Road Trip: Making the Most of Trade Shows and Industry Events

Industry trade shows and conferences are an excellent way to increase your organization’s visibility, and to network with important customers. But with the rising cost of travel and diminishing marketing budgets thanks to the current economy, more clients are asking whether they should continue to participate in these events.

The answer depends on the client and the event. But when the answer is yes, it’s important to know how to make the most of the experience. Following are some tips to help you in the planning process and lay the groundwork for success:

Set Goals: Before hitting the road, you need a plan, which that starts with setting goals. How will you (and the rest of senior management) define success? How many sales leads, partnership opportunities or media interviews do you need to generate to make the show worthwhile?

Know Your Audience: Develop a strong understanding of your audience so you can tailor your efforts to meet their expectations. If this is the first time you have participated in this event, a call to the conference organizers will help you gain an understanding of the typical attendee and what he/she is hoping to gain from the event. 

Get Creative: Once you know what you want to achieve and who you’re trying to reach, ask yourself: How do I stand out from the crowd? This is an important question because every other exhibitor is trying to reach the same people, and some of them will have a lot more marketing dollars to spend. But a little creativity can go a long way toward reaching your goals.

Earlier this year, Environics Communications provided public relations support for a major international trade show. With more than 2,100 exhibitors spread out over 200,000 sq. ft. of floor space, it was not easy for any company to stand out. So, how did one company in a small 10 x 20 booth become one of the hottest spots on this enormous trade show floor? 
The company develops products for a disease that affects the hands and feet. And, given the massive square footage of this event, attendees were on their feet for long hours and had to cover a lot of ground to get from point A to point B.

So, the company handed out comfortable (yet inexpensive) shoes at its booth. By meeting a need of the target audience in a big way, the company created a logical segue to talk about its own product.

Needless to say, word about this company spread fast, and this small booth quickly became one of the most popular exhibits, earning the company a mention in the host organization’s news release and related media coverage.

Know Your Limits: But an exciting giveaway may not always be an option. Recently, many trade shows have begun restricting promotional giveaways. If that’s the case, there are still plenty of ways to attract people to your booth.

For example, you can develop games and activities to draw a crowd. One of our healthcare clients recently exhibited at a conference for physicians. To highlight new product flavors, the company hosted an entertaining Q & A session for attendees titled, “Ask Dr. Flavor.”

You can also transform your standard marketing materials into fun, educational pieces. Checklists, quizzes and how-tos are often recipes for success. Just remember to keep the handouts to a minimum; no one wants to weigh down that suitcase any more than necessary.

Consider Sponsorships: Trade shows typically offer a variety of sponsorship opportunities, from signage to room keys to cocktail receptions. These opportunities can help increase your organization’s visibility, but they can be expensive. Are they worth the investment?

To help you decide, revisit your goals and ask yourself how the sponsorship will help you achieve success. Just your logo on a banner or Web site probably won’t be enough to impact your bottom line. However, if you are sponsoring an event where you will have opportunities to network with potential partners and customers, this investment might just pay off.

Meet the Media: Trade shows are also a great place to meet key journalists in your industry. Since reporters plan ahead for their visits, you’ll need to reach out to them early to get on their schedules. And you’ll need to show them that what your company is doing is interesting and worth their time to stop by and talk to you.
Releasing company news at a trade show is an excellent way to drum-up media interest. Even if you don’t have news, offering up senior executives to provide insight on key issues affecting your industry or having them participate in a panel discussion or give a speech are good ways to develop positive relationships with the media.

Get Ready for Show Time: Of course, none of this preparation can guarantee success. Nor can it take the place of an educated, enthusiastic sales team. But these tips will lay the groundwork for success and help you generate as much ROI as possible.

Dave Groobert is the General Manager for the U.S. operations of Environics Communications, a full-service public relations firm with offices in Washington, DC, Metro New York, Toronto and Montreal. You can send questions or comments to him at  or call 202-296-2002. For additional information on Environics, please visit the firm’s Web site at