tsasrBIG COMPANIES HAVE RELIED ON INDUSTRY trade shows to be hotbeds for business-to-business deal making, lead gathering, and overall business marketing and promotion. In the past, many trade shows had a broad appeal and focus or catered only to Fortune 1000 companies. But recent growth in this booming $10 billion industry has spurred organizers to launch increasing numbers of smaller, more specialized business-to-business events that cater to much narrower, more vertical audiences. Today, you have a good chance of discovering events dedicated to your trade and targeting the very customers, competitors, and potential partners you’re trying to reach.

Although odds are good you’ve walked the aisles as an attendant at such industry events, it’s time to consider the benefits of setting up your own exhibit booth. Trade shows can help you target your audience. If you pick the proper show, you’ll meet people you wouldn’t usually see on a one-on-one basis. And because you’re not a large company with an extensive sales force, the benefits are great: You’ll encounter hundreds of potential business opportunities in two or three days.

You may think your home-based business is too small to participate, too constrained by lack of personnel to staff a booth, or too tightly budgeted to invest in booth space and peripherals. But that’s no longer the case. We’ll show you how to get started.

Home In on a Show

There are shows of all sizes in nearly every industry, from various technologies to gift fairs to manufacturing to `landscaping. And it’s easy to find out what they are and how impressive their attendance figures have been. Learn what they charge per square foot of exhibit space (generally the smallest increment you can purchase is 10 by 10 feet).

The simplest way to research shows is online. TS-Central (www.tscentral.com) and the Trade Show News Network (www.tsnn.com) are two top sources for identifying most of the 4,000-plus annual North American trade shows. The sites provide information on events (dates, locations, and so on), and let you find contacts at shows and study exhibits by industry, date, and geographical region to get a better idea of where you fit in.

Make Contact After you’ve done your research and created a list of possibilities, get in touch with the company or association responsible for producing the show. Most show organizers have Web sites and often let you register online to get a feel for the event. You can also request a prospectus, a brochure that gives you detailed information about the show. It lists exhibitors and supporting associations and groups, and provides attendee profiles with job titles and levels of buying authority.

There is one caveat, though: Check with show management regarding drayage (movement of freight) charges and labor regulations within the hall. If you have your product shipped in, you’ll be charged a fee for every 100 pounds. You may not have much to haul, but these fees can be hefty surprises for new exhibitors.

Set Up Shop Before you arrive at the show, you need to make several decisions. As a new, small player, you may want to rent a portable or pop-up booth. The large exhibit houses build megabooths for big companies and the like. But what you need is an easy-to-assemble, lightweight structure.

“This eliminates a cadre of decisions the new exhibitor must make,” says exhibition consultant Janet Schafer, president of the Highland Park, Ill.-based Schafer Group. A new niche or pavilion area within a show often offers special pricing. And always ask about a first-timer program, she says.

Preshow Marketing

To get the most out of the show, preplanning is essential. This involves setting goals and supporting them through marketing via direct mail, reminder cards, contests, and participation in show-sponsored programs.

Although it’s the event organizer’s responsibility to bring attendees to the hall, it’s your job to attract them to your booth. The organizer will help you determine the identity of pre-registered attendees and answer your questions.

Trade show organizers publicize their events to qualified attendees. But they also invite exhibitors to go in on co-op ads at little or no cost, sending your customers four-page flyers with registration forms and information inside, and your ad or logo on the front page.

Other perks include VIP tickets or free, personalized invitations that are mailed to your customers. You receive a listing in the directory, which is distributed on-site, and you’ll be offered opportunities in other show-driven marketing programs. The show’s Web site might also offer a link from its exhibitor listing to your Web site.

Meet the Press Show organizers will frequently ask you to prepare a press kit for the show. This is your opportunity to reach out to the media and get publicity for your business. The kit is a compilation of information about your company, and should include a one-page company backgrounder, a two-page news piece on each new product or service your company provides, a photo (slide or color print), a contact name, and your booth number.

Editors and reporters need to know what’s new, and if they find something interesting, there’s a chance you’ll be mentioned in a news or product story.

Work the Booth

Staffing an exhibit alone takes stamina; standing around all day, making contacts, and showing off your product or service can leave you exhausted by the end of the show’s run. If you have a colleague in a similar business, you might want to exhibit jointly. Or you can go in as an adjunct to a company with which you do business.

If you can’t get another person (even a family member) to take over the booth for a while, leave a message for visitors indicating when you’ll return. Don’t take long lunches; leave more frequently for shorter periods.

When you’re among hundreds of event participants in a confined space, it can often be difficult to attract visitors to your booth. Be proactive. You have just a few moments to get your message across, so work on making it interesting and brief.

You also should have your company literature handy. If you can afford to do so, rent space in literature kiosks in the lobbies or registration areas. You may also want to swipe attendants’ plastic ID cards (provided with their badges) to capture the lead on an imprinter or handheld computer system rented from show management. If so, it’s imperative to mail catalogs, brochures, and other materials to them quickly, with a personalized cover letter attached.

Once the show’s over, you’ll need to do some follow-up. File leads for future reference, visit the organizer’s Web site for updates on future shows, and stay in touch with exhibitors you’ve met. And let your clients know which trade shows you participate in. Exhibiting keeps you up-to-date in your industry.

Virtual Show

Although the virtual exhibition has not yet arrived, the industry is moving toward incorporating an online aspect into shows. Currently, though, the virtual trade show simply exists as an adjunct to successful offline events, offering links to the exhibitor’s home page, a description and history of the show, and useful information on conferences and networking events, as well as contact information.

Booth Building Made Easy

If the “pipe-and-drape” system of exhibition (assembling metal tubing for hanging curtains) isn’t to your taste, more sophisticated booths are available for rental or purchase. You may want to use a portable backlit booth that stows away in a case on casters, and can be transported by car to the convention hall. Or, you can purchase an exhibit made up of flexible panels that configures for a variety of situations. The initial investment in either can be recouped after three to five shows, depending on how well you fare at the show.

According to Bruce Newbury, director of business development for Nimlok, a Niles, III.-based booth vendor, renting a simple 10-foot exhibit with a backlit header and materials costs about $650. A graphic adds another $175, carpet rental may be $325, and an electrical outlet is about $200 (prices vary from show to show), he says.

Some exhibitors can expect to pay about $45 per 100 pounds in drayage fees, Newbury says. For example, 130 pounds divided by 100, or 1.3 times $45, equals $60. “Setup takes one person about 20 minutes,” he adds.