NEW YORK -- It can be a daunting experience: running your small company's booth at a trade show for the first time.
Or, trying to navigate a noisy, overcrowded exhibition hall as you look for products or services to boost your company's sales.
As business starts to pick up, small company owners will likely make more trips to trade shows and industry expos. With advance planning, a visit to a show can be rewarding, and not only for bringing in sales.
Trade shows also present opportunities to learn from other business owners. They're instant networking events. You can meet mentors, maybe even potential partners.
What follows is a quick guide to making the most out of a trade show:
If this is your first trade show, either as an exhibitor seeking customers or an attendee looking for suppliers, you need a grounding in show fundamentals. Go online or get a book that explains what trade shows are about. Talk to people who are show veterans. Chances are you know someone in your industry who has been to a few shows. A trade association or the group running a show can help.
You can also get free advice at SCORE, the organization that counsels small business owners. Visit its Web site, www.score.org.
The next step is determining which is the best show for your company. In many industries, there are several shows each year in different parts of the country. You need to decide which is likely to give you the most success.
See which companies exhibit at a particular show. Many shows have exhibitor lists online, or you can contact the company or association that runs the show and ask for information. Look for a show with companies whose products are similar to yours or whose products you'd like to buy.
You should also get some advice from other owners in your industry about the advantages and drawbacks of specific shows.
DO YOUR HOMEWORK -- LOTS OF IT
Business owners who have gone to trade shows find that plenty of advance preparation is critical.
"Ninety percent of the work you do at a trade show should happen before you set up your booth," said Nancy Trent, president of Trent & Company, a marketing communications firm based in New York. Or, if you're an attendee, before you enter the exhibition space.
That means finding out who'll be attending and contacting them to set up meetings. Trent suggested that exhibitors send out several mailings to prospective customers and attendees. And don't forget your current customers.
Look at the schedule for the show, and see what seminars are offered. They can be excellent learning opportunities, and a chance to meet exhibitors and attendees in a quieter setting than the exhibition hall.
Trent also recommended putting a schedule together, including your appointments with exhibitors or other attendees and seminars you want to attend. But you also should be flexible, so you can squeeze in appointments with people you meet at the show, or go to events added to the show schedule at the last minute.
IF YOU'RE EXHIBITING
You don't have to have a big flashy booth to draw customers. But if you want one, you have several options.
First, get some ideas from a book on trade shows, or search the Internet. There are companies whose business is entirely about creating booths for trade shows. You can find them on the Internet, or through a trade association.
But you don't have to spend a lot of money to have a great exhibit, said Linda Arroz, co-owner of Makeover Media, a public relations firm in Los Angeles.
"If there's a local design or art school in your area, call the school and offer internships for students" who can design a booth for you, Arroz said.
Even if your booth is little more than a table and an iron grid that you hang products or pictures from, you can make it look appealing to passers-by, Arroz said. She suggested getting big photos or running a video that's eye-catching.
But, she said, don't go overboard, or create a booth that doesn't help sell your product. "You want to attract people, not distract them," she said.
If you have giveaways, like tote bags, choose something that people will want to keep using long after the show ends, Trent said.
Having candy or snacks can be a big draw. People who reach out to grab some of your chocolates or cookies will probably look at your booth. If your snacks are particularly good or unique, they may come back in search of more.
And if you have chairs at your booth, Arroz suggested dispensing with the standard-issue kind and getting ones that are "comfy."
IF YOU'RE WALKING THE FLOOR
Maryellen Kane, who owns Olive Juice, a children's apparel Web site, said that when she goes to a trade show, her "primary mission is to see what's out there." She's looking to see what the trends and styles are.
But, she also says of going to a show, "it's a great learning experience. We see people who have (product) lines similar to ours and they talk about what they're doing and we learn from that."
She also does some buying at the shows.
That means a lot of walking, looking, asking and taking notes. Arroz suggested that attendees go through the show directory before starting their exhibition hall trek, and choose the exhibitors they want to see. Once you get started, you'll see plenty of other booths you'll want to stop at. The key is to be sure you have time to do what's really important.
Arroz has more advice: Dress comfortably, especially when it comes to your shoes.
WHEN YOU GET BACK HOME
Two important words: Follow up. If you're an exhibitor, keep the relationships you started at the show going. Even if customers aren't ready to order right away, you want them to keep you in mind.
If you were an attendee, you want to be sure that an exhibitor remembers any discussions you had about products or discounts. Following up will let them know you're a serious buyer.
Either way, hold on to the contacts you made. And when you get to the next show, renew them.