Succeeding at International Trade Shows

Part 1 of a 4 part strategy

One of the most powerful promotional channels for a company trying to penetrate new markets is participating in trade shows in the target region or country. However, trade shows are a risky proposition. Done right, the rewards are plenty and the effort is worthwhile. Done wrong, it can be a tremendous waste of money and time and leave the company with nothing to show for it, except for a big bill!

Here is a common scenario: a company has one shot to participate in its industry’s premier trade show for the next few years. The company can’t afford to fail. To top it all off, the company doesn’t have much money, so it needs to make the most of the little cash available.

A few years ago, I was facing exactly that scenario while working for an SME in the United States. Using all the previous experience I had in trade show participation, I put together a trade show participation strategy that allowed us to attract 90+ qualified leads in three days, screen unqualified candidates, and ultimately start relationships with candidates that eventually became some of our best distributors worldwide.

I’ve shared this strategy with many of my clients and they have found it tremendously useful because companies of any size can apply this strategy, it doesn’t cost more to put it into practice, and it works! This strategy consists of four critical elements:

1. Pre-event Preparation

2. The Booth

3. The Staff in the Booth

4. After-event Follow Up

Pre-event Preparation

A (sadly) common approach to trade show participation is to show up, hope someone stops at the booth, and offer giveaways and gimmicks to attract anyone and everyone. This approach produces very limited results at best, and waste of resources and frustration at worst.

At the very minimum, there are three pre-event preparation questions to ask months before the trade show in order to ensure a solid foundation for success:

1. What are the objectives and goals of the company’s participation?

It’s critical to determine what’s the end goal for participating at a trade show: sales, lead generation, distributor recruitment, drive traffic to local distributors, referrals, brand building, or a combination of these goals. The answer to this question will produce a target to aim for and will also affect the answers to the next questions.

2. Are the products ready for the target market?

It’s a tremendous letdown to be at a trade show and find out that the product(s) the company is offering for sale and/or distribution are not compliant with the local quality standards and regulations. Thus, it is critical to find out before the event, as early as possible, whether the product(s) that will be offered/shown in the trade show comply with the country’s quality standards and industry regulations, as well as whether they will be real products or prototypes.

3. Do potential clients know the company will be at the trade show and the opportunities it will offer?

Successful companies make it impossible for their potential buyers and/or distributors to miss the fact that they will be at the tradeshow. How is this achieved? Here are three tactics:

– Pre-invite targeted customers and candidates

It is very tempting to think that the company’s presence in the trade show guide and website will bring qualified candidates to the booth. Once a company has defined the objectives of its participation, it’ll know who to target and invite. The company can now contact the appropriate prospects to visit the booth through print and internet ads (regional newspapers, industry publications, specialized magazines and/or their websites), e-mails, phone calls, social media, and/or direct mail (invitations, post cards, etc.)

– Give potential clients a real reason to visit the company’s booth

It’s critical to include in the promotional materials compelling reasons/benefits for potential clients to stop by the booth. Does the company have distribution opportunities? Is it selling new products? A clear and compelling call to action brings more qualified clients than offering gimmicks such as prizes and giveaways.

– Show the booth’s specific location

Most international trade shows are large events, occupying several buildings and spanning several days. When inviting potential clients to the booth, it’s very useful to not only provide the both location (building/floor/aisle/number), but to show graphically how to get to the booth from the main entrance.

A solid foundation made of pre-event preparation is the first step to succeed at a trade show. The other elements that make up the trade show participation strategy (the booth, the staff in the booth, and the after-event follow up) will be reviewed in upcoming articles. Stay tuned!


About the Author

Alberto Rodriguez-Baez is a Sr. International Business Consultant at The University of Texas at San Antonio’s International Trade Center (, which is part of the South-West Texas Border SBDC Network. The Network serves a 79 county region that includes San Antonio, Austin, El Paso, San Angelo, Corpus Christi, Laredo, Eagle Pass, Alpine, Victoria, and the Rio Grande Valley.

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply