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Finding customers at a conference takes time, effort and preparation. There’s a lot of thought that needs to go in before you’re actually standing at your booth in the exhibit hall, ready to meet your prospective customers.

I asked Daria Gray, Director of Corporate Marketing and Communications at TAPE, about the best practices she uses to make our TAPE trade show booths a success.

“Ideally, one would work with their business development team to outline which shows or events are in alignment with their business goals, and then map out a schedule of these must-do events for the upcoming 12-18 months. This is a living document that may change, but creating this list in advance of your planning makes it far easier to manage all of the logistics, resources and people – all of the important elements that go into trade show planning. That list is the catalyst of a successful trade show program; like a compass that shows where you’re headed.

Once you’ve secured your booth space or exhibit floor space, you can begin to contact the various organizations that support these types of endeavors. For example, here at TAPE we work with an exhibit house. The role of an exhibit house is to coordinate all aspects of the exhibiting process, and pull together the various pieces of your exhibit.

The exhibit house will store your booth’s property, where it will be maintained and serviced by exhibit professionals. They will ship your booth to a particular venue, and you can even have exhibit house staff accompany your booth to the venue to oversee setup. The other option is to arrange setup and labor through the trade show organization.”

A note from Bill: We may have an exhibit house now, but it didn’t start out that way. We started with banners, and then graduated to a felt board with Velcro stick-ons. From there we stepped up to new level in look and feel, with a “spider board” (so-called because the backing looks kind of spider) that we got through eBay on sale. That one came with a case, but before that, we built our own box to hold everything we needed. It helped that my granddad owned a corrugated box factory, so I knew a little about boxes and so forth. Okay Daria, back to you:

“Whether or not you will be hiring specialists to design your trade show booth, here are some basic principles to keep in mind: 

  • Be consistent and concise – Be sure that your company’s marketing and brand strategy is reflected in your trade show materials; whether that is a table-top banner stand, a presentation that people can preview at your booth, handouts or anything else. Keep your message short, simple and memorable.
  • Let your message speak for itself – While everyone loves getting free stuff, there is no need to go overboard by cluttering your booth with ” tchotchkes” (also known as swag or branded promotional materials). If you have the right message, the right staff and the right materials to support that message, you don’t have to give things away – the right people will be drawn to you. This was definitely reflected in our very successful experience at the recent National Veteran Small Business Conference.
  • Think quality versus quantity – If you’ve done your strategic planning and you’re clear about who you’re trying to engage at the event, it’s not a matter of trying to collect as many leads of possible. No one wants to be left with a bunch of names that you don’t know what to do with. Instead, spend your time reaching out the specific people or types of people you’ve targeted; quality people you hope to build a long-term relationship with. In some cases, these will be the decision makers who will hire you; in other cases, at the minimum, they can put you in touch with those people.”

Thanks, Daria, for this great information!

Regardless of how many leads you come away with after a conference, you must annotate and cut the leads down from a bunch of names to your real potential customers. And whatever you do, follow up immediately and often. Even if you don’t get a response, be persistent. Use phone calls, email and social media. See if the lead is on LinkedIn and if there are any mutual contacts who can introduce you; follow them on Twitter or Google+ and join (“Like”) their business’s Facebook fan page.

If all else fails, hire a social media consultant to help you use social media to track down leads. This can be a tremendous help in getting started.

Speaking of social media, use your social media accounts to announce your presence at the conference. This will help you connect with the people who are there and encourage them to come and see you. It also shows your broader network that you’re out there and keeping up with industry trends and events.

I have one last tip for a successful trade show booth: Bring lots of business cards. It’s better to lug them back home than it is to run out of cards.

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