Trade show tips & advice

A step-by-step guide that can turn any event into a showcase for your business

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

For a small business owner, trade shows can seem overwhelming. They often require a lot of additional work on top of the day-to-day running of your business, not to mention adding complications of travel and other unforeseen expenses. Because of this, participating in trade shows, markets and events may seem difficult to justify. However, with proper planning, the right attitude and an effective follow-up plan, they can open up your business to countless new opportunities you may not have considered.

Meet Candelles

To walk you through their first trade show experience, we interviewed Candelles, a small business owner that Vistaprint awarded $10,000 to during Small Business Week 2017 to help them follow their dream of attending their first trade show. Candelles is an eco-friendly, soy candle company in the northeast mountains of Pennsylvania. They believe in the simplicity of life while still keeping it full of fun and beauty, which is illuminated through their candles.

This year, they attended their first trade show and co-owner Kelley shared the challenges and successes of the experience with us along the way. The benefits of participating in a trade show or event are vast, including many opportunities to do the following:

  • Meet new customers and clients
  • Expose yourself to new industry trends
  • Give you new ideas for your business
  • Offer you a chance to learn from competitors

Candelles’ goal in attending a trade show was to grow and expand where people can buy their candles. “We felt that being in a tradeshow itself would give us more exposure to different brands and stores, leading us to get into those stores,” shares Kelley.

Whether it’s a national event that covers hundreds of thousands of square feet or a local event with a dozen other exhibitors, any chance to be seen by potential customers is an opportunity to make a great impression.

Preparing for your trade show

A lot of time and consideration goes into choosing and preparing for a trade show. For Candelles, choosing a smaller trade show to start out was key. They could make sales, build valuable connections, and practice for larger shows down the line.

One of the biggest hurdles for attending a tradeshow can be cost. Kelley shares that, “you’re not really sure if the risk will be worth the reward.” Because of this, Candelles did a lot of research to choose the right trade show for their business, determine the best methods to prepare, and learn new marketing techniques. They even started planning and setting goals about a year before the event. Many trade shows even have early bird pricing specials for businesses who decide to attend far in advance.

Asking other business owners for advice can also be an invaluable source of information as you start thinking about trade shows. Kelley told us that “when you read blogs, you’re definitely getting the more fluffed up version of how a trade show can be great. But, I really wanted to hear the don’ts… the scarier bits of it. So, being able to talk to business colleagues was definitely great.”

Setting up your trade show display

After you’ve chosen your trade show, you should build your trade show display and marketing materials around your goals. Think about what matters to your small business in the context of the event.

What kind of event is it? Is it business-to-business, such as an industry-specific exposition, or business-to-consumer, such as a local trade fair? Are you looking for new leads, just trying to get the word out, or are you trying to make sales right on the floor of the event? Once you have determined exactly what you want to get out of the event, be sure to tailor your booth and materials accordingly.

Candelles was marketing to wholesalers and stores that could potentially sell their candles, so they set up a sleek and modern shelving display that showcased products from each season across their collection and allowed buyers to imagine what the candles could look like in store or in home. Candelles also set up a table at the front of the space where they could talk with potential buyers and used retractable banners behind the table to highlight customer reviews.

Similarly, Candelles wanted well-designed marketing materials in a presentation folder to showcase a polished look that spoke to their business’ professionalism. Many buyers expressed how appreciative they were to have everything in a convenient, organized package. This made Candelles stand out when most other businesses were simply handing out stacks of papers that got easily confused. Kelley also mentioned being surprised by how helpful it was to have pens as a giveaway. People liked being able to take something home, but it also made it more convenient for buyers to jot down notes or fill out order forms. Making these choices early on helps you prepare well. Ordering your marketing materials and promotional products well ahead of time is important especially if you need to ship them to the event. Candelles even practiced their set up in their warehouse space before the event with “a 10x10 space that we marked off with tape and we built up our booth. That way we could know where everything was going to go, make sure that we could set it up beforehand… when we got there we felt really confident.”

Updating your website and social media with information about your presence at the event is a good idea, as is sending out an email to your contact list. Sending postcards ahead of the event lets your customers know you’ll be there. If you’re looking for new contacts to send postcards to, larger trade shows frequently have a mailing list you can access. Candelles benefitted during and after the trade show from doing this. Many buyers had already marked the booths they wanted to visit ahead of time and mentioned getting the postcards before the show. Kelley even mentioned getting “two orders [from] buyers who didn’t even come because of the weather. They got in touch and said ‘we got your postcard! We won’t be there, but we want more information.’ So, I sent them samples and we ended up getting orders from two of those.”

Consider using these mail-outs as a chance for a special offer or a giveaway that’s exclusive to people who come to your booth with a postcard. Just be sure to include dates, location, time and your booth number on every piece of mail.

Before you leave for the event, pack a tote bag filled with essentials, such as water, snacks and device chargers that can help to keep you going all day.

Maximizing your trade show presence

Remember that you’re representing your small business and that means that you need to be at your best. Arrive to the trade show or event in plenty of time in order to set up and take in your surroundings.

The people manning your trade show booth are just as important as your signage and your marketing materials. If you need more people at your stand, make sure that you have clear goals and tasks for everyone. Take a little time and assign jobs to individuals, whether it’s collecting addresses, organizing your printed materials or keeping the booth clutter-free.

Other tips to have a good trade show or event experience:

  • If you’re demonstrating a product, post a schedule letting passers-by know when they can come back.
  • Make it easy for potential customers to give you their information. A bowl for business cards (with a giveaway for a T-shirt or water bottle or another promotional product) can help you build leads for your business with little effort.
  • Take the time to visit other small businesses at the event. Many businesses find potential business partners and clients just by stopping by and saying hello.
  • If this is an event with presentations and talks, make time for at least one. They can be a fantastic opportunity to hear industry leaders speak about things that can affect you.
  • When you take a break, make it work for you. Check out how the competition’s tables are set up. What are they doing that you’re not? Is that working for them?
  • If there is media present at the event, make time to build connections with them as well. Candelles was even able to meet with magazines and consultants from other trade shows.
  • Take notes when you speak to someone and don’t be afraid to ask questions. It can be hard to keep track of everything that’s said at an event and a notebook can be your best friend at the end of the day. If you make a promise to follow up with a customer, keep it.

Following up after the trade show.

It’s important to keep the momentum going once you’re back home. If you make connections, you should make sure to follow up with them promptly after the event. If you’re building a contact list, add them after the initial contact and make sure you note how you met them. Candelles made a note on the back of each business card they received while networking so they could reach out with a personal touch after the show.

Other ways to follow up on potential leads from a trade show:

  • Send an event-specific postcard with a personal note thanking them for their time.
  • Mail a personalized, hand-signed letter with additional marketing materials.
  • Follow your leads on social media such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

These types of personalized follow ups are certainly time-consuming, but done right they’ll be worth your while.

Finally, take the time to reflect on the entire event, from start to finish, to identify opportunities to improve for the next one. One of Candelles’ big takeaways was to do more research on the audience before choosing a trade show. It’s important to make sure you are reaching your target market to maximize your impact. Kelley also reflected that, while Candelles did not gain as much value in sales as they had hoped, they did gain valuable leads, experience, and increased confidence to bring to their next show.

Want more help to make sure that you’re ready for your trade show? Download our ultimate trade show checklist.

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