Trade secrets: 10 tips for making the most of a trade show

Mon 9 Oct 2023
Posted by: Richard Cree

Trade show floor

Business meetings, conference and events form a sizeable chunk of the UK economy. According to Events Industry Alliance’s seventh Size and Scale Index for Exhibitions, in 2022 there were almost 1,000 exhibitions at the UK’s four main exhibition venues (ExCel London, Olympia London the NEC in Birmingham and the Scottish Events Campus in Glasgow), attracting a total of 6.1 million visitors.

This marks quite a bounce back from 2020 and the industry collapse caused by Covid. And the same trend has been seen globally, with exporters now using exhibitions and trade shows overseas as a great way to safely explore a new market.

Oli Barrett used to organise trade missions for cleantech startups, under the Clean and Cool banner. He says they often arranged their visits to coincide with such trade shows, “We supercharged quite a few [trade missions] by coinciding with big things happening in the city. You riff around an event that’s happening and that you know will lead to an upswing in movers and shakers being in the city.”

But how do you make the most of attending a trade show?  Here’s the IOE&IT Daily Update’s handy top 10 tips.

1. Have clear objectives

Susan Roe is E-Commerce Trade Commission secretariat lead at the Institute of Export & International Trade (IOE&IT). Before she joined IOE&IT, she designed and delivered workshops for firms heading out to global trade fairs, preparing them for what to expect and equipping them with an essential checklist. She says putting the time in on preparation makes the difference.

“Whenever you’re going to do a trade show you should identify your top three objectives. If you don't meet any of these objectives, it's probably been a waste of time.  Then line them up three nice-to-have objectives.”

2. Speak to the organisers

Roe says that exhibitors are often unaware of the amount of information that event organisers collect and have available from previous years’ shows.

“You can get a lot of information from asking the exhibition organisers the right questions. You can ask for the previous year’s attendance figures. And get more detail on who was there, what type of companies were exhibiting and who attended.

The organisers of trade shows produce a booklet/show guide, either digital or a hard copy. What visitors/buyers often do is go through this and tick off the stands they want to see.”

3. Work on your show guide entry

While there is always some degree of exhibition browsing (see the later section on stand positions), a lot of attendees – especially to bigger shows – will use the show guide to decide which stands and brands to visit. Roe suggests taking some time and effort to craft a powerful and clear entry that sells your company to prospective visitors.

“Make sure your business profile is in there and is compelling and hits the spot. And maybe get someone else to look at it. Sometimes we’re so close to what we do that when we write about it, we don’t express things as clearly as we’d like.”

And this challenge is multiplied if the show is overseas. The guide may not be in English or delegates may have different cultural perspectives, so it’s important to be culturally aware for when visitors from different countries visit the stand.

“It needs to be spot on and right from a cultural perspective. If in doubt, ask someone who already knows the market.”

4. Share the costs

Katie Birrell, head of international at Nairn’s Oatcakes, has attended her fair share of trade shows.  

“Companies new to exporting can gain a great deal from trade shows, making new contacts and gaining knowledge about different markets.  However, if the objective is to target a select number of specific export markets, the money spent on a trade show can be better spent on visiting those markets directly.”

Nairn’s still attends some of the bigger shows, including Anuga in Germany this month. Birrell says these big shows also come with big costs. So they have teamed up with a couple of other brands to share the costs.

“They’re incredibly expensive so we’re sharing a stand with two other brands, splitting it three ways.”

It’s an approach that the Department for Business and Trade (DBT) also supports. Francesca Geens, founder of The HappySelf Journal took part in New York Now earlier this year, having managed to get onto a DBT-funded stand, as part of the “Great” initiative.

“We were one of 10 brands who took part. It was beautifully curated. We all had the same looking table, and they handled the branding and set up. We just had to arrive with our goods, set up our table and commit to having people in our area for the duration of the show.”

Costing just £700, plus travel and accommodation, Geens says it was a bargain. She would like to see more of this kind of activity supported by government. She says, it meant she also got to be on a much more prominent stand than she could normally afford.

“As part of a bigger stand, we got better footfall and more people visiting. If we’d gone ourselves, budget-wise we would have ended up in a small stand in the back row and they looked pretty grim. I wouldn't have been happy with that.”

5. Go where you know

Geens says the fact the her stand at New York Now was subsidised was the only reason she was exhibiting. After some painful lessons, she now tries to visit a show before exhibiting.

“One lesson I have learned is that you should always visit a trade show before committing to taking a stand. You need to go and see it for yourself, so you can understand the locations that suit your brand. Speak to other brands there and make sure it’s worth the cost.”

She advises not to pick a stand just from a floorplan. Something she says she did at an event at Olympia.

“I looked at the floorplan and was happy with what was offered. But when we arrived, the show had shrunk, which meant we were on the last row, which is not what I had ordered. Worse, I didn’t understand Olympia and while there is a beautiful big glass space, there’s an overhang from the floor above. We were underneath the overhang, which meant a low ceiling and no daylight.”

“You need to visit. Trade show organisers tell you what you want to hear. You need to be firm about location and understand who else is near you.”

6. Remember, it’s not all about the sales

Birrell says there is one aspect that is good. A trip to a show like Anuga, she says, is a chance to meet up with familiar faces.

“It’s a good place to meet people you already know and work with. Building relationships, especially with customers in markets we visit less often.  Trade shows are often less about direct sales but laying the foundations for the future.  This is true for both new exporters and those with more experience.”

And, adds Roe, if sales do come, they may not materialise immediately depending on your business model and the overseas market you're targeting.

“Depending on the sector, it could take up to 18 months for anything to come through. It’s probably best not to go there thinking you’re going to clinch a deal on that trip because you’re probably not.”

7. Speak to your fellow exhibitors

Geens says that one of the major benefits from her experience with New York Now was getting to know the other exhibitors on the DBT stand.

“The other brands were an interesting mix. We set up a WhatsApp group and there was a dinner for us all. As with any trade show, having good stand neighbours is the best thing.

“You get so much information. You had 10 people to tell you which trade shows they had done, what had worked, what didn’t, where there are off to next, where they think your brand would fit best and which shows to avoid.”

She says that if she has a question now about a show she knows someone who has done it,

“I can get in touch with them. You develop this network of ‘trade show buddies’. People are generous with their time and information because it goes both ways.”

8. Don’t be afraid to travel to a show

While having mixed feelings about some trade shows, Birrell 

shows which attract attendees from across a whole region can be very worthwhile.

“FHA in Singapore attracts visitors from across the Far East which is a great opportunity to meet potential customers from a number of different markets.”

For Geens, while the inflated cost of shipping has made selling to more distant markets less attractive, going to shows overseas is more interesting than just going again to the same UK shows. Next year she’s planning to visit Maison et Objet in Paris rather than Top Drawer in Olympia.

Again, she’ll go as a visitor to speak to brands at the show first and then see for herself the best stands to take in future years.

9. Measure the outcome

As with any marketing activity, there must be a way to measure the effectiveness of a show, a means of calculating ROI. While this may be a simple as deals struck and items sold, it is not always that simple. As Geens says 

“We measure it in several ways. There’s a crude measure of have we made enough sales to cover costs?’ But there’s also the question of who did we meet? After the first Top Drawer, for example, we got into the Design Museum, which was amazing. It’s the best kind of retail brand for us. And it’s good PR. That makes it worth it.”

But, she says, those chats with other exhibitors also count.

“There are so many ways of looking at it. There are also conversations that give us insight into other shows. We would never have been able to have those conversations if we hadn’t been at the show. All of that's useful.”

10. Prepare to be tired

Anyone who has attended a three-day exhibition will know how tiring it can be. Standing around and being nice can be surprisingly hard work. This is amplified if you are exhibiting overseas. As Roe says, it can be “absolutely exhausting” and you need to prepare for it.

“You don’t stop. You’re dealing with new people all day. And if you’re going to Asia, for example, you’ll be eating different food and be in a different time zone.”

But regardless of these pressures, when you are out and about, and especially if you’re on the stand, you’re on show and have nowhere to hide. As Roe says, “You may be tired or hungry, but you still have to be professional and business like.”