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Tradeshows: where the buyers are Add to ...

Trade shows provide face-to-face contact with people who are looking for products, expertise and solutions. They're also looking to buy.

Research by the Association of Exhibition Organizers has shown that over 80 per cent of trade-show visitors are buyers tasked with sourcing and purchasing new products and services.

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So how can you tap in to this rich source of potential customers, what's the investment required and what return on investment can you expect?

What it costs

"Booth rental is really only part of the total cost of exhibiting," says trade show consultant Jonathan Denman. "There's travel to the show, customer hospitality and many other expenses."

Denman is a member of the Canadian Association of Exposition Managers (CAEM). The association provides the following cost breakdown for a typical industrial trade show. This data can be used to estimate your total show cost:

Exhibit Space (the rental of space from show management)


Exhibit Design (the design, rental, construction, etc. of the booth)


Show Services (power, telephone, table & chair rentals, etc.)


Travel & Entertainment (the cost of sending staff to the show)


Shipping (shipping the booth, products, literature, etc.)


Promotion (pre-show promotion, literature for the show, etc.)




So for instance, if booth rental costs $5,000, your total cost is likely to be around $17,250. Sounds expensive. But let's say over three days you acquire the names, needs and addresses of 150 good prospects: your cost of acquiring these leads is $115 per lead. Then it is important to apply your conversion rate to give you an idea of your cost of sale. So if your conversion rate is typically 10 per cent (10 leads to get one sale), then using the same numbers, you can expect to have 15 sales at a cost of $1,150, which may or may not be unreasonable for your product.

Finding the right shows

"Every year there are between 14,000 and 15,000 trade shows across North America," says Denman. "Manufacturers need to focus on specific shows that attract the right audience."

"If given enough time, Industry Canada and the Canadian Trade Commissioner service can sometimes provide you with market information and contact lists for the geographical area covered by the trade show." Denman advises.

The Industry Canada website lists dozens of Canadian shows arranged according to industry sector. Another Canadian site that lists international trade shows is Canada's Export E-Business Portal.

Design your booth for maximum impact

You may not have a big budget, but what you do have should go toward maximizing the impact of your back-wall signage. As Denman says, "The sign at the back should take up 70 per cent of the back wall and feature your company name and what your company does."

  • Don't clutter it up with small photos and descriptions. Choose one good image for blowup and make sure your company name can be read from far away.
  • Keep your table and chairs away from the back wall and make sure there's enough room for visitors to move around inside your booth.
  • Try to get as much frontage as possible and try to be situated near high-traffic areas.
  • If you've got the budget for a big booth, you may be able to include a quiet corner or even an office for negotiating with potential customers, as well an area for refreshments.

Make sure you have enough staff

"The challenge for the small exhibitor is he will only be able to have two or three people managing the booth," says Denman. "They can only talk to 12 people each hour. If the flow rate is 600 people an hour, they're missing out on important opportunities."

Show organizers should be able to provide you with the estimated number of visitors to the show. From that, divide the number of visitors by the number of show hours. That gives you the average hourly flow-rate.

It's really difficult for one person to engage more than six visitors per hour in meaningful conversation. So plan accordingly and remember, there will be peak times when you may be swamped, and there will be times where there are no visitors at all.

Staff your booth with experienced people

This isn't a typical sales environment. "Most sales people are trained for one of three things: either they're on the road, or on the phone or in a showroom," says Denman. "Trade shows require a different approach."

"You've got to have an opening line … something like 'have you seen our product before' or 'are you familiar with our company'... something to draw them into conversation."

And once you're conversing, you have to have something to say. "Unfortunately, many exhibitors staff their booths with junior people who may not know a lot about the company or its products.

"Imagine a buyer who's an engineer: this person needs technical advice. They'll be disappointed if the only information they can get is a pamphlet that they could have downloaded from your website."

So it's better to staff your booth with technically proficient, senior people.

Always follow-up

Remember, at the beginning and end of every sale is a person who wants to feel good about his or her purchase: they may want a deal but what they'll remember is the way you made them feel.

Before the show, you can demonstrate you're thinking of your customer's needs by sending a personalized invite to the show — perhaps with a redeemable beverage ticket. After the show, a good way to show that you're working on finding them a solution is by sending a follow-up letter within three to five days.

Trade shows can be cost-effective venues for establishing face-to-face relationships: a little forethought and preparation will go a long way to converting booth visitors into buying customers.

Content in this section is provided in partnership with the Business Development Bank of Canada. BDC provides entrepreneurs with financing, venture capital and consulting services. To find out more go to BDC.ca.

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