Bonus Content

The ROI of Trade Shows

by Jan Niehaus

Conferences aren’t cheap. Altogether, the conference fee, fees for classes, travel, lodgings, and meals are a tidy sum. Make sure you get the best return on your conference investment.

Plan, plan, plan
The beauty of conferences is that you see so many products together in one place at the same time and clock more face time with more industry leaders and manufacturing representatives than you could reach in a year. Trade shows are a gold mine if you plan ahead, but if you don’t, they can be completely overwhelming—information overload! —or nothing more than a good time away from work hanging out with interesting people.

Get ready to maximize the value of your conference investment:
Scour the program agenda.
Study the attendance roster.
Examine the floor plan.
Get management’s and colleagues’ input on priorities.
Set objectives for companies, products, people, and workshops.

In advance, learn everything you can about the companies and individuals you have targeted through their websites, Linked In, Facebook. Search for third-party information, e.g., company won contract with large school district, executive was appointed to urban planning commission. Find photos of key individuals so you will recognize them at general sessions and receptions. Study the conference floorplan and map an efficient route to your first-priority booths and workshops, but allow time in your schedule to explore resources that are more exciting than you anticipated. And pack comfortable walking shoes.

Divide and conquer if two or more of you are attending, so you can cover as much ground as possible: 
Visit top-priority exhibits.
Catch critical presentations and courses offered by industry experts.
Earn Continuing Education Units (CEUs) needed for professional certifications.
Shake hands with established business partners.
Initiate relationships with valuable, new contacts.

Cindy Bambini, director of business development for a Midwestern solar integrator, tells a story about a conference she attended while working for a utility that was, at the time, preparing to launch a green power program. She found herself seated next to a sales executive whom we will call Mr. Jones, whose company consulted utility companies and administered programs exactly like the one Bambini’s company was ready to implement. Months after the first contract was signed, Bambini learned that Jones knew, before the conference, all about her company, the pending program, and Bambini herself from her LinkedIn page. Jones had every intention of meeting Bambini at the conference. The collaboration between the two companies is in its seventh year.

Before leaving for the co-located Strategies in Light and LED Show in Las Vegas in February 2015, Christine VanLeeuwen, had already secured six appointments with exhibitors, presenters, and other attendees, including a meeting at the opening night reception with the first keynote speaker, giving him ample time over the next three days to introduce her to other industry leaders.

Pack lots of business cards, adorned with a QR (Quick Response) code, if available. Be digitally prepared to:
Shoot photos and videos of promising products and technologies.
Scan documents so you’re not loaded down with brochures and spec sheets.
Upload media to maintain maximum capacity on your phone or tablet.
Record audio memos.
Participate in any virtual forums, for even greater exposure. For example, the LED Show maintained a Google Hangout throughout the conference.

Be fully present
Show up early and stay late to capitalize on the wealth of industry intelligence gathered in one place. Review the day-of-conference agenda and map, alert to last-minute changes, and modify your plan as necessary.

Stick to your plan:
Make yourself and your value known to other attendees.
Take notes. Before you pocket a business card, jot down notes about your conversation as a further memory aid.
Shoot photos and videos when demonstrations are not available online.
Blog, tweet, and post to Instagram and Facebook about your experience, without revealing any competitive advantages. 
Capture contact information.
Make concrete follow-up plans.

The abundance of booths can easily distract you from your objectives, so stay focused. At the end of every day, review your notes and take-aways, and expand your notes as necessary to ensure your recall of important events, products, and contacts. Through colleagues or the Internet, research items about which you want more information, e.g., objective product reviews by industry writers. Then fine-tune you next day’s plan of attack.

Bring it home
The mountain of paper on your desk will wait while you follow through on your commitments to conference attendees. Make the phone calls and send the emails that you promised. Add individuals to your CRM or other database and appropriate distribution lists, e.g., newsletters. Create an audio-visual summary of the conference, and schedule a time to share it with your management and your colleagues. Include your suggestions or recommendations for actions that may require a higher level of authority than your own, e.g., open account with new supplier.

And then start planning for your next trade show!

Niehaus, president of Communication by Design (, serves the electrical industry by creating marketing communications and custom training programs, often applying her extensive knowledge of sustainability. Jan writes regularly for “tED” and designed and scripted NAED’s “Selling Green 101” curriculum. She can be reached at 314-644-4135 or

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