Getting the most out of a trade show

First a friend suggested this topic, and then a colleague asked about it, so I wrote this up for them. Here’s a method for ensuring you come home from the next trade show with more than a bag full of giveaways and a hangover:

  1. Make a list of all the things you want to get out of the show. It might include questions that need to be answered, people you want to meet, products or companies you want to see, or even broader things like “understand why the reverse modulator market is shrinking.”
  2. Get a directory for the show. Shows always have web pages, and usually there is an exhibitor directory that will tell you who’s going to be there – go through it and verify which of the companies on your list will be there.
  3. Find all the other folks doing the same thing. Take your list of companies, and the guide and make a reverse list of anything that those companies are listed for. For example, you want to see Delta Corp., which makes faucets. Look up all the other companies that make faucets and add them to the list. Cross off any that are known to be irrelevant, but be careful – sometimes these folks get so many questions about the “other” business they gather some information on it anyway. These folks could be good sources.
  4. Find the new people you need to meet. Talk to your colleagues and friends and find out who’s connected to these companies. LinkedIn, Ryze, and other networking sites are useful for this as well. Make a list of people who you’d like to meet. Make a list of the questions you want to ask these people. Add the following question to every question list you make: “Who else do you think would be a good person to talk to about this?”
  5. Take your people list and find emails or phone numbers for each person. Then contact people, and ask them if they’re going to the show, when they’ll be there, and if they’ll spare some time to see you. Better yet is to learn where they are staying, what seminars they are attending, and if there’s anything they hope to get out of the show that you can help them with. Don’t forget to ask if there’s anyone else you should seek out.
  6. Make a walking plan. If the show is big enough to have separate halls, organize it by hall and day. If it’s smaller go by booth number and day. This might sound ridiculous, but your feet with thank you for the walking you will save by organizing things this way. For each day/row/hall intersection, mark down the folks who are there that you want to meet, and the companies and products you want to see. For those items where you have some idea how much time you need, like a presentation, or a formal meeting, put down the duration in the appropriate intersection. This will help you decide how to prioritize as the list fills with opportunities.
  7. While you’re at it, make a list of all your old contacts – the folks you already know – so you can seek them out to say hello and catch up a bit.
  8. As you walk the show, cross each item off as you get it done. Get yourself a small Moleskine notebook – small enough you won’t be tempted to put it down anywhere (and perhaps forget it) – or a voice recorder and make notes of each item as it happens.
  9. Write a report. If you’re a worker-bee, it will impress the folks above. If you’re one of the folks above, it will show the worker-bees you weren’t just having dinner and glad-handing. Regardless, it will be an excellent reference for the next show, and probably others in the company.
  10. Follow up with everyone you met. Even the guy who gave you his card while he looked for the person you were coming to see. The world is just too small to leave people out. Send an email thanking them for their time. Offer your assistance where it is needed. Put them in your contact list, and keep in touch.

Nothing is foolproof, but going through the steps above will help you get what you need with a minimum amount of bother.

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