Are Trade Shows Still Worth the Money?

Michele Markham, January 1, 2014

The Beatles or Rolling Stones? Beef or chicken? Answering some questions are easier than others. As we roll into 2014, many of you will be asking whether or not trade shows are still worth the money, especially in tight economic times when every dollar spent is worth scrutinizing. And some of you will be expected to answer.

Looking at trade shows holistically, the measure of worth varies for each specific trade show in question. It depends on your industry and customers, and even your company culture and people. The best place to start determining a trade show’s value is by looking at the potential return on investment (ROI). In other words, what’s in it for you financially? What’s in it for your customers or vendors beyond just revenue? What’s in it for your employees in terms of industry education?

So… what’s in it for you and your company?

a graph shows how to calculate trade show ROIShould be easy enough, right? Strong leads and a certain number of sales. But what constitutes “strong” and exactly how many sales does that certain number need to be?

Look at a trade show from the ROI angle, not as an expense. It’s marketing. Evaluate the true cost per lead. The formula is different for every company, but weigh the costs of the trip versus how many real leads you expect to receive. You have an idea of the number and quality of leads you’ll get if you’ve been to the trade show in question before. If you haven’t, you can gain some insight from other trade show alum. Use their input as a guideline, not the rule. If you don’t have any direct contacts, social media is a great way to “hear” what others are saying or have said about an event. If you aren’t sure about a specific show, tap into Twitter to see what others are saying about during the show. You can gauge if it’s worth planning for the following year based on the positive or negative comments being posted.

If the proverbial shoe fits…

What if the potential ROI does substantiate the cost? Go! But plan carefully. It’s more than flights, hotels, booth set-up and giveaways. Planning makes all the difference in seeing a strong return from your trade show endeavor.

How will you spend your time in the booth or exhibit? Consider what makes the most impact on customers during your regular sales process and replicate that in the booth. In fact, use that booth like Superman. Walk in a regular exhibitor; walk out with super sales power. This is your chance to be hyper focused on individual relationship building and one-on-one selling with prospects that you might not meet under other circumstances.

How many people will you need to talk to make it worthwhile? 10? 50? 500? Set a goal and stick to it. Get out from behind the booth table if you need to, but meet that goal.

How will you present yourself? You’ve probably been to a few trade shows in your time. Think about what you like and dislike. Don’t sit at the booth crushing candy on your iPhone. Practice positive body language and be open and inviting, not sitting with folded arms or staring at your presentation materials.

What you do after the trade show is just as, if not more, important than what you do before and during. The Internet and all those communication channels we mentioned above come in handy after the trade show. Follow up on those leads—hot, warm and cold. Yes, cold. Your lead could have been jet lagged or pressed for time while visiting you on the exhibition floor. This isn’t dating; it’s business, and the three-day rule doesn’t apply. Follow up quickly with all leads and contacts!

Consider alternatives to non-profitable trade shows

What if the ROI doesn’t warrant the cost, but you want to do something? Trade shows aren’t the be-all, end-all. Consider hosting webinars, or host your own event onsite. Both allow you to reach a targeted audience and put you in the spotlight versus sharing it with other exhibitors at a trade show. Again, these position you as a thought leader instead of a joiner or follower. In fact, Google now offers the ability to use Google Hangouts for small group webinars, as illustrated in the video below:

You can also consider pouring those dollars into completely unrelated buckets. Plan a direct mail campaign to top customers, invest the money in ongoing education for your senior leaders, or even breathe some fresh air into your business with a website redesign.

“But I just want to go! Everyone will be there!”

What if you can’t imagine missing a particular trade show, but the ROI doesn’t justify it? Then what? You don’t have to exhibit. You can attend as a participant. Or better yet, grab the podium as a speaker and gain major cred as the industry thought leader you are.

In fact, you don’t even need to attend the actual event itself in any fashion to tie-into the benefits. Consider hosting an after-hours event for top customers that you know will be attending. This is a great way to get face time with a group of important people all in one place, and you can do it away from the hustle and bustle and “forced shop talk” of the event itself.

If you’re a member of the association that’s hosting the event, you may even be able to purchase the attendee list and market to them as you see fit, without incurring any cost of travel or other expenses.

Remember the value of current customers

What do your customers or vendors get out of you attending the trade show? We’re more connected than ever with email marketing, mobile phones, video conferencing, social networks, online marketing and more. A good strategy keeps you in your customers’ minds at set intervals with email news blasts, ongoing web content, etc. That being said there is still tremendous value in one-on-one, look-you-in-the-eye conversation to expand networks and strengthen loyalty. Sometimes instead of looking at new sales and customers, there is value on staying top of mind with current customers. Every minute they spend with you onsite is a minute that they aren’t in a competitor’s space getting pitched on something else.

In 2012, the Center for Exhibition Industry Research released a report on the importance of face-to-face interaction. Of the 9,000 trade show attendees and 800 exhibitors surveyed, 48% of attendees said that meeting exhibitors is more valuable today than two years ago and 43% think trade shows and the like will be even more important over the next couple of years. Digital communication isn’t always enough.

Sometimes, people need to see your face regardless of where they are in the buying process. Pre-sale, customers are comparison shopping and checking out their options. Post-sale, they’re in need of on-going support to maintain the relationship to nurture subsequent sales. Today, companies aren’t footing the bill to send any and everyone to trade shows, just those who have decision-making and buying power, making some trade shows worth your while.

Don’t forget your most valuable asset

So you’ve added up the numbers and decided to sit this one out. There’s one more factor to consider, and that’s what the trade show means to your team. This includes the chance to travel to a new city, to let off steam, or to attend educational seminars that enhance their accreditation or industry knowledge. Hearing that you’re not attending a run-of-the-mill show in Cleveland in winter could be a relief. But giving up Vegas or that coveted San Diego ocean view room is a different story. You might as well be taking away vacation time too. In fact, some employees may see it as that – a vacation.

Even if the ROI doesn’t justify the expense business-wise, don’t underestimate the trade show’s impact on morale and education. A trade show that keeps your team happy and gives them something to look forward to every year can be a wise investment – maybe not on your bottom line, but in your people – the ones impacting your return in the long run.

What you say isn’t as important as how you say it

For many business owners and key decision makers, trade shows & industry events can be a little overwhelming. The logistics alone can eat up time and manpower, let alone getting branded give-away items, interesting tradeshow brochures and a top-of-the-line booth set-up.  Marketing to all these leads post-show is a headache as well if you aren’t tracking them appropriately. That’s where we come in. Designing, printing and shipping booth materials, creating and ordering give away items, pre- and post-show marketing to prospects and helping you manager your customer pipeline are things we do every day for our clients. If you’re big on ideas but short on professional staff to make tradeshows “work,” consider giving us a call.


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