Trade shows provide an excellent opportunity for businesses to promote their products and services to potential customers. However, this is also an expensive affair that can strain the finances of any company. If you want to make the investment worthwhile, John Yokley, CEO of Progressive Technology Federal Systems, Inc. (PTFS), explains it is important that your exhibition stands out and you leave with a lot of potential leads and some good contacts to help drive your business forward. Mr. Yokley is the founder and CEO of PTFS, and an engineer with over 40 years in the field and twenty-six years running his company. After a 19-month hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, John is back on the road. PTFS attended the GEOINT trade show in St. Louis last month in October. John, a mechanical engineer by degree believes in the power of marketing but is often frustrated by how expensive it can be. Over the years John has experimented to get the best bang out of his marketing dollars and has perfected a process to produce a large-scale trade show image on a small business budget.
For those who have not planned or exhibited at a large trade show here are some challenges to overcome when attempting to exhibit at a major trade show conference:
- The cost can exceed $50/square foot just for the real estate, so a 20’x20’ piece of concrete on the show floor can exceed $20k.
- Additional costs include electricity, Internet, carpet, lead retrievers, and more.
- Large booths are typically heavy and come in large crates shipped using truck freight which is expensive.
- Trades shows are almost always run using union labor and every bit of work to move or assemble or hang overhead signs requires a labor ticket and large cost. The cost to hang an overhead sign can exceed $2,000.
- Travel costs for employees include plane fare, hotel, meals, Uber, and more.
- Promotions to list your company and drive attendees to your booth are an extra cost. Exhibitors have to pay to email attendees, post a banner on the conference web page, display handing signs, perform promotional interviews, etc.
Unlike large businesses that have large marketing budgets and need tax deductions small business has a finite amount of extra funds and needs to manage their budget carefully and not overspend. When finding ways to cut costs, businesses must ensure that they don’t sacrifice quality or they will fail to make a great impression at the trade show. We asked John to share some of his thoughts on executing a big exhibition experience on a small budget and his response was rather impressive. Here are some of John’s tips for effective ways to execute an impressive trade show presence with a limited small business budget. Caution, suggestions presented can be exhausting and not for the faint of heart!
Designing and purchasing a cost-effective booth that does not require local labor to set up is one of the best ways to cut costs. Many businesses are aware of this but are hesitant about taking on this task because they may not have the in-house graphics and creative skills or they believe it’s too complex and too much work to set-up the booth prior to the beginning of the conference.
Booth Design and Purchase
To design and build your own booth the company needs to have in-house and acquire external graphics expertise. PTFS uses a two-person team made up of an internal full time marketing manager and an external consultant for graphics development. The consultant needs to use a modern program such as Adobe InDesign or Illustrator to create the digital design that can be printed at a very large scale for the booth.
Booth setup at the Conference The next step in the process is to find and locate a company that can fabricate the booth. In the last 5 years or so, companies started making very large booths made from aluminum poles and tension fabric that come apart and can be shipped easily at a low cost. The fabric is printed with a dye-sublimation printing process which looks great even when a graphic is blown up to 10 feet tall. Dye-sublimation uses high temperature and pressure, the dye turns into a gas, permeates the fabric, and then solidifies into its fibers. The fabric is permanently dyed so it can be washed without damaging the quality of the image. The 10’ x 20’ booth PTFS selected in late 2019 was under $4,500. To find a company that will produce your booth simply Google; “portable and lightweight trade show booth with tension fabric”. There are a host of companies both US and offshore. The only thing you will need to provide them is your artwork. Choose a company that will answer your questions via email promptly.
These booth designs have aluminum tubes that are only 3’ in length but slip together to allow a large and tall display. The printed fabric slips over the poles easily and then is zipped up to apply the tension. Company staff can quickly assemble the booth without conference labor assistance. It helps to have two staff but for smaller booths, this is not necessary. PTFS selected a booth that when assembled has an 18’ tower with interior lighting. While not as high as a hanging sign you will save thousands at each show and the company’s logo and name can be seen from far away.
Another way to save money is to buy and reuse flooring vs. carpet rental. The jigsaw puzzle like foam floors cost about as much as renting carpet for one show. “The material looks great and is easy on your back after standing for hours”; says Yokley. Work on ways not to rent equipment at the show. The only thing PTFS rents is the booth, electricity, and Internet. We even ship a plastic trash can! The more you can pack and ship the more cost effective your show will be. At some shows is way more cost effective to buy and assemble chairs, stools and even flat-panel TVs and then donate them at the end of the show than to rent them from the exhibiting company.
John Yokley says that it may seem like common sense but there is no better way to make sure that the show and setup will go smoothly than making an old-fashioned checklist, meeting with the team involved both in show prep and attendance to add, edit and prioritize the list. “At PTFS we have a small team. Two to four staff attend the show and are also involved with the preparation. Having your whole team in the same room or on the same zoom meeting is paramount” Yokley commented.
The checklist will be long but a few key items to discuss at the preparation meeting are:
- Show Registration and Booth selection – usually, this is done by points based on seniority but the earlier you start communicating with show staff the better your odds are for securing a good location.
- Shipping – secure a shipping company that specializes in trade shows. It cost a little more but there is nothing worse than getting to the show and not having your crates and pelican cases show up on time.
- Hotel Reservations – Reserve your hotel early. “One place not to try to conserve money is booking rooms at the conference hotel that are walking distance from the convention location. Workdays can exceed 12 hours as you work the booth for 6-8 hours and then network afterward for 4-5 more. “It is most efficient to be in walking distance and staff deserve to be close to their room when putting in this much effort. If there are calls and meetings that staff must attend while at the show you want to make it convenient”; comments Yokley.
- A toolbox – Having the right tools is key! Keep this with the show equipment and check your tools are in the shipment when it leaves. Make sure you have Razer-knife, duct tape, screwdrivers, and plyers, and depending on the booth configuration a battery powered screw gun can save lots of time.
Marketing yourself before the event is crucial if you want to perform well, but it can be costly. However, there are free marketing strategies you can rely on. Social media is an excellent way to reach a large number of people with very little initial investment. You can promote the trade show through online communities dedicated to your industry. Another method to drive attendees to your booth is an email blast. Vendors sell the previous year’s list for low cost and eblast software platforms and services are inexpensive. If you choose these platforms effectively, it’s possible to get hundreds of leads without investing in expensive ad campaigns. John Yokley of PTFS relates that you should reach out to your personal network too. Sending out emails to influential figures can draw a surprising amount of people to the event. Finally, one of the best low-cost marketing strategies is to attend as many networking events after the show as possible. Networking events are sponsored by large vendors and are usually free. Meeting contacts and potential customers at these events is key to driving customers to your booth for briefings and demos the next day. Bring plenty of business cards!
Offering promotional items is a good way to build trust with potential customers at events and make your exhibition more memorable. However, companies often spend too much money printing their logo on items like pens, hats, or T-shirts. If you want to save money, try a drawing and giving away a Bluetooth speaker or a drone at the end of each show day. Promote this on social media, in email blasts, and have a display with the drawing item and a sign on a very visible table or pod in your booth.
John Yokley says trade events can be an excellent opportunity for your business, but show selection is crucial to secure a solid return on your investment. Choosing the right events to attend is crucial and is not easy to determine. According to John Yokley, it can be a better business decision to do a more expensive show halfway across the country than a low-cost local show where you waste your time and don’t secure any valuable opportunities. Spending a little bit more on a trade event is worthwhile if you generate a lot of leads and bring in more revenue as a direct result of attending. You can easily save that cost by following the suggestions discussed. It’s crucial to carefully select events and attend ones with the right audience. Make sure that you check the guest lists for events and look at the previous years. This will give you a sense of what kind of people usually go. If you select events poorly and only a handful of people there have any interest in your business, your investment will be wasted. “Unfortunately selecting good shows for your company may take some trial-and-error and experimentation so don’t get discouraged if your first few shows do not work out”, comments Yokley.