Early in my career, I worked as advertising manager for Koch Engineering, a company that made mixers and other equipment for the chemical process industry.


I liked a lot of things about the job, but one thing I didn’t like was managing our trade show exhibits.


Unpacking and setting up the booth was pain, and staffing the booth was boring – a lot of standing around waiting and hoping real prospects would come into the exhibit and express interest in our products.


But I did learn a few tricks about trade show exhibiting during my tenure with Koch (I also handled trade shows for Westinghouse in an earlier job) that I’d like to pass on to you.


First, nothing attracts people to your booth like action – whether it’s motion, an activity, a model, or a demonstration.


At Koch Engineering, we sold “internals” – devices that went into the innards of chemical plants where they helped liquids react.


We made a crude working model of a miniature chemical plant (about the size of a large desk) out of transparent Plexiglas, filled it with our internals, and ran water through it so visitors could see the liquid drip, bubble, and mist.


It was a fantastic attention getter – and more than that, it gave a live demonstration of how our products worked, which was exactly what our audience, chemical engineers, came to see (but rarely got at other booths in the show which featured mainly enlarged color photos of chemical plants and exhibitor products).


Second, ROI -- return on investment – is critical. Yet most companies spend thousands of dollars on trade shows without measuring ROI to see if it’s all worthwhile.


A common reason for companies to continue to exhibit at major shows is, “If we drop out this year, people will notice we are not there.” Another is, “If we drop out this year, we will lose our seniority and our preferential booth location at future shows.”


Neither is a valid reason for spending time and money on a trade show. The only reason you should be at a show is that you think the business you will write – at the show if they permit it, or with follow-ups to show leads after – will more than pay back the cost of exhibiting (including booth space, travel and lodging, exhibit design and production).


Third, surveys repeatedly confirm that the #1 reason your prospects come to industry trade shows is to see new products. So make sure your newest products (or at least the new upgrades and versions of old products) take center stage in your display. Use the word “new” prominently in booth graphics.


Fourth, as you know if you visit trade shows, they can be dull and boring. Anything you can do to liven up your exhibit will draw a crowd.


Example: To promote a new weapons system for a tank code-named “The Gunfighter,” Westinghouse hired a real-life “gunfighter” – a professional cowboy whose specialty was quick-draw shooting – as booth entertainment.


As the gunfighter demonstrated how to rapidly pull a gun from its holster and accurately hit the target, he talked about how our weapons systems could do the same thing for a tank (using a script we had given him).


It was the hit of the show, and every important buyer we wanted to reach came to the booth to see him.


In another trade show (and remember, this was the sexist 70s – way before political correctness became politically correct), we wanted to demonstrate a new Aqualung – an underwater breathing device designed for military applications.


We had a gigantic clear Plexiglas tank built, and hired an attractive, fit female model to demonstrate the product while swimming about in the tank – wearing a bathing suit, of course.


Other things that work well at trade shows (even though you may find them hokey):


* Giveaways of free gifts such as key chains, luggage tags, squeeze balls, Frisbees.

* “Put your business card into the fishbowl” for a drawing to win a bigger prize.

* Free food – typically candy and popcorn.

* Short marketing videos shown in endless-loop VCRs. People get hypnotized and drawn in by anything shown on a TV screen.

* Sleight-of-hand magicians and similar live entertainment in the booth.

* Product demonstrations.


One more tip: When someone approaches your booth, give him space. Don’t pounce on him like a hungry piranha attacking a cow swimming in the river. Let him look around a bit.


Once he is comfortably inside your space, it’s appropriate to say something. Don’t say, “Is there anything I can help you with?” or “Do you have any questions?” The prospect will say “no” to deflect you and quickly vacate your booth area.


Instead say, “What brings to you the [Name of Show] today?” His answer – e.g., “We need to find a way to control air quality in our office building” -- will help you direct conversation toward any solutions you can offer.


About the author:


Bob Bly is a freelance copywriter and the author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Direct Marketing (Alpha Books). He can be reached at or e-mail