Stand Location

Where you position yourself is crucial. Ideally a corner, an island or  a ‘peninsula’ is the most ideal situation because of traffic flow and visibility. And don’t sit. Sitting behind an exhibit sends the message that you’re not interested or aggressive. People will just keep on walking. 


Make the most of networking, but don’t spread yourself too thin. A lot of people try to gather as many business cards as they can, however they’d be much better off really connecting with five or 10 people. Don’t stay anchored to your stand. Designate people to man it while senior staff work the Hall. Find your prospects and invite them to your stand, reach out to them, don’t  rely on them taking the time to walk by and pop in to your stand. Networking also involves following up when the show is over. A trade show is only as good as the business it generates, so don’t stash that stack of business cards in a to-do-later file. Call, e-mail or send a handwritten note as soon as you can, at most within the first week after the show. Wait too long, and you’ve lost them.


You must have a ‘post mortem’ after the show with everyone concerned. What worked, and what didn’t! Did you achieve your objectives, and if not why?  As I mentioned, shows cost a lot of money so it is vital to focus on results – unless you are one of those Blue Chip companies that just want to ‘fly the flag’ as a Tax concession?

In conclusion, Trade shows still continue to be big business for all businesses. According to The Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR), business-to-business spending for trade shows is third to advertising and promotion. In a world of websites, emails, and voice mails, Trade Shows offer one of the true opportunities to build relationships with face to face contact. Something every business can use a little more of.

Graham Bush – The Bush Kitchen

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