Small Business Trade Show Advice
On using industry exhibitions to supercharge your business
Trade shows, or conferences where businesses share their products with potential retail buyers, have the potential to grow your business significantly. In fact, Open the Joy founder and 2020 Tory Burch Fellow Shalini Samtani launched her business at a trade show when she only had prototypes.
Samtani, along with El Guapo Bitters founder and 2020 Fellow Christa Cotton, joined our webinar series to talk to our community about choosing the right shows, building booths that stand out, working with retailer buyers and more.
Research the shows.
Samtani shared that she attended a trade show before deciding to exhibit herself and recommends other entrepreneurs do the same. She suggested asking a fellow entrepreneur attending the show if they have an extra exhibitor badge to share, as individual attendee badges can often cost hundreds or thousands of dollars.
Select trade shows based on your industry, the number of exhibitors and proximity, since it’s generally less expensive to attend a show closer to your business. If there is a particular retailer you really want to partner with, find out where they usually send their buyers and make sure you have a booth there.
Set yourself (and your booth) up for success.
Presentation is so important when it comes to getting the most out of a trade show.
Budgeting for a trade show needs to include the costs of shipping product to and from the convention center, and sometimes even drayage, or transferring that shipped product within the venue from the loading dock to your booth. Drayage is not only expensive, but it also eats into your setup time, also known as load-in time. Samtani and Cotton both agree that if possible, founders should bring their own product, tables, and other items to their station themselves. However, they caution that some venues work with union labor and the unions prohibit self-service. Check with event organizers first.
Your booth’s physical structure will affect cost as well. Ask about the walls and whether they can hold heavy items. Consider buying slatwalls (Samtani shared she uses plastic ones, as they’re typically cheaper than wooden ones) to neatly display product. Confirm if you will have access to outlets. If not, you will have to pay for the venue to bring electricity to your booth.
Additionally, you will need to budget for the cost of collateral like catalogs, business cards and product assortment line sheets; even in our digital world, those physical items are important. If your budget allows, consider having small samples available at your booth for people to take with them that day–they can really help buyers remember you.
Cotton explained that when she attended her first trade show, just six months after launching her product, she was able to set up her booth with about $300, which included things like tables, tablecloths and collateral. “Now, I would say our actual booth setup is probably more like $10,000.” The increase in cost is mostly due to the more elaborate display items, like a custom bar she takes with her. Even without splashy branded elements, your trade show booth can really stand out if you have the right mix of branding and samples.
Remember, a small booth at the right show can pay big dividends if you connect with the right buyer. Product-market fit is what you’re looking for–not just sales volume, Samtani stressed. Do not rush into getting the largest booth for your budget if you don’t have enough product to create a robust and engaging experience in it. Your booth shouldn’t look sparse. Cotton shared that, through her involvement with the Southern United States Trade Association’s 50% CostShare program, she will be reimbursed for half of her trade show costs. Search or ask your community about relevant industry and regional trade organizations that offer similar programs.
Think of your booth’s presentation as your first chance to make an impression with your branding and professionalism. Though some businesses do get large orders from retailers on the spot, trade shows are primarily a marketing opportunity. Display your products well and decorate with care. “It’s a great way to draw people in and get not only buyers, but also media [members] to pay attention to what you’re doing, and care about your story,” explained Cotton. Well-designed catalogs can even help buyers decide to invest in you, because they show your attention to your company’s details. “They’re looking at you and they’re saying, ‘Hey, can you even take my [purchase order]?’” Samtani added.
Incorporate your branding into every aspect of the booth. Samtani shared that at her first trade show, she bought furniture from Wayfair in her brand’s colors to keep messaging cohesive. The branding can even extend to what you and your team wear when working your booth, whether it’s a shirt with a logo or clothes and accessories that fit with your brand story. Because her company is based in New Orleans, Cotton plays zydeco and Cajun music (at a reasonable volume) in her booth. She and her team also wear playful headpieces to reflect the city’s spirit. “You need your own little hook to get people to be hanging out near you,” she said. Something as small as available chairs can attract buyers or sales representatives who want to rest their feet after walking all day. They may sit down to rest and then find they like your product!
Entrepreneurs often do everything themselves, especially in the early stages. When it comes to trade shows, consider bringing someone to help you set up your booth, answer customers’ questions and watch your station while you browse the rest of the trade show. Both Cotton and Samtani stressed the importance of walking the floor so you can get a sense of your competitors, engage with other brands you may want to partner with or meet sales representatives.
Connecting with retailers at trade shows means connecting with people. You want to demonstrate that you’re open to having conversations with attendees. Cotton made a rule that her staff members aren’t allowed to use their phones when behind the booth. “If you’re not looking up smiling, excited to be there, you are losing out on potential opportunities for people to come up to you,” she warned.
These conversations are so important. They present sales opportunities and may even challenge you to approach your business differently. Listen to what buyers have to say–they have a deep customer knowledge that can benefit you.
Team up with a rep
Consider engaging a sales representative, who brings a selection of brands to their retail clients. This option can take some of the workload off you and your team. The downside is your product will be shown next to others, possibly ones in direct competition with you. However, because buyers know the sales rep, you can benefit from all the foot traffic in that booth.
Focus your follow up.
Meeting buyers at a trade show is great, but contacting them after the show is even better. Remember, you likely won’t leave a show with a big order, but you will be planting seeds for later sales. Though it’s often time-consuming, sending individual messages to people you meet is essential, Samtani and Cotton agree. Don’t be afraid to be persistent! “One of the biggest mistakes I see people make…is they’ll follow up once and then there’s no recurring follow up,” saidd Cotton. Whether you rely on a basic spreadsheet or a sophisticated customer relationship management tool, be sure to keep track of who you reach out to and how (or if) they respond.
Make your follow up stand out! Cotton favors handwritten notes to make her memorable to potential clients. Both webinar speakers favor taking selfies with potential clients that include their branding or even a product the buyer expressed interest in. Later, they attach the selfie to the email to add a personal touch and jog the person’s memory. Even if you don’t want to take photos with buyers, do make sure you have a simple way to collect their email addresses and add them to your email list. Email is still one of a business’ most important sales tools.
If your trade show contacts do request a sample, go ahead and send them. “Even though it can seem really expensive to ship samples to all these people, generally speaking, it does come back and pay dividends,” Cotton said.
What is trade show success?
The truth is, you may not know if a show was successful for your business for several months, and that’s okay. Only time will tell if buyers are really invested in your offering. Strive to recoup your investment in a show at the very least.
Once enough time has passed, assess whether you will return. If you review your year and see that you didn’t get many sales or press opportunities, consider dropping that trade show in the next year. However, there’s a benefit to returning to your favorites. “A lot of these [buyers] want to see you over and over again. They want to know that you’re a trusted brand, and you’re not a fly-by-night,” Samtani said. “Showing up consistently and showing up in the same booth area shows that you’re a consistent brand.”
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