How to Work a Tradeshow Booth at CES

I just got back from the huge Consumer Electronics Show and one thing really stood out in my (rather exhausted) mind as I explored the almost two million square feet of exhibit space: some companies have no idea how to work a tradeshow booth. And the worst offenders were the smaller companies. Not good.

Whether booth staff were chatting up friends to the exclusion of booth visitors, being completely clueless how to interact with working press, completely sidetracked by the flashy show in the adjacent booth or exhausted from long travel, it was an all-too-common problem for me to walk into a booth and be ignored. Which leads to the question: why bother having the booth at all?
To be fair, smaller companies usually shanghai their entire staff to “man the booth” and many people have no experience at a busy tradeshow, and no time to explore and see what’s cool and interesting (not to mention to explore what competitors are doing), so distractions are inevitable. But ignoring potential customers, potential distributors, potential mentions in the press because your pal from high school stopped by and you want to find out about your old sweetheart? That’s just poor training. Instead: “here’s my number, let’s grab a drink after I’m done working the booth”. Easy.
Also, have an elevator pitch ready. You know, the snappy 30 second response to “what’s it do?” or “why is it better than the competitors?”. Because there’s nothing that saps interest faster than when someone asks about your product or service and you, um, well, y’know, it’s a complicated space and what we’re, well, it’s hard to explain, let me get the boss… yikes.
Be prepared too: If you’re working a tradeshow and someone from the media comes up and asks a question like “so what’s the coolest product you have?” or “what makes you better than X, Y or Z?” take a deep breath and answer thoughtfully. Most professional journalists have learned that when time is of the essence (after all, there were over 3,000 exhibitors at CES) it’s most efficient to start with the key question. Don’t be put off, just answer it smartly. And it’s okay to laugh or respond humorously, as long as you keep in mind that they’re just doing their job.
Also, lots of bloggers and journalists want to walk away with something more than a flimsy business card that looks like it was printed that morning in the hotel lobby. If we ask for a product sample or review unit or similar, don’t say “a what? um, we don’t give away our product.” as one exhibitor said to me in an offended manner, but instead either have some extra products (which significantly increase your chance of being written up) or at least say “you bet. we don’t have any extras at the show but if you have a card, I’ll get it to the right person”. Even if — shhhh — your intention is to just ignore their request.
At the end of the day, trade show attendees are just looking both for information and respect. Just keep that in mind when the next one comes up to you in your own company’s booth and asks something you’re not expecting, or interrupts while you and your colleagues are laughing about a drunken exploit from the night before. Easy, right?

3 comments on “How to Work a Tradeshow Booth at CES

  1. Preparation for a trade show is so important and can make or break a show. My best tip is that you need to look at the whole process. After you get the person’s business info, what are you going to do with it? This is key….have your next step and the step after that already done. If you are going to send a followup letter, have it already written and ready to stuff in the envelope BEFORE you go to the show. You don’t want to invent the followup AFTER the show. It will never get done.

  2. Your post brings up a lot of great points. I have also seem many of the things you mentioned. No one will argue that working trade shows is arduous. However, if you’re going to pay for your booth and show up, it makes sense to put your best foot forward. If an employee is truly not cut out for the job, then leave them at the office. Preparation of responses is critical if you think you might have the opportunity to really make a pitch or get some good PR. Take the time to prepare and it will make for a more confident presence as well as a more enjoyable experience overall.

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