Trade Shows Are a Time and Money Suck

And you sometimes wonder if they are worth the energy you put into them.  

First, trade shows are expensive: when you add up the registration, booth, and shipping fees and travel costs, exhibiting at a trade show can make a big dent in your marketing budget.  Show services will charge you handsomely every time you hiccup (e.g. the $1,500 internet connection).

Second, they take up an inordinate amount of time: add the prep time to the hours your sales team will be tied up at a show and the opportunity cost is significant.

Third, some trade shows feel a bit dated and as though they are on the decline.  Prior to the web, trade shows were the social media for industries they served;  attendees mingled, shared stories, moved deals along; back in the day.  Attending a trade show was a reward to employees for good work, a chance to kick back and party and pad the expense account a little with some good fun.  Sales people would leverage their time to network,  growing their rolodex – a kind of physical LinkedIn.  The original social medium.

Today, folks are highly networked: your sales team can easily figure out who to target in a specific organization and learn about it fom their desks and  and few prospects have the time to attend evenst, let alone stop by your booth or be schmoozed at a trade show cocktail party.  You wonder if you could allocate your precious marketing dollars to something more productive.  Trade shows can feell like they are a waste of time

However, trade shows are structurally embedded in business culture and they answer the primal human need tocongregate, to gossip, to preen, to party.  And they are big business – $11 BN in revenue, employing +/- 90.000 people in the U.S. in 2007 alone.  Trade shows are not going away:  revenues at several show services companies continue to grow steadily.  Some of the larger shows have created their own ecosystem (e.g. CES for electronics, Mobile World Congress for wireless) within the industries they serve.

So, what do you do about the trade shows in the verticals you are targeting?  For an early stage company with limited time and money, I recommend that you:

Pick One

If you are going to exhibit, figure out which trade show it the keystone in the vertical that you are selling into and focus on that show.  I like smaller shows that are easier to get your arms around, but some are the gorillas in their industry that you just have to attend.

Go as an Attendee

When starting out, do not set up a booth; wait until you have sales momentum and are developing a track record in the space.  Instead, go as an attendee.  Working the show as an attendee enables you to set up meetings and get the market wired (see below) without the expense of running a booth.  This is economical enough that you can cover several shows in a year without blowing your marketing budget.

Hustle as Many Meetings as You Can

Get the show wired; start “working” the attendee list two to four weeks before the show.  This is the time to put your networking skills to work: meetings can be over breakfast, lunch, dinner or coffee, they can be on the show floor or between sessions for 10 – 15 minutes.  This is an opportunity to meet folks live that you wouldn’t otherwise be proximate with – connecting even briefly with prospects at a trade show can open the door to business relationships over the next 6 – 24 months.

Collect Intel on Prospects, Potential Partners, Competitors

Going to a trade show as an attendee gives you a chance to discretely work the floor, learning about potential customers and partners and competitors.  You can do “secret shopper” fly bys of competitors’ booths or, if you are super early stage, talk candidly with them about what you are up to.  Attend seminars, figure what problems the industry is focused on, what the hot new topics are.

Avoid Measuring Marketing ROI

The whole trade show process is expensive.  Trying to measure ROI or cost per lead from a trade show will drive you to despair – think about it like paying your taxes.  It is just something y0u have to do.

When you have sales momentum (enough customers in a vertical to that you are somewhat recognizable at that industry’s events) and can accommodate the cost of a trade show or two in your marketing budget, you should consider getting into the booth business, but not before that.




  1. Solid advice on most counts. I am not fully in agreement on the advice to pick ONE show when you decide its time to jump into the trade show world. The costs of entry are indeed high, and booth design and build costs are a significant piece of that equation. My experience has taught me that there is merit to the go big(ger) or go home attitude. A simple pop-up booth will likely not garner the attention a new exhibitor seeks. We steer clients towards non-traditional design approaches that don’t have to cost a ton more but generally are more expensive than off-the-shelf solutions. By doing more than one show a year, the development and build costs get spread over multiple shows making a trade show program more cost effective.

    If you are not ready to “jump in” on your own, partnering is often a good option. Look for businesses who’s exhibits would benefit from the inclusion of your technology/product/service and offer it for free. Ask for some sort of recognition (signage), and use that installation as a way to show potential buyers what you do without the cost of having a booth of your own.

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