There are now more events than ever. Here's how companies can capitalize on this exploding channel.

It's hard to believe, but not all incremental marketing dollars are earmarked for e-business. Good, old-fashioned events are garnering an increasingly larger slice of marketing budgets in the new company

In fact, according to data from The Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR), events are the third largest business-to-business marketing expenditure after advertising and promotion. In 1998 companies spent 17.3 percent ($12.6 billion) of their b-to-b marketing budgets on events, up from 10.7 percent in 1995. And 1.5 million companies exhibited at 4,500 events attended by 102 million people in the U.S. last year, according to CEIR. Those figures are projected to balloon to more than 2 million companies exhibiting at nearly 6,000 events attended by 125 million people in 2008. "Events offer a more efficient way to sell merchandise," says Doug Ducate, president and CEO of Chicago-based CEIR. "We have twenty years of research that events that companies exhibiting at events can bring products to market in half the time. Events speed up the selling process."

Faster cycle times often mean increased revenues. And isn't that the goal of every sales and marketing executive?

Too few companies, however, have mastered the art of exhibiting at events. Some firms still take the Field of Dreams approach: If you build a booth, customers will come. Not so. Companies successfully accomplishing their event objectives all have a specific strategy. They set measurable goals, generate quality leads, and keep their event staffs motivated. These exhibitors take their mission seriously and adhere to the following four basic principles of successfully exhibiting at any trade event:

Boost Booth Traffic

These days events are all about the buzz. Exhibitors looking to make an impact must promote their booth many months in advance, says Susan Friedmann, president of The Tradeshow Coach, a consulting firm in Lake Placid, New York. One-to-one pre-event marketing, be it via direct mail, fax, or e-mail, is critical. Companies should target both current customers and event attendees that match their target audience, using marketing messages based on individual needs, Friedmann says.

Iomega Corporation, a $2 billion maker of computer drives based in Roy, Utah, uses a three-fold strategy to get event attendees to visit its booths: a mix of local advertising, compelling on-site presentations, and pre-event promotions. At last fall's Comdex computer trade show in Las Vegas, Iomega plastered its logo and booth number on the tops of 400 local cabs. Inside the convention center, a Kramer (of Seinfeld fame) impostor gave product presentations in a game show setting.

The company took 60 staffers to Comdex--for good reason: "We were packed with crowds all five days we were there," says Pam Maughan, Iomega's manager of event marketing.

Another powerful way to draw a crowd is by offering free giveaways or sweepstakes. Companies often use their targeted direct marketing efforts for the event to tell customers and targeted attendees about the prize or premium in advance. This helps to draw qualified prospects instead of anyone who just wants a new T-shirt. Integrating a theme with the premium and with the booth will help further deliver a company's marketing message.

CrossCom, a $42 million retail voice and data integrator, spends 14 percent of its marketing budget on events in order to blend a theme into all of its event efforts, including direct mail pieces and premiums. The theme changes from event to event. At a recent convention it was "Focus on CrossCom." Mailers featured images of cameras and eyes, and cameras were the booth giveaway. At the SPECS retail trade event last month in Orlando, CrossCom's booth featured the theme "Tighten down on in-store communications." The company used graphics of tools and toolkits in direct mailers and gave away toolkits at its booth. The booth and booth signage were decorated with pictures of tools and the corporate informational packets handed out at the booth had images of tools on and inside them.

And remember that there's often a lot more going on than what's happening on the event floor, making it necessary to plan around other event events. Ana Shukla, founder of software developer Rubric, which exhibits at 25 events each year, refers to the event guide when scheduling booth happenings. The goal is to avoid times when certain conference draws, like a keynote speech, may inhibit booth traffic. "Timing is everything," Shukla says.

Generate Quality Leads

Events are too costly to waste time with no-potential meanderers who wander by the booth. To qualify prospects, have booth staffers ask a few simple questions about the company and its customers, its growth plans, and especially its needs, Friedmann says.

Salespeople should ask qualified prospects in-depth questions about their needs, addressing each need separately. Then, if appropriate, give a brief product demonstration eventing how your company can meet those needs.

If a booth is drawing big crowds, however, an exhibitor should qualify leads after the event. Iomega uses sweepstakes and giveaway drawings as an easy way to qualify prospects. To enter the promotion, visitors to the company's booth swipe their registration cards through a point-of-purchase-type machine, which captures each person's name and contact information. The company can later reject people or add them into its prospect database.

Events are also too expensive for companies to just throw away those hard-earned leads. But industry data events that businesses don't follow up on seven out of 10 event leads. That a huge waste, especially considering that closing a sale from an event lead costs an average of $625 and takes 1.3 follow-up calls, according to Data & Securities Group. Compare this with the average cost of $1,117 and 3.7 phone calls to close a sale through other channels.

Key Technologies, a Chicago manufacturer of systems for the food processing industry, charges its salespeople with assessing the event's leads 24 hours after the expo floor closes. The result? They get in contact with potential customers before many competitors do. Response has been solid, the company says.

Companies could even go a step further and send out thank-you notes via e-mail to booth visitors from the event, says Bill Sell, vice president and general manager of Comdex. "Many people log into their e-mail from the road," he says. "This is a way to get to them before a competitor."

Keep Booth Staffs Motivated

You can get the biggest, sexiest booth, have supermodel look-alikes deliver glitzy, Hollywood-style presentations, bring rafts of product information, but none of it matters unless your salespeople are motivated, energetic, and truly happy to be there.

CrossCom's trade show coordinators invite its event staff to a pre-event meeting, at which they give a brief overview on why the company is exhibiting, what it's looking to accomplish, and what is expected of each safer. The group discusses the goals of the event (e.g., increase sales, get 150 prospects). The coordinators then hold team-building exercises before the event and reiterate those goals when the event floor closes each evening. This motivates the staff and gets them excited to be a part of the event by allowing them to ask questions or discuss any problems and by keeping them focused on unified goals.

Friedmann of Trade-show Coach encourages having each safer choose at least one personal goal to achieve at the event. This increases accountability, changes ineffective habits, and boosts productivity, she says.

"We find that the staff will be motivated if you involve them in the planning," says Lisa Teske, marketing communications manager with Key Technologies. Key attends 14 events each year and brings 12 staff members to work the booth. One month before the event, Teske sends the staff members an information packet on the exhibiting efforts. She then encourages the staff to give feedback, which is implemented into planning and execution of the booth and event events.

Don't blow the Budget

Revenues generated from a event won't mean much if you overspent to get them. Although companies usually budget for a trade event as far as a year in advance, unexpected expenses pop up. But there are simple ways to avoid going over budget. "Do whatever you can to control the expenses you have control over," says Rubric's Shukla. Rubric has bartered with event management for special deals, she says. The company also prints its own flyers and often has booth staff slide them under hotel room doors themselves.

One easy money-saver is to plan ahead. Book booth space early, as event organizers raise rates by as much as 20 percent after the "early" period, Friedmann says. Order any services or booth items (e.g., signage, phone lines, AV, carpeting) when booking the booth; often event organizers will put a discount on bundled orders. CrossCom gets all printing jobs done at least eight weeks in advance. Graphic designers and printers can triple rates if the deadline is right around the comer. And book freight, insurance, and travel arrangements in advance as well. "Things come up, but you can try and react," says Teske of Key Technologies.

Finally, know when not to do a event at all, Shukla says. "You don't have to attend a event forever. When a category is saturated and there aren't any more prospects, it's time to look elsewhere."

Friedmann says a good evaluation after each event will help with planning next year's trip. Invest the time with your staff immediately after the event to evaluate your company's performance, she says. "Exhibitors need to reevaluate what they're doing every so often," Friedmann says. "Otherwise they're just repeating the same mistakes event after event."

6. Use Press Relations Effectively

Public relations is one of the most cost-effective and successful methods for generating large volumes of direct inquiries and sales. Before the show ask show management for a comprehensive media list, and find out which publications are planning a special event edition. Send out newsworthy press releases focusing on what’s new about your product/service, or highlighting a new application or market venture. Compile press kits for the press office that include information about industry trends, statistics, new technology or production information. Also include good product photos and key company contacts. Have staff members at the booth who are specifically assigned to interact with the media.

7. Differentiate Your Products/Services

Too many exhibitors are happy to use the "me too" marketing approach. Examine their marketing plans and there’s an underlying sameness about them. With shows that attract hundreds of exhibitors, there are very few that seem to "stand out from the crowd." Since memorability is an integral part of a visitors’ show experience, you should be looking at what makes you different and why a prospect should buy from you. This is of particular concern with generic products in your industry. Every aspect of your exhibit marketing plan, including your promotions, your booth and your people should be aimed at making an impact and creating curiosity.

8. Use The Booth As An Effective Marketing Tool

On the event floor your exhibit makes a strong statement about who your company is, what you do and how you do it. The purpose of your exhibit is to attract visitors so that you can achieve your marketing objectives. In addition to it being an open, welcoming and friendly space, there needs to be a focal point and a strong key message that communicates a significant benefit to your prospect. Opt for large graphics rather than reams of copy. Pictures paint a thousand words while very few exhibitors will take the time to read. Your presentations or demonstrations are a critical part of your exhibit marketing. Create an experience that allows visitors use as many of their senses as possible. This will help to enhance memorability.

Finishing Touches

The true test of event success is in completing all the details. So don't forget that:

  • Pre-event promotion mailings should include personal invitations to stop by the booth or attend a special event the exhibitor is orchestrating;
  • Promotional pieces should always include the company's booth number;
  • Attendees refer to companies' event guide entries, so get your company's description to the event's organizer before the deadline;
  • Introducing booth visitors to company executives will make an indelible impression;
  • You only have a few minutes to make a connection. For this reason, quick product demos are more effective than lengthy, in-depth ones;
  • A unified message is more powerful than a cacophony. The booth staff all should have a similar sales pitch and be asking booth visitors the same questions;
  • Competitors are after the same prospects, so get on the leads as soon as you're back at the office;
  • Assigning each prospect a rating (A for high potential, B for medium potential, and so on) and dividing them up among the sales force will help salespeople get to the right leads first;

Event organizers don't always have the best travel deals. Explore alternative hotel and airlines arrangements in addition to those affiliated with the convention.