Trade show strategies help small-business owners pull in clients

vbridges@newsobserver.comMarch 31, 2014 

The Frankel Staffing Partners booth in 2010 had a mountaineering theme.

COURTESY OF ROD FRANKEL

  • Upcoming area expos

    Garner Chamber’s Business & Consumer Expo: April 10, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; Garner United Methodist Church

    Raleigh Chamber’s Business Expo: May 1, 9:30 a.m.-4 p.m., Jim Graham Building, N.C. State Fairgrounds.

    Knightdale Business EXPO: June 17, 3-7 p.m., Knightdale High School.

    Fuquay-Varina Chamber Business Expo: Aug. 28, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.

    Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber’s Primetime Business Expo: Sept. 18, 5:30-7:30 p.m., Sheraton Chapel Hill.

    Cary Chamber’s Business EXPO: Nov. 5, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Prestonwood Country Club, Ballroom 300.

— Frankel Staffing Partners’ goal when participating in local business expos is to use creativity to open an invisible door to potential clients.

The recruiting and placement firm’s expo strategy centers on an elaborate theme. Representatives wear costumes – such as scuba gear or Boy Scout uniforms – to match the booth’s selected theme.

“It’s extraordinary” how many people say “ ‘What do you guys do’ ” said Rod Frankel, president of the 20-year-old firm. “What kind of great question is that?”

Frankel’s first expo in 1995 was one of discovery, he said, with a simple display. The next year, he added a backdrop and sign.

“This was certain in keeping with all of the other exhibitors,” Frankel said. But “it didn’t distinguish us.”

So the next year, Frankel took a different route – one that included a roulette wheel, a salesperson in a boa and a new motto: “Don’t gamble with your choice of staffing partners.”

From then on, Frankel staffers dressed up for every expo and earned many awards for best service booth. But, most importantly, they scored hundreds of leads.

“We had a lot of fun,” Frankel said. “But people remembered us.”

Deciding on an expo

Deciding on which expos to attend depends on a business’ goals and market, said Jeff Tippett, senior marketing manager for The Publicus Community and former chair of the Raleigh Chamber of Commerce’s Business Expo.

Owners should research to determine whether the decision makers they are trying to reach will be there.

Trade show opportunities range from industry specific shows to expos involving local communities.

Catering Works won an award in 2013 for best food booth at the Raleigh Chamber’s expo, and reinforced existing client relationships, said Lorin Laxton, co-owner of the Raleigh catering and event planning company. But they didn’t walk away with lots of leads for new customers.

Laxton said her company tends to be more successful at smaller, niche trade shows that appeal to consumers, like wedding shows. Smaller events give the company more time to connect with potential customers, she said.

Preparing for an expo

Budget and preparation vary from business to business and show to show, Tippett said. Booths can be as simple as a table top and chairs or as elaborate as a two-story display.

Owners should start planning at least three months in advance, said Rob Wheeler, marketing consultant for Skyline Exhibits & Events.

Tippett encourages owners to be creative as it will help spark conversation and distinguish themselves in the often monotonous maze of booths.

Booths should include color and streamlined imagery. The goal, Wheeler said, is to make somebody want to stop and ask a question.

“Think of a billboard approach not a bulletin board approach,” Wheeler said. “Keep the graphics clean, bright and minimal.”

Businesses should also staff the booth with people who are willing to engage strangers.

Exhibitors should set goals, such as reaching a certain number of new clients, and establish a strategy to help make that happen, Wheeler said.

Owners should have materials like white-sheets or business cards to pass out.

“It may be that you are giving them some kind of memento that has your branding,” Tippett said.

Exhibitors also need a system to collect contact information.

Regardless of the costume, Frankel said he always includes a place to store his business cards and collect others. Frankel hosts a giveaway, with prizes such as $1,000 off a service to encourages people who need his services to leave a card, he said.

Most expos have a Twitter hashtag, Tippett said, which allows owners to search what other companies are doing to create buzz, jump into the conversation and build some expectations. Most expos offer a list of exhibitors, which owners can use to reach out to potential clients in advance, Tippett said.

Expo day strategy

Generally, the day-of-event strategy should be to make connections, not close deals.

“I want them to understand what it is we do,” Tippett said. “And I want them to understand how we can make their life better.”

Company representatives should stand at the front of the booth with a smile and a ready handshake. If they are sitting in a chair staring down at their smart phone, they are “sending a really, really bad message,” Wheeler said.

Frankel said he treats the process the same as if he were developing a friendship, which starts with a conversation at the trade show.

Following up

The post-trade show follow up is the most crucial step in the process, experts said, but it is one that many companies skip.

“If you go to all this expense, you have got to set aside time for follow up,” Tippett said.

Wheeler said companies should establish a plan before the event and block out time to follow up with the best leads.

Frankel said he sets up a contact triage. One pile includes people he must follow up on, a second includes people they might want to speak with again and the third stack requires no action. Frankel sends a handwritten note to the first category. Owners should respond in whatever way they are most comfortable.

In that response, mention the next step, like setting up a meeting to discuss business.

“Always, always, always include a next step no matter where you are in the process,” Frankel said.

Bridges: 919-829-8917; Twitter: @virginiabridges

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