Tales from the trade-show trenches

For vets or newbies, trade shows are tough, and even tougher without the survival essentials.

For vets or newbies, trade shows are tough, and even tougher without the survival essentials.

Going into the trenches of a trade show can be a daunting task for even the most seasoned veteran, but it's important to be prepared to handle the most unexpected challenges from the moment you hit that trade-show floor.

"There are two things that happen at trade shows," says trade-show veteran Chuck Wilkins, PR manager for Venable LLP, who attended several trade shows in his former position at Aurora Sciences: "Things break and things get dirty."

There are some survival tools in the trade-show world that will come in handy for both the little and big things that will inevitably go wrong. Some of them are more obvious than others. Everyone knows that you need signs and a whole box of business cards, but there are some other things that you might want to keep on hand.

To start with, duct tape, and lots of it. Whether a booth breaks or you just need to rehang a sign, duct tape will fix anything - even a hemline. Next, monofilament fishing line, which comes in handy for hanging signs or creating nametag necklaces. Best of all, it's clear, so it won't look tacky or unkempt.

Paper towels and light spray cleaner are essentials because, as Wilkins says, things truly do get dirty. Make sure the cleaner isn't too harsh - signs, or even electronics, can get ruined by over-vigorous products. Try to find something that smells good, too.

Next up are light bulbs. More than one trade-show expert says the lights always seem to go out when you need them the most. Potential customers will be less likely to approach a booth if they think it isn't open for business.

And finally, the surprising - but almost unanimous - advice is to take lots of candy: journalists and business prospects alike often turn into little kids in the far-from-home environment of a trade show, and they'll always go to the free food and candy.

"You should take extra everything," says Wilkins. "It's better to have it than to not have it."

But having all of these tools and supplies will do you no good if you have not prepared for what goes on at the show beforehand. Participating in a trade show can be a costly investment. Planning should begin months in advance. The best way to do this is to create a briefing book for each member of the team that includes schedules of events at the show, schedules of who is to man the booth at all times, schedules of meetings with the press, a list of the media expected at the show, a floor plan of the event, and relevant product information that the team should be talking about.

"We try to put together some sort of theme for the show," says Nicole Rodrigues, PR manager for MobiTV. Rodrigues suggests making a list of topics that the whole team will be well-versed in and able to talk about with the media. Among the subjects she suggests to focus on are insights on the latest products, recent revenue reports, and the advantages of the product over its competitors.

Executives should also be coached before the show on public speaking and how to deliver a sound bite that will be quote-worthy to a journalist.

It is important to set up meetings with journalists before the show begins to avoid fighting with competitors to get coverage from the most relevant trade media. Most larger shows will provide participants with a list of the media expected to attend, and many journalists will be fully booked before the event has even begun. It is also a good idea to familiarize the team with the publications beforehand and have specific sections in mind that products might fit into.

Kyle Solomon, VP of worldwide marketing and product management for Activplant, says that companies need to make a splash when they go to a trade show.

"You have to look for ways to up your visibility," he says. "If you can embrace a theme that is already in place and go parallel to it; that will lead to success."

Technique tips


Coordinate what your team will wear; you want to look like one unit

Set up your booth before the day of the show to make sure nothing is missing

Get to know the show before investing time and money in participating


Assume your team actually read the briefing book. Prepare them orally for the show, too

Let your work end with the show. Do a follow-up campaign with media contacts

Just rely on traditional comms. Expand the experience with blogs and podcasts

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