Trade Shows, Seminars and Conferences

Trade shows, seminars and conferences are wonderful marketing opportunities. Consider all the different factors that come together in one location:

  • A large collection of potential prospects and customers, each of whom is interested and engaged in the subject matter,
  • The potential to convey multiple messages to many different audiences, in both short and long form,
  • The ability to network face to face with key personnel (prospects, customers, thought leaders, vendors, etc.) in your industry,
  • The ability to promote your message in a multi-sensory environment, including using audio, video, and even live ‘actors,’
  • The potential to engage with ground breaking thought leadership, through lectures, panel discussions and other breakout sessions on specific topics,
  • In short, the potential to connect with large, interested audiences face to face.

You rarely find this combination elsewhere in the marketing universe. When you consider that all these are considered routine at trade shows, seminars and conferences, it is no wonder that they are well attended.

However, it is expensive to exhibit at or even attend an event. With costs for travel, lodging, meals, attendance fees, booth rental, booth shipping, booth installation, give-aways and prizes, trade shows, conferences and seminars are one of the most significant marketing investments that a life science company can make.

This issue will consider how to maximize your trade show’s marketing benefits.

Whether that investment is a good one or not is the result of many factors. This issue will consider how to maximize your trade show’s marketing benefits. For simplicity’s sake, in this issue I’ll use the appellation “Trade Show” to refer to the entire constellation of opportunities that include shows, conferences, meetings, seminars, etc.

Set your goals

Set your goals well in advance of the event. What do you hope to accomplish? Shows at which you expect to establish your organization as an expert will be approached very differently than shows at which you just want to make new contacts.

A short list of possible goals for life science companies includes, among others:

  • Make new contacts
  • Network with interested parties
  • Promote your firm’s offerings
  • Investigate your competition
  • Demonstrate your product or service
  • Establish your credibility
  • Establish your organization as an expert/specialist
  • Conduct sales meetings with targeted prospects
  • Sign contracts
Your goals will affect the type of events you chose to attend.

Your goals will affect the type of events you choose to attend and how you choose to participate. There is a spectrum of possible involvement in events. Trade shows, seminars and conferences can be approached in several different ways, which will vary in the effort and return required:

  • Giving the keynote address
  • Speaking, either to the entire conference, or to a breakout session.
  • Participating on or moderating a panel
  • Hosting a hospitality event at the show
  • Exhibiting at the show
  • Attending the show

These activities represent a ‘ladder’ of lead generating activities at a trade show. Climbing the ladder can be an important way to fulfill your show goals. Your goals should be measurable and attainable (or else they’re just dreams, aren’t they?). Tracking your activities will help you focus on improvement year-to-year and show-to-show.

Recent trends in trade shows

Based upon our observations and our research, here is a summary of some of the recent trends in shows:

  • The total (sold) square footage of booth space declined in 2008.
  • Despite the contraction of some of the major shows and the elimination of some duplicate shows, the number of and attendance at regional shows is growing. Since regional shows are generally less expensive than national shows, higher attendance makes these a bargain.
  • Given the decline in overall attendance, the people who do attend shows are more likely to be your target audience.
  • Virtual shows, long predicted as the next wave, have yet to catch on in any major way.
  • Webinars and interactive demos are growing as alternatives to some portions of trade shows (such as break-out sessions).
  • Partnering (the ability to contact specific attendees before the show and schedule a meeting at the show) is becoming much more popular.
  • Graphics are becoming brighter, larger and less expensive as inkjet technology advances.
  • Video (interactive and globally networked) is becoming more sophisticated, more prevalent and less expensive.
  • The number of booths offering food or beverages is growing and becoming more sophisticated.
  • Show organizers are trying to attract attendees with pre-show incentives and changing show rules to allow long-time banned activities such as alcohol to return to the show floor.

All these trends are significant, but it is important to put these in context. The fundamentals have not changed: why do people attend shows? They attend shows to connect – with people, with products/services and with ideas. Your show activities should focus on establishing, supporting and strengthening these connections.

Determine where to exhibit (or attend)

The fundamentals have not changed: why do people attend shows? They attend shows to connect.

Trade show producers will provide plenty of hype about their show, and why it is the best place for you to exhibit. Not all shows are appropriate for all companies. The best way to determine whether a show is worth attending is to talk to previous attendees. On occasion you can often obtain a copy of last year’s attendee list either by asking the producer or visiting the web site for last year’s show. Examine the lists for your target customers and your competitors. If you can’t get an attendee list, ask for attendee profile information, which is collected from registration demographics or attendee surveys. Make sure that the attendee mix represents your target audience, not your suppliers or your competitors.

Another way to find shows is to ask your clients/customers which shows they attend. You don’t have to follow the herd, but if you are new to the terrain, it can be a good way to find a watering hole.

In some cases, you will want to establish metrics to help you decide which shows to attend. You can estimate things like show traffic density to establish a comparative measure that can be used in subsequent years to determine which shows to attend.

If you aren’t familiar with a show, attend one year without exhibiting to get an overview of the show. Talking to exhibitors will give you a good sense of whether or not a show is worth the investment. Given the rapid technological change in the industry as a whole, remember that rapid changes in content and technology can affect the relevance of individual shows from year to year.

Webinars and interactive demos are growing as alternatives to some portions of trade shows (such as break-out sessions). While they are inexpensive to attend for the audience, they do not provide the same opportunities to connect with other audience members as a typical trade show. Another difference between the two is that trade show producers will promote their shows, but you must promote your own events. Despite these shortcomings, these opportunities should not be ignored in your marketing mix.

Every industry has major shows, such as DIA and BIO. Consider these major shows carefully. They can be a significant investment, and your booth may be stuck in an aisle at the edge of the hall, devoid of major traffic.

Unless the reasons for doing so are overwhelming, avoid exhibiting at new shows.

Plan your activities – pre-show

Consider the event itself as the main course, but not the entire meal. Thoughtful planning is crucial for maximizing your investment.

Consider the event itself as the main course, but not the entire meal. Thoughtful planning before the event (pre-show) and complete follow-through after the event (post-show) is crucial for maximizing your investment.

The messages and the theme of your show activities should not be limited to just the show itself. Your theme should be reinforced by, and should itself reinforce your other marketing activities, including your ads, your web presence, your direct mail, and your email campaigns. Just as people learn in different ways, people have different levels of sensitivity to alternate channels of communication: some are more receptive to email while some prefer snail mail, some read ads, while some never do. Spread your message among all your marketing activities to ensure the greatest reach and the highest penetration. Look into new ways of spreading your message such as social networking (Facebook and Linked-In) or videos on YouTube.

Given the amount of money it costs to exhibit at a trade show, do not treat your show activities as stand-alone. You can increase your marketing impact by using your trade show presence to reinforce (and be reinforced by) your other marketing activities.

Divide your audience

Before the show, divide your audience into groups; those that you must see (the “A group”), and those that you would like to see (the “B group”). You will treat these differently in the pre-show planning process.

For key members of your A group, you will want to announce that you are going to be at the show. You can send them a personal invitation to come by the booth. Direct mail or email are two common ways to accomplish this, but a new system, partnering, has recently been introduced by the producers of many shows.

Your success at trade shows will be increased in direct proportion to your ability to pre-arrange individual meetings with key accounts – either new or current – at the show. Do not rely solely on the presence of your booth on the floor to magically drive traffic and interest.

Partnering at life science trade shows

Your success at trade shows will be increased in direct proportion to your ability to pre-arrange individual meetings with key accounts.

Many shows are using partnering software to enable attendees before the event to schedule one-on-one meetings during the event. Often, small meeting rooms are available, and establishing a meeting with another attendee through the partnering system reserves one of these rooms.

The software from soda PDF runs these partnering systems is designed to restrict the harvest of emails – after all, many of the event sponsors do not want their employees email boxes flooded with unsolicited messages. While it may not be easy, it is possible to harvest emails and use these to your advantage. In fact, one organization we are familiar with hires interns to harvest the emails of all the attendees at major shows, one at a time, from the partnering software. They then divide these emails into several groups, depending upon territory, and treat each according to their ranking on several criteria. To some they issue personalized invitations, while the rest receive a more standard invitation.

No matter the level of effort, the goal of these activities is to let people know that you are going to be at the show, and encourage them to come by your booth. This can also be the recipient’s first introduction to the theme of your show presence.

At the show

Your goal during every engagement at the show is simply stated: qualify, qualify, qualify.

Your goal during every engagement at the show is simply stated: qualify, qualify, qualify. Unless they have been prearranged, the time for lengthy sales conversations is probably after the show. Use your time at the show to qualify as many people as you can. You can follow up with (and close) them later, when they will have more time and attention to devote to you.

Shows are high-energy events, and attending them can be very tiring. Do not hesitate to take advantage of all the opportunities there are to meet new people and to attend networking events. Make sure you take enough people to ensure that your representatives are “bright-eyed, and bushy-tailed.” Someone who is fatigued by the long hours will hardly represent your company in the best possible light.

Remember that your targets are not just those with an attendee badge. Everyone will receive an impression of you: your competitors, your suppliers, even industry trade representatives. The pace of personnel change in the life science industries is high. Someone who is not a prospect right now may well be your customer tomorrow.

Time on the show floor is limited. If you are walking the show, be sure you carry your plan for the show with you, including your key targets and all their contact information. Having to run back to your hotel room for a key piece of information is a waste of time.

Sponsoring an informal ‘hospitality event’, if it is convenient to the meeting location and at an appropriate time, can encourage targeted relationship building and networking. These are typically more productive than the sponsorship of public breaks.

Don’t burden your visitors

Don’t give out materials at the show, unless people specifically request them.

Don’t give out materials at the show, unless people specifically request them. Most of your materials will end up in the waste bin at the hotel anyway. It is much better to offer to send them some materials after the show; you will have a better chance of standing out if your materials arrive two days after the show in a hand-addressed envelope than expecting that your prospect will remember the nature of your conversation while sorting through dozens of brochures in a stack.

Booth design

The design of your booth is crucial for success at a trade show. I will cover booth design and your booth behavior in the next issue.

What to do with all those business cards?

At the show, ask for the business card of everyone you meet. They represent the real reason you came: contacts. If you are like most people, at the end of the show you end up with a stack of business cards with some cryptic notes on them. Deciphering the notes on the back of all these business cards can be difficult, so here are some tips to make your life easier.

– Act quickly: once you have the card, capture the pertinent information quickly, before you talk to three other people.

– Jot down the time and day you meet; ‘Day 2, in lunch line with Sue’ will go a long way to giving you some context for your reason for saving the card in question.

– Decide before you leave for the show what type of follow up activities you will engage in, and make a decision right after receiving a card which type of post-show attention this person should receive. Note this on the card while at the show. After you get back to the office, it is a lot easier to take action on a card that says: “Phase 2 brochure and then call” than it is on a card that says: “phase 2 studies.”

Note that some companies prefer to use badge scanners; others feel that these are more impersonal than asking for a business card. Either way is fine, as long as you have a system to capture the information and follow up on it.

Post-show follow-up

Follow up quickly with everyone you met at the show. One company ended up with a fishbowl of business cards packed away inside the booth that was then shipped back to storage; they didn’t find it until months after the show. The opportunities represented by the cards you collect go stale quickly; rapid follow up will separate you from your competition. At the very least, send everyone an email thanking them for stopping by the booth or for speaking with you.

It should go without saying, but many people don’t follow up quickly. Your prospects interest and their memory of your conversation will go stale quickly. The sooner you follow up, the better.

One example

One organization I’m familiar with takes their trade show planning activities to extraordinary heights. Before the show they harvest every name out of the partnering software, one by one. Then they eliminate vendors and attendees outside their target market. They sort the remaining prospects by region, and allow their sales staff to divide the resulting lists into high, medium and low priority. Targeted messages are then sent to these registered attendees, inviting them to partner, attend a hospitality event, or stop by the booth. In some cases a special ticket is provided to a small group of VIP prospects to encourage attendance; these tickets are redeemable for a high-end gift. Once at the show, follow-up with all three lists is monitored daily, and the prospects are sorted into hot, warm and cold opportunities. Individual sales personnel are assigned to seek out the hot prospects at receptions and other networking events, to encourage “casual” conversations. After the show, individual phone calls are combined with mailings to ensure that every person on the list receives some form of communication.

Using their system, and driven by a determination to maximize their results at each show, they can accomplish in two to three days at a show what would otherwise take months of phone calls, setting appointments, travel and meetings.


Trade shows can be a wonderful opportunity to extend the reach of your marketing activities.

Trade shows can be a wonderful opportunity to extend the reach of your marketing activities. However, maximizing these opportunities requires knowledge, focus and discipline. In next month’s issue, I’ll focus on the show floor itself, covering booth design and behavior tips while managing the booth.