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A trade show at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. Exhibitors should take pictures of booths to see what worked best.J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

The power of trade shows is growing, according to figures released earlier this year by the Center for Exhibit Industry Research.

The industry has experienced 22 consecutive quarters of growth, dating back to 2009, with revenue growth for 2016 estimated at 6.5 per cent and gains in show attendance increasing by 4.9 per cent.

But if there is value in a small business spending the time and money to attend a trade show, how can it best maximize the cost and reap the rewards?

1) Prepare

Crossing the border to take part in U.S. trade shows comes with its own set of rules.

"Sometimes people spend a lot of money getting ready to go and then they realize that they're in jeopardy if they cross the border with intent to sell retail," says Jim Pettinger, president of UCanTrade Inc., a Ferndale, Wash.-based company that provides business and logistics services for Canadian importers and exporters.

Something as innocuous as giveaway pens can cause a problem if they don't meet U.S. standards, so Mr. Pettinger recommends sourcing as much of that as possible from within the United States.

Many Canadians will be travelling on B1 visas to attend trade shows. Although it allows them to market, show samples and take orders, it does not permit selling retail or contracting for business.

Obtaining an ATA carnet, an internationally-recognized customs document, from the Canadian Chamber of Commerce can also help speed up cross-border show attendance. The carnet identifies trade show materials – from pop-up banners to tablecloths – so that customs officials are aware of their use. "Otherwise when you ship your products down there, even if it's just your tablecloths, they could potentially charge you duty on it," says Allison Boulton, an international trade adviser with Small Business B.C.

2) Spread the word

In this age of social media, signalling your trade show attendance has never been easier, and never more vital. E-mail your LinkedIn contacts, write about it in a company newsletter and use your Twitter and Facebook accounts to spread word of your attendance. "Start the promotions early and don't just limit it to your [trade show area] contacts," Ms. Boulton says. "People will travel for trade shows and it can also raise your visibility."

3) Partner up

When it comes to trade shows, there can be strength in numbers. As a seasoned wine exporter, Ms. Boulton is exhibiting this fall at Food Hospitality China in Shanghai under the Canadian Pavilion. The pavilion draws 445,000 visitors each year across the eight flagship trade shows it attends.

"I'm gaining legitimacy because I'm basically endorsed by the government as being legitimate, under their banner and it also makes me easier to find," she says.

That kind of partnership also helps split the costs, which can range from $1,500 to $10,000, depending on the size of booth.

4) Differentiate

In a crowded trade show, separate yourself from the pack. Find a way to tell your story clearly. For instance, Earthscape, a southern Ontario residential landscaping design-build firm and custom playground design builder, highlights its design qualities, says designer Ben Brubaker-Zehr.

For the American Society of Landscape Architects annual meeting and expo in New Orleans later this month, Earthscape is creating a series of design boards, explaining how it takes a project from conception to fabrication to completion. A big tower will be the centrepiece.

"Differentiation is critical because there are so many people and the floor is so competitive and the space is so expensive you really want to make use of it," Mr. Brubaker-Zehr says.

5) Beware of gimmicks

Giveaways, particularly out-of-the-ordinary ones, can take away from the message a company is trying to send.

Mr. Brubaker-Zehr attended a trade show where a company gave away personalized, laser-etched pens. While there was a 40-minute lineup to get a pen, not a single person was talking to the sales person in the booth.

"If you're not drawing people to your booth in a way that interests them in your offering, or in a way that uniquely presents your services or product, you're just wasting money and time," he says.

6) Take notes

Learning from a trade show experience is crucial. What sat and collected dust? Which samples ran out too quickly? Take notes so they won't be forgotten when next year's show rolls around.

Take pictures of the booth. They can be used for marketing and they might show which parts of the booth customers found interesting, Ms. Boulton advises.

7) Follow up

Small businesses follow up on only 47 per cent of the leads they generate at trade shows, according to Ms. Boulton. Take notes on the back of business cards to help remind you of customers. It's never too late to reach out, she says. "I've lost business cards before. I found them a couple months later, but I'm still writing to them."

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