To Exhibit or Not to Exhibit, that is the Trade Show Question

@ theoxfordcommons | instagram

@theoxfordcommons | instagram


In the world of architectural products and building materials, every season is trade show season. And like many of you, I’m recovering after a marathon week at the International Builders Show (IBS) and the Kitchen & Bath Industry Show (KBIS). Then we’ll be packing our bags to head to at least a couple more shows this year to see clients at HD Expo in May, and BDNY in November. Your calendars are likely similar.

Our clients typically spend hundreds of hours planning for these events, hundreds more attending them, and tens of thousands of dollars on all the expenses. So here’s a question. How certain are you that all of the shows you attend are worth the investment? How confident are you that you’re getting the most out of each and every one? When we visit a show, we walk the floor and consider the perspective of those attendees you’re trying to capture. At every show the few companies who get it right are exponentially outnumbered by hundreds of booths that are mediocre at best.

So, how do we ensure you’re one of the best?

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Confirm the show is a good fit

Somehow, at every show, I end up striking a conversation with an exhibitor sales rep who eventually fesses up that they have no idea why they are there. And it’s always a similar story. For first time exhibitors, typically someone books the show with little discussion and then sends sales folks in blind to figure it out. We can’t just point fingers at newbies though. Because after a company goes once - attending a show easily becomes an expensive ill-planned habit.

Trade shows represent a big marketing investment, choose wisely and you will be rewarded. Before committing to such a massive investment, ask yourself:

  1. Is the show one your decision makers or desired decision makers attend?

    While the types of attendees that attend every show is often diverse, even the biggest shows have a sweet spot. So first thing first, make sure this is an event where the folks who attend aligns with the folks you want to get in front of. Some shows may have big numbers, but the attendees may be too junior to be able to truly impact sales. If you are specified by purchasing agents, but most of the attendees are architects - that may not be the right fit either. That said, you don’t want to limit yourself to just the audience who may provide the initial specification. While a designer may make the initial selection, it’s equally important to grow awareness among those decision makers further down in the specification journey. Those are the folks that have the power to give the ultimate green light before your sales team can make a commission.

  2. Is your product relevant?

    We always suggest our clients go to a show first as an attendee before putting the investment towards exhibiting. It’s just so helpful to walk the show first and get a feel for the event so that you can determine what the value proposition will be for your booth. Can you position your product to be relevant and compelling to the audience? If so, proceed.

  3. What are your goals?

    Most companies shy away from putting metrics around a trade show event which is understandable. For smaller businesses, they may not have true closed-loop reporting tools which allow them to connect the dots between marketing initiatives and sales. If the metrics you measure are simply lead generation, it’s easy to over or underestimate your booth’s impact because the number of folks you scan in your booth will always be impacted by a rise or decline in attendees. We suggest companies that make a significant investment in trade shows take a serious look at integrating their CRM, ERP, and marketing automation systems to allow true closed-loop reporting. If that’s not in the immediate future, can you identify specific prospects who will be there and develop some outreach before the show to increase the odds they’ll swing by?

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Have a plan for foot traffic

You already know location matters and for first-time exhibitors, decent spots on the floor are often hard to secure. Given that reality, you have to do more than send a generic email right before the show. “Stop by our booth!” just doesn’t cut it when your prospects are only focused on making dinner reservations and packing. For those events where breakout sessions get good attendance - consider identifying speaking opportunities at the events you’d like to exhibit at. Planning an event or offering an exclusive giveaway works too. No matter what you decide to do, when you do send an email to tell your attendees about it, it’s really important to segment your list and tailor the message accordingly. Most marketing automation tools allow you to customize who the email is coming from - so you can segment the list by region and have messages coming from specific sales reps. Is there a message that would be compelling to builders versus the developers you know? Consider personal messages and old-fashioned letters too. If the outreach is intentional rather than an afterthought, you’ll have far more success.

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Bring the right team

Speaking of sales reps, it’s worth noting that just because a rep lives in the area, it doesn’t mean they are the best person to be at the booth. Ultimately the best folks in your booth have deep product knowledge, can juggle a crowd, and can relate to the people who will be there. Seems obvious? Unfortunately, it’s not. Take a look at the attendees. If it’s a senior level group, bring your senior level people. Be sure you can speak their language. Oh, and while I’m on the topic, here’s a #protip – dress like your buyers! If you’re at a show with lots of designers, don’t be caught wearing a company polo shirt with a bad logo. There’s nothing worse than looking like a dad in a nightclub.

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Invest in a booth that looks legit

Trade shows are expensive. Beyond travel costs, exhibiting comes with the significant investment of staff time spent out of the office, events to wine and dine prospects, good swag and, of course, the cost of the booth itself. When a budget is stretched this far, it’s usually the booth that suffers, which really defeats the whole purpose.


Some retailers embrace the “pile it high and let it fly” philosophy (or as I call it “The Walmart Approach”.) This is in stark contrast to high-end boutiques which display a small curated collection of products. What is the image your company should convey? Packing a pipe and drape booth with tons of product on covered folding tables conveys an image that may not be the one you intend. A poor presentation not only makes for a bad return on a show investment but can also be damaging to your company’s reputation and brand.

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Use messaging that matters

The singular criteria for the messaging in your booth is this: will prospects quickly understand the value of your product? Show attendees will look at hundreds of booths in a twenty-four hour period. While they are walking the show, they are connecting with colleagues, networking, attending classes, and if they are lucky, indulging in a few glasses of champaign. That’s a very different context from the quiet warehouse or creative studio where the booth was envisioned and created. I sometimes walk by booths several times before I finally “get” what they’re selling.

The best way to sell a line is to go deep into the problem it solves. The more relevant that product is to the audience, the better. Smart messaging establishes product differentiation. Brilliant messaging is differentiation that’s memorable and sticks.

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Have an easy-to-execute plan for follow-up

Most companies reach out to prospects one or two times after a trade show. In this industry, that’s just not effective. Projects take years from concept to the ribbon cutting. In order to get the full return of participating in a trade show, it is important to have a lead nurturing plan that aligns with your prospect’s buying cycle. Double or triple your return by creating relevant campaigns both digital and physical that connect with specifiers beyond 90 days post-show.

Effective messaging shows your leads how your products can solve their problems. In short—it’s relevant and compelling to them. Post BDNY, I received follow up emails from companies thanking me for visiting their booth and being asked to keep them in mind for future projects. One even said “see you next year” and with that single line, I could hear thousands of dollars in sales go down the drain.

It’s important to make sure the follow-up looks and sounds like it came from the same company that was at the show. And, it should come from an actual person that was at the booth. Case in point a company with a very chic product line and brand sent a follow up that was so disconnected to my experience at BDNY that I had to go to their website to see if I was mistaken.

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Make time to network

While you’re at the show, make sure you can get out of your booth to mingle a bit and get to know your neighbors. One thing many building material firms fail to do is network amongst themselves. These events are no place to be shy. Make a friend in a noncompeting company and trade leads after the show is over. While you may have a 20% overlap, you will come away with almost double the amount that you would have captured on your own. Once trust has been established between the two companies, you can feed one another leads outside of tradeshows and double your footprint.

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Give them something to remember

Swag matters. Last year we loved that BDNY was the home of outstanding (and coveted) bags. This year, booze was king. In fact, Restoration Hardware had an entire booth that was just a (beautiful and lively) bar. For a show like BDNY, fashion and decadence rule the day. This is a high energy, beautiful crowd.

IBS is a whole different story. The majority of attendees are builders. For this persona, time is money. They reject new products and materials because learning how to use them can be risky and often results in investing significant time learning on the job or coming back to fix errors.

Smart exhibitors solved that problem for them by giving them the actual experience of using their product in the field. Virtual reality ruled the day at IBS. Attendees were given something they will never forget; an exciting and edgy experience that made them feel, if only for a few minutes, that they were in command and ahead of the industry.

Bottom line, know your show and get in tune with what works for the audience.  


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How well do you know the customers that you sell to?


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Susan Milne

If you have a question that hasn’t been answered or would like find out more about how Epiphany can help you get specified, give me a call: 804.377.0106.