Ron Chan
Ron Chan

So, you’re supposed to be working on your business instead of in it, sharpening that pencil, and using slow-downs to evaluate your next steps. Can you do all that without leaving your desk?

It’s tempting to try when budgets are tight. Education and travel expenses are easily scratched in favor of pesky things like overhead and vehicle payments.

OK, OK. You need people and trucks to run your business. But you also need know-how, and conferences and trade shows are great places to pick up valuable information and inspiration.

So, grab that sharpened pencil and start taking notes. Here are tips from around the industry to help you make the most of your next trip to the trade show floor.

Map It Out

Ultimately, you’ll have to leave the office to attend your next industry event, but some of the most important work you’ll do happens before you go.

Web Scheduling

Start your pre-show planning online. Many events have beefed up their websites, adding more information than just show hours and schedules. Features vary, but through many sites, users can:

  • Book conference registration and hotel accommodations
  • Contact exhibitors and schedule booth visits
  • View interactive show floor maps
  • Build personalized event calendars
  • Browse details on new products debuting at the show
  • Access speakers’ presentation content after the conference

Additionally, events such as the Remodeling Show, the International Builders’ Show, and the Kitchen & Bath Industry Show offer mobile apps (updated annually) so show info is always handy.

Familiar Calendars

Designer Brandon Smith, needs both hands to count the number of trade shows he attends each year. For him, staying organized is important. “I’m a big planner,” says the principal at Spatial Design Firm, in San Diego. “I make lots of lists of the companies I need to stop and see, the sessions I’m presenting, and any networking events I want to attend.”

Smith says that he usually downloads any app available for a show, but because many of his calendar items — meetings with colleagues, for instance — happen off the show floor, he prefers to use his own calendar tool. “I know my calendar will sync across all my devices,” he says, “and I’ll still be able to access it even if I don’t have Wi-Fi access.”

Smith notes that his proclivity for planning doesn’t mean all his time is rigidly scheduled. “Always leave time in the schedule for the unexpected,” he says. “You never know what you’ll find or who you’ll meet on the floor that will change your plans.”

TIP: Smith suggests overscheduling and then whittling down your calendar when you arrive or as plans change. “RSVP ‘yes’ to everything, and when the time comes, pick the ones that you’re most interested in,” he says.

Precious Time

Show floor hours are limited, so even if you arrive early and stay late to see as much as you can, remember: your time is valuable.

“When I travel, I keep it very short,” says Brandon Smith of “I have a family here at home, and I hate leaving my other half for longer than necessary. So, while I’m at the show, I don’t have the same luxury of time as other people. I need a good schedule.”

Kitchen designer Susan Serra agrees, especially when booth visits run long. “Your time is precious and you’ve paid money to be there,” she says. “If a meeting is dragging on, a simple thank you and ‘I’ll get back to you with questions,’ should suffice and let you move on.”

Use social media to:

• Follow shows’ and associations’ Facebook pages for trade show updates.

• Find out ahead of time about events. Start looking for Twitter hashtags early — hashtags are typically used months in advance of the actual event. Follow them for updates on event info.

• Posting social media updates and using those hashtags during a trade show turns you into a “live” reporter. It’s is a great way to get fans and followers involved in and excited about what you’re seeing and excited about learning more when you return.

Problems Solved

Manufacturers often send seasoned sales staff to trade shows, not just to give spiels on new products and services, but to share their knowledge of the entire product line.

“One year we were working on a siding project and needed advice on the best way to cut it,” says John Gemmi, owner of Gemmi Construction, in Mechanicsville, Pa. “We were able to visit the company’s booth and speak to some people with great insight on the installation and get our questions answered.” Barry Elings, president of Remodeling Solutions by Elings, in Johnston, Iowa, agrees. “There have been times that I’ve bought tools or software at shows, and I got to talk to the developer in person and use it hands-on, which is a great help.”

Class in Session

Beyond the exhibit floor, trade shows offer myriad educational options. That’s where Elings likes to dig in. “I try to identify one or two core areas I want to implement that year, so I concentrate on them,” he says.

Educational opportunities range from classroom sessions and panel discussions to hands-on clinics on the show floor. Regardless of format, Elings encourages attendees to stick around after the session is over. “I’ve gotten a lot out of the sessions I’ve attended,” he says, “but some topics, like accounting, took me a long time to get the hang of.” The great part is that you can talk to the presenters after the class [and] get some of your questions answered or have your ideas reinforced ... and even get their contact information to follow-up after the show. When you’re honing your business, it’s really worthwhile,” he says.

Group Education

Try a team approach to tackle trade shows. “Last time we went to the Remodeling Show, I took the whole company,” says John Gemmi, of Gemmi Construction. “Everybody was responsible for attending three seminars of their choice. The rest of the time, they were free to walk the show floor.”

In addition to encouraging his staff to look for new products for upcoming jobs, Gemmi gave his team a $1,500 allowance to find a tool that could help the company be more productive.

With a team approach — and a shopping spree incentive — Gemmi and staff are able to cover the entire show floor and most of the conference sessions. “When I went to my first trade show, I went by myself and I wasn’t sure what to expect,” he remembers. “At the time I had three guys working for me, and I signed up for a class or two and while I was there I started thinking, ‘They really need to see this.’ Going to a show as a group is great for team-building, and now it’s something I add as a line item to my budget every year.”

Networking It

Not being on the presenter lineup doesn’t let you off the hook for bringing ideas to a conference. Industry associations and media outlets hosting the event often organize networking events, so browse brochures and websites for opportunities to meet and mingle with fellow pros.

“It’s always valuable to get out of your bubble and meet other people from other regions,” Serra says. “It’s unbelievable the small but amazing nuggets of info you might get. And if you don’t attend, you’ll never know.”

Elings says, pay attention during sessions for more info. “I always look over the schedule of events pretty hard, and usually they’ll announce event reminders during classes,” he says.

Keep in mind that some events will require pre-registration or a ticket to enter, while others are open to everyone.

Do It Yourself

If the networking events you’re interested in are unavailable, consider “hosting” your own. Most shows are in big cities with no shortage of activities. Catch up with old or new friends at dinner after the show, or get a group together for a ball game and do some networking in the bleachers.

Elings also says that networking doesn’t stop after the show. “At our Remodelers Council meetings, some guys will get up and talk about what they saw or learned at the latest show they went to,” he says. “Bouncing ideas off each other makes a lot of difference — as opposed to going by yourself and not talking it out with anyone.”

Cross the Threshold

Are you a show floor “window shopper?” — someone who walks down the center of an aisle, eyeballing products but never stepping into a booth? You may be doing yourself a disservice.

“A live trade show offers benefits that Internet browsing or shopping can’t,” says Sue Garrison of Interline Creative Group, in Palatine, Ill., and “Touching and feeling products and interacting with exhibitors is a great advantage that only attendees get.”

Heather Crunchie adds that exhibitors must be sensitive to attendees’ goals. “We know from research conducted by the Center for Exhibit Industry Research that the two biggest attendee complaints are limited time, and exhibitor salesforces,” says the principal of C Squared AdvertisingC Squ, in Portland, Ore.

“Manufacturers need to recognize that the trade show environment is different from what their sales staff are typically involved with,” she says. “As such, it requires a different approach from daily selling.” Asking lots of questions will help exhibitors identify attendees’ concerns. “This isn’t about ‘pitch and sell,’” Crunchie points out, “but more about ‘listen and learn. This shows the visitor that you understand his or her needs. It also helps the salesperson determine how to allocate his or her time and gather information for post-show follow-up.”

Marketers at Kleber & Associates, in Atlanta, agree, offering two booth etiquette tips:

Exhibitors: Welcome every guest who enters the booth, and make use of their time by asking and answering questions.

Attendees: Don’t enter a booth without intending to speak with someone. Just grabbing a brochure or freebie may be considered rude.