Why a life sciences trade show is anything but routine

First, understand that a trade show is not a typical or routine selling situation. Let’s look at some of the differences:

Much of routine qualifying happens on the phone and much of routine closing happens in person. At a trade show, everything happens in person – qualifying, nurturing and closing.

First, understand that a trade show is not a typical or routine selling situtation.

For a routine sales engagement you typically know exactly where in the buying cycle your prospect is. At a trade show, you can be dealing with a late-stage buying opportunity one minute, and qualifying a brand-new opportunity the next minute.

For routine sales engagements, you seek out contact with your prospects, and you often travel to see them. At a trade show, prospects will come to you.

For routine sales engagements, you typically only talk to a few people at the most on a good day. At a trade show, you can talk to dozens and dozens of people in one day.

For a routine sales engagement, time is not the enemy; you have adequate time to do your job. At a trade show, the typical sales encounter is very compressed. Furthermore, every minute you spend with an inappropriate prospect is one fewer minute you have to spend qualifying someone else.

At a trade show, the typical sales encounter is very compressed.

The routine sales environment is reasonably sedate, and you typically have some control over the level of stimulation (visual and auditory). At a trade show, you often have noisy neighbors, and every surface within sight is full of graphics designed to grab attention.

During a routine sales engagement, you have the prospect’s attention (OK, if you are good at doing your job). At a trade show, you’ll be lucky if three people don’t interrupt any given ten-minute conversation. And with omnipresent cell phones giving everyone the ability to message, email and talk 24/7, keeping people’s attention can be tough.

For this and many other reasons, trade shows are anything but routine.

Trade show goals

As different as trade shows are from a typical environment, it is worth remembering why we go to them. I covered this in my last issue, and it’s worth repeating here. A short list of possible goals for life science companies includes:

  • 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

One of the prime reasons to go to a show is to meet people, qualify them and allow them to qualify your company. This issue of the newsletter addresses behavior and booth design that will maximize your opportunities to do both.

Who is going to shows?

There is a wealth of data collected from trade show attendees, exhibitors and show producers. Here are some interesting statistics:

The people who are attending trade shows are more likely to be interested in your services than ever before.

In the second quarter of 2009, overall trade show attendance was down 10.4%; exhibit space was down 11.3% and the number of firms exhibiting was down 13.3%. (Note: these figures are for all trade shows nationwide, regardless of subject, and are calculated in comparison to Q2, 2008.) While these metrics are all decreasing, the declines are not as severe as many had predicted. In fact, one reasonable assumption is that the people who have stopped attending trade shows are those whose attendance wasn’t mandatory in the first place or who had been going to shows just to grab a little time away from the office. One way to interpret these statistics is to say that the people who are attending trade shows now are more likely to be interested in your services than ever before.

Your presence on the show floor

Think about how you walk through an exhibit hall. Do you stop to read each and every booth from top to bottom, moving on to a neighboring booth only when finished with the first? If you did that you’d never get up a single aisle, much less through the entire hall. If you’re like most people, you walk up and down the aisles, scanning as you go, looking for exhibitors (people and brands – who they are) and topics (products, services or content –what they do) that are relevant to your interests. Once you find a booth of interest, you review the booth from a “safe distance” and determine whether to approach the booth or not. If you decide to approach, you then decide how to engage with the booth or with the people manning the booth. It is only after this decision-making process that you decide to engage someone in conversation or pick up a brochure.

All these questions (who are they, what do they do, approach or not, engage or not?) get asked and answered in a split second, typically while you are walking up the aisle. Many people are not even aware that they are making decisions about these questions. But make them they do. And the design of the booth and the behavior of the booth’s occupants will have a dramatic affect on how they get answered.

Your company’s presence on the show floor has a single primary function: to tell the viewer in a very short amount of time these two key facts: who you are, and what you do.

Thinking about your own behavior is instructive: recognize that your company’s presence on the show floor (the booth and the people manning it) has a single primary function: to tell the viewer in a very short amount of time these two key facts: who you are, and what you do. Clarity in this area will help you draw in those prospects who do have an interest in your products or services. For those who do not have any interest, it will assist them in cleanly and quickly self-selecting away from engaging you. Companies that pull this off spend less time being bothered by people who are not potential customers and more time talking to real prospects.

Simplify your booth

Your booth should maximize the effect of your interaction with the attendees. Your booth is there to support you and your staff in attracting the appropriate prospects allowing them to qualify you, and allowing you to tell a high-level story about your products and services. All of which means that the design of your booth is an important factor in the success of your experience at life science trade shows.

The most common mistake that scientifically based companies make in developing trade show booths is to cram too much information in and on them. They treat the booth like a scientific poster, full of charts and graphs and images of equipment.

I’ve written in other issues of this newsletter that science is a discipline that values complete explanation. Providing visitors with a complete explanation of your offering, your products, your services, your company history, and your special protocol is not the purpose of your booth. Any such complete explanation should come from your personnel (probably at a separate sales appointment), not from your booth graphics.

We’ve all witnessed this phenomenon many times; I’ve seen booths with an entire web site printed out on letter-sized paper and pasted to the back wall. All you have to do is visit a life sciences trade show to see dozens of examples.

Scientists who develop trade show booths by following the training of their discipline will use their booth to provide a complete description of their offering. Nothing could be more damaging to their message. A complete explanation doesn’t belong on the booth because people won’t take the time to read an entire treatise at any one booth. Remember, your prospects are cruising the aisles and scanning for company names – that is: who you are and topics – that is: what type of products, services or content you offer.

Your booth should have this information displayed large enough and high enough so that it can be easily seen. The next time you are at a trade show, perform a blink test: Stand in the aisle, close your eyes and blink them open and shut again quickly. Can you get the basic information (company name and general topic) in one single blink? If not, that information is probably hidden too well. Research suggests that the average time spent looking at booth graphics is less than 5 seconds. In this kind of environment, images are more effective than words, and fewer words will be more effective than lots of words.

Open up your booth

Use the design of your booth to make your expectations of your visitor’s behavior clear to them. Do you want them to approach the booth and interact with your booth personnel (and who doesn’t)? Then don’t create walls that separate them from your booth personnel.

Tables placed right by the aisle are every bit as effective as walls in preventing attendees from approaching your booth. First, they form a physical barrier between the booth space and the aisle; second, people sitting down behind a table are below the normal line of sight of people walking the aisles and third, tables encourage your booth personnel to sit down and pay attention to other things, like eating, answering emails, or working. None of these are behaviors you want to encourage in your booth personnel. So, ban the tables right by the aisle. If you must have tables in the booth, only sit at them when a prospect is sitting there with you.

The most common mistake that scientifically base companies make in developing trade show booths is to cram to much information in and on them.

Ban the chairs too (if you want to encourage conversations with show attendees). If you take enough people so that those manning your booth are rested, you’ll be amazed at what a difference getting rid of the chairs will do. For starters, the people in your booth will now be at eye level with the prospects walking the aisle. Their attention will also be turned outwards, not down towards their lap(top). If you don’t believe me, watch carefully for this difference the next time you walk a trade show… booths with tables and chairs are full of distracted people focused elsewhere, not on engaging the stream of prospects walking by.

What is wrong with this picture? Nothing about this booth encourages people to stop and talk, not the design of the back wall, not the layout of the space, and certainly not the behavior or attitudes of the personnel. While this company was not exhibiting at a life sciences trade show, there are plenty of booths at those shows with similar problems. (I’ve erased the company name to provide some anonymity.)

Train your staff

Proper staff training is crucial in maximizing your life sciences trade show experience. Research suggests that more than half of the way a visitor perceives your company at a trade show is due to staff attitude, established in the prospects’ minds in the first 4 seconds.

Make sure all your staff knows why you are attending the show, and the key qualifying questions to ask of booth visitors. You can’t qualify someone by handing them literature and getting a business card. You qualify them by asking questions. Listen twice as much as you talk – that is the reason you have two ears and only one mouth.

Train your staff to avoid bad booth behavior. No eating in the booth. No emailing in the booth. No working in the booth on the report that the boss expects you to complete. No yelling, or even talking, on your cell phone. All of these behaviors will repel visitors and distract your attention from them. This is particularly true for those visitors that are tentative about stopping to ask a question or engage in conversation. If these visitors feel like they’ll be bothering you, they won’t stop, and you’ve lost another opportunity to qualify another prospect.

Don’t wait passively in the booth for someone to approach you.

Don’t wait passively in the booth for someone to approach you; stand halfway out into the aisle and start conversations. You’ll be amazed at how much more effective you can become if you reach out beyond the confines of your booth. This applies to other situations as well; the entire show is one big opportunity to engage with your prospects. Examples include standing in line and even waiting for the elevator. (After all, where do you think the concept of an “elevator pitch” came from?)

Show up early and stay late

You won’t stand out at a life science trade show unless you show up. Trade shows are tiring, but putting in the extra effort will pay big dividends. Show up at your booth early, and stay late. At some shows, up to 40% of your prospects are also exhibitors. They’ll be walking the show floor early or late, because that is the only time they have free.

You won’t stand out at a life science trade show unless you show up.

Shows are high-energy events, and attending them can be very tiring. It is important to put the best face on your presence that you can. That means being welcoming and ready to talk. You can’t do any of this if you are exhausted, so stay rested and bring enough people to the show so that everyone in the booth is fresh for the full run of the show.

Plus, with more people, you’ll have more ability to take advantage of all the opportunities there are to meet new people and to attend networking events.

Follow up

As I mentioned in the last issue, trade show leads go stale quickly. Your prospects will have talked to dozens, if not hundreds, of people at the show. The quicker you follow up with them, the better your chance of standing out from the crowd. Sending your company’s literature along with a personal note is an effective way to reach out. This is most effective if it arrives shortly after the show.


A trade show is a platform for you to use. Those life science companies that recognize the differences between a trade show and other sales environments, and use this knowledge to plan and execute their show strategies effectively will stand out from the crowd. Isn’t that the point?