I have attended my share of trade shows during my 15 years in IT. My first show, the largest in the world at the time, was Comdex Las Vegas. The show was so huge it filled two convention centers and several hotel ballrooms. We spent four days wandering up and down aisles looking for the latest technological advances.

I returned home tired with a pocket full of business cards and a suitcase full of literature that I never looked at again.

Since then, trade shows have only gotten bigger. According to the trade magazine Tradeshow Week, trade show net square footage grew an impressive 4.5 percent in 2000, and the number of exhibiting companies rose by 3.8 percent.

I’ve since learned that, with some planning, the trade show experience can be much more rewarding and useful. Here is a plan of attack for trade shows that should produce better results by helping you build a list of contacts and useful information.

Step 1: Define your purpose
The first step in creating a plan of attack is to define your purpose for attending the trade show.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Do I want to be briefed on the latest technologies or issues?
  • Are there particular issues pertinent to my job or career that I need to learn more about?
  • What solutions or vendors do I need to find to solve particular problems or help with projects?

The answers to these questions will affect both your choice of trade shows and your strategy once you hit the floor.

It’s important to be specific and honest about what you need to accomplish.

For instance, you may have signed up for a trade show because you heard all the big vendors were participating. But your goal isn’t really to meet all these vendors. What you really want to accomplish is to identify the vendors who can help you complete a specific project.

Therefore, you need to clarify your battle plan by identifying one or two upcoming projects that will require either a product or a service. Also, identify a few other areas where you need information but are not ready to ask specific questions or discuss specific plans.

Step 2: Identify opportunities to meet your needs
Generally, trade shows offer three types of opportunities:

Conference sessions: Many trade shows offer workshop sessions as part of the learning process. These sessions often provide a good overview on an issue, process, or product. Often, several sessions are offered on the same topic, which provides an excellent opportunity for a crash course in a subject.

For example, when I first moved into a marketing role, I attended the Society for Marketing Professional Services annual conference, where I received a good foundational education in only two days.

Typically, these sessions are geared toward entry-level attendees, and thus don’t offer much depth. Also, don’t expect these sessions to offer exclusive “insider” information.

If you plan to primarily learn about issues or technology, be sure to read through the conference schedule carefully, circling the sessions that address the topics that interest you. It’s also a good idea to come early to identify the presenters and try to obtain their contact information. If you wait until after the session, you may have to wait in a long line.

Keynote speakers: Keynote addresses are usually offered by executives from leading technology companies, business leaders, or politicians. I have seen Bill Gates, Andy Grove, Michael Hammer, and President Bill Clinton. Each one was interesting, but offered little of the kind of in-depth technological information I need to make decisions.

Vendor exposure: That leaves the show floor, where hundreds of vendors are waiting to show you their wares. While you may be tempted to stroll through the show floor, I’ve found that wandering the show floor hoping to strike up a conversation with the folks in the booth is not fruitful.

Yet, talking with vendors is a significant portion of a successful trade-show experience, regardless of your purpose. Let’s drill down on a strategy for approaching vendors.

Step 3: Making meaningful vendor contacts
Before you leave for the show, make a list of the key vendors from whom you need information and find out if they will be exhibiting.

Generally, trade shows offer a map of the trade-show floor. Find your vendors and circle them on your map. Then, when you hit the show floor, visit those booths first, collecting literature and making a first contact with the marketing people.

It is also important to look for competitive products and vendors to help give you perspective on the products your key vendors are offering.

Return to a vendor’s booth if you have additional questions. You should evaluate whether the people you are speaking with have enough depth and knowledge to truly help you.

If not, specifically ask if there is anyone at the show who can speak in detail about your specific issue. That usually elicits a response like, “Oh yeah, that’s Joe over there. Let me introduce you…” or “She’s not here right now, but we expect her to be in the booth tomorrow morning.” That’s fine; at least now you have a specific target when you return.

There is another option for meeting vendors: the hospitality suite. Vendors will often sponsor hospitality suites where you can have access to the decision makers and engineers. These are usually invitation-only events, but getting access is usually just a matter of advance planning.

You will need to identify key vendors before the trade show begins by working through your contact list. Start with your account manager, if he or she is listed, and ask if they are planning to have a hospitality suite at the show. Then, work your way through any contacts you have within the company, or anyone else who might have an inside track. Interestingly, one of the best hospitality suites I ever participated in was as a result of our local computer user’s group, through which I was invited to meet Bill Gates.

Step 4: Meaningful vendor conversations
Once you do get to the right person, your objective is to share enough information to determine if a subsequent in-depth conversation is warranted. Respect the fact that vendors are at the show to gather contacts, and—unless they offer to have an immediate sit-down meeting—your objective should be to set up a follow-up meeting that will provide for a more in-depth discussion of your problem.

Do not leave the contact without getting their business card and stop right there to write down on the back of the card who the person is and why that person is important to you. This may seem like a simple strategy, but you’ll need something to trigger your memory once you’re back at the office and start wading through the hundreds of business cards you didn’t even know you had collected.

Step 5: Follow-up
In an ideal world, the contacts you make at a trade show, at least the ones you want to hear from, would call you within a few days. The reality is that the vendors working the show probably had dozens of contacts just as meaningful as yours. If they don’t contact you, pull out the business card you’ve collected and call them.

Don’t wait more than one week, or else they will most likely forget the conversation you had with them.

What are the best trade shows?

We’d like to hear your opinions on the value of attending trade shows. Tell us which trade shows are your favorite and why by posting a comment below.