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When It Pays to Spend on Trade Shows

Although webinars and virtual online trade shows have become popular in recent years, and serve a marketing purpose, they are not replacements for face-to-face events, says Bill Sell, vice-president and general manager of CrossTech Media, a Boston company that owns and manages 20 business and professional conferences. "People have been doing in-person selling since the medieval village marketplace and it's never going to be wiped out."

There are about 2,200 trade shows and industry expos held in the U.S. annually, down about 25 percent in the past three to four years, Sell says, but new events have cropped up this year, discontinued shows are coming back, and attendance is expected to improve. "People are recognizing that there is no serendipity factor in webinars. You market to the audience you know and have invited; you can't expect to run into someone you don't know or find new opportunities at a virtual event," he says.

Small businesses that want a higher profile in their industry and need to meet new clients, make new partnerships, and get up to speed on trends should consider attending or exhibiting at a show this year, says Sell, a former product manager for COMDEX, a giant computer expo held in Las Vegas from 1979 to 2003. Here are his tips and best practices for getting the most out of a trade show at the lowest cost:

1. Know your goal. Determine whether you'll be selling product and taking orders at a show, in which case it is a "contract" event; or whether you'll primarily be meeting people and forming relationships, in which case it is a "contact" event, Sell says. "Generally, contact events are more successful for small businesses. You meet people face-to-face, shake hands, and follow up after the event."

2. Give it time. If you're attending a show, don't try to squeeze it into a half-day or a few hours, especially if this is one of the big events in your industry. "There are 220 workdays a year; devote one day to business development," Sell says.

3. Budget your time. Look over the layout of the trade show floor and the lineup of events, both of which should be available online in advance, then plan your time strategically. Talk to the event manager in advance and request lists of past attendees and pre-registrants for the current event. "This way you'll make sure these are the people you're looking for and you may find two or three companies similar to your own who could share a booth with you," Sell says.

4. Tell the manager about your company. Reporters for industry publications often ask the general manager for tips on new exhibitors they can profile during the show. "If the general manager tells the trade press what you're doing, it comes out like an endorsement for you and you could end up in their post-show report that will touch on 10 or 15 exhibitors."

5. Partner to save. Small companies often split rental fees on an exhibit space with two or three other businesses that are complementary, but not direct competitors. You can share the booth's wall and table, placing it so you don't block attendees from entering the booth. And don't bother renting chairs, Sell says: "Wear comfortable shoes and plan to stand in your booth where you can engage with the maximum number of people."

6. Go minimalist. You can purchase a reusable, fabric-covered back wall for your booth for around $500 and a folding easel for $20, Sell says. Split the cost with your partners if you can. The wall will fold up and can be checked as baggage or shipped to your hotel. "You can wheel it into the exhibit space on a luggage cart," Sell says. "Small business owners don't need big booths that come in on forklifts and cost a fortune."

7. Think highway signs. "People passing by your booth have something like two and a half or three seconds to read your sign. You want something that will slow them down and catch their attention so you can talk to them," Sell says. For under $100 you can put up a catchy phrase that spells out what you do in compelling graphics. Don't cram your company mission statement, URL, or phone number on your sign; all that will be on the cards you hand out.

8. Use an upscale graphic presentation. If your product or service needs some explanation, create a good-looking video message and play it on your laptop. You can even bring a computer projector and have the presentation playing on a whiteboard at the back of your booth. "A video of four or five customers doing testimonials will engage people walking by," Sell says. "You can send the link to people you follow up with so they can watch the whole thing back at their office."

9. Follow up. After the show day is over, send e-mails to each lead you've met that day. Then follow up with a mailed thank-you. "Bring a box of stamped, paper thank-you notes that you start writing before you get to the event. Leave off the signature so you can add a personal line. At the end of each show day, take two or three minutes to sign and address each one and then mail them from the hotel front desk," Sell says. "The cost is almost nil but it makes a big impression on the people you've met."

10. Attend the show yourself. You're the one who knows your business best and who is working on its strategic development. Rather than send an employee, take the time to go to the show yourself. If you can take an employee or two, you might be inclined to take your best salesperson: Don't. "Your best salesperson will be thinking about all the sales opportunities he's missing" back at the office, Sell says.

11. Take a highly motivated intern or your receptionist. "Your receptionist probably knows a lot more about your company and products than you realize. They'll know whose card to give out to prospects and they'll be able to help you keep track of leads," Sell says. Resist the idea of hiring a temporary employee at the show, he says: "If you're betting everything on a temp who doesn't know your business and may not be able to grasp it quickly, things could go downhill very quickly."

12. Make appointments. Serendipity is great, but you should kick-start the networking process by setting up times to meet with key clients and suppliers during a show. "Try to make at least 20 appointments because you'll miss half of them," Sell says. "If you miss people you want to meet … go by their booth until you catch the people you need."

Klein is a Los Angeles-based writer who covers entrepreneurship and small-business issues.

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