Don Marti

Sun 17 Apr 2005 08:33:50 PM PDT

The Cheap Bastard's Guide to Technical Trade Shows

(Updated section 6 after reading Joey's question about a pen)

Doc Searls wants to fix technical trade shows, and Ryan P Skadberg wants to get advice for running an effective booth. So time for me to dig up the "Cheap Bastard's Guide to Technical Trade Shows" and go through it again.

Booth space is for suckers. Join a large vendor's "partner program" and sweet-talk your way into their booth. This is especially easy if you make hardware -- software companies don't want to schlep and set up boxes. And hardware companies want to have some cool stuff on screen, component vendors want nifty boxes built with their parts, you get the idea.

If you don't want to work out of someone else's booth, shows have "New Exhibitor" or "Exciting New High-Tech Stuff" sections, which are really just "Companies that are too Cheap to Pay Full Price So We'll Let Them Try the Show for Less" sections. And that's where everyone looks for the new, cool stuff anyway. (Yes, the free T-shirt hunters are at the bigger booths, but who cares?)

Convention hotels are for even bigger suckers. Search on the web or make some calls to find a nearby hotel that isn't on the convention list. Cheap hotel plus cab ride is cheaper than expensive hotel. Avoid doing this at a non-profit show such as the USENIX Technical Conference. The organization gets a good deal on conference space in exchange for committing to sell a certain number of rooms. Show support for the organization by staying at the official conference hotel.

Marketing's job is done before the show. Leave them home and send at least two people: one big cheese (that's you) and one sales engineer who knows the products inside out, can answer questions about them, and can fix them under pressure. Marketing people might look cute in a company shirt, but why fly and house someone just to have him or her say, "Hold on and I'll find someone who can answer that for you." Don't try to do a trade show alone. Bring a consultant who works with your product if you have to.

Remind people to order more business cards when you schedule them to attend the show. Or just order a box of everyone's cards and bring them anyway.

Some people's job is to feed you. Call your vendors, people who want to sell you stuff, and people who want stuff from you before the show. When they offer to take you out to dinner, bring your hungry sales engineer along.

Practice, man, practice. Before the show, set up what you're going to bring and test it. Then don't let any items leave the room until the boxes are sealed. Bring necessary spares and tools, but don't ship your whole junk box.

Make your collateral work with the web, not against it. Bring lots of business cards and maybe useful doo-dads with your URL, but attendees don't want to carry big glossy brochures any more.

Pens are a great give-away because people either forget them on trips, loan them and don't get them back, or lose them. If you decide not to get pens printed with your logo, bring a handful of other pens so you can be nice to attendees.

If you do decide to get pens printed with your logo, get the nice ones such as the Uni-Ball Micro. Yes, they cost more, but people make more effort to hang onto a roller-ball pen than a cheap ballpoint. In terms of money per unit pen-retention time, they're a bargain. (That's also why it's better to advertise in paid magazines than controlled circulation magazines, but this is about trade shows.)

Don't leave stacks of give-aways out on the table. Some attendees will walk right up to the booth, hork $20 worth of pens, and walk away. Save the give-aways for people you talk to.

Keep a strict booth schedule, coordinated with the conference program. You can't both be there all the time, but if an attendee wants to talk to someone from your company you should be able to give him or her a definite time. Allow for plenty of breaks during interesting keynotes and other important events; double staff when the conference tracks are boring.

(Doc writes, "If you have people from the company speaking in lecture rooms, post it at the booth." Good point, and it's easier to get on conference programs than you might think.)

Always have an all-hands last-minute booth meeting right before the show opens, to go over the schedule. Make sure to tell everyone about the meeting as soon as you tell them they're going to the show, so that they don't schedule conflicting meetings.

Follow up! Don't complain about all the money you're wasting at trade shows when you're letting all the business cards and lead printouts you bring back gather dust after the show. Take down key facts about prospects at the show, and ask for permission to follow up. (And remember: someone who wasn't interested in the product, but just wanted a pen, does not count as a lead. Save followup time and don't clutter up your list.)

Items to have in your booth

Items not to have in your booth