Exhibit Confidence: SMB Trade Show Planning Guide 2014

Deciding whether or not to stage an exhibit at a trade show or other networking event as part of your marketing mix for 2014 is something you as a small- to medium-sized business (SMB) owner might be thinking about right now. If so, you’d be one of many.

Contrary to speculation in recent years that the trade fair or show forum may be obsolete and that the need for face-to-face marketing opportunities of the kind they provide might dwindle thanks to computers and the internet, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, recent stats show that if you’re NOT in the exhibition game, you might be missing out.

Exhibition Stats of Interest

According to the Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR), trade fairs and shows saw marked attendance increases all last year, and that is expected to continue and grow at an even larger rate through 2014-2015 and beyond.


First, as the economy picks up, people and businesses can afford to re-engage and participate in this kind of dynamic marketing and networking opportunity. Second, it’s because face-to-face interaction and in-person networking for SMBs—the kind only community and other larger trade fairs and shows can provide—works, and it’s still necessary.

All it takes is a quick look at just some of the stats on the subject to see that computers and the net haven’t squashed this industry one bit. If anything, they’ve probably enhanced it…

• 99% of marketers said they found unique value from exhibiting at trade fairs and shows that they did not get from other marketing mediums, including: being able to connect with lots of prospects and customers all at once, having face-to-face interaction with them and being able to meet a wide range of potential partners such as suppliers, resellers, manufacturers, etc.

• More than 80% of trade fair and show attendees have buying authority for their companies, and

• According to Exhibit Surveys, Inc., close to 70% of attendees at trade fairs and shows represent a new prospect and therefore a potential customer for you!

With numbers like those, engaging in a trade show forum is a potentially worthwhile marketing tactic for any SMB owner, but you’ve got to be smart about it.

Play your cards right and you can realize a tremendous return on what may be a minimal investment. Jump in without a plan or a clear sense of your objectives, and you’ll more than likely end up frustrated and disappointed with your inability to realize any sort of valuable ROI.

Exhibition Planning

Exhibiting at a trade fair or show can be a relatively low-cost and interactive means of accomplishing your marketing objectives. However, you’ve first got to know what those are.

Before you sign on to participate, it’s important to ask yourself some very important questions, such as:

Target Audience—Who is our target audience, and will they be attending this trade fair/show? Have we chosen the right event for participation?

Core Messages—Do we have clarity on our core messages for each of our targets, and is everyone involved in the exhibition on the same page in executing against those messages?

Big Ideas—Have we thought about how we can tie our exhibit to the fair or show’s overall theme? Or, can we come up with a BIG idea that will draw attention and interest?

Goal Setting—What are our goals for our exhibition in order of importance? Are we there to generate leads? Conduct research? Create or enhance our brand image? Integrate our overall marketing plan by reinforcing it with in-person, visual and dynamic interaction? Is it all of the above or some combination?

Pre-Show Prep—Have we put together a plan for pre-show marketing? This may involve talking up your participation in an email, your newsletter or blog or on social media, or you might consider including inserts highlighting the event in your invoices or micro-targeting specific audiences in some other creative way to drum up advance interest.

Lead Prioritization—Do we want to tier our leads in some way and rank them according to priority? If so, how? What system will we use to make those decisions, and how will it be implemented? How will we incorporate any giveaways or other collateral advertising materials into this strategy?

Uniformity—If you have staff, and even if you don’t, is everyone involved in the trade fair or show dressed appropriately, uniformly and in a way that best represents your brand? Are they versed in how to act in accordance with the image your SMB wants to portray?

Collateral Materials—Have we given thought to, ordered or created and received all of the collateral materials we will be using to engage our audience, such as signage, banners, table décor, interactive and visual media, giveaways and other promo and display items?

Post-Show Evaluation—How will we define success? What benchmarks will we use to evaluate whether or not our participation in the event was worthwhile? Will it be the number of leads we generate? The amount of sales? Whether or not we get a certain number of referrals?

While many of these questions may seem obvious, SMB exhibitors at trade fairs and shows or in other similar networking, sales and marketing forums who don’t take the time to ask them and plan for success run the very real risk of being extremely frustrated, not to mention bored.

If you make the effort to be there, there better be a valiant effort… or why bother, right?

Here’s the thing, planning to make the most of an event like a trade fair or show isn’t all drudgery. Not by a long shot. In fact, it can be really fun, especially when it comes to your ability to be creative and think outside of the box where visual and interactive display and promo items are concerned.

Fun with SWAG

Yes, when we say “promo items,” we’re talking about SWAG. You know, that “Stuff We All Get.”

Admit it, we all love getting the occasional giveaway. Plus, it’s still one of the most engaging ways for any SMB or other business owner or marketing person to draw attention and even to leave a lasting impact with a potential client, customer or anyone else for that matter. In fact, most exhibitors at any trade fair or show wouldn’t dare show up without some form of it.

Again, there’s good reason…

According to the Incomm Center for Trade Show Research and Sales Training, more than 50% of event attendees are more likely to stop by your exhibit if you have an appealing promotional item to give away as a freebie. Moreover, Promotional Products Association International has found that more than 71% of attendees who receive a promo product remember the name of the company that gave it to them, and more than 76% then have a favorable impression of that business as a result.

Talk about branding!

Bottom line? SWAG isn’t just fun to create, fun to hand out and fun to get. It’s also a worthwhile and potentially very effective tool to strike up a conversation and then inform, remind, persuade and support your company or business’ overall marketing efforts.

Once again though, you’ve got to do things in a certain way if you’re looking to have maximum impact and recoup the benefits.

Putting the Swagger in Your SWAG

Choosing just the right SWAG to complement your brand, your image and to accomplish your objectives does require some degree of thought. Unless you’ve got an unlimited budget—and let’s face it, most SMBs don’t—spending money on just any old tchotchke (Believe us, it’s Yiddish and appropriate…), especially if it isn’t going to do you any good, just isn’t prudent.

First off, and it almost goes without saying, every promo item you hand out needs to prominently feature your company name, logo (if it fits) and a phone number and/or website, at the very least. So that alone may have some bearing on what you decide.

All that being a given, let’s take a look at some of the most dynamic, high-impact and exciting promo giveaway categories that SMB owners and marketing pros might find of greatest interest in 2014, either for reasons of cost, appeal or both:

Technology—All things techno is hot, hot, hot right now! Whether it’s mouse pads or the mouse itself, flash drives, headphones, styluses, mobile phone or tablet covers, cases and stands, car USB chargers or even something simple and relatively inexpensive like touch-screen cleaning cloths, anything that will have folks focused on your brand as they’re focusing on their tech is a smart buy. And don’t forget that memory sticks in particular are a great way to provide prospective customers with pre-loaded info about your company and its products and services!

Practical Use—I don’t know about you, but a lot of the SWAG that’s been kept around in our house is stuff that is just plain practical, and we know those companies that gave it to us pretty well by now. Reusable and environmentally friendly shopping bags are a great idea, as are the old standbys of mugs and cups, h2o bottles, t-shirts, umbrellas, flashlights, tight lid openers (You know, those “grippy” things?), desktop post-it notes, bookmarks, and yes, even pencils, pens and highlighters are still viable options. We’ve even had stopwatches and pedometers show up on occasion, although they’ve been commandeered by our kids so who knows where they are by now?

Theme Orientation—Depending on the business you’re in or the actual theme of the show you are attending, choosing to hand out giveaways that support that effort is always a great option. For instance, if you own a pet-related business or are exhibiting at a show where a lot of pet lovers are going to be in attendance, then giving out dog leashes or cat collars, food and water bowls or even bags of pet treats would be a welcome gesture. If it’s a woman-owned business-related event, then cosmetic bags, nail files and other more specifically gender-targeted SWAG might work particularly well.

Try It, You’ll Like It—Certain products and even services lend themselves to sampling better than others. Let’s face it, nothing sells quite like the real thing. So, if you can offer prospective customers a firsthand experience of some kind where the tangible benefits of your products and/or services can be made obvious, then by all means, do it!

The “We Care” Approach—Slogging around an exhibit hall all day long can be exhausting, so offering your weary prospects a branded care package of some kind is always appreciated, and it gives you a particularly good excuse to talk with them a little bit about the contents and chat up your business as well. Think about including such items as a bottle of water, a snack, hand sanitizer, some lip balm, chewing gum or breath mints, and even stress balls. Many of these items can also be branded with your company’s particulars these days.

Incentives—As much as people still love the more typical so-called SWAG, they sometimes love a discount even more. Don’t forget that a trade fair or show is the perfect forum for your business to offer coupons, special deals and gift certificates or cards, all of which convey real value and serve as future incentives for potential customers to contact you.

At the end of the day, isn’t that what the whole thing is really about anyway?

To get started planning your SMB’s trade fair, show and conference schedule for 2014, BusinessOpportunity.com has the most comprehensive and all-encompassing events list of its kind anyplace, anywhere here at the Ultimate Small Business Conferences and Events Calendar 2014. And we update it every six months, so be sure to check back in the spring of 2014 for current listings into the summer and fall of next year as well!