Make Your Trade Shows More Strategic and Higher ROI

“Let’s exhibit at trade show X” is a common refrain among sales and marketing teams.

That’s no surprise, considering the scope of the global trade show industry. Various estimates put global trade show revenue in the low $30 billion range, with the United States comprising about 50%. Whatever the number, trade shows are big business: for the show organizers, stand designers, stand builders, brochure writers, hotels and every other business sector that’s involved and benefits.

But what do sales and marketing teams and their companies get out of trade shows?

Ahh, that’s a difficult question to answer, and I say that as a marketing leader who has extensive involvement with B2B trade shows. I’m back from this month’s Vitafoods show in Europe, and while walking the expansive exhibit hall I wondered about the massive investments, the decision-making processes and the hoped-for results.

The first challenge for many companies is that they don’t have a well-defined answer to this question: Why are we exhibiting at trade show X and what is the purpose of our investment?

Sure, the teams at those companies will say something like we need to be there to support our business or we need to be “seen” in the industry. That’s not good enough. How many can articulate the defined objectives, or better yet, have them integrated and written into the annual marketing plan? My view is that, for a high percentage, the process is quite informal. Year-to-year decision-making may even kind of roll over in autopilot mode. That doesn’t automatically make it a bad process, but it does make it one less optimized for success. With so many pressures on sales and marketing teams, it’s better to increase, rather than decrease, success factors.

There are numerous reasons for making a trade show investment, including for example:

  • Accessing a new market
  • Penetrating an existing market
  • Building or solidifying the company image
  • Launching a new product or service
  • Searching for channel partners
  • FOMO (fear of missing out) or more accurately stated FONBT (fear of not being there)

My view is that the trade show part of the marketing mix should be treated with the same marketing discipline respect as the rest of the marketing strategy and plan. However, lack of discipline with trade shows may be indicative of the same for the overall marketing strategy and plan process! (For more on that subject, you can read my post Why Your Business Needs “Marketing Discipline.”)

9 Action Points” to Make Your Trade Shows More Strategic and Higher ROI

Want to separate yourself from your competitors? Here are nine easy ways to get started.

  1. Understand your company’s commercial objectives
  2. Determine if and how trade shows can help achieve those objectives
  3. Identify the most relevant trade shows
  4. Prepare written objectives
  5. Customize your participation to engage the desired target(s) at each show
  6. Formally prepare and brief your trade show team (everyone who will be representing the company at the stand)
  7. Devise some system for visitor capture, tracking and post-show action analysis. Pre COVID, my recommendation was to automate visitor tracking with easy mobile phone scanning software that scans visitor badges and enables easy note-taking. At Vitafoods, there were only phone-based digital badges, which would have made scanning awkward.
  8. Conduct a post-show analysis and prepare a written report. What worked well? Where were you short? What are good ideas for next time? Should there be a next time?
  9. Include a “fully-loaded” analysis in your post show report. What’s that? Well, your company is spending serious cash to fly-in, hotel and feed the onsite team. What does that cost in addition to the stand space, stand build and whatever else went into your total stand presentation? The fully-loaded number may surprise internal leaders, but the head of marketing should know the company investment and be comfortable that it’s a good use of resources. At the same time, the head of sales should agree that this type of total company investment (marketing and travel funds) is appropriate to help achieve the annual objectives.

For 12 more action points to help maximize your trade show marketing, read my article published in Sales & Marketing Management, titled: Put the Marketing in Your Trade Shows.

(Photo Credit: Vitafoods 2021)


Harvey Chimoff is a customer-focused global business leader who connects marketing across the organization to drive performance and achieve business objectives. His B2B and CPG marketing expertise includes agribusiness, ingredients and food and beverage. Contact him at harveychimoff.com.