When it comes to planning a successful tradeshow as an event planner, it’s probably time to question our basic assumptions about what a tradeshow looks like and how it works after decades of the same old “set-up-a-booth-and-hope-people-stop” tradeshow strategy.
Think back to the trade shows of a few decades ago – many of them were “cookie cutter” events filled with standard-sized tradeshow booths and branded promotional “giveaways” at every turn. Today’s association tradeshows are vastly different from previous generations with high-tech interactive displays and unique “meet and greet” opportunities. As today’s tradeshows continue to evolve, meeting planners are having to reevaluate what makes a tradeshow a success.
According to Lee Gimpel, meeting planning expert and founder of Better Meetings, a meeting design, facilitation, and training company in Washington, DC, a tradeshow often has at least three masters with three different objectives.
“The event organizers often see it as a cash cow that brings in revenue. The exhibitors go because they want to make sales or find partners. And the attendees are looking for real solutions to their issues,” Gimpel says. “Many tradeshows seem to be overweighted to producing revenue for the organizer versus really delivering homerun results for the exhibitors and the attendees.”
CEDIA is the leading global trade association for smart home technology, serving more than 4,000 members and 30,000 professionals from 77 countries. Jen Roth, director of meetings and events at CEDIA, says that planning tradeshows requires a much heavier lift logistically compared to a typical meeting. From understanding floor plan design, lingo of general service contractors, booth restrictions and what the fire marshal will approve, to why drayage is necessary (because undoubtedly that will always be a pain point for exhibitors), there are so many elements that exhibitors will rely on the meeting planner to know.
“It can be overwhelming for a first time exhibitor to be handed a 50+ page exhibitor kit and be expected to know what forms apply to them, so they will look to you for hand-holding them through the process,” Roth says. “There are nuances for each tradeshow and different vendors at each facility, so it’s not as easy as rinse-and-repeat from other shows where they exhibited. As the meeting planner, you will become their source of truth and be expected to know the ins and outs of the tradeshow logistically.”
In Roth’s experience as an association event planner, an initial gauge of a successful tradeshow means that exhibitors are provided the necessary tools to support them through the event cycle so they can focus on putting their best foot forward once the show opens.
“Although we cannot influence the product they display or their process for following up with quality leads captured, we can walk beside them through their journey at our show,” Roth says.
“When the show organizer, exhibitors and attendees alike are all invested in making it a great event and maximizing the value received, this ultimately is the best measure of success.”
CEO of edgefactory, Brian Cole, says a tradeshow booth needs to stand out to engage passersby, while a meeting has a captive audience. Tradeshows with many exhibitors means you have to compete for attention, and stand out from the rest.
“Through booth builds, fabrication, giveaways, in-booth seminars, workshops, video content and overall brand visualization, there are many tools a tradeshow planner has to consider that are far beyond a standard meeting’s audio/visual, food and beverage order and room block,” Cole says.
In Cole’s opinion, engagement and retention are what tradeshows are all about. A successful tradeshow means more qualified leads from in-booth engagement — more than just scanning a lanyard, but having a system that collects interests and conversations to be used in follow-up campaigns and connection points.
“Brand recognition, or making a tradeshow booth memorable, is also an achievement other than leads,” Cole says. “It’s the brand retention that may help an attendee come back again to the same brand at another show.”
“In my opinion, the key attributes of a ‘successful’ tradeshow include anticipating the needs of your audience and establishing the goals and objectives of the tradeshow,” says Kimberly Roberts, CMP, agency event marketing manager at Cowbell Cyber. “As the meeting planner, we are setting the stage for attendees, exhibitors and sponsors to do business. Therefore, we should put ourselves in the shoes of each of these participants to identify their needs so that each group has a success experience. People remember experiences good and bad, so make sure that there is enough and appropriate signage, clear requirements for booth set-up and installation, and ensure that you have fulfilled all of the requirements for your sponsors. Executing these things will allow for participants to attend your shows in the future.”
Throughout her career as a meeting planner, Roberts has helped lead the planning of tradeshows. Key steps that she took to be successful were meeting with the stakeholders to identify goals and objectives, creating a project plan, identifying vendors and working with the marketing team to market the event.
“Identifying the goals and objectives is the first step in planning a tradeshow, because as the meeting planner, you have to know the purpose of the tradeshow and what the stakeholders want to achieve form the tradeshow,” Roberts says. “Knowing this information will set you on the road to success because you will keep this information in the back of your mind when creating the floor plan, selecting vendors, soliciting sponsors and ensuring that these areas match with the goals and objectives.”
Creating a project plan also will show all involved parties how to proceed to produce the association tradeshow. Roberts suggests the project plan include timelines, deliverables and more to ensure that the entire team is moving cohesively to produce a successful tradeshow.
“Finally, working with the marketing team to establish attendee demographics is important to successfully market the tradeshow to gain attendees,” Roberts says. “Providing the goals and objectives to the marketing team and working with them to creating landing pages, digital invitations and collateral, along with a schedule indicating when to reach participants, is important to the success of the tradeshow.”
Creativity, organization and attendee engagement are also keys to a successful tradeshow. According to Stephanie Brightwell, owner and managing director of Bryan Allen Events, a successful tradeshow offers interesting, entertaining and meaningful experiences that leave attendees with a positive connection to the event, sponsors and fellow attendees.
“However, many tradeshow events are actually uneventful, and have become a routine boring and stale experience. Attendees may watch the obligatory keynote speech but then disappear, spending little time engaging or networking with event sponsors,” Brightwell says.
It’s imperative association meeting planners remember that people have short attention spans, which is why a successful tradeshow must always evolve and continually improve to capture the attention, focus and goodwill of all who attend.
“Modern tradeshows should leave participants excited about the content, eager to learn more and motivated to share their newfound knowledge,” Brightwell says. “From the registration process to meals and workshops, a successful tradeshow should be easy to navigate and offer a smooth and seamless flow for all who participate.”
According to Maria Britton, CEO of Trade Show Labs, many aspects of tradeshows are different from those of other events association meeting planners manage — the show floor size, volume of trade show attendees and venues differ significantly. Another important factor is engaging activities.
“Tradeshows offer a wide range of experiences which keeps [attendees] interested: live entertainment, food demonstrations, product presentations and more. Experiential marketing has become increasingly popular in trade-show attendance as technology advances,” Britton says. “In addition to experiential marketing engagements, it is also necessary to leverage data correctly to target the right audience for maximum impact, as well as maintain a good visual appeal at the event such as appropriate signage or displays that draw attention from afar.
“Unique components of a tradeshow that differ from other events that we handle as meeting planners would include working with convention centers and union members. Each convention center is unique regarding space, set-up and requirements to use the space,” Roberts says.
As Roberts explains, convention centers are typically raw spaces in which the meeting planner has to create the right type of atmosphere for their event. Basics are needed when using a convention center such as carpeting, electricity and internet service.
“If the convention center is being set-up for a conference or convention, exhibitors may be a component of the program. Therefore, the meeting planner will connect with a general services contractor (GSC) that is approved to work in the space,” Roberts says. “The GSC should create an exhibitors’ kit that provides the information that exhibitors will need such as booth size, carpet, furniture, demo stations, electricity and internet access.”
Additionally, the requirements for moving the exhibitors’ booth materials may be limited by the use of union workers. Some convention centers only allow union workers to move boxes and materials into the convention hall.
“Therefore, as the meeting planner, make sure that you ask this question so that you can create a load-in schedule that allots for breaks, lunch and departure time for the union workers,” Roberts says. “The last thing that you want to happen is for your exhibitors to have a negative experience moving their booth materials into the convention hall.”
An unclear organizational structure, unaccountable roles and lack of experienced leadership can doom any event, but that is especially true in the world of association tradeshows. As Brightwell explains, with the Great Resignation of 2021 and 2022, employee turnover in the industry has been extensive, leaving many organizations without experienced leadership or staff to help execute a project.
“This is where experienced event planners are invaluable. We help the client define their collaborative event leadership team, goals and decision-making structure to avoid unnecessary confusion and drama,” Brightwell says. “We also establish clear expectations, budgets and the logistical frameworks upfront to help make the process smoother.”
For Roth, it’s important to remember that making broad assumptions of what attendees want leads to spending money unnecessarily. Data and feedback still need to drive decisions.
“It’s easy to fall in the trap of, ‘we’ve always done it this way,’ but when you consider the feedback and pivot accordingly, that’s how you can remain relevant and keep attendees coming back,” Roth says.
Gimpel agrees. “It sounds sacrilegious, but 10-foot booths might not be the right format even if that’s what predominates at tradeshows,” he says. “Ultimately, the goal is to connect people — typically in buyer and seller roles — in a way they both find advantageous. Maybe that’s better accomplished by setting up more relaxed highboy tables where people can chat as if meeting at a bar. Or maybe it’s adding some structure like speed dating tables with quick, timed interactions.”
Common mistakes that Roberts sees meeting planners making when orchestrating a tradeshow is not adequately familiarizing themselves with the rules and regulations of the tradeshow space and selecting inexperienced vendors. During the initial and subsequent meetings with the venue, Roberts advises that the meeting planner should take notes and send follow-up emails noting what was discussed and agreed upon.
“This allows for all parties to be on the same page and the meeting planner to have information that they can reference during the planning and execution of the tradeshow,” Roberts says.
Britton also sees association meeting planners failing to consider how attendees will travel inside the venue. With large venues, the layout of the space can be difficult for attendees to navigate, and it’s important to provide signage, maps and guidance on where exhibitors are located.
“Other mistakes may include lack of adequate seating, which can lead to a cramped and uncomfortable atmosphere; not enough staff installed as on-site helpers throughout the event; and lack of physical swag or premium items that attendees can take away with them,” Britton says. “Meeting planners should focus their efforts on creating an enjoyable experience tailored specifically toward their audience that meets all their needs from start to finish.”
Roth adds that it’s so important to be tuned into your attendees during the entire event cycle and capture feedback face to face with attendees during the event, even if it’s just a few simple questions about their experience. Items that can be addressed at that moment should be a priority, and no one wants to have to wait until the next show to see if the changes made an impact.
“Never hide away in a show office out of sight, and rather do quite the opposite,” Roth says. “Be proud of your event, showing attendees you have a vested interest in its success by being visible and accessible, and you’re more likely to receive candid and constructive feedback.”
From associations to corporations, Cole is seeing organizations doing fewer, better-quality tradeshows. More and more shows are utilizing audio-visual technology in new ways. Small booths to large booths are utilizing video in much bigger ways than before. “There will always be gimmicks and cheesy giveaway trinkets, but we believe the future of tradeshows is more dynamic video content being used to make a product or service stand out,” Cole says. An example of a way to implement video, he says, is “replacing all the print and text walls with digital components so more information can be displayed in less words at a time to capture the shorter attention span of a new generation of attendees.”
Brightwell agrees that interactive experiences, virtual reality and artificial intelligence will be the hallmarks of future tradeshows as she notes that “events must capture the attention and imagination of attendees to deliver meaningful experiences.” AC&F