trade show

The Definition of a Trade Show & Why You Could Have It All Wrong

by Greg Baer, Director of Sales, MHI

Trade shows. Let us rewind to a pre-COVID-19 time and ask ourselves a question: What is a trade show?

Per the all-knowing Wikipedia, “a trade show is an exhibition organized so that companies in a specific industry can showcase and demonstrate their latest products and services, meet with industry partners and customers, study activities of rivals, and examine recent market trends and opportunities.”

Ask your friends and family to define a trade show and you might hear that it is a multi-day event where people stand around all day and then eat and drink at fancy restaurants in the evenings. Perhaps that is even your definition.

What if you are answering the “what is a trade show?” question all wrong? Even Wikipedia’s definition (shockingly) is correct, but completely ignores the opportunities that abound.

In its most basic form, a trade show is a 3 or 4 day event in a convention center or hotel ball room. In reality, a trade show is a 5 to 6 month, multipronged sales and marketing behemoth that if executed properly can transform your brand identity, boost your sales numbers, and position your company as an industry leader.

My old employer was a big believer in the benefit of trade shows. We’d exhibit in 4 to 5 events a year in a small 10×10 booth space. My boss was a great salesperson and really knowledgeable about our products. We’d bring product to demo. We had the matching shirts and worked the booth like pros. In hindsight the biggest trade show mistake we’d make is what I call Show and Hope. Our entire trade show plan was show and hope. We’d set up our booth and hope to catch the eye of a passing attendee in time for him/her to make a split-second decision if our solution was needed.

After 4 days my boss would divide up the coil of thermal printed leads and we were on our way, no lead tracking procedures or follow up plan in place. If we left with 300 badge scans it was a success. It didn’t matter if the badge scanned was a retired gentleman who built birdhouses in his garage and attended the trade show simply to get out of the house on a Tuesday (Yes, this was an actual ‘lead’ I followed up on). I was fresh out of college and thought this is how trade shows worked.

Trade show leads are the hot commodity and for some marketers and salespeople, lead counts are how your success or failure is judged after a trade show. “How many leads did you get today?” is always a topic of conversation over a cocktail. I have news for you, unless you are in the business of selling contact lists, lead count numbers are as meaningless as a snowflake in a blizzard.

Fast forward to 2020, my 15th year at MHI and planning ProMat 2021, my 16th trade show with the association.  I have learned a lot about trade shows since my early days out of college. There have been 11,031 booths in MHI shows since my first show in 2006. I have had the pleasure of attending hundreds of trade shows in 7 countries (and counting) and at every show I see countless exhibitors making the same Show and Hope mistakes I made way back when. There is a misconception that a trade show is a 4 day opportunity with a hard start and a hard ending.

The trade show should be viewed as the crescendo of a campaign that will deliver customers to your front door (i.e. your booth).  Our most successful exhibitors do not rely on Show and Hope. And I am not just speaking about exhibitors with giant budgets.  Trade show success is about getting everyone form your engineers to your salespeople to your receptionist to buy in to the program with the end game in mind. This can be accomplished within any budget by following a few simple recommendations.

Generate Awareness

The first step is awareness and education and it should take place 6 months before the doors open. Every employee should be aware early on that the company has invested in a sales and marketing opportunity, let’s call it ProMat because I am biased, that will take place 6 months from now.  Why? ProMat is a world-renowned trade show that will be the largest gathering of supply chain logistics industry professionals looking to improve supply chain efficiencies. Your company has a solution the industry needs, and the employees have 6 months to build awareness with customers and prospects. Every person involved in the day-to-day success of your company should be prepared and able to invite current customers and prospects to your ProMat booth.

It would be impossible to talk 20,000 prospects into paying travel expenses to visit your factory to see your new product in action. The trade show makes that possible. Build excitement about the solutions you will be displaying. Create a theme that is consistent throughout all of your messaging and make sure every employee understands the messaging and theme so they can communicate that message in conversations and emails early in the process.

Leverage Your Sales Reps and Their Contacts

A few months out as the show approaches, begin leveraging your sales reps and their contacts. Begin making prospects and customers aware of your booth number using emails and physical mail drops like a simple post card. If your company has budgeting for print and on-line advertising, begin building the theme that will tie this advertising to your trade show booth.  If your advertising budget is limited, incentivize your in-house experts to produce blogs, videos, and social media posts around the solution you are bringing to the show.  Include the show name and your booth number in newsletters, email signatures, blog posts, social media channels, on business cards and even on invoices and shipping documents like BOLs if affordable.

Grab the Attendee’s Attention 

An attendee at a trade show has a very short window to recognize your company while passing your booth in a crowded aisle. You must grab their attention, and quick. The ability to rapidly process what they see and tie your logo and theme back to an email, ad, blog post or correspondence seen or received prior to the show can impact the decision to stop at your booth. The more opportunities you take to build pre-show awareness, the more successful your booth will be. A trade show is a dynamic and exciting event to see your solutions. Make sure your team gets that message across as much as possible.

Now that you have built awareness and the world knows you are at ProMat, set internal expectations and plan your process for leads. There are several tools to manage lead expectations at a trade show. Jefferson Davis, president of Competitive Edge, has a great tool that he uses when teaching exhibitors to set lead expectations. He calls it Exhibit Interaction Capacity and it uses a formula:

Calculate your Exhibit Interaction Capacity using the formula below:

Example           Your Company

Number of exhibiting hours:                                                                  26                    26

(x) Average number of booth staff on duty:                                         x *2                  _________

* Rule of thumb: 50 sq. feet per staffer

(x) Target number of interactions per hour/per staffer:                   x *3                  _________

* 3 conservative/ 4 moderate / 5 aggressive

(=) Your Exhibit Interaction Capacity:                                                  156                   _________


As I mentioned earlier, the number of leads is misleading and should not be the focus.  But don’t let that fool you, leads are the real product of the show. Qualified leads are key.  There is nothing that will derail your trade show program faster than sending a dead-end lead to a sales rep or a dealer/distributor.

Jefferson Davis says in his ART of Exhibitor Training™ program that there are four critical factors when it comes to leads.

The key to generating QUALITY leads is to make sure that each lead includes four critical factors:

– Somebody from your company personally interacted with the person

– Key qualifying questions were asked

– Answers were captured or documented

– A next step was identified and agreed upon by the visitor

So you see, simply scanning an attendee that stopped at your booth to see a card trick is not necessarily a lead unless your goal is to build a contact list.

Act Fast Post Show

Leads have shelf lives. You have competitors that will also be following up.  It is important to have a plan in place to follow up on leads. The minute the show closes is when the real work kicks in. As you did 6 months before the show, it is important to have a follow up meeting after the show. Every employee has an investment in the success of the show.  Make everyone aware of the results and the expectations and plans in place for follow up.

This just scratches the surface on the potential of trade shows.  MHI still has plenty of information archived at if you’re interested in doing a deeper dive into the myriad of tools and tips we have available to help make your trade shows a success.  These tools can be used at any trade show you exhibit in, not just an MHI event.

The main message I want to establish is the importance of viewing trade shows as more than a 4 day product. Trade shows really do offer an opportunity to increase sales and stock your pipeline with prospects.  They also can offer much more throughout the year.  It is imperative that shows are treated as an investment that everyone has a stake in. Trade shows are not just for the salespeople. Now, more than any time in recent memory, it is important to capitalize on every dollar spent.  Trade shows can work for you if you put the work in early.  Do not just Show and Hope.

I have evolved from a young salesperson who exhaled prior to opining about trade shows into an old salesperson who absolutely embraces them and the opportunities they provide my customers and our industry.  So the next time you’re asked “What is a trade show?”, hopefully you’ll pause and think about it as a multifaceted 6 month sales and marketing campaign that will culminate in a face-to-face event where you will interact with prospects familiar with your company and are seeking your solutions.  So here’s to comfortable shoes, qualified leads, and that occasional dinner at a fancy restaurant.

Oh, one last thing for all of my ProMat 2021 exhibitors. Please keep your eyes open for details about ShowPro Live that will take place in winter 2020.  Unfortunately, we will not be able to hold a live and in-person event in Chicago, but I am producing a live virtual event that will offer the same great content our live ShowPro is known for.  Virtual ShowPro Live will allow us all to get together for learning and interaction with trade show consultants, industry peers, show partners, and industry experts.  Details will be available at later this year.