The Anatomy of a Tradeshow

Brad Brenner

March is a time when Americans begin that mental thaw that signifies a new season is on its way. We can feel it off in the distance. Spring may actually arrive once again. And as part of our post-hibernation rituals, we turn our thoughts to home projects on the horizon, chores that will need to be addressed and improvements we hope to achieve this time around. In other words, it’s the season of the home and garden tradeshow.

In the next few months, hundreds of thousands of homeowners throughout the U.S. will wander up and down the aisles of their local home and garden show looking for ideas for home efficiencies and improvements, seeking inspiration for better designs and deciding their next steps. There will also be thousands of vendors looking to grab a small piece of the crowd’s attention and generate enough interest to make their exhibit investment worthwhile.

Like any type of marketing, tradeshow success is as much an art as it is a science. Over the past couple of years, I’ve spoken with dozens of HVAC service providers who have participated at tradeshows—some successfully, others not so much. Some swear by them—others swear at them. Therefore, I thought now would be an ideal time to review some of the science and art of how to maximize your success at your next tradeshow.

The size and location of your booth is not as significant as its arrangement. A lot of vendors use tables across the front of their booth as pseudo-borders to separate them from tradeshow traffic. While this may feel “safer,” safe won’t get you sales. By leaving the entranceway to the interior of your booth as open as possible, you invite interaction—something that is critical for HVAC service providers that offer the type of services that typically require some level of education and discussion.

Tip: Keep the entranceway open. Perhaps turn your table(s) sideways – along the left or right side of your booth. You still have a place to put brochures and other marketing collateral, but it’s now being handed out to folks you’ve prequalified with a short informative conversation inside the booth.

Special Offers
As with any sale, you enhance your chances of closing if you provide a reason for the person to act NOW. This is especially true at a tradeshow where hundreds of vendors are competing for your customer’s money. Should they commit their home budget to cleaning their HVAC system or to a cool new windmill for the roof of their house?

HVAC shops are often in the enviable position of having complementary services that can easily be leveraged for an effective puppy dog close (a sales term for getting your foot in the door). Discount duct cleaning, free inspection and system testing are all offers that have proven to be effective for HVAC businesses.

Tip: Provide a show special that requires immediate action. “Sign up today and receive 50% off your duct cleaning. Good through this week only!” One of the side banners can provide an ideal location for a huge “50% OFF” emblem. It will help you grab attention and engage with visitors.

Lots of anguish (and money) is spent on tradeshow banners. They can be an asset but are often misused through poor design and even poorer understanding of their appropriate use.

The purpose of a back banner (one that forms the back wall of your booth) is simply to attract favorable attention and to give a good first impression. Nothing more. You want it to say in the instant that someone takes a glance at it, “this vendor is a professional and someone I can trust.” It should also provide the passerby with the immediate feeling that whatever is going on in this booth is something that could very well pertain to “me.”

This is done with images, not words. The most effective back banner is typically 95 percent graphics—say a picture of a happy family together in their clean house. As a general rule, less is more! Clean. Simple. Attractive. Relatable.

The biggest mistake vendors make with banners is that they often design them from the perspective of their sales team and not their customers. What would a homeowner find more compelling: a large banner with a picture of a happy family or a huge picture of equipment and an inside look at a dirty duct system? Hint: People are drawn to pictures of other people, especially if they can relate to them.

If you include any words on the back banner at all, they should be few and simple—just enough to give a passerby a general idea of what you represent—perhaps something like “Save Energy. Increase Comfort.” That’s it. This isn’t the place to tell your entire story. Remember the sole purpose of the back banner is to draw attention and give a good first impression.

One other thought here: A lot of vendors are proud of their logo and have it placed front and center on their back banner. But unless you have a well-recognized logo that people are seeking out (e.g., Coke, IBM, Apple), your logo is much more important to you than it is to potential customers. Use this valuable real estate on your banner for problem/solution messages instead.

I find the use of smaller side banners in conjunction with the back banner to be one of the most effective booth treatments. Side banners up front near the aisle are more easily read by visitors and therefore are appropriate for more detailed messaging.

Tip: Devote one of the side banners to your special offer and the other one to educational purposes—perhaps a bulleted list of key messages about your product and services.

Perhaps the most important advice I can impart is to come prepared to participate. Your success is directly related to your willingness to initiate the conversation with your booth visitors. While this may seem obvious, we’ve all been to tradeshows where we find dozens of vendors with nicely designed booths, brochures neatly spread out on the table—and a sales rep sitting in a corner reviewing his or her email. There is nothing worse at a tradeshow than that.

Brad Brenner is the principal of Brenner Associates Marketing Communications, a full-service agency delivering proven marketing strategies to HVAC and mechanical contracting businesses nationwide.