Have a Plan—Tradeshow Best Practices

Have a Plan—Tradeshow Best Practices

By Diane M. Calabrese / Published September 2022

Photo by iStockphoto.com/Nastco

Think “symmetry.” It sets the foundation for tradeshow best practices. 

     Before committing to a tradeshow, an exhibitor/vendor wants to know the size and scope of the event. That includes everything from the demographics of the attendees to the number and physical layout of exhibitors.

     Now, turn and flip it around. Show visitors, prospective buyers, want to know the same about the products being displayed and the companies behind them.

     Most members of our industry have been on both sides of the exhibitor-visitor experience. R. Calvin Rasmussen has. He is chief executive officer at Royce Industries L.C., with corporate headquarters in West Jordan, UT. Here, he speaks to us specifically from the vantage of a visitor.

     “Personally, when I am preparing to attend a tradeshow, I like to identify the top eight to ten products I would like to learn more about, such as washwater treatment; graffiti abatement, chemicals, equipment, and processes; turbo nozzle improvements; drones; and other new and/or trending items,” explains Rasmussen.

     In addition to creating a list of products, Rasmussen reviews the list of exhibitors and endeavors to learn more about them. He does so by reaching out to staff at the companies to arrange one-on-one time and visiting websites to learn whether new product launches are planned.

     Rasmussen also checks whether manufacturers/suppliers with whom he works will be at the show. “If so, I make a point to go by and thank them and give them more business,” he explains. 

     Rasmussen also looks for new partners. “Are there any manufacturers/suppliers that I am not familiar with that I would like to get to know better?”

     Flourishing tradeshow areas mean each exhibitor competes for attention. “They would grab and keep my attention if they could better quantify how they could help me sell their product/products better,” says Rasmussen.

     “How will the product help the end user—the person/company I will be selling to?” says Rasmussen. “Who is buying it—what industries, their SIC codes, and other demographics? When buying it, what else are they purchasing in conjunction with the product?”

     In addition, Rasmussen is interested in support in marketing. He appreciates vendors that “provide marketing collateral that can be customized with our unique company brand and name.”

     Rasmussen cites the annual National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS) as the “best tradeshow” he attends. The NACS show “highlights all things related to gas stations/convenience stores”—a collective that encompasses soda, magazines, candy, and car washes.

     “At the NACS show every exhibitor provides samples of products as well as demographic information related to who is buying these products and how to better sell the products,” says Rasmussen. He puts heavy emphasis on “every.”

     Obviously, an association with some members who offer tempting edibles has a bit of an edge. Still, giving a visitor the opportunity to try a new nozzle can be as attention-getting as offering a selection of snacks for tasting. 

     Hands-on experience counts. Yes, there are videos of everything, but watching screens during a tradeshow can be like using earbuds to listen to FM music when sitting in the audience of an orchestral performance.


     Too much sharing (TMS)? Not at tradeshows.

     Deep in the minds of some tradeshow exhibitors lurks the thought that TMS might imperil a company. It goes like this: Competitors will be present. They will be checking us out. That’s true. 

     Competitors use every available venue to assess one another, at least informally. Holding back information at a tradeshow is not likely to impede reconnaissance that has existed since people began exchanging goods and services.

     Opportunities abound at tradeshows. Meet with numerous potential customers. Talk with existing customers and introduce them to new possibilities. Identify potential partners.

     Planning ensures that every opportunity can be seized. That begins with clarity about why a company is exhibiting at a tradeshow, and it extends to an understanding of the expectations of visitors.

     “Make sure you are focused and adding value to the visitor,” says Daniel Sherlock, senior manager, engines and export, at American Honda Motor Co. Inc. in Alpharetta, GA. “Customize your presentation/communication to what is important to the visitor.”

     In customizing, try to determine from the organizers of the show about how long visitors typically spend at the venue. Tailor the exhibit to the average time a visitor might be able to devote to a display. Demonstrations should be as short as possible and meaningful. If a demonstration does not retain the attention of visitors, give it up. It’s better to use time to talk. 

     Planning and flexibility are both important in getting it right at a tradeshow, says Sherlock. “But planning is more important in my opinion.”

     Incorporate flexibility into planning. Have a backup demonstration or two if the first one is not sustaining enough interest.

     Planning should also include a method of evaluating the time spent at a tradeshow. “Have clear goals
and measurements of what you would like to accomplish, such as introduce/demonstrate a new product or collect ‘x’ amount of sales leads,” says Sherlock.

     The U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA.gov) is just one place where recommendations on how to evaluate the budget impact of tradeshows can be found. Consultants abound who provide fee-based recommendations. 

     Let’s take one example from SBA about a way to measure return on investment. It’s a method for quantifying meaningful engagement. In simplest terms, if 75 visitors to an exhibit yield 20 follow-up meetings of any sort, the efficiency would be 26.6 percent, a value that can be further dissected by cost to attain leads.

     Quantification, however, does not work well on the intangibles. And there are plenty of them at tradeshows. The two most significant are the relationships kindled and the awareness of products instigated. 


     Like others in our industry, Craig Harrison, president of Front 9 Restoration Inc. in Phoenix, AZ, has deep experience on both the visitor (in this case, contractor) and exhibitor side of the equation. He shares some of his insights about each.

     “From a contractor’s perspective I would say there is more than just one practice that makes a successful tradeshow,” says Harrison. “But to name just one, my first priority would be ‘have a plan.’”

     Harrison speaks of working the tradeshow as a customer, with that plan in hand. It is work, he explains, and it really should be treated as work.

     “It’s important to have the booths mapped—which ones you want to hit first—and go down the line,” says Harrison. If one booth selected is too busy, go on to the next.

     Maintain the determination to keep moving, explains Harrison. It enables the visitor to “stay on track and not go googly-eyed over all the shiny objects—plenty of time for that later.” Discipline at large shows also helps minimize the toll of walking and standing for hours.

     “As a vendor, our goal is to connect with those who want to connect with us and our product line,” says Harrison. “Vendors should be open and honest and use consultative selling techniques. At our company, we treat everyone as an individual with individual needs but also realize that not everyone is our customer. We do business with those who want to do business with us.”

     If an exhibit area gets busy, exhibitors should try to acknowledge queued visitors, says Harrison. Realize, too, some customers find it intimidating to walk up to certain vendors. 

     “A smile and initiating the conversation can ease those fears,” explains Harrison. “Vendors need to keep in mind that those customers are why they are in business, even if it’s a brand-new customer relationship.”

     Take the long view on customers and prospective customer relationships. “The same customer who doesn’t need a particular product or service now might need it later,” says Harrison. “An exhibitor should be cautious of trying to oversell something rather than just getting to know their potential client.”

     Listen to the prospective buyer to determine whether a company’s product or services is “even a good fit,” says Harrison. Keep recalling that what the customer does not need now may be exactly what he or she needs later. And if a relationship is forged, the customer will return. 

     “From a vendor perspective, the tradeshow for our company is all about building relationships,” says Harrison. “We want to get to know our customers and spend time with them.” 

     As such, there is a plan. Moreover, Harrison’s team follows his advice to be “extremely well-informed about their products and services” and “empathetic to the customer’s wants and needs.” 

     Ultimately, the plan is only a starting point. “Our schedule is pretty flexible, and we go with the flow,” explains Harrison. 

     Are there measures of success? “Each tradeshow I have participated in has been successful,” says Harrison. It is so because he has built new relationships and strengthened old ones. “By putting the needs of others first, we almost always find we get what we need.”

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