How to grow your business with trade shows

If there's one thing that I used to despise, it was trade shows. I'd stand there awkwardly behind my sparse display (perhaps calling it minimalist makes it better?), waiting for people to come over and talk to me. Instead, they'd cast their eyes to the floor as they snuck by my booth, feeling guilty for not stopping at the 8 foot long table with the white tablecloth, no signs, a few pieces of paper, and 500 business cards. Really, could I blame them? Thankfully, over the past 8 years, I've figured out that you really can grow your business with trade shows.

Are you a holistic nutritionist, essential oil advocate, or yoga teacher who does trade shows? Build your business with trade shows and expos faster with these 9 tips! Don't make the mistakes like I did in my first few years of business

What was getting in my way when I first started was how do you set up a booth when you have no inventory to sell and all that you offer are health coaching programs? *I* was the inventory! Even if you have an essential oils business, you probably don't carry a lot of inventory to sell retail, but have a whole business based on people purchasing their own product or having a class, and having it shipped to their house.

It doesn't matter if you don't have much (or any) physical inventory, you still have to make your booth or table visually interesting.

I can't count how many times I've went into a store I didn't even like because there was something interesting set up in the front window. There's power in visual displays.

It's the same thing as having a visually beautiful website. The pretty pictures will draw people in, but your amazing written content and valuable expertise will keep them there.

My second problem with trade shows was once the people were there, how to do you turn them into actual paying clients? It's one thing to have someone take your business card, but it's entirely another thing to have someone pay you for your program after they found you at a trade show, especially if your programs are 3 or 6 months long and close to $2,000 like mine were.

After a few years of horrible waste of time and money trade shows (my fault, not theirs!), I came down with a system that worked to bring in hundreds of new email subscribers and new paying clients. Here are 9 things to keep in mind to grow your business with trade shows:

1. Make sure it's full of your ideal clients

Since trade shows can be expensive to have a booth at (sometimes up to $500!), you have to make sure that it's a good investment for your business. Your goal should be to at least break even, which means that if it cost you $250 to have booth, you have to sell $250 of your programs, services, or products.

You're not going to sell anything if the trade show is targeting people who would never be interested in your paid offerings. For example (and this is a pretty obvious example), if there's a mommy and baby expo who approached you to have a table, but you sell programs that help menopausal women, you're probably not going to find many paying clients unless the grandma's come along.

Picking an ideal client should be the first thing you do in your business, and I've already written an entire article about it over here. Yes, it's that important.

If your ideal client fits with who the trade show is trying to attract, then they've passed step #1. However, you also have to make sure that the event is actually capable of getting people in the door.

It's totally OK, and not pushy, if you ask the trade show organizers questions about their marketing plan.

If they are only able to get 100 people in the door to an event that you paid $500 for, chances are much lower that you're not going to generate a ton of business unless every single one of those people is your ideal client or you're able to present to the entire crowd.

Here are some questions to ask the organizers:

- How many times has this event been done in the past? (i.e. what's their track record)
- If it's been run before, how many people, on average, have attended in the past?
- What's your budget for marketing? If they are charging $250 per booth and plan to have 25 booths, they're collecting $6,250. If they plan on spending $500 on marketing, that's not a huge chunk of the budget. Yes, there are rental fees for the venue, maybe even parking, but there should be a healthy marketing budget, and they usually are bringing in other income with sponsors.
- How do you plan on marketing this event? If their plan is to print some posters and put them up around town, that's not going to be very effective. However, if they plan on targeting Facebook ads to the specific ideal client they want to have attend in that local area, that could be a much better use of the same funds.

At the end of the day, you have to leave the majority of the marketing efforts up to the organizers. The number of people attending depends on other events happening on the same day (for example, if they target people who are more than likely to attend church on Sunday mornings, and the trade show is only open until noon or early afternoon, they might be setting themselves up for failure), and could even come down to the weather, which is totally out of yours and the organizers control.

Your job is to optimize the next 8 things to make the best of the traffic that does show up.

2. Can you speak?

The best way to generate new clients from trade shows is to present on a topic that you're an expert on that directly applies to the people who are attending. Many trade shows have opportunities for you to speak at a single or multiple time slots, and this may or may not have an extra price tag attached to it.

If there's any sort of opportunity for you to speak, invest the extra money. It's more than worth it if you do it right.

I've learned enough about how to generate paying clients from presentations to fill an entire other blog post (which I will probably write next!), so I'm not going to share everything, but here's a quick breakdown of how you can speak to attract new paying clients:

- pick your topic and make sure it 1,000% applies to the people attending the event
- once you have your topic, ask yourself if you have something free you can offer them in exchange for their email address that directly relates to what you presented. For instance, I have a presentation where I talk about preventing major diseases with nutrition, and I offer a done-for-them meal plan that incorporates all the foods that I talked about. Your free gift should help them implement in real life what they just learned from you, so meal plans and checklists are perfect.
- At the end of the presentation, your last slide should be a picture of your free gift and a link to where they can get it on your website.
- While this slide is up, mention that they can go to your website to get this free gift OR they can stop by your booth to get it before they leave.
- If they have any questions, visit your booth for some personalized advice.
- BONUS: I create presentation cards that on the front is a call out to get my free gift with the website address, and on the back is a fill-in-the-blank summary of what I teach in the talk. Below the summary points is another call out to turn the card over to get their free gift.

After you're done presenting, sprint back to your booth and get ready for the hoards of people who will quickly make their way there!

3. Have a tall roller banner

When people walk in the door of a trade show, they're either staring an entire room lined with tables along the walls OR they're funnelled along like cattle down aisles created with tall fabric walls behind each booth. All they see are walls of white or cream fabric, tens of tables, and the people standing behind them.

By using a tall roller banner that can reach up to 10 feet high, your booth looks like a beacon in the sea of sameness.

Sometimes you'll have room to have your roller banner beside your table or slightly in front, in which case they'll see the entire height of it. Sometimes there won't be room, and the banner will have to go behind you. Because of this, you always want to design a banner that has the most important info in the top above 4 feet, which is above table height.

Your banner should share what you do in plain english, be colourful and attention grabbing, and have writing on it big enough that it can be read at a distance. Examples of a couple of mine are below.

I designed both of mine myself (one before my rebrand, one after), and had them printed at Vistaprint for about $100. They're well worth the investment, as you can use them again and again. FYI, in the right hand banner, the photo of me eating strawberries is literally bigger than me when I stand beside it. Nothing like your larger than life face on a banner, with eyes following people as they go by. That's not creepy at all 😳

 
 

4. Create an attention grabbing booth

Like I said above, in the beginning my booth was the white tablecloth that came automatically with my booth rental, along with a stack of my business cards and a sheet of paper or two with my info on it. Absolutely no one was making a bee line to it, I'll tell you that much.

Since I was my product, I had to get a little creative in my set up to help me stand out from the tables that were covered in products that people could take home that very day.

Here's a pic of me at a trade show in early 2015 (excuse the horrible lighting):

 
 

Since I'm a holistic nutritionist with a huge collection of cookbooks, I decided to put them to good use. They also make a fabulous conversation starter! I also brought some of my favourite healthy foods that people may not have heard of, like hemp seeds, virgin coconut oil, raw cacao powder, etc. These may seem commonplace to you and me, but remember that most people are starting from the beginning. My tablecloth is also super bright when most others are white, cream, or brown, so right there I stand out from the crowd.

If you're representing an essential oil company, get your diffuser going! People love it, just make sure you use a popular oil or blend that's not too strong, like wild orange and peppermint. I bring my entire oils collection, and you can give hand massages or get the oils on them to start conversations (for the love of god, always ask their permission first).

5. Bring an assistant

This weekend I dragged out my old Sex and the City DVD's for the fun of it. In Season 3, when Carrie is manning Aiden's furniture booth at a trade show (just before she starts her affair with Big), she calls herself his booth bitch 😂. You need one of those!

Trades shows are usually day long affairs, and there's going to be times when you want to pee or eat. Or (hopefully) there will be more people at your booth than you can handle.

Enter the booth bitch.

This person helps you out with anything and everything you need that day, talks with people when you're not there, and gives you some relief from your booth so that you can either give your presentation or network with the other vendors (see below).

If it's someone who loves what you do, they'll also provide a walking testimonial to how great you are ... especially if your booth bitch is your mom, husband, or wife.

6. Have a healthy treat

It may be that I'm a nutritionist, but does everyone have to hand out candy? And don't get me started on the Breast Cancer booths that hand out cookies 😡

If you are going to have a treat, why not a bowl of apples? They're colourful, portable, not messy, and they won't take you any time to make. You could knock yourself out making some sort of baked good, but who has that sort of time?

Also, if you have any left by the end, it gives you yet another excuse to make the rounds with the vendors. Most of them will be starving and will appreciate an option other than candy.

7. Ask an unexpected question

There's nothing like that super awkward moment when you see someone walking towards your booth. You'll stand there and say "Hi" while they either read your banner or look through the materials on your table. If they're not interested, they just walk away with no more than a feeble "thanks".

You've got to start the conversation, so why not catch them off guard with a question that they weren't expecting?

When I'm solely in holistic nutrition mode (i.e. no essential oils), I start the conversation off by asking "So, what's for dinner tonight?".

It's a strangely personal question that gets the person thinking and 90% of the time they break into a smile! It takes the pressure off you and loosens them up, and turns you both back into two humans connecting across a table.

One of my favourite things to start the conversation with for essential oils is when people inevitably comment on the diffuser. They'll say something like "that smells so good!" or "I could smell that across the room". I'll say "it's wild orange and peppermint. In scientific studies, wild orange has been shown to reduce perceived levels of stress and stress hormones in the blood. Know anyone who's stressed out?". 90% of them will share how stressed they are, and say "I think I need that". It literally sells itself.

You could follow that up by saying "I'm giving away a full bottle of wild orange today plus a diffuser for anyone who books an essential oils class. All you need is 3-5 friends who are interested in learning more, and maybe a bottle of wine. Here's my calendar with my available spots.".

Boom, mic drop 🎤.

8. Collect email addresses

This is the most important part of this entire article.

Get them on your list.

This is how I do it, which follows their answer that they give me right after asking them the unexpected question above (what's for dinner?):

1. They tell me they've got something healthy planned or already in the crockpot. In that case, I tell them that I have a free 3 day meal plan with some new recipes that they'll probably love because I've already tested them on my own family. I say "if you write down your name and email on the sign up sheet, I'll send it over to you as soon as I get home today".

2. They say that they have no idea, in which case I tell them "I've got a free 3-day meal plan that I've already tested on my toddler and husband. I even included a grocery list! If you write down your name and email on the sign up sheet, I'll send it over as soon as I get home today".

Easy peasy. At most trade shows I add between 50 and 150 new emails to my list.

I make a separate email list of just these people, and if you have something they can purchase online, like a meal plan or very affordable program ($100 or under), you can send them a coupon that they can use within 48 or 72 hours.

If you use MailChimp or AWeber, they've got free apps that you can have open on your phone or iPad. They can enter their own name and email and be added to your list instantaneously. This also cuts down on you having to decipher horrible handwriting.

9. Network with the other vendors

If for no other reason, trade shows can grow your business just by networking with the vendors! They appreciate other small businesses, since they run their own, and there are a good handful that are into an über healthy lifestyle.

Take your free gift, whether it be essential oils or your email sign up sheet, and take a browse around. Start some conversations with the vendors that most closely match your mission.  You never know when you'll meet your newest biz buddy, someone local who you can meet up with once a month to chat and brainstorm business ideas as fellow holistic health entrepreneurs.

Plus, people with the same mindset and interest in holistic health probably have a network of people that you've never met before who would be interested in your products or services. If you click with someone, you might want to explore a way that you can introduce each other to your respective networks.


The most important part about trade shows is to give more than you get. Don't be stingy with information. Offer value. Have lengthy conversations with someone who is really interested, and let your booth bitch take care of some small talk with less interested people.

Trade shows are like blog posts: you can never offer too much free value.

For people to quickly see you as an expert and someone who they can hire, they need to know, like, and trust you. This can happen quickly in person versus taking months online. Meeting new people in person is priceless, but make sure you have a way to follow up with them. That's where the emails come in handy ... because you're blogging regularly, right?

If you really connected with a vendor or a potential client, send them a personal email the next day. Invite them for coffee or tea, even if you don't make any revenue from it right away. You'd be surprised how quickly word of mouth marketing can happen. Even if that vendor or person isn't right for you right now, maybe they know someone who is ready.

Be the expert these people remember for years down the road. That kind of marketing is priceless.

I wanna know: what's your system that you use to grow your business with trade shows? Share it in the comments below!