Mastering Trade Show Prep for Retail Success
Yeah, we get it, it is not a good time. You are smack dab in the middle of the holiday season, the busiest time of the retail year, and it is all you can do to stay focused on keeping everything running smoothly while the cash registers are running hot. Nonetheless, the 2024 tradeshow season is upon us, and it is time to start planning now so that you can make the most of it. Staying in the know gives you a competitive edge; the tradeshow is where you go to sharpen it.
To help us get our minds in the right place for the new year’s coming events we spoke with Mike Sessoms, founder and CEO of Smoke Shop Events, whose expert advice checks an item of our very own 2023 holiday wish list.
Before You Go
First thing’s first: Pick the shows you want to attend. That’s a bit obvious, but there’s no better place to start than the beginning. CHAMPS is always a solid choice; they’re the OG, the biggest, and most well-attended. However,TPE’s upcoming collaboration with Glass Vegas makes for one helluva contender. Take note and consider adding this one to your list. They have carpet.
Next, mark down the preregistration dates for each show on your list. Then, when the date arrives—you guessed it—preregister. I know, commitments are scary. But preregistration saves you a world of headaches when you arrive; no unforeseen hurdles, no painfully long lines, and no misunderstandings. Just peace of mind and the ability to sail through doors with ease.
Next, make a plan of attack. Mike’s strategy really hits the nail on the head here.
“I would look at the vendor list prior to the show and highlight any particular vendors I want to see . . . if I’m being strategic, I would then find out booth numbers on all set vendors, and then I’d map them out so I’m not zigzagging across the show floor from aisle to aisle. This way you’re going up and down and hitting all your vendors that you want to meet along the way, in order.”
Got your agenda? Great! Now, let’s shape up a schedule. Plan for pre-booked vendor meet-ups, but also, make sure to leave room for those spontaneous visits and new discoveries. Follow a similar pattern for the after-hours activities as well. You’ll want to make some solid plans, but you’ll also want to leave room for those random moments that can only happen when the plans fall apart.
Most importantly—and this goes especially for Vegas shows, which is almost all of them—if there are people with whom you absolutely need to meet, whether for business or pleasure, don’t assume it will just happen by chance. That’s for the craps tables. Las Vegas is a series of human-sized lab rat mazes, tailor engineered to keep you distracted, disoriented, and lost for as long as possible. If you take a “play it by ear” approach to catching up with friends or business associates, your odds of success are only slightly higher than hitting the jackpot on the slots. Make a plan, set a time, and call a damn cab.
Crunch the Numbers
Before you invest in attending an event, consult your accountant. Find out which travel expenses are tax deductible, under what conditions, and the documentation required. Keep in mind, these laws frequently change, sometimes even between shows.
While maximizing expenditures, you still want to stay budget-conscious. Compare prices for transportation options like planes, trains, and rental cars. Also, check rates for hotels, motels, and Airbnbs. What may seem pricey could be more affordable during certain seasons. Always research thoroughly and avoid making assumptions.
Consider the location and local travel needs. Ideally, find a budget-friendly room near the show. However, with a rental car or dependable public transport, you might opt for cheaper accommodation or a place that suits your preferences better.
Hold up, we aren’t quite done with geography yet. Have you checked what the weather is like during the time of year you will be at the show’s location? Not only is this going to inform your travel wardrobe choices, it is going to help you decide on the above transport questions.
Once again, since Vegas is the primary destination, we’ll use that as the example. Pay very close attention to the weather ahead of those winter shows in Sin City. January weather in Las Vegas is wholly unpredictable. You could be in shorts one day and battling an ice storm the next. Don’t make assumptions based on location.
Other items you should consider essential: business cards, comfortable shoes, a roller bag or ergonomic backpack to carry essentials, journaling materials, and a camera (or just use your iPhone like a civilized 2023 adult; we’ll get to why you need a camera in a bit.)
Bring some sustenance with you so you can stay nourished and hydrated. Sure, you could grab lunch, but there are hundreds, if not thousands of booths to see and only about 12-18 hours total to see them all. While we’re on that subject, could someone please lobby CHAMPS to install a train?
“I generally never eat lunch at shows,” Mike tells us, “because that’s an hour that I just wasted walking out to the lobby, getting in line, getting my lunch, eating, and then going back in… Try to eat breakfast before the show. That’ll give you some energy to make it through the day and power through.” For Mike, if he brings anything, it’s little more than a bag of peanuts.
“I’m really not thinking about food. I’ve got business to do. My stomach will gurgle and growl and I’ll tell it to shut up.” You don’t have to take it that far, though. Bring a few power bars, or maybe a trail mix and then enjoy the ever-loving f–k out of your dinner. You’ll have carved out one helluvan appetite.
When hitting a trade show, keeping track of all the info can be a real headache. But Mike’s got a hack for it. “I take a journal with me,” he says, “and the moment I step out of a booth, I jot down notes—quick shorthand about the company, contacts, their roles, and any other details that seem relevant.”
Think about it: after meeting hundreds of folks, things blur. As Mike points out, “You’ve met loads of people and visited hundreds of booths. Without notes, you’ll be lost.” After the show? Crack open that journal. You’ll remember so much more, making follow-ups a breeze. Mike swears by it: “It’s memorable, boosts your productivity, and not enough people do it. It’s golden.”
Let’s dive into the camera bit. Snapping pics of cool products or booths can be a game-changer. When you flip through your journal later, those photos will be a major memory boost. Once again, business cards can be useful here. Snap a pic of the card, then snap the products. Always have a buffer shot between booths so you know what is what.
After the Show
Dive into your materials (photos, business cards, you name it) as soon as you touch down at home. Everything’s still vivid, so strike while the iron’s hot. Chart out a game plan to reconnect with the awesome folks you met. Rank ‘em, pencil them in your schedule, or even hand off some tasks to your team. A solid follow-through ensures all that intel you snagged doesn’t go to waste.
One last golden nugget: stash another journal in your workspace. Use it to jot down broad takeaways from each show. This way, every new event becomes smoother and way more fun than the last.
Alright, folks, enough of the trade show talk. You’re free to resume with the jingle bells and Yule sales swells, just as that Julian calendar guy intended.
Cheers to making the most out of every trade show!