Five hints to harvesting trade show success

It was a glorious autumn day, perfect for harvesting or anything else that didn’t involve being behind a table inside a conference room. Yet, that’s where I was, at a conference, waiting and hoping to promote my story, my services and … yikes … myself as author, publisher, expert worth hiring… The creative side of me was screaming to go for a walk on the beach or hide at home with – you got it – a good book. The business part of me, however, knew this was the perfect place for me. I was at a conference of library personnel, folks who have dedicated their careers to the love and promotion of books, reading, writing, and all those things I, too, am passionate about. But how to connect with them, with only a display table and a few moments of their time to work with?

To clarify, the event of which I speak is not a retail show, where the goal is to promote and sell. This is a trade show, where the realistic goal is to connect, share details, swap contact information and ideally, begin an ongoing relationship that will result in a sale or engagement at a later date.

Here is my five-point checklist:

1. Start with realistic expectations. As mentioned, trade shows are rarely also retail events. You will not recoup your investment in direct sales that day. I view my trade show fee and time as investments in promotion and business development, a business course and living advertisement all in one. When I measured my success in sales, I would leave frustrated and defeated. When I measured my success in quality (not quantity) of engagaments and knowledge gained, I have yet to post a fail.

2. Get in touch with organizers and, if possible, participants in advance. Touch base with organizers on estimated participant numbers and demographics, ask for insights on what materials and pitches to prepare, be mindful for hints on what would make good giveaways or prizes. Offer invitations or goodies for the conference bags, something to make participants feel welcome at your table before they arrive.

3. Don’t sweat the decor. Yes, put some effort into making your table look inviting, neat and unique, but don’t spend thousands of dollars or kill your back lugging trunkfuls of bling to spruce up your space. Meaningful engagements will come from the sincerity of your presence and substance of your information. Spend time and money on your pitch instead. Ultimately, if you can identify quickly what you provide and it’s a fit for what they’re looking for, you’ll have them at hello, no matter how much time and money you’ve spent on matching table linens or display racks.

4. Offer a takeaway, no strings attached. We all love gifts, and while we as writers can’t have too many pens or notepads, imagine as well something unique that shares your message, invites a callback, and catches their attention. I offer pocket reading kits: small shimmery bags with two excerpts from my books, a business card and a snack: could be a tea bag, a sucker for kids’ giveaways or an individually-wrapped piece of chocolate … just not in the summer when my gear has to sit in a hot car, I’ve learned the hard way. Info sheets, with a small bio, clear list of services, and our company story are also helpful. If there is little time to talk, offering a sheet is a pitch to go; if conversation has been good, the sheet is a reminder for when they arrive home. Whatever you choose, offer it up freely and with a smile, even when the occasional crank snaps ‘I don’t like tea,’ and fires your gift back in the basket like she’s been bitten. Those who partake will remember the experience of your interaction, not your pitch, so be sure you treat these gifts as just that – gifts. If they start a conversation or provide an opportunity to share your pitch, all the better.

5. Be open. What looks at first glance to be a small or slow event could yield that one contact you’ve been waiting for. The surly guy who initially stares at you like you’re contagious may hear something that causes him to blink, nod and share. We don’t know the stories of those who pass by, so park the judgement and be first and foremost a caring human being. Offer a greeting and kind word, and don’t take it personally when there is no response. Move on and keep at it. There is no predicting the future, but sharing positive energy in the present always leads to something bright, even if it’s just that moment.

In this age of technology, trade shows remain a rare opportunity to engage with people face to face. As with any business function, it can be a chore, or it can be an opportunity. As challengeing as it can be sometimes, I cling to the latter. I have enough chores waiting for me at home. So, when the next trade show invite surfaces, check your schedule and budget, and if it works, say yes! Then breathe, imagine, plan, and get out there. It only takes one key conversation to move your business to the next level.

Thanks for reading.

Jennifer Hatt is author of the Finding Maria series and partner in publishing company Marechal Media Inc.