Qualified Trade Show Leads – Three No Fail Strategies For Getting Them

Whenever I tell people what I do they almost always ask me, “What’s the best giveaway to get more people into our booth?”  Clients often ask the same question in our first meeting.  I can confidently say giving away a car will get almost everyone at the show into your booth.  Not in your budget?  These days it seems everyone is giving away iPods and iPhones and Wii’s.  They will also get a lot of people into your booth.  I was recently at the AHIMA show, which has a large female demographic.  Exhibitors there were giving away Tiffany necklaces, Louis Vuitton and Coach bags.  Their booths were jammed with visitors. 

I just tend to wonder why they spend so much money just to swipe a badge.  There is no real qualifying taking place because of the high volume of traffic to register.  All you end up with is a long list of names and addresses and the only thing you know about them is they want Tiffany jewelry, designer handbags or love the new car smell.  I’m not saying it’s not the right thing to do.  I’m just asking, is it the right thing for you to do? 

Let me give you a good example of when having the entire attendee list stop by your booth is worthwhile.  Let’s say you are a well-known company who has the corner on the market in the agricultural sector.  You’ve just released a new product for the military market.  People are familiar with your name but do not know you are breaking into their industry.  Your goal for the show is to get people to associate your name with their industry.  By all means, set up a huge booth and give away a car. 

If your show goal is to find qualified buyers for your product or service, and you are not an auto company, Louis Vuitton, Tiffany or Coach; these giveaways are not going to get you where you want to be.  There are three fail proof ways to get qualified leads but they are not the magic pill (translate-easy way) you may be looking for.  They all take some work but they will pay off well.

I.  Show Selection

Selecting the right show is the first step on the road to success.  In order to select the right show to get qualified leads, you need to know what a qualified lead is.  Be as specific as possible.  I recently worked with a language service provider.  Her client is anyone who needs to translate the written word whether in print or online.  They, like a lot of us, didn’t have the budget or the resources to go to all of the thousands of shows across all industries that are held each year.  First, let’s narrow it down to a specific industry you want to target.  In their case they chose packaging.  Narrowed even further they chose packaging in the medical industry.  Next, let’s get down to the demographics of that packaging company.  What size company?  This can be based on sales figures, revenue, or other criteria.  For our client’s purposes this happened to be companies with a translation budget of $30,000 or more per project.

Who is the decision maker or influencer on the purchase of your product?  Narrow this down to department and possible titles.  For our language service provider this was the product manager in the marketing department as well as the purchasing manager in, well, purchasing.  From here you can narrow things down as much as you want.  The more specific the better.  You may want to include the psychographic profile as well.  For example it may be important to your company’s values that you deal with green companies.  Or perhaps you have no desire to do work overseas.  Maybe you don’t want to work with organizations that take over 90 days to pay. 

Now you are armed with the information you need to make the proper show selection.  Every show should provide you with the appropriate demographic information you need to decide if their attendees are your target.  They should be able to tell you how many attendees typically attend their show and what percentage of those are your target based on job title and department.  They should also be able to give you the breakdown of the budgets allocated to purchasing.  If the show’s attendees are not your decision makers or influencers, then it’s not the show for you. 

It’s also important to point out that you need to be reasonable in your expectations on how many people you can actually engage while at the show.  Let’s say there is a show you are interested in exhibiting at that has 10,000 attendees.  After talking to show management you find that only 20 percent of the attendees are your target.  That’s 2000 people.  If you are only sending two sales reps to the show and are purchasing a 10 x 10 booth I can assure you, 2000 people is more than enough.  The best-trained booth reps at an average show will only be able to engage 90 people at best.

Keep this in mind when selecting a show if budget is an issue.  It may be more cost effective to exhibit at a smaller regional show where overall costs will be much lower.  As long as they can provide you with enough qualified prospects to make your expenditure worthwhile.  If I know that I can only send two people to work the booth that means, at best, they will be able to talk to 180 people during 15 hours of exhibit hall time.  If that small show can provide even 300 qualified prospects and it will only cost me one tenth of the national show…I’m going to the regional show.

If you have several shows to choose from start talking to show management to find out what they offer exhibitors and then compare apples to apples.  Some shows will rent you the pre-registered attendee list, some will give it to you and others will not provide it at all.  Some shows offer better assistance with getting your message out to the industry press.  This is an important consideration.  Make sure you clearly understand what comes included with your booth fee before you make a final decision.

II.  Pre-Show Mailers

If you have decided to give away a car in your booth, you can skip this step…don’t worry, word will get out quickly.  If you are planning on giving away a water bottle or even a jump drive and will be located somewhere in the back of the hall with the other 10×10 or 10×20 booths then you might want to pay attention here.

The Center for Exhibition Industry Research reports that 76 percent of attendees come to a show with an agenda.  That means they already know what companies they want to see and what events will take up their time.  You want to be on their list.  You get on that list by sending them an invitation to stop by your booth. 

My opinion is that e-mail is NOT the way to go here.  Everyone is inundated with e-mails already and this only increases when exhibitors start sending pre-show e-mails.  You know what this is like.  You come in to work one morning and you have at least 50 e-mails to sort through.  There’s one that looks interesting, perhaps an event that is coming up in another month.  You keep it in your inbox to take a better look at it later.  Two weeks later that e-mail is forgotten and buried under about 200 other e-mails you’ve saved in your inbox ‘to look at later’.

Your best bet is to send an old-fashioned direct mail piece through the US Postal Service.  If you can only afford to send a postcard then make it eye-catching with some great photography. 

iStockphotos.com is a great resource for inexpensive great photography.  If you have a bigger budget go with something creative that ties into your message.  If your mailer has some weight to it or a ‘bump’ it is more likely to be noticed.  You will also want to include a no-risk offer.  It can be as simple as “Stop by our booth #123 for a secret gift” or be more specific “Bring this invitation to our booth #123 for our White Paper titled…”  The idea of giving away a white paper may sound boring but at least you know the people who stop by to get it have a high level of interest in your product or service.

Now you may be asking, “But who do I send this to?”   The show will usually provide a list of registered attendees to their exhibitors.  They usually charge a rental fee for a one-time use of this list.  It is also common that you will need to send them a sample of the mailer you are planning on sending out for approval.  The list rental fee may seem expensive but it is well worth the money.  It’s worth even more if they will segment the list for you.  If there are 12,000 attendees at the show it’s important you only send your invitation to the thousand or so attendees that you have determined are your target customers.  Doing this saves you thousands on printing and postage fees.

Many shows will give their exhibitors special VIP passes or discounted registration forms for exhibitors to send to their current customers and prospects.  You can send a special invitation to these folks and include your pre-show mailer in the package. 

Make sure your booth staffers are aware of the mailer and have them collect and save them during the show.  They should make a note on them as to whom it was that stopped by with the mailer.  This way after the show you know what was effective.  You can compare the folks who used the mailer against the ones who did not so see if there is room for improvement with more segmentation next year.

III.  Asking the Right Questions

Now that you’ve carefully defined a qualified lead the question part will be easy; but it will still take time and effort.  The show floor is not an improvisational stage.  Your booth staff should be well prepared and well rehearsed so they control the conversation at all times.  Believe it or not when we train booth staff, our biggest problems are usually the company’s best sales reps.  They don’t think they need to learn how to sell in a booth because they are already great sales people.  When well trained, a shy non-sales person can be your biggest asset because they do not deviate from their script. 

You’ve got a total of 4-10 minutes with each visitor and in that time you need to break the ice, build rapport, find out the role of the visitor in the organization, what decision making authority they have, if they need your product or service, what their objections are, set up follow-up and disengage.  All this on top of the fact that they have heard about 20 pitches already that day.  Your booth staff’s job is not to pitch them but to gather information for proper follow-up.  It’s a lot different than having someone’s undivided attention for 18 holes.

1.  Grabbing Their Attention

Some people will wander into your booth on their own and some will show interest while inching up to you slowly.  These are the easy ones.  Your opener can be extending your hand, introducing yourself and asking, “What made you stop by our booth?” or “What caught your eye?”  This is going to tell you what information they are interested in right off the bat.  A much better place to start than the predictable and completely insincere “Hi, how are you?” and “Are you enjoying the show?”

Let’s say no one is actually coming into your booth and are just cruising past.  If you get eye contact you need to jump on it.  Ask, “Hi there, what are you looking for at the show?”  They cannot answer with a simple yes or no and will set you up to continue the conversation and start asking qualifying questions.  This question works great.  I walk a lot of show floors and test people on how they engage someone cruising by.  Most times I get the “How are you” and I just say, “fine, thanks” and keep moving.  Occasionally I get a savvy exhibitor and they will casually ask something like, “Hi, what kind of things are you looking for at the show?  Maybe I can help, I’ve been walking around the floor for days.”    Out of courtesy I quickly let them know what I’m up to, what I do and let them get back to the real customers.  But they are remarkable in that they will now be remembered as someone very polite and helpful and that reflects on their company.

Most importantly your opener should not be a closed question and it should start the business conversation not a friendly conversation about the weather.  Here is why you do not want to do this.  Let’s say you catch someone’s eye and ask him or her where he or she is from and get into the weather.  You chat for about three or four minutes at least and you are happy because you are building great rapport.  Then you finally ask, “So, what do you do at XYZ Company Tom?”  Tom replies, “Oh, I don’t work for them…I’m just here with my wife.  Her boss sends her to these things to get away from the office a bit.”  Great, while you were chatting with Tom and building rapport at least 25 people walked by and one of them may have been your next big order.  

TIP:  Each staff member should create their own opening questions so they are natural and comfortable for them to deliver.  Start an open question with what, when, where, why or how.

2.  Getting To Business

Unfortunately once you’ve got their attention with, “What are you looking for at the show?” is it highly unlikely that you will be so lucky that they will respond that they are looking specifically for your product or service.  I will point out on the hall map where some of the vendors are they are looking for and then ask if they mind my asking them a few questions.  Start qualifying.

Our language service provider might ask, “How are you reaching out to your English as a second language customers?”  I might ask, “How were your results from your last trade show?”  What is important is this is an information gathering stage.  If you visitor says to you, “I only have about 1 minute…just tell me what it is you guys do.”  You need to take control of the conversation back.  The only way you can do that is if you are prepared for responses like this.  “Well, you know Jim we do many different things, if I can ask you a few questions I’ll know better where your interests lie.”   

You need to know as much as possible about the person you are talking to in order to give them the appropriate information without talking to them for 1/2 hour.  They are already overloaded with information and I can assure you they will remember nothing you say to them unless it applies directly to them and a need they may have.  Most of the time you are not at the show to close a sale; you are there to obtain qualified leads. 

Disclaimer:  If someone walks into your booth and says I’d like to sign a contract with your company right now I brought my pen then by all means, spend a bit of extra time with them…but qualify them just to make sure you’re not on candid camera (readers under the age of 30 read make sure you are not being punked.)

3.  Who Are They, Really

Ask questions to find out if this person has the authority to make a decision or if they are an influencer.  Don’t assume anything.  Don’t make assumptions based on age, gender or appearance.  Imagine talking down to Steve Jobs because he wasn’t dressed “like an executive.”  You don’t need to be tricky.  Your conversation could go something like this…

Exhibitor:  “Who decides what language service provider you use?” 

Visitor:  “Each product manager decides for their own project.”

Exhibitor:  “What is your role?”

Visitor:  “I’m the product manager for XYZ product.”

Exhibitor:  “Is anyone else involved in the decision?”

Visitor:  “The vendor has to be approved by purchasing.”

Now you’ve found out who it is you are talking to, the potential for more business with other product managers, and the fact you need to get on their approved vendor list.

4.  Now Your Are Getting Quality Information

Just because someone has the right title doesn’t mean they are qualified.  Remember, you have specific demographics and psychographics you are looking to match.  If you don’t want to do business with companies on the West Coast then asking, “where is your company located?” is a good question.  Another good indication on whether or not they have the budget is to ask, “Who are you currently using to solve this need?”  It’s important to remember that people know why you are exhibiting, you don’t need to be sneaky, they know you are there to sell them something.  A great qualifying question is “do you have budget set aside for this type of project?”  The answer to this question will tell you a lot about the role of the person you are talking to as well as, well, if they have a budget for that type of project.


This is my favorite most overlooked and underused question.  Let’s say you have a qualified lead in front on you.  You’ve asked all the right questions and know a lot about their company, budget size, needs, and they are a decision maker or big influencer.  “Can I have a sales rep give you a call?”  That’s it…that’s the big magic pill.  “Can I have a sales rep give you a call?”  They are either going to say yes or they will start backing down.  If yes, you are done; if no, don’t get pushy, you don’t have time.  Ask if you can put them on your mailing list or send more info, if you can follow up in a few months.  Then move on. 

6.  Disengage

You’ve gotten all the information you need to follow up appropriately.  Now you need to, quite frankly, get rid of them and engage with someone else.  Some of your visitors are easy to disengage.  “Well Kathy, it’s been great meeting you.  I will have one of our reps call you in the next week to set up an appointment.  Enjoy the rest of the show.”  Then there is the networking close for those people who don’t seem to want to leave.  “Well John, I’ve taken up enough of your time.” 

People who are not potential customers will often approach you.  They could be people looking for a job, other vendors, even current customers just stopping by to say hello.  As much as it is nice to talk to friendly people that’s not why you are at the show.  You must politely disengage as you never know when an opportunity may present itself.  “I’d love to talk to you more but I’m afraid we will keep being interrupted here.  Perhaps we can follow-up after the show.”  Or as an alternative, “Why don’t you stop by when the hall closes and we can chat some more.” 



I’m not real big on the easy way out.  Not because it is not profitable but because it doesn’t exist.  You need to invest the time and put in the effort it takes to have a successful exhibit.  When you do this you don’t need a huge island booth with professional traffic builders and the most popular give-away.  You can have an incredibly successful show that would make your CFO blush with a 10×10 pop-up and three booth staffers.  You need to have the basics covered before you can enjoy the add-ons. 

We’ve seen countless companies with huge budgets waste hundreds of thousands of dollars at a show.  Copying what the big companies do because they appear to be having success is not the right thing to do.  Everyone has their own objectives and different things need to be done to achieve those objectives.  It’s nice to have the budget to enhance your program with a hospitality suite or bigger booth but that’s not going to get you qualified leads.  Choosing the right show and professionally training your staff is what will ensure success.  Once you’re sure you’ve done that, you can start building on success. 

If you do not have the time or the expertise to do all this in house then you need to hire an outside consultant that specializes in face-to-face marketing.  As you can see it is a very different sales situation and trade show marketing is not in the marketing curriculum at schools.