Making the decision to take your young company to a trade show is not easy. Trade shows are expensive, time consuming, physically draining, emotionally taxing, and complete wild cards with respect to whether or not you will see a return on your investment.

In some cases, however, trade shows can also be crucial to your ability to reach your distribution channel. In the case of our young company, the list of reasons for my partner and I to stay home was much longer than the list of reasons to go. However, our answer to one simple question trumped all, and we packed our bags for the New York Gift Show. That question was, “Do you know your channels?” And, after almost a year of pounding the pavement, our answer was “no,” and we were desperate.

During the fall, we had launched our product line on an e-commerce site. A lucky break (a mention in a major national newspaper on Black Friday) drove traffic to our site for holiday sales. But we couldn’t figure out how to keep the momentum going after the holidays.

And, we’d seriously underestimated how difficult it would be to find and connect with retail buyers, absent experience or relationships in our new field. We’d learned that the many buyers for larger specialty retailers advance their careers by changing product lines or companies every year or so, which means contacts we’d gleaned from our extended network were often stale.

Further, we are living in an era of ubiquitous design. Buyers are more inundated than ever with new product opportunities, and few have the bandwidth to manage cold calls.

We bit the very large financial bullet and registered for the New Products section for one of the world’s largest gift shows and booked our flights.

trade show tips

But before you bite that very large financial bullet, you should consider the following five trade show tips.

1. Trade Shows Are Expensive. You will pay for your booth, which can be thousands of dollars. You may or may not be in a good location. You might have to pay extra for luxuries like access to electricity, Wi-Fi, or storage. You might have travel expenses, shipping costs, last-minute runs to FedEx Office/Kinko’s, setup costs for your booth, and sampling costs. A lot of buyers even want paper catalogs, which, in addition to being wasteful, are expensive to produce and cart around. Everything adds up.

We spent $5,000 to register and another $4,000 on our booth, shipping, marketing materials, travel (think couch surfing, not Soho Grand), and every premium-priced hiccup along the way. Did I mention that your time is valued at $0 per hour?

2. Your Booth Is Your Narrative. You are creating a pop-up, semi-retail world for the buyers wandering through these shows. You need to show them what your products will look like in their stores. Some companies spend thousands of dollars designing, executing, and transporting elaborate booths to trade shows. We didn’t have that kind of budget. My business partner is creative and figured out novel ways to inexpensively create an environment that drew people into our booth. Just like your packaging is the opening narrative for your product, your booth is the hook that gets people to stop. You should spend time cultivating it.

trade show tips

3. You Will (Probably) Have Zero Clout with the Show Organizers. I got a little sour on the New York Gift Show because we were relegated to Pier 94, which was about a mile from the main hall. We were slammed with booth traffic the day we opened. In fact, about 90 percent of our orders came that day. I was ecstatic and started forecasting what might happen the next three days of the show.

Er…not so fast. I didn’t yet grasp that when the main hall opened the next day, we would be hearing crickets until the show ended. Buyer traffic dwindled to a few stragglers a day. Everyone was a mile down the road. I heard rumors from our Pier 94 colleagues that it could take years to get moved to the main hall. Know your status in the pecking order, and do your best to exploit it.

4. You Might Lose Money. We managed to break even at this trade show in terms of orders secured from various museum stores, design boutiques, and gift shops all over the country. I later learned that breaking even was nothing short of a miracle for our first trade show. The hope is that this investment leads to long-term relationships with the buyers you meet and generates revenue long after the show. However, the cash outlay hits that week.

trade show tips

5. You Will Be Up Close and Personal with the Gatekeepers to Your Ultimate Customers (aka Why We Bet the Farm on This Trade Show). We didn’t realize how unprepared we were to sell our products when we started, and this trade show, as painful as it was, was vital to our ability to really understand if we had a viable business. We met incredibly generous, thoughtful, experienced professionals who gave us time and meaningful feedback on our products, packaging, positioning, and prospects.

In the cold light of day, I will confess that if I had it to do over again, I would not have started a business that needed this kind of retail channel. And I wish I had the chops to do what one of our colleagues at the show did: He invested $5,000 to save $100,000.

Forbes highlighted Alex Harrison’s experience at the New York Gift Show with his in-development product, Dust Panda. Alex invested the least amount possible—around $5,000—into a modest booth presence at the show. Based on feedback gleaned from dozens of conversations with buyers that week, he avoided investing another $100,000 into a business that might not generate returns.

While disappointed that his business wasn’t where he’d hoped, he was also relieved. He said, “When I told fellow exhibitors that I hadn’t ‘gone to press’ yet, many of them were jealous! I am grateful that I waited to print my first batch of products.”

If you do find that a trade show is where you need to be, this article from Entrepreneur offers some great tips for really working the event, right down to wearing comfortable shoes and having a great quote lined up should an erstwhile reporter stumble into your path.

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