Favorite Trade Show Hacks

trade show hacks

Imagine this scenario.  You decide to pay $2,500 for the cheapest exhibit option at your industry’s big annual trade show.  You know you’ll spend another $2,500 on cheap travel, lodging and meals for you and a fellow employee plus some marketing materials.  When you get there you discover that the 6-foot table you’ve been assigned is in the back corner of the exhibit hall near the loading docks and you return two days later with a handful of crappy leads, sore feet from standing hours on end and a big stack of brochures and other marketing material that went unused.

Amazingly, this same general disappointment can happen with spending $20,000 or more.  This article describes some of my favorite hacks for gaining legitimate trade show value at EXTREMELY low cost.

A True Story

After the dot com crash in early 2000, the company I led as President couldn’t afford the usual $150K total cost to participate in our industry’s big annual trade show (20′ x 20′ exhibit space, booth rental, shipping, travel, lodging, meals, promotions, etc, etc).  I thought about knocking the budget down to $50K but ultimately decided to go extreme and not have a booth at all and only be accompanied by two employees instead of the usual 15.  Our mission during the planning phase was to figure out how to extract as much value as possible without actually having a big booth.

The hacks we executed are listed further below but the evidence that they worked are best explained by an encounter I had on the final day of the three-day show.  While walking the show floor I bumped into an industry analyst that I knew fairly well.  Here’s a summary of the dialog:

  • Analyst:  “Hey Gordon, congrats on a great show.  I’d love to catch up after lunch to hear what you guys are up to.  Where is your booth?  I’ll stop by.”
  • Me:  “We don’t have a booth this year but I’d still love to meet.”
  • Analyst:  “You gotta be kidding me!  There’s more buzz about your company this year than ever before.  How is it possible if you don’t have a booth?”

Keep reading to learn what we did and see if you can hack some conferences and trade shows similarly.

Big Risk of Wasting Time and Money

Trade shows can be a total waste of time and not just for the reasons I previously mentioned with the scenario of paying $2,500 for a table in the back of the exhibit hall.  Each show has a stated purpose and associated audience size and demographic.  Therefore, much in the same way you wouldn’t pay for an online ad to run on all social channels but rather only the ones where your ideal buyer persona hangs out, you wouldn’t blindly attend or exhibit at a trade show without doing some research first.

  • How many people attend the show? (historical results)
  • What are the demographics of the attendees and do they match your target(s)?
  • Which of your competitors or business partners exhibit at the show?

The primary benefits of participating in shows and conferences is Awareness Generation and Business Development.  This can be the case whether you “pay to play” (ie – pay for booth space) or implement various hacks like I suggest in this article.  In this way, you should consider shows as one campaign type in your menu of possible marketing campaigns – email, search, advertising, social, events, etc.  (see related article titled “Optimizing Demand Generation Using Portfolio Theory“)

Finally, I will mention that pure trade shows (exhibit floor where companies showcase their offerings) are different than pure conferences, but often times there is a blend of both at any given event.  As you evaluate your various options, make sure to understand the relative mix of these two activities so that you can evaluate the best hacks to implement.  Some of them are more trade show specific while others are more conference specific.

Showcasing Your Product

There are sometimes hundreds of exhibitors at a given show.  Which of them would benefit by showcasing or demonstrating your product in their booth?  If you have distributors or resellers for your product, that’s an obvious place to start.  Licensing partners or other types of formal partners are also logical candidates.

Offer to send someone from your team to do the staffing for any companies/partners that agree to showcase your product at one of their demo pods or stations in their booth.  Big companies with 30′ x 30′ booths or larger garner a lot of traffic during a show and you can hugely benefit.

Tip:  Don’t forget to figure out how you will track your own leads.  Many companies rent a card scanning system, which means any scans you complete go into their database – not yours.  Asking for business cards sometimes works but not all prospects carry them.

Conference Sessions

Most trade shows are accompanied by a conference with keynote speeches and numerous lectures and panel sessions.  Your mission is to figure out how to get your company included in one or more of those.  This isn’t easy because the conference organizers feel obligated to showcase the companies that are paying for booth space and the more they spend the more prominent their speaking slot.

If you aren’t renting booth space, your best chance is to pitch a provocative or highly innovative topic that can’t be resisted by the show organizers.  What’s super hot or controversial in your industry?  Do you have something interesting to say?  Does your product somehow relate?  You MUST catch their attention with a great session title or abstract.  Even if you don’t get your own dedicated session, maybe you’ll get asked to moderate a panel or be a panelist on that related topic.

Tip 1:  If you aren’t especially skilled at the writing style common in public relations, get some help.  Find a freelancer that can help you prepare your submission to the conference organizers.  Also realize that the deadline for these submissions is often several months before the actual event.

Tip 2:  If the conference agenda has already been published, look for some session topics where you have expertise.  If any are using a moderator + panel format, try to message the moderator to see if they would be willing to add you as a panelist.  If they only have 2 panelists, they might consider it.  And even if they have 3-4 already you might be able to get put on the backup list.  Panelists drop out all the time, which sends the moderator scrambling. 


Trade shows give out more awards than conferences do but many conferences also include a trade show component. These awards might be titled something like best of show, most innovative, etc. If you have a product that seems to match the criteria for one or more of these awards, submit a nomination and see if you can get lucky.

What’s even better is when the awards are announced at some high-profile banquet that includes press, analysts and most of your peers from the industry, including the big name players that you would love to do business with or partner with. Imagine standing on stage to receive an award without having paid to have a booth at the show.

Tip:  Since often times the only companies eligible to submit a product for an award are those that paid to exhibit at the show, see if your distributor or strategic partner will nominate on your behalf. Help them write the submission so that it is done in the most compelling way possible and use freelance help like I mentioned previously.

Social Events

Shows and conferences are often accompanied by social events that happen each evening. Find out about as many as you possibly can and RSVP to any that look even remotely interesting. Divide up as a team and go to as many events as possible.  And if any of your team members aren’t already badass networkers at such events, have them ready my article titled “Best Practices for Networking at an Event“.

Tip 1:  If you really want to get bold and have some money to spend, throw a party of your own and get creative to bring a big draw. Is there a well-known industry pundit or celebrity that you can get to participate and perhaps say a few words? Even consider going in with two or three other companies to pull your money and have a better party.  The more creative the better because there is a lot of noise with all of the parties that happen and you will need to rise above that noise to have this be worth your money. I recommend putting more emphasis on creativity than money spent.

Business Development

The absolute cheapest and simplest trade show hack is to simply do business development and nothing else.  If the event has both trade show and conference components, consider paying the money to get access to the conference.  Trade show access will be free but the company executives, industry analysts/pundits and others that you probably want to hear speak and have a chance to talk to will be participating in the conference, not standing at a pod in a trade show booth.

Tip 1 (conference sessions):  Approach select panelists and moderators after their speech.  Sit close to the front so that you can get to them before they get mobbed by others in the audience.  Make sure to listen to what they say during the conference session so you can relate to it with your dialog.  Keep it very brief (see related article titled “Your Elevator Pitch Only Needs to Accomplish One Thing“) and try to get a business card.  If you get a positive reaction, offer to buy them coffee the next morning.  As a backup plan, ask if there’s someone from their team at the conference that you should meet with.

Tip 2 (trade show floor):  Scope out interesting companies ahead of time.   They’ll be listed online, including their location on the show floor.  Prioritize them so that you’re organized.  You might also need to visit their booth more than once because they will rotate their staffing from day-to-day and at different times during the day. 

Tip 3 (parties and social events):  As mentioned above, attend as many parties and social events as possible.  You can find them by monitoring social media and generally asking around as you scout the show floor.  The top tier or two of show sponsors are typically the most active with evening social events.  Executives will be at many of the parties and since it’s more of a social atmosphere you might have the best chance of getting into a dialog with them.  Save a snapshot of the Management Team page from the companies website onto your phone so that you can more easily identify the ones you most want to talk to.

Tip 4 (setting appointments in advance):  The first three tips mentioned immediately above will surely reveal interesting people that you would like to meet.  Rather than wait to first engage them while your at the show, why not try to communicate with them ahead of time?  Try to connect with them on LinkedIn and/or send an unsolicited email (2-3 guesses should yield a hit).  Try to set a meeting with them and, if successful, get their cell phone number so that you can text them if your plans change or they no-show.

PR & Publicity

The major shows for your industry draw analysts, press and key influencers.  Reach out to them 3-4 weeks before the show to see if they are going and, if so, ask if you can schedule time with them.  Offering to buy coffee, lunch or happy hour is often ideal.  If you wait until the week before, their schedule will be mostly full.

Other Nuances to Consider

Lead Volume
If you don’t pay to have a booth, you won’t get as many sales leads, but that’s a trade-off you’ll have to decide on.  But from my experience, trade shows tend to generate a ton of low-quality leads.  The volume might be high but the average quality is low.  Obviously, each show is different.

Pay to Play
Speaking opportunities are often reserved for those that pay to exhibit.  You might have to “pay to play” but, if so, you might be able to get away with paying for the smallest, cheapest booth option (probably a 6-foot table or maybe just a pod in some themed “pavilion”).  Just make sure to confirm that you will be able to speak at the conference (moderator, panelist, etc) before paying for the booth/table space.

Tip:  If you only get a small table that ends up in the back of the exhibit hall, you might not even want to admit that when interacting with employees and executives at the big companies you want to partner with.  It makes you look, small and fragile, which might be true but that doesn’t mean you need to make it obvious.

Badge Types for Attendees
Many conference-goers don’t pay to get the full-access badge.  It means they get to walk the trade show floor but not attend the conference sessions.  If your product is in several booths that your target persona will visit, you’ll get that aspect of awareness but the prospects won’t see your speaking engagement and might not find out about any awards you receive.


There will be a day when you are able to spend $100K or more to have a strong showing at your industry’s big trade show and conference.  But until then, hopefully this article gives you a menu of options to discuss and debate when trying to decide about exhibiting at a conference versus extracting value in other ways.  Experiment to discover what works best for you.

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