Show time Featured

10:04am EDT July 22, 2002
Trade shows can be a great opportunity to promote your products to potential distributors or develop sales leads, but they can also be places to waste money.

"They're very costly, and it's hard to get by without spending some money to make some money," says Prasuti Kirk, president and CEO of Side Saddle Inc., a San Diego-based board game developer who relies on trade shows to promote her products to buyers.

With proper planning, excessive costs can be avoided, allowing you to concentrate on making sales. Consider the following:

  • Location. "If a show is planned, you can select where you want to be on the floor, and you won't have to pay rush charges," says Carla Hannum, president of Santa Clara, Calif.-based Crystal River Business Solutions, a marketing communications firm. "People think that once they're assigned a spot, it's set. Usually position is given to businesses with prestige or longevity in the show. But if you keep calling the expo managers, you can negotiate for a better space. It just takes a little time and planning."

    Look at the show layout and determine where you would like to be. You may be able to improve a location by upgrading from a booth of 10 feet by 10 feet of 10 feet by 20.

    "It's been my experience that businesses can get where they want to be without extra charges," says Hannum. "Some shows say they give you preferred positioning if you buy their gold exhibit package, but there's usually no reason to do that."

  • Booth size and setup. A small company does not normally need a large booth. An area of 10 feet by 10 feet is almost always enough space. "Call people you are interested in talking to and set up a meeting during the trade show," says Hannum. "That is far more effective than paying for a bigger booth size to try to get their attention."

    Hannum recommends that first-time exhibitors buy a used booth, and consider doing any graphics themselves by taking the work to a large format printer to have it printed, laminated and have Velcro attached.

    If you decide to rent a booth, rent it from a local vendor, not from the show service.

    A smaller booth can also save money on setup fees. In most places, anything that takes longer than 30 minutes to set up typically requires union labor to do it, which can cost $50 an hour or more. Even something as simple as plugging in a computer or a light might require a union electrician. Read the show rules carefully, and also be sure you understand exactly what comes with your space.

    "A lot of shows, the only thing you get is a 10 by 10 space of concrete floor with a backdrop and two dividers on either side, and that's it," says Hannum. "Electrical, carpet and carpet padding can be extra. Some smaller shows include them as part of a booth package, but make sure you know what you're getting before you get there."

    Don't ask for extras without asking the cost. A small trash can might have a $35 rental fee; a different chair might cost $250.

    "Bring your own stuff and don't lose anything that's already there," advises Hannum.

    If at all possible, take the booth on the plane with you to avoid shipping and receiving charges. Most shows will charge $250 just to receive packages, regardless of size.

    "These aren't hidden costs," says Hannum. "They're all explained in the trade-show guide, so read it thoroughly. It's all disclosed."

Effort equals profits

Remember, your company is at a trade show for a reason. The show has to be approached as a sales opportunity, so whether you or one of your employees is representing the company at the event, think accordingly.

Kirk's booth has only one product, so the entire marketing message is focused.

"I had a test of that, because another person at the show who had a lot of toys and games in a corner booth in an exclusive section and put my game out and didn't make any sales. Meanwhile, I did incredibly well at my booth. I worked one item, and I think that was very helpful."

At larger shows, people may have a schedule of booths they plan to visit, with no browsing in-between. While working a trade show, you have to be part sales manager, part carnival barker.

"I'd see a buyer race by, and I called them in and was able to make a sale," says Kirk. "I'm always talking and selling. At one show, a guy across from me said, 'I'm going under the table to take a nap. Call me if anyone comes by.' That's wasting money. The best way to save money is not to waste it."