How to make trade shows work for your small business

In this piece in association with Vistaprint, talks to companies about the value they obtained from attending exhibitions and trade shows.

In an increasingly digital world, company owners might be forgiven for thinking traditional business exhibitions are slowly dying out. However, according to the Centre for Exhibition Industry Research, the industry is set to hit a new peak in the coming years; growing by 2.7 per cent in 2017 and 3 per cent in 2018.

Email marketing platform 247EmailData is one company that has used exhibitions to good effect. Managing director Peter Wainwright says, ‘Working over the last six years on just word of mouth and repeat business, we felt there was a whole generation of potential customers who had never seen any of our previous marketing activities.

‘We aimed to create a bit of a splash by doing a number of different types of exhibitions over a six-month period.’

The exhibitions the company chose to attend were mainly from being contacted via telephone and email. ‘So far they have been mixed in quality; some of the more expensive premium shows actually did justify the price, as more leads were generated and conversions of prospects to orders,’ says Wainwright. ‘Some other shows which claimed higher visitor numbers actually either failed to deliver the numbers.’

In general though, Wainwright feels the exhibitions were a great way to speak to customers and prospects directly. ‘As an SME it is often difficult to talk face to face with every prospect in the normal working relationship.

‘For future exhibitions, we would do more research into the exhibition before attending. We would work on generating a smaller number of leads, but more highly targeted and we would try to take more advantage of the PR opportunities available at the exhibitions, which would boost our website traffic more.’

Shows are a very valuable part of the marketing mix, says Wainwright, and 247EmailData will certainly be doing more. ‘However the main advice I would offer is not to get carried away with the hype, make sure you know exactly what it will cost you (including power, insurance, hotels etc.) and make a plan of how you will get those leads.’

Justifying the investment for an exhibition

HayMax is a company that provides organic allergen barrier balm for hayfever and pet and dust allergy sufferers.

Marketing manager Jasmine Wythe says that, when it comes to companies exhibiting themselves, the shows are always a fairly hefty investment, so businesses need to make sure that sales from the exhibitions cover the costs of exhibiting.

‘Other than product sales on the day, you never know when you’re going to bump into interested bloggers, UK trade buyers and international distributors,’ she adds. ‘At the last show, we met two potential distributors and are in conversation with them now.

‘There is no replacement for getting to demonstrate the products and answer questions in real life. There’s also lots of social media support in the run-up and during the event.’

For HayMax, timing of exhibitions is crucial as its product sales peak during the hayfever season. ‘We prefer shows to be between April and July, and our favourite exhibition keeps edging closer to the end of July. Fingers crossed it stays there!’ says Wythe.

She adds that the principle concept of having a real-life event to meet with customers is going to remain important, even as digital advertising and online sales become more central to buying behaviour. ‘It’s great for consumers to put a face to a brand, and it’s great for a brand to be able to stay in touch with their consumers, when there is often very little contact when selling through supermarkets and large chains.’

The company will be exhibiting again in 2017. ‘Our stand will be in a similar format to previous years, but we may consider some creative, eco-friendly giveaway promotional items to help our brand message last beyond the show.’

Making shows integral to growth

Petfood company Canagan has an ethos that there is no better way to overcome an issue, sell in a new product or expand business presence than by meeting in person.

The company began its international expansion by attending trade shows across the globe and chatting to perspective customers. Initially targeting large-scale pet food exhibitions such as Zoomark Italy and Interzoo Germany, by the end of 2015 Canagan had exhibited at trade shows across the world.

Founder Eddie Milbourne reveals, ‘Our management team has been present at almost every major pet show over the last four years, allowing the company to partner with over 5,000 pet stores across the globe.’

If you choose to exhibit, it’s important to make sure you follow some key pointers to save time and money. Marta Gorka of Skyline Whitespace, which supplies interactive exhibitions stands, advises to take a glance over the exhibition calendar locally and nationally, to ensure you find an exhibition that will have the most relevance for your business – as it will save you time and money.

‘If you can, avoid placing your stand in the centre of a hall, these areas get congested. Also, avoid areas near the entrance as people tend to walk straight past the first exhibition they see on entering,’ Gorka adds.

In terms of sizing up the competition, ask the organiser for a list of confirmed exhibitors (most events also make the list available online) and check out your competition and floor neighbours, she says.

‘Having a list of interested customers is great but make sure you follow up with them soon while your business is fresh in their memory.’

Standing out from the crowd

While hundreds of organisations may attend expos, this is still a chance to stand out from the crowd and show what makes your company unique, she says.

Other useful advice is to design a stand that’s interactive and unique but still matches your branding; taking products to your expo for potential customers can try before they buy, and selecting your most charismatic employees to attract people to your stand.

‘Business expos are a chance to showcase what your organisation is all about, generate new sales and leads and even sell your products directly,’ Gorka says.

‘Of course, it depends on your business whether an exhibition is worthwhile or not. However, incorporating an expo, into your overall marketing campaign for the year, could be hugely beneficial.’

This article was produced in association with Vistaprint, the leading provider of customisable printed and digital marketing materials, enabling millions of UK micro businesses of any kind and at any stage to market themselves professionally and affordably.

Our world-class online design studio allows customers to easily customise their products including business cards, marketing materials, signage, promotional products, apparel, postcards and stationery at Vistaprint. For more ideas and advice visit

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Ben Lobel

Ben Lobel

Ben Lobel was the editor of from 2010 to 2018. He specialises in writing for start-up and scale-up companies in the areas of finance, marketing and HR.

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Events and Trade Shows