A guide to trade shows for startups and entrepreneurs

Many people sat at gathering or exhibition watching projector.

I love a good trade show – the buzz, the bags, the mouse mats and the brochures – the atmosphere is fantastic! However, if I had to man a stand for three full days with little or no traffic to my booth, I might not feel so keen! So why bother with trade shows in the first place?

Building a network

I was talking with the MD of a content platform provider start-up who told me how he recently went to Barcelona for a Gaming trade show. While he was there, he managed to book a whole bunch of meetings with all the people he was desperate to pitch to in London but was unable to reach locally. He quipped ‘funny I had to trek out to Barcelona to meet a bunch people who live round the corner from me!’ So this, my friends, is how trade shows can prove their worth.

Mobile World Congress is coming up in Barcelona for anyone involved in mobile or tech related projects. I have a client with a stand at the show, and it’s the only trade show they do all year. The company doesn’t even have a consumer product but sells its services straight to mobile operators. Their takeaway comment sums up the importance of networking at a trade show; ‘everyone is there, and we get to meet everyone once a year. If we weren’t there, people would start asking questions’.

Gaining business

Let’s face it, as a start-up we don’t have the budget for fancy stands! We could stretch to a box of Quality Street but is it worth attending a trade show? To gain value, you need to work out the purpose of such an event. Recently I went to the Food and Allergy Show, and exhibitors at the event were selling stock faster than I could buy it, so as a food vendor this type of event is a major revenue generator. If you are not selling a product but want to raise awareness then having a stand makes sense. Though to make the investment worthwhile, you must work out who else will be there and make sure you talk to them.

Call me ‘old skool’ but in most cases (B2B that is) seeing the whites of the eyes counts. If a trade show is where the people you need to meet are, then go there. In many cases entry is free, so it’s a no-brainer my friend, and not only for getting free key rings! I spend most of my time at trade shows speaking to the press, analysts and other professionals.

Strategies for start-ups

As an entrepreneur, you have to get to the bottom of what the value of such an event is. Are there keynote speakers who will educate and inspire you? Are there technology or marketing trends you want to learn about? Are there people you want to network with but need a focal point to meet? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then work out how to get to Olympia/Earls Court/NEC, etc.

I have also noticed a trend at shows recently – start-ups are getting a lot more air time. At the recent Apps World show in Earls Court, there was a start-up zone dedicated to entrepreneurs – no fancy stands, just a table, a pile of business cards and the chance to meet one- to-one with the founders. Effective? For the gaming start-up, I work with who were seeking partners, it certainly was! At Ad Tech (a trade show for advertising technology) they ran a ‘Dragons Den’ type pitching event for entrepreneurs and start-ups. A key bit of advice is not to be too shy to phone up the event producers and ask what is on offer. After all, we are entrepreneurs and need to grasp every opportunity to expand our business.

As with all marketing areas, the question is, what will the return be? Trade shows, if done in the right way, can have massive returns and generate valuable business leads. But unless you are willing to invest your time and efforts into researching the shows and planning how you will gain value from them, they may not be worth attending at all.