5 Trade Show Tips

Trade shows are a great way to increase professional skills, expertise and contacts. No matter what your industry, these 5 tips will help.

Going to a trade show of fellow industry professionals can be one of the most rewarding experiences in your career. These five tips can help you get the most from your experience, no matter what your industry.

1) Seeing half of two seminars beats one full session.

Many trade shows offer excellent seminars where you can add expertise and knowledge. Indeed, it's difficult for a trade show to excel without great sessions. If the show you are going to has these, bring a notebook and take quality notes.

However, many attendees lock into a seminar, jot down everything, and realize later that much of the session was of limited utility. Leaving a session early might not be good manners, but it's better to be rude than miss an opportunity to learn. Besides, most speakers prepare for busy professionals with comprehensive summaries and overviews. (Another tip is to, whenever possible, grab the printed materials. Many speakers will go off a slide show without adding much to what's on screen.)



2) Make a networking plan.

Looking at the seminar sessions before the show is critical. Your goal is not just to make an efficient plan on learning, but also in networking. If there is a seminar led by someone that could really do your company or career some good, play the star pupil role: arrive early, ask good questions, and stay late. Since this is somewhat contrary to the first tip, make sure you limit your networking choices to only the best-fitting candidates.

3) Tour the dealers' room daily and thoroughly.

Trade shows offer a perfect "silver bullet" opportunity for merchandisers and service providers that sell to your industry. While everyone in the room is hoping to separate you from your money, that doesn't mean you can't learn a ton here...especially if your company's competitors are displaying.

Depending on the quality of the dealers and representatives, you can learn more from dealers than seminars. You do this by giving the sales reps on the floor the courtesy of listening to their pitch, than ask questions about what's really of interest to you. The goal here isn't to spend a ton of money, or to sidetrack sales reps from selling. The goal is to find out what's out there, and to widen your networking reach. You do this by being you in front of fellow professionals, and determining who the real players are in your industry.

4) Don't be stingy with your business cards.

Even if you are already drowning in junk mail, don't limit your distribution of business cards on the show floor. Most trade shows will rent your name and address to exhibiting companies. Since you are already going to get mail, not passing a card won't help you much.

Hording your cards also sends a clear message that you are (a) not important enough to have a card, or (b) not interested in what your new contacts have to say. Since business cards are cheap and first impressions are important, neither approach is a good idea.

5) Lighten up, but with an agenda, and make sure to follow up.

It's easy to fall into a "prude or hedonist" mindset at a trade show, and neither approach is professionally defensible. The temptations of expense account living and a new social situation lead many people to forget work and take a de facto vacation. Others operate with an ultra-conservative mindset, depriving them of a chance to be successful in their networking.

Aim for a happy medium. Entertain attendees, but don't lose all inhibitions. Socialize, but not to the point that you won't be reasonably sharp on the next day of your assignment - and make no mistake, a trade show is an assignment. If you're worried that your dinner bill will cause trouble with accounting, skip a meal to make your total more palatable. And most of all, keep your schedule reasonably flexible. If your most important contact at the show wants to talk longer, you don't want to play clock-watcher.

Bonus tip: Make sure you follow up with your show contacts once you get back home. Failing to do this, to some extent, throws away the money you spent going to the trade show in the first place.

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