Don't Go Without a Road Map

Preparation and planning before you hit the trade show floor can be key to making the trip well worth the investment.


We’re used to GPS systems guiding us when we drive. Punch in the address and follow the directions, right? Well, kind of. You may find yourself going around in circles or even being told to “turn right”—in the middle of a bridge.

Or maybe you remember using road maps. You determined where you were going, and located the maps. Studied the possible routes. Quickest way? Scenic routes? Rest stops? Conclusions were reached, and you were on your way.

Trade shows can go either way. You can put yourself on GPS autopilot, show up and hope something great appears. Or, you spend some time planning your route, and with some careful decision-making, you can have an experience that will help guide your success for the future. All too often people show up at tradeshows unprepared, then they walk through the doors and get overwhelmed. They spend too much time running around without focus, and as a result, they return home exhausted and feeling as if they accomplished nothing. You can do better.

A great tradeshow experience starts with asking some important questions. How has business been doing lately? Are you getting exceptional service from some suppliers, and not-so-exceptional from others? Thinking about adding product lines? Are there education programs you need to take in?

I recommend planning at least 45 days ahead of the show—60 days is ideal—but even today, you can take some time before hitting the show floor this morning or afternoon to map out a plan. Start by looking at floorplans to locate areas of interest. Record company names and booth numbers in an Excel spreadsheet. This becomes a sortable list. Start at one end of the floor, and work your way through. If you’ve been to the show before, try to recall where everyone heads first, and go the other way—less traffic means more ability to navigate. By the time the herd has moved, you’ve been to the less-trafficked spots and can navigate the other areas with less hassle. If your show has a mobile app, download it before you go, and make sure you know how it works.

Are there vendors you need to see? Some you already purchase from? Others you’re interested in? Start making some phone calls. Set up specific appointments to visit their booths. Get a firm commitment and contact name. Ask for a cell phone number so you can phone at the show. The appointments are very important to you and your time is limited, so confirm with an email. This pre-planning pays off hugely when you get to the show. Don’t schedule more than one appointment per hour. If you show up at a booth a little early, it’s possible to snag the person you’re there to see. Show up late, even five or 10 minutes late, and I guarantee they will have either left because you didn’t show up, or they will be trapped by someone else and cannot get away.

Why are these face-to-face meetings so important? You’ll get better performance from your suppliers or potential suppliers. Know the numbers: How much did you spend with Suppliers A, B and C last year? Have the figures, be prepared, and you’ll be in a better position to negotiate deals. Is there a new supplier you’re interested in? Anticipate your volume of purchasing, and it will guide the kind of deals you can negotiate. Suppliers are eager for the sale, and at a show, you often can work out staggered shipments, extra time to pay and deeper discounts.

Make sure you allow enough time for educational programs. Trade associations spend many months—perhaps even a year in advance—evaluating program topics and speakers. They spend considerable money bringing those speakers in to provide the very best education programs available. Valuable information that translates into substantial profits is presented. Don’t take education programs for granted. They can be one of the most important reasons for attending a show.

Careful planning, along with anticipating the products, services and education that you need, will help you have a clear pathway. Don’t be “that guy” who wanders aimlessly. Take advantage of all the benefits your trade show offers, and have fun while you chart the course to make your business better for the year ahead.

Karl Stearns is a marketing and small business consultant, freelance writer and professional speaker. He has decades of small business experience, and has presented his programs and the programs of Tom Shay/Profits Plus nationwide to trade shows and business groups. He has bred and exhibits Cairn Terriers and works annually at the Westminster Kennel Club show in the press organization.

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