10 Ways for Startups to Win at Trade Shows

March 5, 2022

Trade shows are an effective customer acquisition strategy, especially for startups. Now that businesses are going back to in-person events, this is an opportune time to plan for your upcoming trade show. Unfortunately, most startups don’t yet know the tips and tricks to generate a high ROI from their trade show. With just a little added effort, the ROI on your tradeshow will more than pay for itself.

Having seen it all from spending six figures at trade shows with Amazon, to spending only a few thousand dollars as a startup, here’s how to maximize the value of your event:

  1. Location Matters. Purchase a double booth instead of a single booth, and opt for a corner booth, if available.
    • Being easily recognizeable at a trade show is important. A larger booth not only allows for more customers to engage with you, it makes it easier for them to find you.
    • Return on Investment: The numbers here are illustrative, given that your booth costs vary and the price of your software will differ, but let’s say a single booth is $3,000 and a double booth is $5,000. Compare this number to the price of your software. $30K ACV? Huge ROI after one new customer. $2.5K ACV? You break even with just a few customers.
  2. Bring at least three employees to represent your company at the trade show. You should anticipate having two employees in conversations with customers while a third person is attracting attendees to check out your booth, handing out swag, restocking supplies, giving a break to others on your team, etc.
    • It is always good practice to have someone walk the tradeshow to visit other booths to learn about competitors and build connections. At a minimum you should have two people stationed at the booth and a third person to manage everything else.
      • Pro Tip: Meet your competitors. Get insights into their product. Listen to how they talk about their product with prospective customers. Play nice with everyone. You never know…someday you might acquire them or visa versa.
    • Ensure everyone is wearing your company’s logo, has a name tag, and are easy to distinguish from the crowd.
    • Arrive on location and inspect your booth at least twenty four hours in advance of the trade show starting. There is always a last minute thing you’ll need to setup your booth from an extra power strip, duct tape, etc.
  3. Make your booth as inviting as possible
    • Order TV monitors from Amazon or pick them up at an electronics store before the event. Patrons are attracted to screens. Have two monitors hooked up to laptops running a loop of your product demonstrating its features and slick design.
    • Have a customized table cloth over your trade show table with your company’s colors and logo on it.
    • Get banner stands to make your booth pop.
    • Get banners made to go over the pipe and drape / back wall of your booth.
    • Pro Tip: Have two tablets or laptops nearby so prospective customers can test out your product in a demo instance AND purchase a subscription on the spot.
  4. Provide swag to existing customers attending the trade show. This will make them walking advertisements for you. Your best referral sources will be from word of mouth, so give everyone something to talk about.
    • In advance of the tradeshow, identify existing customers that are attending the tradeshow and send them your company’s swag to wear or share with others. Tell them that for being such a valued customer, you are sending them swag for the tradeshow to wear, if they’d like.
    • Pro Tip: Offer existing customers a free month of service for anyone they refer to you who signs up for a subscription.
  5. Good-quality swag goes a long way. You can’t be everywhere all the time, so let your swag speak for you.
    • By creating good-quality and functional swag that people want, they will use it at the tradeshow. This will help you create more awareness for your company. Pens with your logo on them (and not the cheap bic pens) work great. They go right into someone’s pocket and can be seen throughout the tradeshow as people take notes.
  6. Bring a fishbowl for raffle prizes.
    • Driving traffic to your booth is paramount and having patrons return for a second (or third) time is even better as it increases their consideration to purchase your product. Create raffle prizes for people to win (and make sure the raffle prizes are something people will actually want). Prizes could a free annual subscription to
    • Ask patrons to drop their business card into the fishbowl (this is an easy way for you to get contact info from patrons) and announce the winners daily, or every so often depending on the length of your trade show.
  7. Schedule in-person meetings at the trade show with existing customers. Your customer discovery process should never end, therefore, continue building relationships with your existing customers. Ask them about their unique insights with their business, what is working, and what isn’t. Become a trusted partner and build those relationships!
    • Pro tip: Make it a point to connect with the leadership team of the industry association putting on the trade show. This could lead to them spotlighting you in an upcoming article, future advertising opportunities, introductions to others, and more.
  8. Create a sign-up sheet for in-person meetings with prospective clients. Spending 15-20 minutes with each prospect helps you build a relationship and makes it more likely to convert a prospect after they feel that you understand their business and can help them.
    • This also helps drive repeat prospects back to your booth. The more the merrier.
    • Pro tip: Have a quiet place near the trade show floor reserved to conduct these meetings.
  9. Setup after-hours, invite-only, events at the conference.
    • This could be a happy hour or dinner event. Happy hours are usually equally effective and cheaper. Save the dinners for special clients or a team bonding event.
    • Comprise 50% of the attendees to this invite-only event with your existing customers and have the other 50% available to prospects you are hoping to close. Let your current customers do the work of explaining how great your software is to the other 50% so they do the selling for you in a very authentic manner.
    • Ask the trade show management for a list of attendees to the conference in advance of showing up. This does not always happen, but try to obtain who all will be there in advance to cherry pick which companies you would like to connect with. Also, let your existing customers know that you are attending the trade show and that they should stop by to visit you there.
  10. Trade shows can be exhausting. Consider the following options to make things easier:
    • Stay at the hotel where the conference is being held instead of renting an AirBnB or hotel offsite to save on costs. Reducing the back and forth travel time to the conference center is worth it and some of the best meetings take place before or after the trade show starts, so make sure you are on site.
    • Make dinner reservations in advance for your team and/or any special customers. Everyone will be trying to make last minute reservations, so do this in advance and you’ll come out ahead.
    • Give your team members a day off the following week to recover from the trade show. Let them use this time to recover and follow-up with prospective customers.
  11. (Bonus) Offer trade show-only pricing for anyone who purchases a subscription to your software on the spot.
    • Make the promotional pricing attractive. Depending on your company, this could entail:
      • First two months free when you sign up for an annual contract
      • Waiving the onboarding or data migration fee
    • Pro Tip: Come prepared to accept payment on the spot.

These tips should help you create a huge ROI for your trade show. Assume a 3-day conference, you will generally spend the following:

  • Travel, lodging, and expenses for three employees for three nights might cost $4,500.
  • Cost of booth, swag, marketing materials, business cards, etc., might cost $6,000.
  • Hosting an invite-only happy hour event might cost $2,500.
  • Total Estimated Costs: $13,000

Now consider how many new customers you acquire and the ACV of your software. With just a few new paying customers at the trade show, and many new prospects, your trade show should pay for itself in short time.

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