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Making the Most of Trade Shows

As you pass the booths at some trade shows, you're likely to get the impression that the people who talk the fastest or who give away the best free items get all the orders. There's no question that handing out lots of logo-embossed trinkets is a sure way to draw a crowd, but the $64,000 question—even for those whose products just naturally draw attention—is: "How do you turn that crowd into customers?" At Boston Warehouse Trading Corp.—a distributor of attention-getting housewares and gifts—25 years of experience has taught us that the trade shows that benefit us most are those that generate transactions beyond the handing out of free gifts.



At the same time, we've learned that just because a trade show doesn't generate immediate orders doesn't mean it won't help us. When the company was smaller, I agonized over trade shows that didn't result in instant sales increases. Today, with 70 employees and annual sales of $25 million, ou. most important show of the year isn't where we get the most orders on the spot but rather where we don't take orders but get to meet the decision makers of our largest customers.

For any company, a presence at trade shows can represent a major expense. Here are some ways to make the most of that money and win the trade-show game:

- Know why you're there Different
shows have different purposes. To be successful, you need to determine the show's main purpose for both your company and your potential customers. Is it geared mainly to selling and buying, for instance, or more toward networking with those in the industry? Understanding why you're at a show is vital to developing your expectations and assessing your success.

- Make them remember you Whether
you spend $2,000 or $500,000 on a booth, your display must be spectacular. You have just a few seconds to grab buyers' attention, so you have to create an ambience that helps show your products in their best light. Knowing what show attendees expect in a display—whether they value efficiency more than aesthetics, for instance—is key to designing and setting up your booth and establishing an identity for your company. Our booths have had continuity from year to year—which makes them easily identifiable—but buyers also expect them to reflect the trend-setting nature of our merchandise.

- Make it easy for buyers to buy
Put stickers on your merchandise that include prices and identify the items—distinguishing the 7-inch candle from the 9-inch, for instance. Make sure that staff members are knowledgeable about the details of the products and the expertise of other staffers. It's equally important to inform staff members in advance about what's expected of them in terms of individual performance and company goals—in short, what their roles will be in making the show a success.

-Take a cue from the past
Analyze data from previous shows. Develop a system for tracking every item sold to new and repeat customers. Identify results such as the total number of orders and the average order size. This information will help you to develop future displays based on buying preferences and create buyer-incentive programs aimed at increasing sales to each show's target audience.

-Give a catalog, get a business card, follow the lead
It's important to follow up on the sales leads generated at a show. Develop internal systems that allow you to track customer contacts and orders. If your sales force determines that nothing has become of a lead two to three months after a show, make sure the prospective buyer is contacted again. Doing everything else right at a show doesn't mean much if you let solid sales leads slip through the cracks after the gear has been packed up.

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