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Show and Sell.

Here are the tricks of the trade show circuit and how to expo your way to profits

GREGORY PERKINS KNOWS HOW TO STAND out in it crowd. When 20,000 publishing industry bigwigs jam the aisles of Chicago's McCormick Center for Book Expo America, Perkins is on hand exhibiting his line of African American greeting cards, calendars and pocket planners. "I'm there to hook a big fish," he says, And he has the perfect bait. Perkins highlights his product line using a 10-ft.-tall display, complete with bright lights and bold, colorful graphics. "People can see us from three rows over. It really pulls them into our booth" says the 33-year-old owner of Sacramento, California-based Magic Image. "I do about a dozen trade shows a year, They account for the majority of our sales." The seven-year-old company cams a half-million dollars annually.

At last year's expo, Perkins reeled in his big fish Target Stores agreed to distribute his African American art calendars in stores nationwide, a deal worth $30,000 in sales.

According to The Power of Exhibitions II, a study conducted by Deloitte & Touche and published by the Center for Exhibition Industry Research, trade shows are more effective in achieving sales and marketing objectives than direct mail, telemarketing and other sales strategies, which may explain why companies spend $16.5 billion each year on exhibits. But to ensure that your money is well spent. you first have to become trade show savvy, like Perkins.

While trade shows can generate new sales and bring you face-to-face with valuable business contacts, you can generate just the opposite effect with a single mistake--for instance, selecting the wrong show to display your product. The more research you do before venturing into this venue, the better your chances for success.


Trade shows are normally grouped by industry, market or product. They range in size, draw and cost, and can be either highly specialized or general in nature. Some shows can bring you together with large corporate buyers, while others enable you to sell directly to consumers or other small businesses. Your task is to find the show that offers the right mix of audience or market, location, industry and price.

For example, expositions are mounted each year by the NAACP, National Urban League and other major organizations. These can be good places to get your feet wet if you want to reach an African American audience and showcase your product or service to conference guests and speakers from major corporations.

There's even a venue for small, black-owned companies that seek to sell African American-themed products to other black-owned businesses in the U.S. and abroad. Twice a year, the International Black Buyers and Manufacturers Expo and Conference brings 1,000 small businesses together for show and sell in Washington, D.C.

You can also reach black-owned businesses and major mainstream corporations at the Business-to-Business Expo, held during the annual Black Enterprise/Nations Bank Entrepreneurs Conference. Ron Riley, marketing manager of Kemi Laboratories, based in Columbia, Maryland, took a booth at the Expo last year in hope of finding people to distribute the company's professional line of hair and skin care products to hair salons. "We signed up seven or eight new distributors on the spot," says Riley.


Exhibiting at trade shows has also helped corporations make transatlantic connections. Just ask Curtis Symonds, executive vice president of affiliates, marketing and sales for BET Holdings Inc.

"At last year's National Cable TV Association trade show, we began talks with Direct TV of Japan to distribute BET on Jazz in that country," Symonds says. One year later the two companies struck a distribution deal that will show BET's cable program to thousands of people in Japan.

Symonds has this advice on working with international distributors at trade shows: "The language barrier is strong, and you may need to prepare by acquiring the services of an interpreter. Also, in the U.S. you can charge one fee to cover the whole marketplace. But you may have to alter your prices when dealing with an overseas company, depending on the value of the U.S. dollar in that country."

The U.S. Department of Commerce offers the Certified Events Trade Program, which gives U.S. embassy assistance to companies participating in trade shows overseas. (See sidebar, "Useful Info on Expos," for contact information.)


When you add up the cost of hotel, airfare, freight, booth space, signs and premiums, these shows can run you well into the thousands of dollars. Here are some lessons Perkins and others have learned to make your trade show experience a money maker--not a budget breaker:

Choose the right show. Lusetha Rolle has become savvy about picking the right shows for Cadtech Group Inc., her computer-aided drafting and design firm. The Silver Spring, Maryland-based company creates drawings of mechanical parts for government aircraft and architectural floor plans.

Rolle's six-year-old company earns $600,000 a year, and several of her clients resulted from contacts made at trade shows. She budgets about $3,000 each year for trade show exhibiting.

"I go to very specific shows where I know the attendees are looking for drafting services or engineering support, rather than general membership shows," the 38-year-old says. This direct-targeting approach has paid off with major contracts from Northrop Grumman, Baltimore Gas and Electric and Alliant Techsystems.

To ensure a particular show will be profitable for your company, contact the exhibit manager and ask a few pointed questions. Is a heavy volume of foot-traffic expected? Which days are high traffic and which are low? Which major industry buyers can you expect to see? What kind of sales have other vendors made at this show?

Plan ahead. It's best to hit the trade show floor with a plan of action. Rolle, for example, begins her sales pitch to potential customers long before she gets on the plane.

"I always send letters to companies before the show, letting them know my booth location and how they can reach me at the hotel," says Rolle. "I know who I want to do business with, and I don't sit back and hope they approach me. I seek them out."

The same kind of forethought should go into what kind of display you will have. As president of 21st Century Expo Group, Ray McFarland has created attractive and eye-catching exhibits for dozens of clients, including Mobil Oil, Toyota, the NAACP and the National Education Association. McFarland suggests, "If you've bought a 10 x 10 ft. space, re-create that in your warehouse, shop or home before you come to the show. Do a dry run. Make sure all of your products will fit in that space and decide how you will present them."

Get a good spot. Ideally, you want your display set up in a location that has a steady flow of foot traffic. McFarland advises that you try for an island space. "That gives you exposure on all four sides of the booth and greater access to your exhibit."

It's more likely you'll get a pick of prime locations if you turn in registration materials early, McFarland notes. But, while some organizations do give early birds the best spots, others charge an additional fee for prime locations such as those near the exhibit hall entrance or in a corner. According to McFarland, you can expect to pay $100-$200 extra to locate a 10 x 10-ft. booth in a corner location.

Cut costs where possible. Depending on the size of the show and the industry it addresses, an average 10 x 10 ft. exhibit space will cost you anywhere from $500 to $1,200. For example, a 10 x 10 ft. space at shows sponsored by groups like the Congressional Black Caucus, the NAACP or the Urban League can cost $1,000-$1,200. The same-size booth at a large science or computer trade event can cost up to $1,500.

Says McFarland, "If you're a small company with a limited product line, you'd probably want a 10 x 10 ft. space. If you're medium size with a considerable amount of merchandise, you might move up to 10 x 20 ft."

It's not so much the size of the booth, but what you put in that space that can run your budget through the roof.

For example, within a 10 x 10 ft. booth, you're likely to pay $3,000 for a basic display unit. Add lights, graphics and other custom features, and the cost can run up to $15,000. Other average costs include $85 for carpet rental, $50 for a draped table, $40 for chairs, and $80-$100 to install electrical lines for a standard 500-watt outlet for lights, computers and audio/visual displays. McFarland adds that you can expect to pay $150 for a telephone line and an additional $50 to rent the phone. Most trade show organizations offer freight handling services, which include transporting your materials from the loading dock to your booth and back to the dock. The cost is $30-$50 per 100 pounds.

Pool resources with others. Some black businesses have joined forces at major trade shows to create more visibility for their products.

At last year's Book Expo America, Perkins and five other African American business owners exhibited near each other to form what he jokingly calls "Black Street."

"We did this strategically to have a bigger presence for African American products within a mainstream show," he says. While each business paid for its own space, together they created an impressive display for bookstores seeking to carry African American-designed mugs, glassware and stationery products.

Use the right staff. At the supershows, where attendance can stretch well into the thousands, you'll want to have at least three or four staff people on hand. McFarland warns that "the person who does well in telephone sales back in the office may not be good in a booth dealing with people face to face." Salespeople can spend up to 30 minutes wooing customers over the phone in the office. They won't get that chance on the trade show floor.

"You have about 45 seconds to draw them in," says Rolle. "You have to be quick, concise and have some buzz words on hand that will get your ideas across right away." You'll want your booth staffed by people with high energy who don't mind standing for long hours.

There are definite no-no's when dealing with the public. For example, don't crowd your booth with too many product offerings. Have a focus so that potential buyers aren't overwhelmed. Be sure not to get so wrapped up in talking to one customer that you ignore others who stop by. Have enough staff on hand to greet each person who visits your booth. Don't be afraid to interrupt an ongoing conversation to acknowledge a new visitor. And be ready to roll when the show starts. There's no bigger turnoff than stopping to look at a product only to be told, "Come back later when we've finished setting up." Chances are, the visitor won't.

Put attention grabbers to work. "The average trade show attendee coming down the aisle determines within 15 seconds whether to spend time at your booth," McFarland says. "You must have some kind of eye-catching graphic or signage that makes them stop."

He suggests using creative and bold graphics or halogen lights to advertise your company's name. Computers, live audio, and video demonstrations also help you stand out from the competition. Rolle wows potential clients with an animated computer demonstration that features rotating 3-D images of machine parts and electrical components.

"I showed the presentation to a buyer from Baltimore Gas and Electric during the Maryland/DC Minority Supplier Development Council Opportunity Fair. She was so impressed, she brought her associate over to the booth. They ended up writing a $3,000 contract with us. And we paid only $300 to do that show," says Rolle.

Follow up on leads. Follow up is the key to turning exhibit floor contacts into sales contracts. After spending time on the exhibit floor with an enthusiastic representative from the book division at Target, Perkins recalls, "I had a package of samples sitting on his desk before he got back to his office in Minneapolis." The result? Target wrote an order for 2,500 calendars. Now the company has requested samples of new calendars for 1999.

While Perkins had immediate results, other entrepreneurs may find that it takes persistence and patience before the leads pay off. Rolle spent two years following up on a lead she got at the Virginia Regional Minority Supplier Development Council trade show. She was determined to get a contract drafting floor plans for Alliant Techsystems, managers of a Virginia military base.

After talking to the firm's buyer on the trade show floor, Rolle says, "Every time I saw her at a show, I'd talk to her. I sat next to her at banquets and chatted her up at receptions. When the show would end, I'd send faxes and newsletters keeping her informed about our company." Finally, Rolle was asked to bid for a job. Now, Cadtech has a half-million dollar contract to draw plans of the facility showing the base's compliance with OSHA regulations.

Says Rolle: "If you're at a trade show, there's no reason you should walk away without a sale or some contact for follow-up business."

Useful Info on Expos

Here are a few resources to help make your next--or first--trade show a success:

* The Center for Exhibition Industry Research has the world's largest database on the exhibition industry. CEIR publishes reports, facts and figures on exhibit industry trends. Visit CEIR on the Web at for a look at some of those materials. To obtain the brochure, The Power of Exhibitions: Maximize the Role of Exhibitions in Your Marketing Mix, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to CEIR at 4350 East West Highway, Suite 401, Bethesda, MD 20814; 301-907-7626.

* The U.S. Department of Commerce helps businesses interested in international exhibitions select high-quality trade shows within their industry through its Trade Fair Certification Program. For more information about this program and other forms of assistance, call the U.S. Department of Commerce Trade Information Center at 800-872-8723.

* Exhibitor Magazine ( has an online resource for trade show professionals that contains industry research, case studies and magazine articles. It also features an extensive list of books on trade show marketing.

* The Trade Show News Network ( another online resource that provides trade show updates, information about vendors, plus ideas and suggestions.

* Two good reads on the subject are Guerilla Trade Show Selling by Jay Conrad Levinson, Mark S.A. Smith and Orvel Ray Wilson (John Wiley & Sons, $19.95), and Exhibit Marketing: A Success Guide for Managers by Edward A. Chapman Jr. (McGrawHill, $29.95).
COPYRIGHT 1998 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:innovations in trade show merchandising and marketing
Author:Gutloff, Karen
Publication:Black Enterprise
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 1998
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