2021 Guide to a Successful Trade Show Booth

by Kim Tonkovich

2021 Guide to a Successful Trade Show Booth

Exhibiting and sponsoring at a trade show can be a huge investment.  Most businesses measure the success of their trade show by the number of leads retrieved and the ROI.  With events starting up again in 2021, it's important that you have your trade show strategies locked down well in advance.  Many businesses start their planning a year or more ahead.  And the return you receive on your events depends entirely on how much effort you put into it.  Having spent 10 years in event management, here's an insider's 2021 guide to a successful trade show booth.

1.) Start as Early as Possible

Once you've decided to participate as an exhibitor and/or sponsor at a trade show, you need to start planning immediately.  If you want your show to be successful, there's a whole lot of work to do.  Simply showing up and sitting at a table would almost certainly result in an epic fail.  Starting early and making sure all your i's are dotted and t's are crossed will bring you the most success.  So let's get busy right now.

2.) Do Your Research

You don't want to go into your preparations flying blind.  Find a couple or a few trade shows that are in or related to your industry, just to attend as a visitor.  Use that as an opportunity to see what other people are doing and what booth designs and techniques attract the most attention.  Take a camera with you so you can photograph designs you like.  Also take a notebook so when you network with other people in your industry you can write some notes about your contacts and conversations.  Do not forget to take your business cards, and maybe even some handouts in an easy-to-carry bag.

3.) Choose Your Booth Size & Layout

Make a list of all the items you think you might need for your booth space.  Start with a brainstorm and write down everything you can possibly think of.  Refer back to it, often, and either add to it or take away from it.  But keep a running list of ideas.  Start with items like tables, comfortable chairs and seating, banner stands, shelving units, rack card stands, displays, etc.  At this stage, just think about the big items that will take up space.  Also consider whether you're wanting to purchase these items and take them with you.  Or if you prefer to work with the event decorator to rent them.

2021 Guide to a Successful Trade Show Booth

Try to create an interactive experience for attendees to physically engage with your business.  Some examples might be touch screens, virtual reality, activities, etc.  Consider offering drinks and snacks, or even designing a lounge space as part of your booth.  The more comfortable you make the attendees, the longer they'll stay and talk to you.  You may not want to build an entire lounge, but you must at least have a small private space where you can sit with prospects and close deals right there at the show.  Consider how much space you'll need to accommodate everything you want in your space.  Work with the event organizer's decorator to arrange for tablecloths, carpeting, trash cans, and other decor that you'll need.

Attendees are very visual when it comes to trade shows.  Creative booth designs have a huge impact on how much traffic you'll receive.  Extravagant booths can get very pricey, along with the higher cost of the larger space rental.  If it's in your budget, and you have thoughtfully considered whether it would help your particular business to go big, then you have a whole lot of options to get as creative as your heart desires.

Whether you're thinking of a smaller space or a large space, you need to work with a professional designer to help you with your placement strategies in order to best optimize your traffic and your visuals.  Even with a small space, your brand imagery needs to make your exhibit stand out.  So you'll also need some help with your graphic design.  Contact Source3Media to help you with your booth design.

You should consider designing different types of layouts, signs, and handouts for different shows you attend.  Just like you might have a different resume for various types of companies you would apply for a job with.  You should also have different marketing materials and designs that are reflective of the specific target market or industry you're advertising to.  When working with your designer, be cognizant of the type of show you're attending as well as the demographic of the attendees that are likely to be there.

4.) Develop Your Business Brand

Keep your company branding, colors, and logos consistent throughout all your marketing collateral as well as with the look and feel of your exhibit.  If you haven't already, before you prepare for a trade show, you must do the work on professionally designing your brand.  You need a logo that communicates your company's identity, is unique, makes an impression, and projects a reflection of who you are, what you do, and what you represent.  If you don't have a logo, contact Source3Media to help you with your creative design.  If you do already, consider whether you think it might need updated.  Remember, you have a very short period of time to make a big impression on a whole lot of people.  Your branding is extremely important.

Along with designing your logo, your color schemes, and font choices, you also need to give some thought to your tagline or slogan.  Your tagline is a short and sweet communication that tells people who you are in just a few words.  So choose carefully.  There are some free slogan makers on the Internet that are relatively easy to find that can give you some ideas.  Or you might want to hire a professional copywriter to help you.

5.) Pick the Right Show for Your Business

2021 Guide to a Successful Trade Show Booth

When selecting which trade show(s) you might want to exhibit at, you first need to consider the theme of the show and if the attendee demographic fits the consumers that you want to reach.  Exhibiting and/or sponsoring at a show with the right target market is most imperative in making this decision.  It's also important to think about the location of the show.  You might be interested in staying close to home if your target customer base is local or regional.  However, if you conduct business across the country you have more options.  Just keep in mind that when travelling out of town to exhibit, you'll incur the costs of shipping your booth and supplies, as well as travel expenses.  Also, think about when the trade show is scheduled.  Again, you need a lot of time to prepare.  If you choose a show that you're interested in but don't have enough time to get ready, think about just attending the first time to get a feel for the show and its value, then take your time to prepare for exhibiting at the next one.

Also take into consideration what comes with the booth or sponsorship at different events.  Some trade shows may only include a folding table and two chairs.  Others may include additional benefits.  They may give you free Internet service, use of free lead scanners, the ability to include a flyer or brochure in the attendee swag bags, etc.  Many trade shows offer free advertising on the event website with your logo, a link to your website, and your contact information.  Some may include advertising for your business in their event email marketing.  Be sure to ask and read the event prospectus to find out what's included, and don't be afraid to ask for something that isn't when you're negotiating.  Confirm that everything is listed in your contract before you sign it.  Then, after you've signed up, follow up to make sure you actually receive all the benefits that you're supposed to get.

Make sure you also very carefully review all of the rules and regulations for the show you're attending, which vary from event to event.  There may be size restrictions, special rigging requirements, insurance requirements, even how and when you can ship your materials, store them, and set them up.  There are a lot of factors that might influence what you can or can't do, including ceiling heights, fire codes, if you're require to use local union labor, and so on.  It's important that before you make any decisions that you thoroughly review all your requirements.

6.) Carefully Choose Your Booth Location


This applies to choosing your spot at an event, just as it would if you were choosing a retail or restaurant location.  The event is like a small city of tiny businesses.  Your location is just as important here as it would be out in the world.

Work with the event organizer to carefully select your booth location.  Keep in mind that the sooner you purchase your booth at the event, the higher on the list you should be to get first dibs on selecting a space.  Organizers often start booking spaces a year in advance, so you need to get a jump on it.  There are a lot of variables to consider when choosing your spot.  And the size of your booth will also be a factor.

Think about the flow of traffic and in which direction attendees will naturally go.  Remember that people tend to walk in the same directional patterns that they're used to driving.  Naturally then, in the US, attendees tend to start their journey with booths on the right side of aisles.  And upon entering an exhibit hall, visitors tend to start in aisles to their left.  But remember that when attendees first arrive, they might not yet be ready to make any decisions and need to take some time to get acclimated.  So sometimes even though you would be first to be seen in the aisle to the left, in a booth on the right...it might be better to consider a location that's a little farther into the middle of the hall.

Consider your proximity to main attractions, food and drinks, restrooms, entrances/exits, etc.  Remember that just because there is high traffic in these areas, that doesn't translate into more traffic to your booth.  These areas tend to be congested, chaotic, and full of distractions.  It may hurt you more than help you.  Unless you're planning a large island exhibit, main aisles and the ends of rows tend to perform best.

Try to select a space amid displays that are smaller than yours so you stand out.  Be sure to keep your distance from direct competitors, unless you have a larger more creative display, have done a great deal of pre-show marketing, and are sure you can show them up.  In this case, it may be to your benefit to be closer.  Avoid dead-end aisles, poorly lit areas, sections near loading docks, , storage areas, or trash.  And stay away from areas that have low ceilings or other obstructions.

7.) Identify Your Message

2021 Guide to a Successful Trade Show Booth

Before you can start your marketing campaign, you need to specifically identify what you want to communicate.  Make sure that you have solid identifiable branding with a clear message.  Think about what it is, in just a few words, that you want attendees to know about your business.  Jot down some short phrases by brainstorming a list.  Then use your list to write a few sentences about each point.  This will help you with your marketing messages as well as writing your scripts for the show.

8.) Invest in a Sponsorship

If the purchase of your booth space doesn't include the opportunity to insert a flyer or brochure into attendee swag bags, then you need to buy a sponsorship to do that.  You very likely will not meet every single attendee at the event.  The only other way to maximize your reach is to include some information about your business in their bags that they can take home and look at later.

9.) Initiate Your Digital Marketing

Personally ask your biggest clients if they're planning to attend the show.  If not, consider offering to buy them a ticket.  This is a great opportunity for you to re-engage and meet with them outside of your place of business in an exciting environment.  And it's a lot easier to sell to an existing customer than it is to sell to a new one.

Get a list of attendees from the event organizers so that you can reach out to them 4-6 weeks before the show and schedule appointments.  Send out an eBlast of exciting updates about the show and why they would want to visit your booth once a week leading up to the event.  Also consider writing and sending out some press releases about your business and the show.  Don't forget to make sure you communicate where your booth will be located.  Include links to your website and social media, share buttons, and your contact information in your emails.

Make sure your website is in shape before blasting out invitations to visit it.  Contact Source3Media if you need help building, refreshing or updating your website.  Include some information about your exhibiting at the upcoming show on your home page, maybe with a countdown.  Or at least add a creative banner link to another page on your site with more information.

10.) Design & Print Your Signage and Handouts

You are going to need to print A LOT of marketing collateral.  You want every single person at the show to have at least one or multiple pieces of information about your business to take home with them.  You'll need flyers, brochures, business cards, appointment cards, pocket folders, table tents, banners, table signs, floor signs, posters, directional signs, copies of catalogs, copies of your newsletters, etc.  And they need to be professionally high quality printed.  Do not use your home or office printer.  Contact Source3Media to custom professionally print your signs and handouts.

Source3Media does award-winning color matching, high volume offset and digital printing, as well as UV flatbed sign printing on just about any material you can think of.  And if you don't have a catalog but need one, Source3Media can help you with the design and printing of those as well.

Print enough promotional literature and business cards to hand out to the total projected number of attendees and exhibitors for each day, plus an extra 10%.  One of the worst things that could happen is you run out of handout marketing materials and don't have a way to sell yourself.  Whatever you have left over, your sales team can use later when making sales calls or for direct mailing campaigns.

11.) Order Your Swag

Keep in mind that the purpose of your branded swag, like free pens, note pads, flash drives, flashlights, tool kits, etc. is to ATTRACT attendees to your booth.  If you're going to invest in swag, I do not recommend using that collateral to have placed in all the attendees' bags as a sponsorship.  This will not help bring you traffic at all.  And having an ink pen with your logo on it in their bag won't likely drive them to look up your business later.  Instead, use it as a handout from your booth.  Offering a gift makes breaking the ice a little easier and grabs people's attention.

12.) Arrange for A/V, Electricity, etc.

At the very least, you will need to make arrangements with the event coordinator to use power strips, extension cords, and maybe Internet service.  You may also need to bring your laptop computers and tablets with you.  Make sure that before you go to the show, you have already installed and set up a remote login program to link to your work programs and files in case you need them.

You'll need some kind of POS system to process sales that you make at your booth, along with a way to collect remote payments, such as with Square.  You'll also need receipt printers unless you plan to email all receipts.

It's a good idea to supplement your signage and handouts with videos and presentations.  If you don't currently have any video advertisements, video demonstrations, etc. you might want to consider producing at least one that you can play on a loop.  Contact Source3Media to help you with production.  Then work with the show coordinator to rent a television or large computer screen.  Remember, if you choose a computer screen, you'll also need a speaker if there isn't one built in.

13.) Celebrities, Entertainment and Giveaway's

2021 Guide to a Successful Trade Show Booth

If it falls within your budget, exhibitors will often hire celebrities to sit in their booth for pictures with attendees and autograph signing.  If this is something you're thinking of doing, keep in mind the industry of the event and the demographic of the attendees.  The type of event might help determine whether you would want to book an appearance by an actor, comedian, or an athlete.

Carefully review your contract before signing to make sure there are no limitations on how you can use their name, likeness or verbal quotes on your website, social media, and other advertising from when they're at your booth.  And be sure to request that it be included in the contract that the celebrities post photos of themselves at your booth on their own social media while they're there to promote your business.  Celebrities can be booked through several different agencies, such as Celebrity Talent International for prices ranging anywhere from $2,500.00 to $1,000,000.00.

If you'd like some form of entertainment in your booth to help attract attention but the cost of a celebrity is a little too steep for you, consider hiring a magician or other type of entertainer.  Local entertainers can often be hired for a couple of hundred dollars a day.  Or your entertainment might just be some kind of activity or challenge that attendees can engage in.

It's a good idea to have some kind of giveaway, even if it's just a gift basket.  Or, these days, a large screen smart TV can be purchased for less than a thousand dollars.  Use this as a "schedule an appointment and be entered to win", or "buy now and be entered to win".

14.) Networking Strategy

Make a list of contacts you want to see and a list of the networking events you want to attend while at the show.  Consider meeting with other exhibitors and sponsors that are not your direct competition to discuss trading contact information for leads obtained.  This can help increase your sales opportunities.

Before you go to the event, create a shared appointment calendar for your entire team to use at the show.  Review the attendee lists provided by the coordinator to see if key company executives will be there that could potentially become a customer.  Personally reach out to those executives before you go to the show to invite them to lunch or dinner, or to meet with you at a scheduled time in your booth.

15.) Lead Data Capture Equipment

Remember the reason you're going to the show is to make contacts and get leads.  I can't stress enough how important this is.  You MUST have ID badge scanners.  The attendee badges for every event are coded differently and may require different types of scanning equipment.  It's best that you do not purchase your own and that you instead rent them from the show coordinator.  Then you need to drill into your team that they scan every single badge they can get their hands on.  Remind them of the importance of this at the beginning of every single day you're at the event.

16.) Staffing Your Booth

Bring plenty of staff to engage with attendees.  More people in and around your booth will also help attract more attention.  Make sure your trade show staff is well trained before the event.  Make sure they are very clear about your company's strategy.  Prepare some scripts and practice before the show.  At the start of each day, have a pep session with your staff to get them excited.

2021 Guide to a Successful Trade Show Booth

Train your staff to interact with the attendees by asking personal questions and engaging them first, and to avoid jumping right into a pitch.  They should ask their names, where they're from, what they do, what company they work for, etc.  Just get them talking.  Attendees will likely be pitched at all day long, but not have many opportunities to talk about themselves.  And people LOVE doing that.  Once you get them talking, be sure their badges are immediately scanned for data collection.

After learning a bit about who they are and what they do, decide whether or not you think they would actually make a good customer.  If not, tell them it was a pleasure meeting them, wish them a great time, and the move on.  Time is precious here.  But is so, then find a natural transition into talking about your business with the attendee in a way that relates to who they are and what they do.  Train your staff on specifically how to work from the introduction to the next step of your sales process (possibly a demonstration), communicating how your product or service will benefit that particular prospect, all the way through how to close the deal.

And don't forget to designate a staff member to take pictures and video, who should also post on social media (with hashtags) before, during, and after the event.

17.) Schedule Your Travel

Schedule your travel just as soon as you know how many staff you're taking with you.  Before booking your travel, contact the event coordinator.  Very often, the hosts will reserve a block of hotel rooms that they can offer their exhibitors at a substantially discounted price.  Some events will offer exhibitors and sponsors free car service from the airport to/from the hotel or event center.  They may also be able to help you arrange your airline and car service.  Be sure to ask before you book on your own.

18.) Apply to Be a Speaker

Apply to be a panelist, workshop speaker, or keynote speaker at the show.  Having the opportunity to communicate your expertise and offer helpful advice to attendees is a sure-fire way to grab attention.  If you're interested in speaking, you will probably be required to submit at least a biography, some information about your topic, and maybe even an audition video.  If you're selected, make sure that what you speak about has value for your audience, and do not ever, ever, ever be pitchy.  Use your time to engage the audience and save your short pitch about your business for the very end.  Then be sure to ask your audience to complete a questionnaire about your presentation that asks for their contact information and comments.  Include a small clause on your form that says by completing it, they authorize you to use their name, title, company name, and comments in your marketing.  You'll need to work with Source3Media to have these printed ahead of time.  Then don't forget to invite them to visit you at your booth.

19.) Press Rooms

Some event coordinators will book and arrange a press room for their events.  If the show you're exhibiting at has a press room, you must absolutely get in there for photo opportunities and interviews that could potentially be published or even appear on television.  Have a short prepared speech ready.  Also, jot down some questions you think you might be asked and practice your answers before the show.

2021 Guide to a Successful Trade Show Booth

20.) Plan to Host a Party or Networking Dinner

Hosting a party or networking dinner for some of your key customers is a great way to connect if your time is limited during the event.  You should also invite some of your warm and hot prospects as an opportunity to get to know them better.  You'll first need to check with the event organizer to see if there are any restricted times that parties are not allowed.

It isn't necessary to do anything fancy for this.  Just at least be sure to have a speech prepared, which should include a toast to your team for helping you make the event a success, a gratuitous note thanking your guests for coming, a little bit about how excited you are to continue your relationships with them, a couple of witty remarks, etc.

However, it doesn't hurt to plan a fun theme, an activity, and/or entertainment.  Try to host your event either at the event center immediately after the event, at the hotel that most of your guests will be staying at, or at a venue that is within a few blocks.

Contact Source3Media to help you with the design and printing of your floor sign for the entrance at your dinner or party, and for the design and printing of your table tents.  Source3Media can also help you with designing and printing your marketing materials that you want to hand out as your guests are leaving.

Make sure you keep a list of guests that attended so you can immediately follow up with them after the event with just a simple thank you for coming.

21.) Arrange for Shipping Your Materials

You're in the home stretch.  Now all you have left to do is ship your booth, materials, and supplies.  Remember, there may be rules for when the venue can or will accept shipments to store for your show.  It's important to check this with the organizer.  Some venues may even require the use of union contractors for moving your items in and out of the building, or for setting up the booths and rigging.  Make sure you know what's required, and when, and how before just packing up and shipping.


2021 Guide to a Successful Trade Show Booth

Get going!  You've got a show to do!

You are ready and you're gonna CRUSH this!

23.) Immediately Follow Up

Now you've done all your planning, preparation, had a KILLER event, and came home with a long list of new leads!  The longer you wait to follow up with the leads you obtained from the show, the more likely the attendees will have forgotten who you are.  Upload all of the leads you captured into your CRM right away so your sales team can start reaching out while the iron is hot.

It's extremely important that you follow up in some way immediately after the show, meaning within one day.  Make every message personal, remind them of who you are and how you met, and thank them for visiting your booth.  If you can't call or visit every lead right away, at least quickly send out personalized emails letting them know you'll be in touch soon and inviting them to give you a call.  Include a photo of your team at the booth in your email.  Also immediately post photos and exciting announcements about the show on your social media pages.

IN SUMMARY, you'll need a LOT of time to prepare, especially if it's your first time exhibiting.  Think of your booth as a temporary tiny version of your business.  A temporary tiny version that can be seen by thousands of potential customers in just one day!

2021 Guide to a Successful Trade Show Booth

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