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Trade shows can be a gamble, but here’s how small business owners can benefit

By June 25, 2024No Comments

(This column originally appeared in The Inquirer)

After suffering an enormous downturn during the COVID pandemic, the trade show industry has mostly recovered, with one industry association predicting a “robust” year that will bring attendance and revenue back to pre-pandemic levels.

A recent survey by DisplayWizard, a provider of display solutions for trade show exhibitors, found that 65% of businesses consider in-person trade shows an invaluable part of their marketing strategy. If done right, attending and participating in a trade show can contribute significantly to a company’s leads and brand awareness.

Here’s how trade shows can benefit business owners:

A long-term investment

Companies that are committed to doing shows know that it’s not usually a one-off thing. Planning needs to be done as much as six months in advance before exhibiting, and it oftentimes takes years of participation before an acceptable return-on-investment can be achieved.

“There’s nothing to compare with meeting people in person,” said Ryan Butler, a managing partner at Grapevine Visual Concepts, a trade show booth design firm based in Southampton. “But you can’t expect to go into a trade show and walk away with a million dollars right away. It takes time to build relationships and letting people know you’re a player in your industry.”

Partnering is important

While it’s easy enough to set up a table with a stack of sales literature, people who are committed to trade show marketing know that it’s important to partner with experts who will help design, transport, and set up a professional-looking exhibit space to reflect positively on their products and brand. There are a lot of moving parts to keep track of, so outsourcing this job to firms like Grapevine is common.

But there are expenses to consider. Butler said that trade show booths can cost anywhere from a “few thousand to hundreds of thousands of dollars” to build, deliver, set up, maintain, troubleshoot, and store for the future. One way to mitigate these costs is renting a booth, instead of building one.

“Renting has become more popular as costs have risen,” said Butler. “Instead of spending $80,000 to build a booth, you can rent one as little as one third of the price and then return it when you’re done.”

Your booth design makes a difference

Bigger trade shows can often have tens of thousands of attendees walking the floor. Robert Aibel, who owns Moderne Gallery in North Philadelphia, has exhibited in countless arts and trade shows over his more than three decades in the business. He’s learned that it’s important to stand out.

“I tend to lean on eye candy,” he said. “Your display needs to have things that immediately catch people’s attention so that they can be drawn in to look at other products.”

Aibel spends a great deal of time on booth design, creating new booths for each show to align his exhibit with the latest materials and avoid being repetitive.

“For us, the whole point is to design a booth that’s beautiful and unique and you can’t do the same thing over and over again,” he said.

Butler, from Grapevine, said attendees’ preferences for booth design has also changed since the pandemic. Many people are now more comfortable in open environments that have walkthrough pads and a “better line of sight.” The less congested, the better.

“That way when someone approaches your booth, they feel comfortable walking in the space,” Butler said.

Consider being a guest

Meridith Coyle, who owns Aneu Kitchens, with locations in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey, has participated in a number of shows, but said even attending as a guest can be productive.

“I think you just get as much information by walking purposefully through the show and aligning yourself with similar brands, similar concepts, similar packaging ideas,” she said. “You don’t necessarily have to have an exhibit booth to do that and still benefit.”

Coyle said she has plans this year to “scope out” a few shows and potentially return as an exhibitor in the future.

“I’ll talk to others that are exhibiting at these shows to see how they’re doing,” she said.

Both Aibel and Coyle have learned that some trade show promoters are better than others, so it’s important to research the organizers’ background and whether other exhibitors have had a good experience.

“You don’t want to exhibit at a show where the promoter is only interested in renting the booths out and doesn’t understand — or have the desire — to reach the right customers for your business,” said Aibel.

Qualify your prospects

It’s common for a booth at a busy trade show to have hundreds of visitors, but not every visitor is a good prospect. It’s important to make sure you don’t spend limited resources chasing the wrong opportunity.

Aibel used to encourage visitors to sign up on mailing lists, but then found that, although they were interested, many were not actual buyers of his art. He also offers business cards to people that visit his booth, but only follows up if he senses that they’re serious.

“If they’re serious, they’ll get back to us. If they don’t then it’s not worth our efforts,” he said. “In the end, trade shows are a gamble.”

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