Maximizing Trade Show ROI

Originally published September 2006, Successful Meetings

I hear it all the time: Trade shows are a waste of time and money. We stand around, selling our hearts out, and what do we have to show at the end of the day? Nothing. Well, that's the result exhibitors should expect if they neglect the most crucial aspect of trade show participation: Follow-up.

What happens at the trade show is obviously important to the success of the host organization, but equally important is what happens after the show ends. This is where most exhibitors drop the ball. Helping your exhibitors to differentiate their companies from their competitors' enables them to wring the full value from participation in your organization's trade show. To truly benefit from all the hard work that went into planning the show, give your exhibitors the following checklist to ensure that appropriate follow-up activities take place.

Begin Before the Show

Research tells us that over 80 percent of leads gathered at trade shows are never followed up. That's a phenomenal number, especially when each lead has the potential to generate profit for the exhibiting company.

Why do so many leads fall by the wayside? It's because show leads have a reputation for having no substance—they're either just cold business cards or similar basic information imprinted on a company lead card. There's nothing there to give already busy professionals a reason to follow up. Even if the salespeople do follow up, there's only so much they can learn from a business card or bare-bones information. For salespeople to view leads as being worthwhile for follow-up, they need quality information.

For this reason, it is vital that exhibitors spend time going over the lead collecting process before the show. They should accomplish the following things:

• Clarify exactly what types of information should be recorded on lead cards.

• Explain the importance of the information they are gathering to everyone working the booth.

• Make sure everyone working the booth knows exactly how to operate the card readers and use the printouts and lead cards.

Everyone working the show should know exactly what results you want to achieve at the various trade shows you attend. Each show should have its own set of specific, clear, quantifiable, realistic goals. These goals should be in line with your company's overall marketing objectives. These goals give staffers something to strive for, but they also serve as benchmarks to evaluate and measure team and individual performance.

Develop a Follow-Up System

To achieve and perhaps surpass your specific goals, exhibitors need a follow-up system. The best time to develop a follow-up system is during the planning and training stage.

Select a team member to take responsibility for collecting all "hot" leads at the end of each day; assign this person to overnight the leads to the home office for immediate processing.

Appoint someone at the home office as a follow-up manager. This person takes charge of the entire follow-up process and should be someone who does not attend the show.

It is important to send something, such as a letter, e-mail, or broadcast fax, to everyone who came by the booth to thank them and let them know when they can expect to hear from your company again. This should be done within three to five days after the show.

Timeliness is of the essence with all leads, not just the "hot" ones. Obviously you're not going to overnight every single lead back to the home office, but there are steps you can take to ensure you stand out from the crowd of exhibitors.

Stress Accountability

Exhibitors should use contact management database programs to ensure their sales staffs get leads that are as complete and useful as possible. Then, after leads are distributed, the account representatives need to be held responsible for the results.

There should be a written progress report from each salesperson at regular, predetermined intervals. This information can be used to track their performance, sales made, etc. Some companies use performance in lead follow-up as one factor in a salesperson's annual performance review. Knowing that they will be held accountable for results is a powerful motivator.

Measure Results

At the end of the day, your exhibitors need to show the upper management of their organizations that their money was well spent. Keeping track of leads allows exhibitors to measure sales directly attributable to their trade show participation. To record data that will provide qualitative and quantitative analysis of the show, exhibitors should take the following steps:

To measure the cost per trade show lead, simply divide the total show expenditure by the number of leads gathered. To measure the cost per sale, divide the total show expenditure by the number of sales.

Keep track of qualitative data, such as types of prospects who visited the booth, dates and times of their visit, products/services of interest, buying intent, and results of any pre-show promotional activity. This data can prove invaluable when planning future show participation.

The key to trade show success is wrapped up in the lead-management process. It starts with exhibitors knowing at the outset what they want to achieve, then continues through establishing a strategy that is user-friendly, and finally the actual follow-up operation leads to bottom-line profitability. With a little forethought and planning, the results will speak for themselves.

Susan A. Friedmann, CSP, is the author of Meeting & Event Planning for Dummies. She works with companies to improve their meeting and event success through coaching, consulting, and training. To contact her, visit