Fall is here. The weather is turning cool, the kids are back to school and Trade Show Season begins. If you are thinking about having a display table or booth at a conference, trade show, or holiday craft fair, take a few minutes to review our trade show time line and planning tips.

TWELVE MONTHS PRIOR

I know it seems like a long way off, but when you attended the event last year did you take notice of the floor plan and traffic patterns. Did you identify where you wanted to have your booth this year? No? Then you will have to spend more time looking over the show maps to decide where you want your booth to be. In trade shows, as in real estate, it is location, location, location.

Read through the contract, making sure you understand the payment schedule, terms, rules, and space assignment methods. Apply for your space and pay your deposit.

Set a budget for the show. Mark your calendar with reminders and important dates from this trade show time line.

SIX MONTHS PRIOR

Now the serious planning begins. What specific outcomes do you want from your time at this show? Serious leads, sales, or simple introductory conversations? Your primary objective will drive your booth design. If you are simply looking to collect email addresses or business cards, make sure your fish bowl or sign up sheet is prominently placed. If you want to have longer conversations, design the booth with space to accommodate chairs or an area toward the back of the booth to stand and chat.

A professional booth design company will help you choose the right layout for your objectives. This is the right time to look at your existing trade show booth and decide if you need an upgrade, simply new graphics, or a completely new booth.  Starting six months out will give you plenty of time to make the best decisions and avoid rush charges.

This is also the right time to think about pre-show advertising buys in industry trade publications and conference sponsored publications. Check submission schedules and start working on your advertising designs.

FOUR MONTHS PRIOR

Who will be going to the trade show? Four months out may seem early, but this is a good time to identify who will staff your booth so they can clear their schedules and start watching airfares. Often conference hotels fill up early, so make your reservations for hotels, airline tickets, and rental car if needed.

Now is the time to finalize your featured products and order the exhibit or new graphics. Once you know the products you will be promoting, you can start working on your advertisements (be sure to include your booth number). Finalize your advertising and submit to the appropriate publications.

Design your handouts and evaluate give-aways. Don’t forget to plan your post-show followup. Attendees come home with their briefcases full of information, most of it gets stacked on their desk until it is ultimately tossed in the trash. Your show handout should be disposable, with general information and a link to your website for more information.

Everyone should receive a post-show email, but your serious prospects should get something more. Ideally a piece of direct mail designed to land on their desk 5 – 10 days after the show. Why? By then they have sorted through their inbox and cleared their desks. This is the ideal time to remind them of your conversation. Wait too long, and they will have forgotten you.

As you design your show handouts and the after show printed content, you need to have a plan to collect contact information and quickly get it into a format that you can use to send emails and direct mail. I can’t tell you how many opportunities are lost as a result of a followup plan that isn’t given the same attention as the show plan.

THREE MONTHS PRIOR

Review the exhibitor manual so you are fully prepared. Go over your floor plan. Make note of any restrictions and target dates. Make a list of any services you need. Some convention centers require that you use their employees to do everything. Others will allow you to do some of your own setups. If you have to reserve their services, do so as early as possible. There are often discounts for early reservations.

If you will be running a presentation or demo in the booth now is the time to start writing your scripts. Have your sales team create a target list of people you want to schedule for a demonstration.

If you are going to have a hospitality suite at the hotel or conference center reserve it now and choose your catering options. Again talk to your sales team about invitation lists for the hospitality event. Design invitations, either printed or digital, for demonstrations and hospitality. Consider adding an RSVP or scheduling form to your website.

What will your booth team be wearing? Suits, business casual, or branded clothing? If you are going to have your team wear matching shirts, be sure to select something which will look good on all your team members. Make sure the item you select comes in a range of sizes to accommodate everyone on your team. Make sure the clothing is ordered early enough to allow for washing or alterations, if needed, before the conference.

TWO MONTHS PRIOR

Preview your new exhibit. Make sure your booth staff knows how to assemble and disassemble it correctly. Place orders for any printed material handouts and giveaways. Order conference badges for your team. Verify reservations for your entire staff, making any necessary changes.

Finalize your lead gathering procedures and show schedule. Create a briefing packet for those who will staff your booth and schedule training.

Mail or email invitations to hospitality events and demonstrations.

ONE MONTH PRIOR

The show is around the corner. Now is a good time to confirm your shipments, make sure you know when your merchandise will arrive. If it is being shipped directly to the facility make sure you have routing numbers and shipping bills to track receipt. Identify a contact at the conference center to confirm when items arrive.

Check the schedule for installation and dismantling of your booth, including an estimate of costs to have the facility team manage it. Assemble show kits and ship all materials so they arrive several days before the show.

Have your sales team confirm appointments and follow up with people who have not responded to events.

Make sure you have copies of your orders with proof of payment, credit cards, contact information for all vendors, shipping manifest, shipping labels for return shipping, and engineering certificate for your exhibit.

Ideally, you should be able to confirm the arrival of all of your material before you leave your office.

WHEN YOU ARRIVE

There is a lot to do in a short amount of time. Plan to arrive early before the rush. Check for the arrival of all shipments and check on reservations for hotel rooms and meeting rooms as well as catering orders. Remember everyone will be trying to do the same things at the same time, so sending one person on ahead will make sure you move to the front of the line to get your questions answered.

Locate the electrician and service area and confirm the installation date and time for your display. Supervise the setup of the booth and plan to brief and train your staff one day prior to the start of the trade show

DURING THE SHOW

Yes, you are there to talk to customers and prospects, but be sure you make time for a bit of competitive research. What are other companies doing? Who has the best booth, most well-trained staff?  Look for companies who seem to have a more creative approach.

Talk to your sales team about the quality of the interactions. You need to decide if this is a show worth attending next year. If so, go back and read my first section on picking your perfect space.

If it is a multi-day show, process the best leads every day so you will be ready to follow up when you get back to your office.

AFTER THE SHOW

Time to take the booth down. While it is tempting to rush this step you want to package it carefully so you will be able to reuse it again next year.

Pack your bags and head home. Plan a meeting to debrief everyone who worked the booth. Get a list of ideas and suggestions, what worked, and what didn’t that you can add into your planning for next year.

Your trade show timeline doesn’t end here. It is time to start following up with your leads, send direct mail and email, and have phone conversations. Sell something! After all, that is why you go to these shows.

And now you are almost ready to start planning for your trade show adventure. Before you go grab a copy of our trade show basics for more tips and ideas.