For B2B businesses, trade shows can present powerful sales and marketing opportunities. Exhibiting at one of these target-rich events can facilitate invaluable lead-generation and accelerate awareness-building for companies of all sizes and life stages.

For the 60% of Argentum clients that are B2B, trade shows are typically a hot topic during marketing planning sessions. As a hybrid sales and marketing event, there is the opportunity to generate strong brand awareness at the same time that the sales team is doing business development. But even with the potential that trade shows offer, there’s no denying that the cost to exhibit can be daunting, especially for growth stage and mid-market companies. Before signing up, it’s important to be sure that the potential rewards are worth the investment.

One of my favorite examples of when it was clearly time to start exhibiting was when I was working with an 8-year-old, $2M bootstrapped company in the architecture space. At that time, the architecture industry had one key industry trade show, A!, which every architecture firm in the industry attended.

As we built my client’s marketing plan, we determined that the year’s key objective was to sign up one-third of the industry’s Top 100 architecture firms as customers. And since every potential customer was going to be at A!, it was time for my client to demonstrate to the community that his company was the real deal by exhibiting at the trade show. It was going to be a huge expense for such a small, bootstrapped company: $80,000. But my client was going to be able to see (and impress) every single potential client over the span of just three days. It would be a year’s worth of business development meetings in a three-day span!

Leading up to the show, we were all stressed about the big expense and worried that it wouldn’t be worth it. We managed the budget as tightly as possible but made sure to maintain an appropriate aesthetic for the unusually discerning show attendees.

At last, the show week arrived. And it was a huge success for my client! He generated so many high-potential leads that he signed up for booth space for the following year while still at the show. We all breathed a huge sigh of relief.

Unlike my architecture client, with whom I worked closely through every step of the decision process, I recently had another client who signed up for an industry trade show without talking with me first. They didn’t think it was a big deal, because the booth space was only $5,000. What they didn’t realize was that there would be thousands of dollars in additional costs, such as building a booth, paying union workers to assemble and disassemble the booth (including paying an electrician for one hour of time to plug in one electrical cord), and even renting a floor (We laughed a lot about the last one.) Ultimately the show cost my client about $25,000 all-in, not including the gorgeous, high-resolution photography they already owned, or the three days of employee time to staff the booth. The show yielded only marginal results, an expensive lesson for my client.

If you’re wondering if exhibiting at a trade show is right for your business, here are some things to consider before committing to a show:

  1. What data will you commit to tracking while at the show to help you determine if the event is worth doing again?
  2. What kind of follow-up is your team capable of doing after the show? Are they willing to follow up? Is there an incentive to follow up or repercussions if they do not? I ask these questions because I once had a client spend about $70,000 to exhibit at a major show in Las Vegas, but his sales team did not follow up with the leads generated at the show. While this speaks to larger organizational issues, it was frustrating to see so much money essentially wasted.
  3. Are there ways that you can maximize your attendance expense? For example, try to get a speaking slot or maybe host an event offsite or at your booth, your hotel, or a location near the convention center.
  4. Consider alternatives to exhibiting. For example:
    • RENT A SUITE in the trade show’s official hotel, instead of exhibiting, and invite people to meet you there for meetings or even just cocktails.
    • WALK THE SHOW – If you can’t yet afford to exhibit at a key show, you should plan to go as an attendee to do reconnaissance. This will help you get a feel for the show, see what your competitors are doing, and meet people in the industry. You can then decide when it will be worth your money and team time to exhibit.
    • SUITCASING – And finally, if you can’t yet afford a ticket to the show and you’re feeling bold, try “Suitcasing.” While trade show organizers frown on this, I did have a client who did this. He was working for a startup in the real estate industry and was unable to afford the hefty fee to attend a key industry show. But, having worked in the industry for years, he decided to stand at the top of the elevator near the entrance to the show. He was able to say hi to and catch up with many attendees as they entered and exited the show and tell them about his new company. He achieved his objective, which was to reconnect and generate awareness for his new company. However, he did receive a warning letter from the trade show organizers telling him to never do that again!

There are a wide variety of articles available online with more detailed Tips and Tricks for trade shows. Inc. Magazine has always done a good job of outlining the basics, and they seem to run an article on the topic every few years. The tips are timeless, and ere are a few of the articles along with the year they were published:

It’s easy for early-stage B2B businesses to get excited about the potential from exhibiting at their first trade show. But with the sometimes-outsized cost to exhibit, it’s important for businesses to stay grounded. Make sure you have clear and specific goals and identify specific metrics that will provide data for both short and long-term return on investment.