Your Small Business Trade Show Checklist

By Margot Carmichael Lester, Staples® Contributing Writer

“To have a meaningful trade show experience, it’s not just about showing up to the event,” says Barb Wells, senior vice president of marketing and direct sales for Framingham, MA–based Staples Promotional Products®. “Planning is crucial — from signage, presentation and booth location to marketing support, social media engagement, getting customer contacts and prompt follow-up after the show.”

Whether you’re a first-time exhibitor or a seasoned trade show vet, a detailed checklist ensures you don’t forget anything important. Here are six general activities to plan for:

2–3 months before the show

  • Plan marketing and PR. Marketing and PR start before the show, run through it, and continue afterward. You need a months-long dedicated plan to take advantage of every opportunity to reach your target audience on traditional and social media channels. “Do a press release and product picture for industry trade magazines,” says David DuBois, president and CEO of events and exhibiting trade group IAEE in Dallas. Investigate the cost of an ad in the show daily online, in print or in app. “Our data shows that 93 percent of people who attend our show utilize the app.” Rob Chamberlin, co-founder and executive vice president of DataXoom in Berkeley, CA, promotes attendance in advance on social media. “We've had success with LinkedIn in particular, but also via Twitter and Facebook.”
  • Line up a designer. Don’t wait till just before the show to engage a design pro to help you create your signage and materials. Gather the necessary details and show specifications early to make that meeting time worth your money, says Denise Blasevick, CEO of The S3 Agency in Boonton, NJ. “It's one thing to pay for the time it takes to design a creative solution that will wow show visitors; it's another to pay for someone for ambiguous direction and to go through rounds and rounds of guessing at your needs,” she says.
  • Order swag, printed matter and apparel. Decide on promotional items early and get the design underway. Consider ordering a higher-end item to give to current customers who stop by, or to reward visitors who responded to your pre-show marketing. Make arrangements to outfit your trade show workers in branded apparel. “This will make your team stand out and help your booth have a more professional appearance,” Wells says. “Also be sure to have plenty of business cards on hand, so that your new contacts will have your information handy.”

1 month before the show

  • Set up meetings. Chamberlin says some of the most valuable business opportunities result from meetings set up prior to the show. “We attend CES every year and most of the key players in mobility are at the event. It's an ideal time to have a number of good face-to-face meetings in one place.” Most shows give paid participants free access to contact information for registered exhibitors, attendees and reporters covering the event, making it easy to reach out ahead of time.
  • Develop a follow-up plan. “Here’s something that will scare you into being more successful,” DuBois teases. “Less than 30 percent of leads generated at trade shows are ever followed up on.” That means you’re leaving money on the table and killing your trade show ROI. Create a plan to capture contact information while prospects are in the booth, and to follow up just after the show and again a month later, he suggests. At the very least, “thank them for stopping by and encourage them to contact you if they need anything,” says Kelly Weppler Hernandez, principal at WH & Associates in Rancho Santa Margarita, CA.

1 week after the show

  • Take inventory. Count the materials you brought back so you can re-order adequately before the next show, and so you can retool items that didn’t perform well.
  • Determine ROI. “Measure ROI for each show and for your overall trade show strategy,” Hernandez says. What worked? What didn’t work? What could we have done better or been better prepared for? What should we add, delete or change for next time or other trade shows? What was the total cost in time and money to participate, and how much new business did we identify and write?

These topics provide a general idea of the areas requiring planning. Download this trade show checklist for a more detailed list of activities and products to ensure success.

“A checklist helps you hold yourself accountable to action items that are important, but are easy to delay until the last second, to delegate particular pre-show tasks and to assign items to your team,” Chamberlin says.

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