Pulling off a successful trade show exhibition can be likened to the image of a duck gliding over water, with the unseen work of swiftly paddling feet below the surface. Promotional products suppliers display this same cool confidence on the show floor, while behind the scenes the work is fast-paced and often begins months ahead of an event.

Conferences and trade shows account for one-fifth or more of planned meetings activity in North America, and The PPAI Expo is the preeminent event for the majority of the industry. Many exhibitors cite product exposure/new product introduction as one of the primary reasons to exhibit, and most—if not all—value the time they can spend with new and prospective clients.

1. Raise Brand Awareness
2. Get Leads From New
3. See Current Clients Face To Face
4. Showcase New And Trendy Products
5. Engage In Networking And Professional Development

1. Cost
2. Competition From Larger Booths
3. Show Floor Position
4. Low-Value Leads
5. Onsite Technical Issues

“Trade shows serve two purposes,” says Kippie Helzel, vice president of sales at supplier CPS / Keystone Line in Erie, Pennsylvania. “The obvious [one] is meeting and seeing clients, highlighting key products and meeting potential new customers. The other is having the chance to work with your team.
“In the environment of a show, the ability to have casual but pointed conversations with customers, the opportunity to thank them and ask them for their business is essential,” Helzel explains. “The same is true of our team; how we all come together, share our ideas and introduce good customers to other team members—this is a wonderful opportunity to take our individual energies and best ideas and help create an even stronger team.”
Christopher Duffy, MAS, director of marketing for St. Louis, Missouri-based supplier Ariel Premium Supply, Inc., says, “We’re often introducing 50 to 70 new products twice a year. We commit considerable time to thinking about the presentation of the products, where distributors can touch and feel everything, and how we can also showcase our imprint capabilities, especially our multicolor imprinting.”

Bill O’Donnell, sales director for supplier National Geographic Books in Washington, D.C., says, “Meeting with current clients and attracting new ones is a top priority for us, along with presenting new products.”

Achieving these objectives requires a booth design that is both innovative and inviting. O’Donnell says the booth space needs to not only attract attendees but also encourage them to spend time with the products and the booth personnel.

Ariel Premium staff overhauled the supplier’s booth in advance of the 2018 Expo, says Duffy, to meet two primary goals. “One, we wanted enhanced product presentation—a retail look, lighting, eye-level shelving and logo imprinting. Two, we wanted improved flow of traffic, keeping in mind how we wanted customers to move through the booth to allow them to see as many new items as possible.”

Helzel says her company’s 20-foot by 20-foot booth is designed to offer maximum product display space in different areas so people have room to move around. “We also centralized the catalogs and flyers on one table, so that we would have easy access from all four ‘wings’ to be able to personally connect with more people if we missed seeing them by a display.”
Setting up for a trade show can be simple—in O’Donnell’s case, it takes a matter of hours—while more complex booths like Ariel Premium’s can take as long as two and a half days. “We do have a lead team that designs and props the layout, and we use hall labor to do the construction,” says Duffy. “Our sales team will help the final day, merchandising certain product category sections.”
Helzel says her team takes roughly a day and a half on site to set up the booth. “In a perfect world we would love to have somebody set up and tear down for us, but by doing the work ourselves, it also gives us good bonding time as a team,” she says.
Much of the work to prepare begins months before a show; in the three to six months leading up to an event, suppliers will begin gathering samples and reaching out to current customers. “Several months out, we confirm which staff members are attending, and we reach out to key customers to see about setting up social and professional meeting times,” says Helzel.

When the doors open and the show floor floods with attendees, the work to build business begins. Successful exhibitors agree that engagement reveals qualified leads, and Duffy’s team at Ariel Premium works hard to understand customer needs with every conversation. “The team has
a core set of probing questions to learn more about who they are, and who their customers are,” he says. “We also try and get a sense of which products they’re most comfortable selling, or what they might be trying to source for specific customers.”
O’Donnell says his team relies as much on booth aesthetics and pre-show engagement as they do
on on-site conversations to bring in qualified leads and reaffirm ongoing business relationships.
Helzel’s team makes sure to point out the supplier’s latest offerings when they meet with attendees in the booth. “We look for every opportunity to show attendees the highlights of our line, whether new products or our best-selling items, and to share why we believe they should do business, or more business, with us,” Helzel says. “We will ask if there are any particular projects or programs they are working on, and how we can best follow up moving forward.”

Of course, the work doesn’t end just because the show does—ensuring on-site connections are solidified means following up on leads before the wheels on the airplane have stopped rolling. The Ariel Premium crew relies on electronic lead retrieval during the show, and afterward, the sample department and sales team each receive the data for their respective duties. “The complete list is provided to our sample department to quickly fulfill all of our material requests. The list is then segmented by salesperson to follow up on communications with quotes, ideas, etc.,” Duffy says.

O’Donnell and Helzel’s teams do similar work—sending requested samples and, if needed, full catalogs to prospects. Helzel adds, “We personally track notes on any key contacts made, or meetings, and that forms the basis for our post-show follow-up. Our notes will include quote requests and recommended plans for follow-up based on the individual conversation.”

Though these and dozens of other suppliers have years of experience under their collective belts, not every trade show strategy has proven successful in the long term. Duffy says where they once hauled bulky catalogs across the country to hand out at shows, the practice has ended because “distributors just aren’t interested in taking them anymore.”

For exhibitors who are new or still somewhat green in the trade show world, these seasoned suppliers are happy to dole out words of wisdom gleaned from their time on show floors. All agree that engagement remains the most important weapon in an exhibitor’s arsenal. “Interact with each customer as they pass by your booth,” O’Donnell says.

“Create a way to communicate with each customer, to get them to enter your booth.”
Helzel recommends keeping products within reach for attendees to fully interact with. “Make your products easily accessible to the attendees; people like to touch,” she says. “And bring extra samples, because some may mysteriously disappear.”

Duffy suggests staging the show booth at the office first to ensure all the pieces fit together—literally and figuratively—and that they convey the intended message. Additionally, he says, “Build a segmented follow-up plan and count on at least two touches after the show. Follow-up is a lost art in our industry. Prioritize your top conversations and keep those fires hot.”


Jen Alexander is associate editor of PPB.