How to Get the Most Out of a Trade Show as an Attendee

Trade show tips to get the most out of attending.
Pictured is one of the many aisles at the PPAI Expo in Las Vegas, which boasts over 1,000,000 square feet of promotional product exhibits.

Most industries have numerous choices when it comes to trade shows. You can choose to attend local or regional shows, which may be on a smaller scale, or you may choose the national shows that are huge! Whether large or small, attending trade shows can be wildly beneficial OR they can be a colossal waste of time if you don’t have a plan.

The promotional products industry is no different, we have dozens of smaller trade shows and 7 major events. While this article is specifically speaking to promotional product distributors, the tips below are valid for nearly all other industries.

The choice of what you get out of attending a trade show rests solely on your shoulders.

Following these simple tips, you can maximize your trade show experience to better serve you and your business. 

Tips For Getting the Most Out of Attending a Trade Show

  1. Research the exhibitors ahead of time. Before the trade show, research the list of the exhibitors that will be present. Find your favorite suppliers and map out their booth numbers so you can easily find them. Also scan the list for other suppliers that peak your interest so you can also quickly find them. Most larger trade shows offer an app that makes it easy to map out your plan. For PPAI Expo attendees, SAGE Mobile is the official show planner for PPAI Expo. For the ASI Shows, they offer a similar tool to plan your shows.
  2. Make appointments with suppliers. Many suppliers exhibiting will actually set time aside for a one-on-one chat to discuss upcoming projects. This is a great opportunity for in-person collaboration between suppliers and distributors. Plus, it’s great to know who you do business with or you may do business with in the future.
  3. Plan to meet up with other distributors. In my opinion, this is the aspect of trade shows that offers the best opportunity for learning! Trade shows are a perfect environment to meet and talk with other distributors. Not only can you make great friends doing this, but you can also learn a lot about the industry from the perspective of other industry professionals. At these events, you’ll notice that other business owners with similar businesses to yours are much more willing to share business strategies and “secrets” about how their business runs. Utilize this neutral turf to gain new ideas and perspectives that can improve the way you operate your business.
  4. Hang out with suppliers after hours. “Doing business” has become much more about “people doing business with people” rather than “people doing business with corporations.” Getting to know your suppliers on a personal level over a beer or glass of wine will do wonders to improve your business relationship. Make friends, and you will have a go-to person within the company! It’s easy to find suppliers hanging out and unwinding at the various cocktail lounges after their scheduled events for the day.
  5. Attend as many educational sessions as possible. Knowledge is power and it will separate you far from competitors. You can bet the majority of trade show attendees are opting out of the education in lieu of the “fun” activities and simply strolling through the endless aisles of exhibitors with no real purpose.  Plan out which sessions are likely to be the most beneficial to you and your business. Go to different classes than your colleagues. Take notes. Trade notes. Ask questions. Learn as much as possible! If your industry offers certifications, work towards obtaining the highest certification possible.
  6. So NO to the scanner. With most trade shows, you receive a badge with a bar code that exhibitors can scan as you visit their booth. That scan allows them to later download your contact info, including your email, phone number, and mailing address. If you determine a supplier is of no value to you, don’t let them scan you. This will save you from unwanted emails and mailings. It will also save that supplier money, since they have to pay for each scanned lead as well as the non-wanted literature and samples they may send you. However, if you will likely do business with that supplier and you truly do want more information from them, by all means let them scan your badge. By being selective, you will be more productive when sifting through the emails and collateral sent to you after the event.
  7. Scooter Scooper - Table Scraper at Trade Shows
    Example of a “scooter scopper” or “table scraper” at a trade show. As you see, this person has 4 large bags of promotional items that she grabbed from many different vendors. After the trade show, she had to take a pit stop and stop at a slot machine.

    Don’t be a table scraper or a scooter scooper. As you walk through the exhibitor floor and pass the thousands of suppliers, don’t take catalogs and samples from each vendor. This is not a “He with the most samples wins” contest. You can easily differentiate the veterans from the rookies at trade shows. The rookies take everything (see the photo). The rookies I’m talking about come in all ages and years of experience. Why do you need 22 samples of the same letter opener? Do you really still get that much snail mail? The promotional products given away by the suppliers are really meant for trade show attendees that are actually interested in developing a business relationship with them and NOT for your grand-kids or to resell at your garage sale.

  8. Leave your grandiose talk at home. Over the past 18 years of attending various trade shows within the promotional products industry, I’ve seen so many distributors big-talking to suppliers they don’t know in a feeble attempt to work out special pricing, faster production times, etc. Bragging about how much business you do is not helpful. Back it up will actual sales with that supplier, then talk to them. Don’t waste their time with your larger than life promises that you can’t fulfill.
  9. Bring plenty of business cards. If you play your cards right, you will meet a lot of new friends as well as new business partners. Exchange business cards so you have each other’s contact info. This IS a networking event, and you should always have business cards with you.
  10. Attend the socials and after hours events. You will find there are many social events hosted by suppliers, distributors, and other vendors that are separate from the trade show, but scheduled at times that don’t interfere with the official trade show schedule. These are excellent times to meet additional people, both on the supplier and distributor side, as well as relax and have a little fun.
  11. Look for new trends. During your time in educational sessions and while visiting the exhibitors, if you pay attention, you can spot the most current product trends. Those trends could be specific types of products such as technology items, or they could be popular color combinations. If you notice multiple suppliers carrying the same product styles or colors, you can bet those are likely trending items. Take that information back to your business for your customers. You may be the one that brings a trend to your local area. Staying current with the trends and passing those to your customers is an invaluable service that shows your local area you are the expert in your field.

Overall, trade shows can be extremely valuable to attend if you follow these tips. The knowledge gained and relationships formed will help propel you leagues ahead of many of your competitors. Make it a point to learn as much as possible, no matter how “seasoned” you are in the industry, There is always more to learn.

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