Trade Shows & The Lost Art of Boothmanship

By: Gary Hernbroth, Chief Movitating Officer

Training for Winners

Do you remember your first tradeshow booth experience? I sure do. I was one of six seniors representing Michigan State’s School of Hospitality Business in our school’s booth at the National Restaurant Show in Chicago many years ago. It was “lights, camera, action” for us wide-eyed college students, getting our first taste of a national gathering of hospitality people from all over the country. It was dazzling and a lot to take in.

And then we got to the booth to “work it” and rep our school. Great, now what were we supposed to do? Somehow we figured it out, to shake hands, smile and not do anything to embarrass our school and faculty. Things are more complicated these days.

Many years later I chuckle at that experience, considering all of the conventions and events I’ve participated in, whether as a salesperson in the booth or a customer in the aisles. “Boothmanship” as it’s often called, is truly an art form if done correctly. Tragically, it’s seldom taught in many sales training programs or orientations to the trade. When I cover the topic in workshops, I get a lot of “I never knew there was so much to it” kind of comments.

Many salespeople think the overall atmosphere of “the show” is enough to carry the day and the rest will take care of itself. Far from the truth. You really have to “work it” to get your company’s R.O.I. out of having you there and the expenses of your air, hotel, registration, booth shipping, giveaways, time, entertaining and a myriad of other items that go into attending a trade show.

Meeting and event professionals have a job to do here, too. Your time is precious, and your organization didn’t just send you there to pick up a bunch of logo hand sanitizer bottles, foam squeeze toys, keychains, cookies and all the “stuff” that salespeople want to give you so they don’t have to lug it all back home. Trust me, I’ve lived it and heard it for many years.

At minimum, buyers should visit booths with the intent of learning something new about a new vendor, meet someone they’ve been emailing/texting back and forth, say hi to friends and colleagues, or check on some new wrinkles in their host destination for their upcoming event.  It would also help if they had business cards, which are still not out of fashion with many people. They personalize the interaction between people who share them with each other more than most electronic means will do.

I know some planners who bring their spec sheets and hand them out to viable salespeople so they can follow up with them more efficiently, and they don’t have to repeat their specs each time, in each booth.

Some of the following “dos and don’ts” may sound embarrassingly simple or basic. Don’t be fooled, they are on this list because they still happen – a lot:

  • Give the registered attendee list an advance screening (if available) to pre-pick your places and people to see so that you don’t run out of time. Prioritize your walking route, and then see others after your prime “hit list”’ is complete.
  • Don’t set your booth up like a mine field that is hard to maneuver in. Cutesy may catch the eye, but it has to be practical to accommodate traffic, too. Recently, a vendor put a Christmas tree right in the middle of a booth, making it impossible and clumsy to move around. When she went on a break, her booth mates moved the tree to the outside corner.
  • If you have games, videos, live demos, etc., practice using them before the doors open. Check for glitches, otherwise you look unprepared for “show time.”
  • What will you say as a greeting? What kind of questions will you ask? Open questions do a good job of getting the other person to open up. And remember, we learn more from listening than we do from talking. Don’t feature vomit in your booth!
  • Have business cards and a pen to take notes on. It’s best to take short notes immediately after a conversation so that you can remember the little details for follow-up. If you plan on waiting until that evening when the show is over, good luck. It all becomes a blur and you’ve lost that edge with each conversation you had.
  • Smile, have fun, keep good eye contact; look like you are enjoying the experience. Too many salespeople wear the “my ankles and back are killing me” look on their faces. It’s not a welcome sign for customers to want to engage in conversation with you.
  • Break up the reunion! Exhibitors like to visit each other in their booths. That’s great, but that’s not why you are there. So have your hugs and chats, but when customers walk by or in your booth, disperse the reunion and excuse yourself so you can fly over to the customer. They came into your booth for a reason – and it’s your job to find out why.
  • No eating!
  • No standing there checking your mobile phone. If you have to put out a fire back at work, ask a teammate to cover for you and do it outside of your booth or walk a few feet away. Standing in your booth staring at your phone tells a customer “don’t come in here and bother me, I’m busy.”
  • A colleague and I were looking for information on planning a sales retreat for a corporate client. Three salespeople were huddled around a desk in their booth, and one of them was sitting on the desk, and they were having a friendly time looking at photos on one of their phones. They finally noticed us looking at a brochure, and one of them said, “Let us know if you have any questions,” then went back to looking at the phone. We almost apologized for being a bother.
  • Own the follow-up. Experienced salespeople do NOT count on customers to remember everyone they met at the event and everything they talked about, let alone follow up. If you are in sales, YOU own the follow-up… and make it timely, not weeks later. They may not remember you by then. I got a boilerplate follow up email six months after an event. They wasted their time and effort. Forget it.

Rise above your competitors at the show, take advantage of live customers walking around, and twist the familiar- do something different! You’ll increase your chances for more leads. Planners, take your good notes, too. You’ll have better decision criteria to choose from. With professional, savvy behavior both salespeople and customers can make the tradeshow a great R.O.I. for their time and energies expended.

July 25, 2023

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About Muzette Randall is a complimentary search directory and RFP portal for meeting planners. This blog will feature meetings industry tips and news geared toward meeting planners and an inside look at the trade-shows participates in.

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