The Complete Guide to Elevating Your Trade Show Plan

The Complete Guide to Elevating Your Trade Show Plan

Trade show season can be challenging. We are thrilled to help you plan, coordinate, and execute the best trade show exhibit possible. With the logistics of booth building and shipment, travel, and moving product under your belt, it’s time to be as strategic as possible. How can you get the most out of your trade show appearances this year and learn valuable lessons before next year?

In this ebook, we’re uncovering 8 phases to strategic trade show exhibition success. We’ll run through several planning, coordination, and analytic best practices that will help you capture big wins at every event this year. The phases, listed below, include everything from setting up your objectives to promoting your appearance, managing engagement day-of, and wrapping the event thoughtfully.

Let’s get started.

Phase 1: Goal-setting

Phase 2: Designing Better Booths

Phase 3: Preparing Your Team

Phase 4: Promoting the Event

Phase 5: Fostering Engagement

Phase 6: Lead Management

Phase 7: Analyzing Impact

Phase 8: Measuring ROI

Phase One: Goal-setting for Trade Shows

Trade shows are so much more than a chance to “get exposure” or even “sell more product.” Goals like those aren’t specific enough to move the needle for your business. In fact, goals like “sell more” and “grow our audience” are implied for any business in any industry. These four tips will help you set better goals for your trade show exhibition:

1. Be clear and objective

Spend time thinking about what you really hope to achieve at this trade show with this team. If you’d like to earn more warm leads, be clear about what constitutes a warm lead, and avoid phrases like “seems really interested.” If you want to educate your audience about a new product, be as clear as possible about which product and what an “informed” consumer will look like.

2. Get granular

Don’t be afraid to dive into the particulars. Instead of saying that you plan to gain exposure with a female audience, narrow it down. Set a goal like “Meet and greet [number] of people who [fit this description].” The more quantitative your goal is, the easier it will be to measure your success against it.

3. Map your tactics

Goals don’t really matter if you don’t have a plan for achieving them. Imagine planning to run a marathon in 9 months from now, and having no plan to run more, strengthen your body, or condition for the race. You might be able to show up day-of and wing it, but your chances of success are low. What actual tactics can your team employ in the booth and out on the show floor that will deliver the results you want?

Phase Two: Designing Better Booths & Displays

The challenge for trade show exhibitors has always been to stand out, command attention, and still retain an on-brand, professional presence. This pressure is more taxing for the modern day trade show exhibitor who must compete with lit-up displays, VR gamification, and even booths manned by holograms. While technology like this may or may not be in budget for you, experts would argue that the more impressive booth isn’t always the booth that sells. Instead of pushing for a booth that’s over-the-top creative or ultra high-tech, match your booth design against these questions instead:

Is it contemporary? Your booth doesn’t have to be at the forefront of technology, just make sure it feels current. An old-fashioned, out-of-date booth will turn heads in the wrong direction.

Is it in good shape? Make sure your booth will travel well. If it’s seen better days, give it a facelift or retire it. Also, make sure it still has the capacity to hold your products and endure the show.

Is it on-brand and authentic? This is arguably the most important question. If your booth is the flashiest one on the show floor but you sell bedtime products for babies or soothing bath products for stress relief, you’ve missed an opportunity to stand out authentically. A big, cozy display would have earned you more points.

Does it enhance our story? Your booth display shouldn’t just be authentic, it should captivate audiences into your story. Why do your products matter? Why should they care? At a time when consumer attention is harder and harder to earn, make sure you’re serving up impact.

Would it resonate with our target audience? Who are you trying to reach at this show? How can you focus your display to capture his or her attention, instead of everyone’s attention?

Are we proud of it? Don’t force your team to stand in a booth that you all don’t feel good about. Nobody will feel as enthusiastic about inviting people to the booth if they don’t buy into the experience themselves.

Other best practices for trade show booths

  • Go with simple graphics and typeface choices
  • Keep words to a minimum - don’t display paragraphs
  • Feature your website and social handles
  • Keep an area open for visitors to comfortably approach
  • Smile in the booth - this will welcome more visitors than any display tactic.

Phase Three: Preparing your Trade Show Team

Your team holds the key to your trade show success. Regardless of all of the other factors of the show, the charisma and openness of your team can earn attention, connection, and action from your ideal consumer. The success of your team hinges on four important decisions:

Who is going?

Choosing who to send to a trade show or event is about much more than someone’s title with the company. You want to choose teammates that are outgoing, knowledgeable about the product, and proud to work where they work. This could include marketers, sales staff, and even creative, operational, or financial people if they fit the right description. While your end-goal is to sell product, your immediate goal is to authentically earn attention and engagement from other humans. Think about who, in your organization, builds relationships and persuades with empathy. If they're new to the trade show scene, make sure they're up to date on the basics of trade show etiquette.

Who is doing what?

Once you have your team carved out, assign roles and responsibilities. Again, it’s smart to erase each person’s normal working title and the hierarchy of the team while in-office. On the show floor, your newest sales hire might make a great leader if he or she has immense trade show experience, while other team members don’t. Think about assigning concurrent shifts to individuals who work well together and make sure you always have someone effervescent and someone discerning and accountable in the booth at all times.

How will they behave?

Professional conduct is always expected when employees are representing the company. However, at trade shows, conferences, and other events, there’s a temptation to behave differently. The loud music, fun games, and charged atmosphere can sometimes encourage behavior that’s better left at home. Consult our guide to Trade Show Etiquette for the latest guidelines on show floor conduct.

How can they engage?

Whether your trade show team is new to event marketing or they’re all seasoned pros, it’s important to equip them with a strategy for engaging the masses. How should they greet people? What are the high-level points they should hit with an engaged visitor? How can they capture data on leads? What attention-grabbing tactics are acceptable vs. too-far? Make sure you set boundaries while also equipping each team member to confidently engage with visitors.

Phase Four: Promoting Trade Show Attendance Online

Don’t wait until the day of the show to begin promoting your attendance. As soon as you’re confirmed to exhibit at an event, put together a digital marketing campaign tied to the event. Let your online audience know where you’ll be and how to find you. It can be incredibly lucrative to draw attention to your exhibit using audiences you’ve already worked hard to build. Here’s how:

Website content

Long before the show, publish a blog post that highlights your upcoming event attendance with dates and locations. If you frequent more than 4 events per year, it may be wise to keep a page on your website for this information and update it frequently. As the event approaches, create a banner or hero image to promote your attendance. After the show has ended, don’t forget to blog about your experience. Add photos!

Social Media

Before the event date, make sure to promote your upcoming attendance to your social followers. Let them know where they can find you if they’ll be attending the event and - if possible - give them a discount code for tickets to the event or an incentive to attend. Don’t leave out your digital-only followers, though. Let them know you’ll be going live during the show and that they’ll get a front-row seat to whatever you capture. Make sure to use a consistent hashtag throughout the event promotions that you’ll also use day-of.

At the event, capture valuable and exciting content. It’s smart to have one person at the exhibit at all times who is focused on social media content. This person should be capturing visitor photos and tagging them where applicable, snapping selfies with collaborators and affiliates around the floor, and even going live from the booth.Once the event is over, post a thoughtful recap, thank everyone who came out, and make sure to allude back to your full wrap-up blog post.


Don’t forget your email subscribers! Send out a newsletter or blast letting your subscribers know that you’ll be exhibiting, where, and when. Give them a VIP code or password so that if they come to the event and see your booth, they can indicate that they’re a VIP email subscriber, and earn a prize. Create some exclusivity with your email subscribers to reward their loyalty. Make sure you also capture email addresses while at the event and add those to your subscriber list before you send out your event recap email - they’ll feel even more exclusive, for meeting you there.

Paid Advertising & Press

If you want to go above and beyond in marketing your event presence to potential attendees, invest in Google Ads, social media ads, or even distribute a press release. While your attendance alone might not be enough to spark audience interest, highlight the value you’ll be bringing and make audiences an offer they can’t ignore.

Phase Five: Fostering Attendee Engagement at Trade Shows

Ultimately, your objective in exhibiting at a trade show is to earn new customers. However, there are human-first steps to make each new lead possible. You must earn the following four things from your audience in order to deserve their consumership:

1. Earn Their Attention

Before you can wow an audience, you must woo an audience. What draws audiences to a trade show booth? We have already covered the design and display of the booth, and equipping your team for success, and this is the moment those two phases interplay and create success. If your booth succeeds in resonating with the target audience and your team succeeds in wooing the target audience, you will earn attention. Just remember, attention is fleeting.

2. Earn Their Initial Action

Neurologically speaking, people remember something twice as much if they took action while learning. This is why we remember field trips to the zoo better than reading about animals in a textbook. This is why we remember the cake recipe we tried, not the one we only heard about. If your visitors don’t take any action at the booth, remaining passive listeners and onlookers, they won’t remember you. Embed your brand into their memory by giving them an immediate action to take - entering a raffle, playing a game, taking a guess, or answering a question.

3. Earn Their Understanding

We’ve all done something just to get some free swag - that doesn’t mean we felt any more interested in the giver of the swag. Don’t make the mistake of giving away a ton of free stuff and assuming your visitors are all future customers in waiting. They’re not.

Even if you employ free swag or giveaways at your booth, don’t leave your booth visitors hanging - make sure they know who you are. One great way to stay top-of-mind include branding what you’re giving away or providing a tag with your giveaway item that reminds your visitors of who you are and why they should care. Your logo doesn’t say enough - include your value in every reminder. Another great way to get connected is to encourage instant, in-the-moment social connection. Make them tag you in a booth selfie, as a requirement to enter the contest OR require an email address to play. This allows you to follow up after the event with “remember us?”

4. Earn Their Follow-Through

Even a die-hard social media follower isn’t a buyer until they buy. Give consumers you meet at the trade show a special promo code for 10% off their upcoming purchase or schedule a demo or consultation to earn their business when they have time to focus.

Phase Six: Managing Leads & Post-Show Follow-up

Because trade shows can be fleeting and fast-paced, it’s important that you don’t leave meaningful connections to potential customers sitting on the show floor. Capturing data and following up thoughtfully can mean the difference between a nice conversation and a sale.

How can we ethically capture consumer data at a trade show?

You can never be too transparent when it comes to gathering any type of user data. If you’re asking for an email address in exchange for a contest entry or giveaway, make sure they know that you’ll be sending high-value emails periodically or following up directly. If your lead form also includes the collection of names, addresses, or other information - be sure that the form states that you will not sell or misuse this information.

How do we avoid a closed door during post-show follow up?

The main difference here is between relationship-building and hard selling. Consumers know that you’re exhibiting at a trade show because you represent a business with a product. They also get bombarded with marketing and advertising every day through every medium - most of which, they will ignore. You can push through this noise and follow up aggressively, with a hard-selling attitude, but your consumer will attach this treatment to your brand in their minds. Instead, consider remembering names and faces, putting show visitors into your CRM, and following up with a personal, thoughtful message. If your capacity won’t allow 1:1 relationship marketing, take extra steps to make sure your automated emails and social posts are consumer-friendly and authentic, not forced.

How do we differentiate between a chatty passerby and a warm lead?

Gauge the types of questions each visitor is asking. Are they asking actionable questions about your product or service, the cost, and the process of purchase or implementation? Or are they asking if you’re all enjoying yourselves at the show, how long you’ve been around, and where you’re from? The former is actively interested in learning more. The latter, might get there with some nudging, or she might walk away. Some exhibitors have a lead scoring method that quantifies their leads and gives them a threshold of priority for outreach after the event. Some groups will choose to reach out to every person equally and see what sticks. Whichever method you take on, it’s important to realize that even the most unqualified lead could end up being a repeat buyer with the right focus on relationship building.

Phase Seven: Analyzing the Impact & Performance of Your Event Presence

You’ve done it! Another trade show has come and gone. How will you evaluate your presence at the event and determine what worked, what didn’t work, and what to do next time? Consider these three factors:

How will you measure the impact of this marketing venture?

Although your presence at a trade show was largely for the purpose of growing your audience and expanding sales opportunities, the impact of your experience extends beyond products-sold post-show. How can you measure the other, less monetary wins of exhibiting? It all ties back to your goals.

You may have set a goal in Phase One such as “Meet and greet 100 people who [fit this description].” Did you accomplish that goal? For how many of them were you able to capture follow-up information such as an email address? Even if none of them purchase a product this month, they are now highly sought-after consumers who know of you, who you can remarket to, that you would not have gained without exhibiting here and now. That’s powerful stuff. These are the kind of metrics that will inform your leaders that event marketing is meaningful and worth the investment.

How will you evaluate staff performance?

There’s a caveat here, isn’t there? We can look at numbers like products sold, leads collected, new social followers added, and measure our wins -- but who’s responsible? How will you know if Jennifer was pulling all the weight to earn attention to the booth, while Michael was playing Candy Crush? Unless you’re in the booth for the entirety of the show, watching their every-move, you might not know. Here are some options to make sure you stay informed:

  • It's wise to take detailed notes during the event to be sure that you capture useful information about every lead. Train your staff to start each note with their first name or initials for credit and trackability.
  • Calculate leads per-shift and ascertain which dynamic duos or trios had the most success, then converse to find out why.
  • Gather anonymous feedback from your show staff after the event. Chances are, it will come to light if someone didn’t pull their weight. Finding out what each person has to say about their own performance can let you know who will be confident and ready for next time.

How will you learn from this experience?

There’s a silver lining to mistakes, mess-ups, and outright failures: Anything that wasn’t a win, was a lesson. This means that every time you exhibit, you should be documenting what worked, what didn’t, and essentially creating your company’s go-to guide for trade show strategy. That said, each show is different and each crowd will demand new things from your exhibit. The best thing to do is stay observant and adaptive. This could include taking notes and encouraging your booth staffers to do the same, sending out a survey to your social followers, and even asking questions of booth visitors during the show. Sometime during every show, each of your staffers should walk the floor and look for what catches their attention, and why. Finding out what consumers want is the ultimate goal for your event marketing efforts.

Phase Eight: Evaluating Trade Show ROI & Exhibition Value

Was it worth it? At the end of the day, trade shows are a marketing expense just like paid social ads, vehicle wraps, or commercials during the superbowl. Their worth is determined by the return on your investment. However, it can be tricky to measure the overall ROI of a trade show. So many moving parts and itemized costs add up to one large investment, and how do you measure whether that number was worth what you earned in return?

Itemize your ROI

As you look at net costs for show exhibition and net sales post-show, don’t forget to be more narrow in your analysis. You invested in a new game or challenge this year in the booth. Did it bring in more foot traffic than the previous year? You invested in a better shipping or storage situation for your booth - did it endure its travels more soundly? Which of these things will you NOT have to invest in next year? That would mean the returns on that particular investment extend beyond its first year. Trade show ROI is often not a 1:1 measurement and requires more thoughtful analysis.

Look for anecdotal comparisons

At face value, when you compare the impression of success from this show to the same show last year, or to a show you exhibited in three months ago, etc. what stories come up in your mind? Usually, you can suss out whether an event was a total disaster, kind of a mess, fairly neutral, pretty cool, or wonderful. If this show ranks lower on that scale than other shows intuitively, find out why. Ask your other staffers to weigh in, too. Was it an unforgiving location, bad timing, or a shortage of staff? Was it a breakdown in your process or approach? Was it an outdated booth? If your experience at this show was a massive improvement, ask the same questions again. Was it a phenomenal location, a huge turnout, or a wonderful time of year? Was it the extra effort your team put in to training together, or a fancy new booth setup? More answers are within you than you realize. Take detailed notes so you can always keep each show separate in your memory.

Set intentions for future shows

Now that you’ve gathered what worked, what didn’t, and what matters most for next time, implement it. If your aim is to “do better next time” get super clear about what “better” looks like and how you can strategize around pitfalls from this round. If you had a knockout success and you’d like to repeat that again at the next show, notate how you’ll make that happen. Your proactivity will put your team at ease and empower them to crush it.

Trade shows can be massively lucrative for sales and brand awareness, but they’re only as valuable as the time, energy, and effort you put into them. Make sure to capitalize on the potential of your next trade show by being strategic, analytical, and empathic. Set realistic goals, champion relationship-building, and measure impact beyond the sale for best results.


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