There he was, sitting in the back corner of his company’s booth at a major trade show: the guy by himself, eating some free sushi he’d picked up on the show floor.

If you’re investing in a trade show presence, you don’t want your people sitting alone in the corner. You want your booth full of people talking about and looking at your stuff. You want energy, activity and conversation. You want sales.

At our industry’s biggest shows, you might find 600 vendors competing for attention and business from retail buyers walking the floor. You’ll potentially write your biggest orders for boats, rods and reels, gear, apparel … your whole product line. You’ll meet face-to-face with your most important customers, and hopefully catch the eyes of some new ones. You’ll scope out what your competitors are promoting. (And yeah, we know: You’ll have some fun, too.)

Travel, exhibit fees, booth construction, people hours, meals and entertainment—trade shows are expensive. How do you make the most of them?

Fishing & Paddle Sports Trade Shows: 3 Steps to Maximize Your ROI

1) Before the Show

Promotion and engagement leading up to the show is just as important as what happens on the floor. When you go to a trade show, it’s easy to assume that everyone walks the aisles and stops only at the booths they already know or those that are giving away cool swag. In reality, buyers schedule appointments with vendors in advance—in fact, 76% of attendees book their calendar prior to the show, and they visit on average just 25–30 exhibitors out of several hundred.

So your pre-show goal is to book as many appointments as possible. Strategies to do that include:

  • Social media: Up to one month prior to the event, start using social media posts to tout your presence at the show and your booth number. Promote your giveaways, the new models you plan to unveil and any special activities or guest appearances at your booth.
  • Email blasts: Communicate to your whole list about your show plans, tease your products and invite customers to book appointments during the event.
  • Personalized emails: Reach out individually to your retail buyers and follow up by phone to schedule appointments. Consider offering your best customers a discount on orders they write during the show.
  • Advertising: Splash a banner on your website announcing your show booth and giveaways, and run display ads in industry print publications before the show. Take advantage of on-site show publications, too.

2) At the Show

Your presence at the show is paramount. It’s all about attracting attention and drawing folks into your booth. Three parts to this:

  • The space itself: Your exhibit size and where you’re located on the show floor can make a big difference (but sometimes those factors are outside your control or budget). Regardless, the design has to have that cool factor. Must-haves for your display include great materials (look at retail design trends and borrow ideas; we’ve seen lots of recycled wood and vintage-looking decor at shows recently) and big, beautiful lifestyle photography showing your product in action. Pay attention to how the product is displayed—fishing reels can look like spectacular art objects if they’re displayed well with the right lighting. An experienced agency can help you get the biggest bang for your trade-show buck; if you’re DIY’ing it, Exhibitor Magazine has some solid advice.
  • What happens in the space: What are you doing to draw folks in? Activities might include happy-hour drinks, live broadcasts, autograph sessions with your brand ambassadors, casting lessons, new product reveals, you name it. Whatever you do, make sure it’s on-brand.
  • What we call boothmanship: How your space is staffed. Are your people standing on the perimeter of your space, welcoming them into the booth and delivering an effective pitch?

3) After the Show

Be strategic about following up with retailers who’ve placed orders and prospects you met but haven’t yet sold to. Capture contact info during the show, whether you rent a badge scanner and download that data into your CRM system, collect business cards or use your own in-booth system. Reach out to your entire email list to recap the excitement of your show experience, thank folks for stopping by and remind them of your products. Send personal emails to top customers about setting follow-up phone calls.

Sushi Guy’s problem wasn’t that he was hungry, but that his booth was so uninteresting that no one would come talk to him about his products. Don’t be Sushi Guy.

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