These lessons learned can transform a poor show plan into a powerful one.


Trade shows can be an exceptional way to reconnect with clients and gain new business from prospects. But they often involve a sizable investment and, therefore, it’s imperative that exhibitors take detailed attention to ensure the greatest return on investment and opportunity. However, just showing up with a booth, literature and samples is not enough; a successful show demands audience research, pre‑planning and a strategic follow‑up strategy.

Here are 11 misconceptions that often snare exhibitors, especially inexperienced ones. For those considering exhibiting at a show, this list will hopefully help flatten the learning curve. 

1. A large booth guarantees success. Having a grandiose booth does not equate to or guarantee a successful trade‑show experience. More importantly, where your booth is positioned to optimize exposure, traffic flow, etc., plays more into success of your show experience. Second, effectively marketing your attendance at the show to let attendees know where you’ll be and what you are showing that’s new and interesting will help in driving traffic to your booth.

2. Expensive literature needs to be distributed. A phone book‑sized catalog may not be the ultimate method to disseminate your information. Research shows that approximately 12 percent of folks who attend a show are your potential buyers. Most attendees have never gone through the rigors of publishing a catalog and don’t understand the costs involved. I was at a show several years back and saw an attendee walk up to a booth that had a rather large catalog. This individual picked about 20 copies, and as he walked away he apparently realized they were too heavy to be hauling around. About 40 feet from the booth, he cavalierly dumped all but two in the trash can. Expensive! I always qualify folks first before handing out literature, and I prefer to give one catalog and mail others at the level at which I qualified the prospect. 

3. Your booth is sufficiently staffed. If you’ve done your marketing correctly and are strategically positioned well in the show hall, you now need to concern yourself with the amount of traffic coming to your booth. If you are short‑handed, your staff working the booth may be overwhelmed. To decide how many workers you need in the booth, consider these factors: number of show days, show hours each day and desired results from the show. You need fresh legs and sharp minds manning your booth so schedule wisely. Remember, trade shows are a huge capital investment. I have witnessed firsthand companies that leave their booth unattended while workers use the restroom or grab a bite, and an empty booth speaks volumes to every passing attendee.

4. Rookies can handle it. I understand one must begin somewhere, so if you choose to take inexperienced folks to work your booth, make sure they are informed and well‑trained. Collecting names and scanning badges is not an effective strategy; it is imperative that your staff be knowledgeable and empowered to make decisions and answer questions. Staff should know who your clients are and what an ideal prospect looks like. A trade show is an amazing opportunity to engage and set the tone for future business. First impressions should be positive.

5. Everyone is a client prospect. Depending on the show and the number of years you’ve exhibited at the show, you will have both existing clients and prospects coming by your booth. From a marketing perspective, you should have a two‑pronged approach: one for current clients and one for those you would like to gain as a client. Remember the 12‑percent number? In some cases, the percentage of potential customers will be larger, but remember that not everyone who attends the show will be your ideal client, so keep that in mind when planning whom to target. It is also important to know the demographics of those attending as this will help you determine how and where to market your participation at the show and help you select which product samples to exhibit.

6. Badge scans are a sufficient measurement of the show. The notion of scanning attendees and using that as your marker for success or failure at a show is not a sound metric. Postage, labor, catalogs, samples and packaging can be substantive costs. Spend your marketing dollars wisely to ensure the greatest return on investment from your show or event. Ideally, you must have specific goals—how else will you measure the effectiveness of your participation in the show? Some specifics to consider:

• Number of qualified leads
• Current clients who visited
• Number of after‑show appointments made
• Number of quote requests
• Number of orders
• Number of sample requests

Each of these can be used as a measuring stick. If you miss your mark on one, then you can ask the questions: Was my marketing of the event ineffective? Did show management overstate or understate the attendee level? Were there other factors out of my control that contributed to the ineffectiveness? By having goals and measuring them you can make informed decisions for future years on which trade shows to participate in and how to better perform at the shows.

7. A logo is enough to attract attention. You have about six seconds to capture an attendee’s attention, so boring booth graphics and confusing taglines will not draw the attention needed to get you noticed. Years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting a trade‑show booth designer guru who shared this tidbit: Your booth should have a short, compelling statement followed by a promise. The year prior I had a so‑so experience as an exhibitor at a trade show, but by following his advice the next year my experience was over the top. I used this slogan on my booth: “The POWER of Promotional Marketing … adding profits to your bottom line … guaranteed!” It worked!

8. Booth layouts are all the same. Nothing says ‘stay away’ more than a showcase or table positioned at the opening or ‘head’ of your booth. It’s like physical body language such as folding your arms while speaking to someone face‑ to‑face. Instead, create an open‑air flow for your booth, and make it inviting and engaging. When someone comes into your booth you can then engage them further. The only downside to an open‑flow booth layout is that it also offers disinterested attendees a quick getaway opportunity. 

9. Follow-up is something you can determine later. Several years ago, I learned that the No. 1 complaint from show attendees is when exhibitors fail to follow up or follow up on time. I’m sure we all have experienced this at some level. This is why the pre‑show planning process is critical; you must determine, in advance, how you will handle requests during and after the show so you can get the information quickly and efficiently into the hands of those that are going to move your products and purchase your services. For me, when a vendor fails to follow up in a timely way, it gives me time to pause and wonder if my orders are going to be handled in the same manner. 

10. Exhibit only because your competition is there. Short and sweet: if the show gains you nothing and is not profitable then this reasoning is flawed and there is no reason to exhibit. I contend that every show presents itself as a tremendous opportunity to seek out new clients, introduce new products and service offerings and to reconnect with existing clients to strengthen those relationships. Exhibit because it makes sense, is profitable and is a positive move for your business.

11. It’s okay to close the booth early. My staff didn’t like me much because I insisted that they get to the booth 45 minutes before the show opened and we didn’t leave until 15 to 20 minutes after the floor closed. A key time for new prospects to see your booth is when they are leaving the floor—you never know who will be passing by. At one hospitality show where I was exhibiting, my partner at the time insisted we bolt out immediately to get dinner. Instead, staying true to my plan, we remained a bit after closing time. Three or so minutes later a guy walked down the aisle. I greeted him and learned he got there late and was upset that everyone left early. It turned out that this guy owned five marinas and was looking for a supplier to do his marketing and complete merchandising for all five of his marina stores. The total of the initial deal was $90,000 and we kept the client until I sold my business. You just never know.

A trade show experience can make or break you. Embrace these ideas learned from my many years of experience and you can truly reap the rewards of exhibiting at a trade show. 

Quick Tips For Productive Trade Shows 

• Never open late. This is a sign that you’re not prepared.
• Never close early.
You never know who will be strolling by on their way out.
• Never eat, drink, vape or sit in the booth.
The booth is not the place for booth workers to dine or relax; you are there to work and engage with your clients and prospects. Sitting should only be permitted if you have a section set aside for meetings or one-on-ones and you are with a prospect or client.
• Maintain good personal hygiene.
An acceptable physical appearance and good oral hygiene are musts at trade shows; no one wants to smell stale smoke or alcohol on your breath, or see food stains on your shirt. Look the part.
• Engage with attendees.
Stand on the perimeter of your booth, make eye contact with attendees, greet them and ask questions get them involved in a conversation. Make sure your booth staff is trained properly to do the same.
• Advertise, market, advertise and market some more.
In most cases, trade shows are expensive propositions so make sure you properly market and advertise your company’s participation in the show with invites, emails and perhaps a creative marketing piece to drive them to your event. Do not rely solely on the show management to do this—marketing your show presence is your opportunity. Also, ask show management for any additional opportunities to advertise, such as sponsorships, room drops, sampling, show publications, etc.
• Contact other exhibitors. If you’re a first-timer, ask to speak with some of the veteran exhibitors and get their lay of the land. The hosting organization should also be able to provide some valuable tips on driving a great show experience.
• Follow up early. As part of your strategic plan put processes in place in advance that will allow you to send information, samples and other items as promised no later than five days after the show. Make sure that time-sensitive requests are handled first.
• Define specific objectives and goals for the show. Having measurable goals will pay long-term dividends, ensuring that your return on investment and return on opportunity are satisfactorily met. Having these set also helps in planning for future shows.
• Coordinate all aspects of the show. Have one person take the lead in creating a spreadsheet and timeline for all activities pre-, during and post-show. Hold regular task meetings to ensure everyone is moving along on their responsibilities according to schedule.
• Work the show with style and professionalism. Remember, you are ‘on’ at a show 24 hours a day. Your reputation can be tainted if you’re not on your game after hours. You are the face of your company and your brand—put forth your best effort.
• Train your staff early and often. This tip cannot be emphasized enough. Your folks need to know your product line and your offerings like they know their own name. Empower your team to be the very best they can be, and it will reflect positively on your company now and in the future.


Cliff Quicksell, Jr., MAS+, serves both as a consultant and acting director of marketing for distributor iPROMOTEu. He has been in the promotional industry for more than 30 years
in various capacities. Additionally, Quicksell is president of his own international speaking and consulting company, speaking, coaching and consulting on ways and methods that companies can grow, expand and prosper. He has helped and spoken to audiences in more than eight countries and has published two books and more than 900 articles on sales, marketing and creativity. He publishes a weekly blog “30 Seconds To Greatness.” Contact him to subscribe: cliff@quicksellspeaks. com, 301-717-0615 or via his LinkedIn profile.