• Adam Grey

Exhibiting at Trade Shows? Learn from my mistakes

Making the right impact at an event involves a number of different factors. What could possibly go wrong?

Before moving into the event supplier industry I was a regular exhibitor at a number of shows and – like almost every company – made many mistakes along the way.


Like becoming a new parent, it doesn’t matter how well prepared you think you are, mistakes will be made and there may be quite a bit of crying from everyone involved.


Everyone remembers their first time


Take my first ever show as an example; a last-minute decision based upon a discount rate from the organiser and the promise of their busiest ever exhibition hall. Driving up to venue blissfully unaware of what to expect we set up an extremely modest table-top style stand which immediately stood out in a hall of pop-up banners and counters, just not in the way anyone would want!


Our appearance may have been shoddy, but we made up for it in enthusiasm and found ourselves extremely busy. You see this was a show where most attendees were looking for information and as one of the few consultants present we were in high demand. So high in fact that within 30 minutes we realised that having only 3 staff members present was our second mistake and we had no way of speaking to everyone in the queue of people now blocking the aisle to our stand.


Adapt. Overcome. Achieve. If we don’t have the time to speak with everyone, we should at least get their information and follow up after right? Off goes one of my colleagues with all we had to hand, a clipboard and some paper, frantically trying to record everyone’s details.


For the 2 days of the show we muddled through with this workaround and left exhausted having spent the entire time of the show without any break in the queue of people. It’s a great problem to have right? We drove home with a folder full of hundreds of leads, wondering why we hadn’t taken the plunge and exhibited sooner.


Back in the office I got working on the leads and noticed we had already made another mistake. Sure we had lots of leads, but that folder full of high tech pieces of paper had contact details and not much else. I could remember snippets of conversation from people I spoke to, but 90% of the information I was staring at now was nothing more than unqualified contact details that left me with no way of prioritising. It took me 3 weeks of impersonal calls and emails before I finally managed to follow up with everyone, not exactly an efficient way of doing business!


So what was the final return from all this hard work?


One new client.


What went wrong?


You see even though the event was industry targeted and we came away with hundreds of leads, they were slow burners; people after information but a long way from making a decision.


in contrast, a competitor at the event had privileged access to attendee lists, allowing them to be the only exhibitor that was able to pre-qualify visitors, arrange meetings and manage the information a lot better. The attendees ready to make a decision were at their stand in a scheduled meeting, not waiting in our queue.


The 2nd time we thought we were a lot more prepared. We had a snazzy pop up stand, plenty of people to staff it and a much better way of gathering information. The show was busy again and we left with hundreds of leads about to run into another mistake, we simply did not have the time to follow up with everyone. The show coincided with the busiest time of the year for us and we had to prioritise our current workload over prospective clients. By the time we got around to it, the best leads had lost their potential and it was a very poor return.


I’m glad to say I learned a lot from these experiences and gradually saw an improvement in the return from exhibitions, but it’s surprising how many times I see similar basic mistakes being made at each and every show.


Common mistakes


With each show being a significant investment of time and money, minimizing these mistakes can make a huge difference in your return, so no matter how many times you’ve exhibited, keep reminding yourself of these common mistakes so you can avoid them:

  • Don’t rush. Plan your stand well in advance.

  • Don’t cut corners. It’s tempting to take on everything yourself to cut costs, but what you save in money will cost you much more in time and energy.

  • Research the event, is it right for you? Who is attending? Who is exhibiting?

  • Do as much pre-show marketing as you can, let people know you’re there.

  • Make sure there’s enough staff on the stand, anticipate the demand and ensure everyone knows what to expect.

  • It’s crucial to have a suitable system for gathering lead information. Don’t just rely on hand scanners or business cards, plan a way to get the information that you need to help you qualify leads and follow up efficiently.

  • Follow up. Fast.

Every cloud has a silver lining


I’ll leave you with one final mistake that had a slightly different outcome.


Having clearly not learned from our previous error of rushing, we took a hugely discounted space 2 days before opening at an event completely outside of our industry, but in a sector we could supply services to. Despite the numerous “why are you at this show?” questions, it turned into a good opportunity to build some relationships not with the attendees, but with other exhibitors.


.........One of these new relationships led to a referral to another company, and 6 months later that company became a new client generating over £100,000 of business.


A very profitable mistake to make.