Building your trade at trade shows -- it's a potential power tool

San Diego is building a new convention center. Houston is, too. In all, 30 to 40 cities are building new convention centers or expanding their old ones. They hope to attract a larger chunk of what has become a $20 billion industry -- the trade show industry. Exhibitors and attendees spend considerable money in host cities. In 1981, each of the top 150 trade shows brought $8.5 million, on average, into these cities.

And the business is growing.

In recent years, more technical and complex products have demanded that companies aim for more and more specialized markets. Trade shows, where specialized buyers meet specialized sellers, meet this need.

The price of direct face-to-face sales calls has skyrocketed in recent years, says Rebecca Masland of Business Image Associates, a trade show marketing specialist. Person-to-person sales calls add a cost of more than $1,000 to the product, each sale taking an average of 5.5 sales calls to close. This is an unacceptable cost for all but those products high enough in price and profit.

Properly qualified leads from trade shows, however, can bring in business at less than a tenth of the cost, she says. It takes fewer calls to close on a trade show lead because the prospects are often so much better qualified.

Trade shows aren't for everyone, however. A company with a well-defined product and a specialized market fares best in the trade show marketing environment. Although the average amount spent on exhibiting at a show is $73,000, says Ms. Masland, smaller businesses can enter shows by sharing space with other, noncompeting exhibitors, or using simpler displays. Costs can range from $500 to $10,000 for a tabletop or modular and preformed exhibit to a quarter of a million dollars for a more elaborate booth.

With careful planning and training of salespeople, a two-day trade show can bring in more qualified buyers than three weeks of sales calls, says Ms. Masland.

First of all, experts say, make sure you pick the right show. The more vertical, or specialized, the better. Customers attending these shows will be partially pre-qualified, or self-selected.

Then define your goals, says Bill Mee, managing director of the Trade Show Bureau in New Canaan, Conn. Are you exhibiting at the show because your customers expect you to, to introduce a new product, or to accelerate your sales process? Your answer will determine the kind of exhibit or booth you choose, what kind of equipment you take, and the attitude of your sales personnel.

Pre-show advertising can increase the traffic to your booth by 100 percent, Mr. Mee says. Build that traffic for your booth by advertising to your prospects, by public relations, or giveaway promotions, suggests Ms. Masland. Consider advertising in the host-city newspapers, a trade publication, the trade convention magazine, or billboards near the airport. Call prospects or send invitations by direct mail to prospects culled from the phone books, industry associations, or a mailing-list company.

Choose your trade show giveaways to pre-qualify those you attract, she says. For example, you can tell them to bring in a problem to be solved by your software to attract customers to your computer booth, instead of giving away the more general key chain.

People coming to trade shows are expecting to buy, says Robert Francisco, executive vice-president of Admore Inc., a trade show exhibit supplier in Worcester, Mass. The president of that company you've been trying to see for weeks may stroll by to see a demonstration of your product.

To make sure you are not keeping him waiting while you mistakenly tie up your time talking to a competitor, qualify your visitors quickly. Find out politely who this person is, whether he has decisionmaking power, and whether he is interested in buying.

After you qualify your prospect, capture the information he's giving you on a lead or inquiry form to follow up on his needs, says Masland. This qualified list should be followed up by a phone call within two weeks.

The trade show work doesn't stop there, though, she says. Carefully track how many leads were converted to later sales to find your return on your show investment. Then hold a debriefing meeting in which you decide what you did right at the show, and what you would change next time.

Fourteenth in a series. Next: How to get (nearly) free publicity.

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