Go Big or Go Home …How Does a Small Business Approach Tradeshows?

Tradeshows have all kicked back into high gear these past two years, and people are attending in masses! They have missed networking, seeing all the fun new technology, inventions and robots. The BIG decision from companies and organizations to go has come back into play.

Here comes all the opinions … should you attend when you aren’t one of “the big guys” when it comes to the manufacturing/industrial automation world (any world really!)? And how do I compete with the big flashy displays and large companies within my budget? Should we just not go?

There are a lot of opinions about this from agencies, other smaller manufacturers and sales teams, here are a few of those opinions I run across frequently:

  • Who should attend and represent your company?
  • How much of your budget is allocated or should be allocated?
  • Which event/show should you choose?
  • How do you determine ROI? (This one can get tricky, as we know it can be hard to follow the lead all the way through) *Think about your product, how many units, projects, PO’s would it take to make up the cost of the show at a high-level?
  • Tradeshows are a waste of money
  • Go to all of them – every single one

After almost two years in this industry and over 15 years in tradeshows, franchisee events, dealer meetings, etc.. at all levels of organizations. This is my two cents as to why these events can be beneficial and questions to ask yourself/team if you should invest.

Quick checklist to determine viability:

Review the current floorplan of exhibitors, are your target companies there, are your core competitors there?
_______ Yes_______ No
TIP: Most of the shows have a frequently updated map showing who the exhibitors are, make sure and check it out
Have you talked to your sales team, have them engage with customers and see if they plan on attending?
_______ Yes_______ No
Do you have the “right” people (technical/sales/Enginerds®) able to go?
_______ Yes_______ No
Have you or your team attended as guests in the past and offered feedback or insight to its value?
_______ Yes_______ No
TIP: If you see a tradeshow get someone there the first time and evaluate its value, you don’t have to go all in just because a competitor is there
Do you have adequate collateral available (booth, catalogs, swag (if that’s your thing), staff apparel)?
_______ Yes_______ No
If not, is something that can be simply developed for little cost?
_______ Yes_______ No
Do you have an advertising budget?
_______ Yes_______ No
What % of that budget would it take?
Where is the show?
_______ Local_______ A Land Far, Far Away
Do I not have a bunch of extra travel time and $?
_______ Yes_______ No
Was your “show” budget reallocated/cut during the shutdowns and are those dollars working better for you elsewhere?
_______ Yes_______ No

If you have answered yes to most of the above questions, then go for it. Now this doesn’t mean you have to go to all of them, plan the year in advance and control your spending.

Now That You Have Said YES


What this doesn’t mean is that you should attend all of them or try to compete with the 100’x100’ booths. Those companies have whole teams and that is all they do all day, every day and all year!

Here are few tips and tricks I have learned along the way to share:

  • KISS – Keep It Simple Silly
  • You can look put together without a ton of $$$
  • Brand consistency in what you do bring to the show
    • Backdrop/display
    • Catalogs, brochures, hand-outs, etc
    • Apparel/shirts for the team
  • Keep it clean
    • You don’t have to have 100’s of things in your 10×10’ booth
  • Booth coverage – make sure that you have people in your booth, but also time to leave the booth, walk the floor and engage with your potential customers, partners and other companies
    • Show an investment in your partnerships
  • Let your customers/contacts know you are going – email, newsletters, personal messages on LinkedIn, etc.
  • Use social media to promote you are there and where you are on the show floor
  • Invest in the lead system the tradeshow offers (i.e.LeadXpress)

What is your plan for the leads generated?

  • People will get inundated with follow-ups and emails from the show
    • People they spoke with and people that “bought the list”
    • What will make your company different?
      • Think about this. Do what you do (as a company), not what you think others will do
      • Think about timing and engagement
  • Please, don’t buy the list of everyone after the fact for thousands of dollars (you will get propositioned for months to follow, I just got one yesterday from a show in May)
    • Most of these people are not “your” customers
    • You can spend many hours, energy and $ marketing to the wrong people afterward
      • This may not be a popular opinion as people will say, but if they didn’t stop by, I didn’t reach them. You want to spend thousands of $ on the one or two you did not reach? I don’t
    • Targeting the people you talked to will generate more conversions than trying to talk to the masses

Just Say No

If you have answered no to a majority of the questions, it is okay to just say no! Here are some things that you can do and think about for future opportunities:

  • Plan for next year
  • Find smaller shows that may be right for you
  • Ask your customers where they are going
  • Start building the tools now and spread the expense out
    • Best part about this is the fact catalogs, brochures, swag can all be used in multiple areas of your sales process not just for tradeshows
  • Make sure you or people on the team are attending shows even if you are not exhibiting
  • Take the opportunity to position your organization that while everyone is away we are still here, getting it done! Call us! etc.

Wrapping up my babble on tradeshows here are some final thoughts. You don’t know unless you try and be as prepared and planned as possible to maximize your success. It is always a win if you are able to connect with the industry and your customers, even if that is as an attendee and not exhibitor. Don’t let naysayers tell you if you spend 10K on a show, you are stupid or it is a waste of money. Marketing and some of these decisions are not always a science, it can be gut, experience or just we gotta give it a go!