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How many teams does your company send to a trade show?  Unless you work for the very largest of Fortune 500 companies, the answer is probably one.  It’s very rare for a company to send two teams to a show.  Instead the same small group of staff members have to pull double-duty at the trade show, acting as both booth staff and gathering relevant information.
You’ve spent lots of time and effort concentrating on how to be the very best exhibitor.  But are you prepared to be an attendee?  Getting the most out of a trade show requires careful preparation.
With two important tasks –exhibiting and attending – to balance, planning becomes even more important.  39% of all trade show attendees spend less than eight hours visiting a show – and exhibitors who have a booth to man have a mere fraction of that time span available.
To get the most from attending a trade show, you have to have a clear strategy in mind.  Knowing what you need to accomplish before, during, and after the show is the first step toward success.
Before the show:
Make a list of the goals you want to achieve by visiting the show.  Include your own personal goals and those of your company. Every subsequent decision that you make should put you closer to achieving your goals.
Read through the trade show promotional materials carefully.  Use the knowledge you’ve gleaned to make a plan for attending the show.  Include a list of ‘must see’ booths and ‘want to see’ booths.  Spend a little time researching the vendors, so that you’ll have a clear idea of who you need to see, and what you need to learn from them.  That way you’ll have useful questions to ask, and will have to waste a minimum amount of time with small talk.
Decide how much time you want to spend at the show, and then allot an appropriate amount to each booth, making sure to schedule the ‘must see’ booths first.  That way if your day is abruptly cut short, you won’t miss the most vital exhibits.  Consider making appointments with those exhibitors you really want to meet with.
If co-workers are attending the show with you, divide the show up into sections.  Each team member can sit in on different seminars to maximize the amount of information gathered by the entire team.
Once you’ve decided who you need to see, get a map of the show floor and prioritize your route.  Walking a trade show can be an exhausting exercise, so make it easy on yourself by securing a hotel room close to the convention center.  Booking your room well in advance will allow you to enjoy discounted rates.
When you’re packing, be sure to bring a comfortable pair of walking shoes, a lightweight outfit, and plenty of business cards.  Additionally, develop a lead form to record vendor names, products, contact information, and any follow-up notes you’ll want to remember after the show.  You’ll want a light carry-all bag for the materials you gather during the show.  Avoid plastic bags, as they will cut into your hands and become unbearably heavy after hours of walking.
During the show:
Upon arriving in the convention city, obtain a map of the locality.  It will make your life much easier and save you valuable time.
The next thing you’ll want to do is consult the latest version of the trade show directory and revise your carefully made plans.  Exhibitors may have dropped out or arrived unexpectedly, or seminar times may have changed.  Check your coat and bags before stepping onto the show floor – you won’t want to lug them around for hours. 
Don’t just grab every brochure that’s offered to you.  Collect the information that is of interest to you or that could be valuable to others in your company.  Many exhibitors will gladly mail literature and samples, which relieves you of having to carry them around the exhibit hall.  Use your lead forms or a small notebook to record the most vital information.
Let exhibitors know that you are on a tight schedule.  They want to make the best use of their time as well, and will gladly cut to the chase with you. You might have to push a little bit to get the answers for questions you really want.  Sometimes booth staff simply do not have the answers you require.  In that case, ask who you should contact at their firm for follow up. 
Trade shows are the ideal opportunity to gather information about what your competitors are doing.  It’s often the first glimpse you’ll get of new product releases, special programs, or fresh marketing initiatives.  Make a point to talk with the booth staff, but don’t ask overly technical or pointed questions.  More likely than not, the exhibitors won’t be prepared to answer them, and you’ll be tipping your hand as a more-than-casually interested attendee.  A simple “So, what do you guys have in the pipeline?” may reward you far more than any carefully-worded queries about technical specs.
Don’t be shy about by-passing booths that do not interest you.  The exhibitors won’t mind.  They want to devote their time to potential customers.
At the same time, keep your eyes open for networking opportunities.  Industry leaders haunt trade shows, and they’re great people to know.  Be social at workshops – now is the time to hand out some of those business cards you’ve brought along.
Take regular breaks to hydrate and make notes.  The notes will help you write your trip report, and the water will keep you healthy and moving.  Convention centers are notoriously dry, hot environments – be prepared.
After the show:
Long hours on the trade show floor are enough to wipe anybody out.  But before you flop down on the bed for forty well-deserved winks, take some time to organize the information you’ve gathered.  If it’s for co-workers back at the home office, sort it into envelopes and address them to the relevant person.  If the information is for you, sort it by priority, affixing sticky notes to jog your memory after you’ve returned from the show.
Take a moment after the show to make note of any exhibits or displays that you thought were particularly effective.  What did they do that you could implement in your own company’s marketing campaign?
Be sure to follow up with new contacts and vendors after the show.  Having a clear plan of action will make sure that the time you spent at the show was a worth-while investment.
Written by Susan A. Friedmann,CSP, The Tradeshow Coach, Lake Placid, NY, author: "Meeting & Event Planning for Dummies," working with companies to improve their meeting and event success through coaching, consulting and training.  For a free copy of ExhibitSmart Tips of the Week, e-mail:; website:

This Marketing article was written by Susan Friedman on 7/27/2005

Susan A. Friedmann,CSP, The Tradeshow Coach, Lake Placid, NY, author:
“Meeting & Event Planning for Dummies,” working with companies to improve their
meeting and event success through coaching, consulting and training.