A Primer for Trade Show Exhibitors—How to Treat Attendees


I've been going to trade shows since 1984.  In those days, I would come home with (or ship) a pile of heavy catalogs of all kinds of cool stuff, some newly discovered.  In the age of Google, I’m likely going to find product solutions for on the internet, but I still find trade shows to be a valuable experience, because there I can put faces with emails (as they say, you have to be real before you can be virtual), hang out with friends both on the floor and in the bar, present at or attend a session, and—of course—check out the latest and greatest gear.  But I’m continually surprised at some exhibitors, and the way they clue-lessly drive me out of their booth. So, I thought I’d write up this little primer for exhibitors who want to reach people like me.

At a trade show, I have several kinds of booths I go to see:

  • The Old Friend: In our little industry, sometimes these literally are staffed by long-time personal friends, schoolmates, or vendors I've had a relationship with for many years.  At these booths, I typically check in to see how things are in my friend's world, and after a bit of personal talk, we’ll talk new product. I have good friends that I see only once or twice a year in conjunction with some trade show.
  • The New Friend: An exhibitor might have a new and/or innovative product that someone told me I had to see, or something I read about somewhere in advance of the show.  Or, I might have orders pending with an exhibitor I hadn't dealt with before, and I want to meet them—nothing builds trust like a face to face interaction.
  • The Curiosity: A booth might have something that I just find to be of general interest, but it’s something I’m never going to buy.  For example, I’m primarily a sound guy, but I might like to see what the state of the art in moving lights is these days. Or, I might be fascinated by a manufacturing process, or a blinking light caught my eye.  Here, I just want to take a quick look--I may not even want to talk to anyone, and I don't want to waste a salesperson's time.

Here’s the way I’d like to be treated when visiting a booth:

  • Unless you fall into the “old friend” category, please give me 20 seconds to look at your booth before talking to me. I may be over there just trying to figure out what you’re selling because you have crappy signage, or I’m just curious about a field different than mine and will never buy your product.
  • If you do talk to me, please just start by asking me if I have any questions. And if I say no, please say “OK, thanks, I’m over here if anything comes up”.
  • If I do ask a question, please don't launch into a thirty minute sales presentation.  Just start with an overview, and go deeper only if I ask.
  • Be sensitive to the customer’s time availability. There may be 1000 booths at this show, and it’s rare that I really want to spend 20 minutes with your salesman.

These are the kinds of booths that I (sometimes literally) run away from:

  • The Used Car Salesman: Annoying, slimy, aggressive salespeople, who really know nothing about the technology, but swoop down on you like a vulture and seem completely oblivious to the fact that you could care less what he or she is saying. A lot of the trade shows I go to feature a lot of technology, and a lot of technical attendees are (like me) introverts. Aggressive salesmen drive me away—if I sense this is coming I won't ask a question. There are booths at shows that I routinely avoid because I don’t want to deal with some jerk.
  • The Name Callers:  If you don’t know me personally, don’t EVER call out my name because you read it off my badge. Leave that kind of stunt to the outside talker at a sideshow. At a trade show, it’s disorienting (do I know this person who is calling my name?) and sleazy. Companies that do this have a permanent black mark in my book.
  •  The Scanners: “Can I scan you?  It’s just for booth traffic”. Uh, no.  I don’t believe you. I hate spam and I only let people scan my badge if I'm really interested in the product and want more information.  If I want you to have my contact info, I’ll offer it.
  • The Bimbos: If I want to hang out with primped up women who are talking to me only because I'm a potential customer, I’ll go to a strip club. If you feel that “booth babes” (AKA rent-a-bimbos) differentiate your company, then you're doing something wrong.
  • The Mysteries: If I can’t figure out what segment of the business you’re in by looking at your booth signage within two seconds, you've failed. If your banner has “synergy” or related, vague buzzwords in the signage, I’m not going near it.  Also, your company should have a memorable name, color scheme, etc.
  • The Revolutionaries: If your booth signage says you have "revolutionized" anything, I’m moving on. 
  • The Trash Talkers: It’s great, of course, to compare your product to the competition, but bad mouthing the other guy is just bad form and reflects badly on you.

See you at the next show!