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Keys to a successful trade show visit

Dave Archer
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In my career, I’ve attended a LOT of trade shows, some of which proved valuable and some which didn’t. With the NCET Small Business Expo this week — September 16 at the Atlantis Casino Resort Spa — I’d like to offer some tips on how you can get the most from a visit to a trade show.

Trade shows are like short boot camps for business. Everything that you can use to start or grow your business is right there — potential partners, providers of goods and services, funding sources, mentors, and much more.

But you need a strategy to get the most out of a trade show. You can’t just show up and expect to absorb business-changing concepts. Here are four tips you can use to make sure that you get the most out of the next trade show you attend.



Prepare

Trade shows offer the opportunity to network, attend educational sessions and to visit exhibitors. In some cases, they can be almost overwhelming in sheer quantity of opportunities. So, plan your visit before you attend. Check out the trade show’s Web site or brochures and decide which educational sessions you want to attend and which exhibitors you wish to visit. Create a schedule and a checklist to take with you to ensure you accomplish your goals.



Bring business cards. If you don’t have them, invest in professionally printed cards. NEVER hand out business cards that you’ve printed yourself. And while you’re at it, get a professionally produced name tag. People are far more likely to remember your name — and you — if you have a name tag to reinforce that initial impression.

Network, network, network!

Networking is still by far one of the most valuable aspects of a trade show.

But remember that networking is not sales. It is an opportunity to start a relationship. And, it’s quality — not quantity — that counts. Far better to make five good contacts than simply hand out 50 business cards.

At trade shows, you can network with three different groups: exhibitors, speakers and fellow attendees. With speakers, prioritize those you most want to meet, and then prepare to meet them after their presentation. Be brief. And think about what you want from the conversation — a quick bit of advice, a simple handshake, a moment to say something about their work — and make sure you accomplish what you came for. Finally, make sure to hand them your business card after you speak.

When networking with fellow attendees, make a point of meeting a broad cross-section of the trade show audience. If you are naturally reserved, set a goal of meeting and exchanging business cards with a specific number of attendees. If you are going to the trade show with a co-worker, split up and double your efforts by each taking different sides of the room. Don’t be discouraged if your networking seems to be paying few dividends during the trade show. Remember that you’re planting the seeds of relationships, not closing business deals.

Networking with exhibitors is the subject of the next tip:

Respect the Exhibitors

Exhibitors invest a lot of time and money to appear at trade shows and they recover that investment by making as many quality connections as possible. Every exhibitor I’ve ever met is happy to talk with the attendees, answer their questions, share experiences, and offer advice. Like you, however, they have many people to meet. So be respectful of their time. As with meeting the speakers, think about what you want from the conversation. If it starts to turn into a long conversation, suggest that you continue the discussion at a later date.

To be blunt, exhibitors have paid money to have a booth at the trade show so that they can offer their goods, services, help and advice to the attendees. Not the other way around. For an attendee to try to sell their goods and services to the exhibitors is very inappropriate, wastes the exhibitor’s time, and in some trade shows, will get you asked to leave. If you want to sell stuff at a trade show, get a booth.

Also in the respect category, many exhibitors offer freebies or give-aways. Each one of these cost money, so resist the urge to take extra ones for little Suzie, Jimmy and Betty. Also, have the courtesy to say hello before you reach for the freebies, and don’t visit every booth just as an excuse to grab as many freebies as possible.

Soak up Skills and Knowledge at the Educational Sessions

Many businesses pay thousands of dollars for consultants to offer them help and advice. Trade shows may offer this same advice for the price of admission. While perhaps not as comprehensive as hiring a full-blown consultant, the price is far more affordable. You can use the trade show’s educational sessions to learn new information, be stimulated by new ideas, or come away with an action plan for business growth.

But like networking, you’ll get the most out of educational sessions if you come prepared and if you leave with a list of concrete, actionable items. Come to the sessions with a notepad or laptop in hand. And instead of taking verbatim notes on the content of the session, write down action items as they occur to you that you can accomplish when you return to work.

Don’t bury your head in your computer trying to be a stenographer for the speaker. If you are really interested in the presentation, approach the speaker after the presentation and ask for a copy of the handout. This will spare you note-taking and may open up an opportunity for an email exchange with the presenter.

Everyone who attends a trade show needs different things. Whatever your needs are, come to the trade show with specific written goals. With a bit of preparation and organization, you’ll maximize the return on the time you’ve invested in attending that trade show.

Dave Archer is president/CEO of NCET, which produces networking events to help individuals and businesses explore and use technology. You can learn more about NCET and the Expo at http://www.NCET.org.