5 unconventional tips on visiting trade shows

December 12, 2023

I’ve taken part in many trade shows, both as an exhibitor and a visitor.

The difference between a successful exposition and a not-so-much one is usually attributable to many factors1. There are, however, a few tricks to maximise your chances of success: here are 5 of them, learnt the hard way by yours truly.

Compiuta's stand
Our stand at A&T 2023.

Respect exhibitors

Put yourself in their shoes: they paid to exhibit there, sometimes lots of money. They are looking to get a return on their investment - understandably so.

What does it mean to respect exhibitors? Well, if you’re visiting to find new suppliers, by all means, go ahead and ask for information! But try to move on quickly if you see it’s not a match, especially if the event is packed with people.

If you are looking to get new customers, however, that’s a whole different game. Picture this: you are an exhibitor, full of hopes to get new customers and grow the business. People start flocking in, you start to feel optimistic. Someone approaches, you greet them with a big smile and the conversation starts:

Hi! We’re a communication agency, and you should definitely work with us to grow your business. Please tell us more about what you do here!

Let me tell you a bit of a public secret: where do you think your business card will end up, as soon as you go round the corner?

As a rule of thumb, you’ll be talking to sales representatives eager to sell you stuff: don’t try to go and sell them. You’ll only leave the impression you are desperate for customers.

Does it mean you shouldn’t visit a trade show to sell? Exactly. And if this seems extreme, just understand your key objectives.

Understand your key objectives

What are the distinctive elements of a trade show? Why are you dealing with the hassle of leaving the house2 and going there?

You can meet people and have all the competitors in the same place: that’s it! Focus on benefiting from these aspects: avoid activities you could do over email or phone.

If you’re looking for new suppliers, ask the questions Google can’t answer: inquiry about their customers, references, product roadmap. If you’re looking for customers, just try to understand whether you might be working together in a year or so and get a contact. Be patient: your goal is to get the ball rolling, not to close a sale.

Trade shows are also useful to get a feel for where the market is going. Every year there’s a common theme across exhibitors: what are you noticing this year? Is there anyone doing something different?

Know the flow

A trade show is typically a multi-day event: neither all days nor all hours are equal. Typically, depending on the event, you’re going to see one of two patterns of attendance:

  • the slow catcher: first day is a ghost town, then traffic rises
  • the fire and forget type: first day is the grand opening, packed with people. Second one is dedicated to business, then it’s all downhill from there. This is typical of consumer shows, like CES.

Understand which type of event you’re dealing with3, then choose the day of your visit accordingly: you’re aiming for low affluence days.

What about the perfect time of the day to visit a trade show? Keep in mind, affluence is usually a crescendo in the morning, then peaks at noon and goes down afterwards. This is why your best bet is visiting in the afternoon - avoid the last day of the event, since everyone will be tired and just looking forward to returning home.

Avoid big brands

I wasn’t sure to include this, but hear me out.

In my experience, you can usually skip big brand exhibitors: the more structured a company is, the more chances it has dedicated personnel for attending trade shows. Contacts you’ll bring home will turn out to be less useful.

Also, the bigger a brand is, the smaller the advantage of meeting someone in person: you won’t be able to inquiry about their customers, and you’ll need to jump through hoops to get to a decision maker once the trade show ends.

Obviously, there’s a catch. You’ll never know what might happen: sometimes the CEO will be there and strike a random conversation with you, I’m telling you…

The real work starts once you get home

This is the less unconventional tip of the list, but still noteworthy. To this day, I get it wrong way too many times. As soon as you get home:

  • dump everything that’s on your mind - impressions, things to look up, ideas you came up with
  • score and prioritise every contact you’ve collected

Then wait at least a week before following up: exhibitors will be busy with the trade show follow-up, so you’ll be ignored. I’m not the one to tell you how pushy you should be: if it were me, one email plus one follow-up would be more than enough - but I’m not a sales guy, so don’t take advice from me on this front.

Wrapping it up

Like in many other areas, it all comes down to being patient and respectful. When visiting a trade show:

  • Don’t try to sell at exhibitors
  • What you’re looking for is the best contact you can find
  • Visit in the afternoon
  • Avoid big brands, unless you have a plan or feel lucky
  • Remember that the real work starts once you get home

And pack your lunch if you can, thank me later 😂

An expensive and cold piadina.

  1. Luck and product-fair fit being the most important by a big margin.
  2. Or the office. Let’s pretend for a second “I’ll visit a fair so at least I’ll have a different day” doesn’t apply here, shall we?🤫
  3. This usually means either getting it wrong once or asking for advice to regular visitors.