Q&As: Trade Show Insights for Small Businesses

Q: Do I have to go to trade shows to succeed in my industry?

A: No. There are plenty of businesses in all industries and sizes that don’t participate in trade shows. Many are, nonetheless, very successful. Don’t choose trade shows as a vehicle for promoting your company, products, and services simply because other firms you know are planning to exhibit.

Decide for yourself whether the exposure is worth the expense. If it is, set a budget and stick to it. Remember, rewards from attending a trade show are generally intangible. Don’t expect a big pile of orders from new customers.

Q: Should I advertise in trade show publications?

A: Be prepared. You will get calls from media representatives selling ad space on the trade show page of their website or in a trade show special edition of their industry publication. They might play on your fear that no one will visit your booth because they won’t know you are there unless you advertise. This is nonsense! You will be much better off spending money on upgrading your booth presentation than you would be on advertising in a trade show publication. Later, as you become a big player in the industry, it may be worthwhile to promote your booth through advertising, but as a smaller player I’d first put my budget into renting the booth space and presenting a good-looking exhibit.

Q: What if I do decide to advertise in a trade show publication?

A: If you do decide to place trade show advertisements, advertise in a regular trade publication, in the preshow issue that features trade show news, or on their website. Many of these trade publications also issue a special show guide that buyers often use in planning booth visits. Typically, advertisers are listed in these guides. Sometimes these publications also offer additional circulation of their trade show issue to trade show attendees, often at no extra cost, in addition to their usual circulation. Ultimately, you will be much better off advertising in a regular trade publication that has a preshow issue than in any publication that is distributed solely at the show. You will reach show attendees as well as buyers who don’t attend the show.

Q: Should I have giveaways?

A: In some industries, everyone has some giveaways at a trade show. In other industries, only the larger firms do. Play it by ear. And, unless you are restrictive about who gets your giveaways, you may very well give more of your products or gifts to the competition than you do to buyers!

Q: How much work can I do without hiring union labor?

A: Each exposition hall (not each trade show) has its own rules. If your industry’s trade show is held in a different city each year, then the rules will vary each year. Rules at major convention centers tend to be very restrictive because they are usually built with public money and politicians are sensitive to the needs of labor unions.

At most larger convention centers you can’t carry anything into the hall yourself that you can’t carry in your hands. That means no two-wheelers or dollies. You can’t hire labor that isn’t union, and you can’t use your own tools to set up your own booth. You can’t even use your own ladder. So, if you can hand carry your booth into the convention center and set it up without the benefit of tools, you are all set. Otherwise, you will have to contract labor to do the delivery of your exhibit to the booth space and, at the very least, assist in booth assembly.

Once, when I was setting up a multi-booth exhibit in Las Vegas, the union steward complained to me about my lack of union help in setting up part of my display. I persuaded him not to push the issue because I had hired a three-man union crew and a lift truck to install a massive vertical sign earlier in the day. I also emphasized that I was still a fairly small business—just an everyday guy working hard—not some big corporation.

To avoid any unpleasant ramifications that may result from the use of unauthorized or unacceptable labor, use the show’s recommended labor vendors, decorators, electrical contractors, and other services.

Furthermore, I will note that when I have used union labor at trade shows, I have always been impressed with both the quality and the speed of their work. Part of the reason trade show labor is expensive is because the work is erratic. They might have work for 10 days straight during a busy trade show time, then no work for the following week at all. So even though trade show labor rates may be high, that doesn’t necessarily mean the labor force is getting rich or that you aren’t getting a decent deal.

About Bob Adams

Bob Adams is a Harvard MBA serial entrepreneur. He has started over a dozen businesses including one that he launched with $1500 and sold for $40 million. He has written 17 books and created 52 online courses for entrepreneurs. Bob also founded BusinessTown, the go-to learning platform for starting and running a business.