Show Stoppers: Why Are Exhibition Sales Techniques So Bad?


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I spent half a day at the London “Technology for Marketing and Advertising” show today. I wished I hadn’t.

Each of the exhibitors had obviously spent significant sums of money merely paying for the space. The hidden costs in terms of preparation, employee time, etc. were undoubtedly several time higher.

So why was so much of this investment wasted? To start with, it was hard to work out what many of those companies did, or what customer problems they solved. Worse, most of the “elevator pitches” were barely coherent.

… and if I never, ever get approached again by a salesperson asking “can I help you”, believe me, it won’t be a day too soon. Even if they managed to get past this first barrier, asking for a demo inevitably resulted in “death by features”.

Hardly anyone attempted to tailor what they showed me based on an attempt to first explore and understand my needs, or understood that in most demo situations, less is more and they should quit while they were ahead, unless asked for more detail by the prospect.

It makes me angry because, in these live environments, the people manning the stand are the brand – and the experience they offer the customer is either going to make a lasting impression – or be immediately forgotten.

There’s a particular technique in making these sort of live events work – and if vendors are unable or unwilling to coach their salespeople appropriately, frankly, they would be far better off not taking part.

‘scuse the rant!

Bob Apollo
Bob Apollo is the CEO of UK-based Inflexion-Point Strategy Partners, the B2B sales performance improvement specialists. Following a varied corporate career, Bob now works with a rapidly expanding client base of B2B-focused growth-phase technology companies, helping them to implement systematic sales processes that drive predictable revenue growth.


  1. Bob

    I’m sorry to hear about your negative experience with the people, the way they handle the information, and possibly the deliverables if any at the London show.

    However, if you were the consultant of one of the vendors, what would you advise them to do to make your life easier?

    Daryl Choy
    Make Little Things Count

  2. Focus on the Customer, anticipate their needs, use customer-relevant messaging and coach your staff accordingly.

    Simple in principle, sometimes challenging in execution, but worth it every time.

    And if you’re not prepared to make the effort, don’t attend the show …

    Bob Apollo | Inflexion-Point
    Building Scalable Businesses

  3. I view trade shows as a great microcosm of sales and marketing techniques. And nowhere does great marketing vision or woeful execution play out more powerfully than in the gladitorial arena of the trade show floor.

    I enjoy talking with the representatives, if for no other reason than I learn so much about sales. I always take notes, and I use the findings to help my clients figure out best practices and what to avoid. But I must confess that I hold what may seem to some an odd ethical standard: I never misrepresent myself, but I won’t stop a salesperson from launching into a lengthy “feature dump,” followed by the question “Now . . . what is it that your company does?”–if that question is asked at all.

    It’s clear from what Bob describes that companies don’t manage and measure outcomes from trade shows. If they did, they wouldn’t alienate so many of us with poor interactions, or they would abandon trade shows altogether.

  4. Hi Guys,

    I reckon that the problems starts with Management needing to be seen to be involved as a promotion and the sataff seeing it as an opportunity for sore feet and boring talk in areas that they are either unfamiliar with or just an excercise in relationship failure…

    For a start, most of the people manning the stands are sales people with no experience providing feedback to an audience…

    Today, the phone or email is the closest any of them get to a client and most have no experience in the real world with providing solutions… They are sales people at best…

    OH, How I hate even the thought of attending a tade show for all the reasons expressed above… They are a mix of disasters waiting for clients to wade past and either be abused, lied to, fobbed off with promises to follow up or at worse, send information of a totally useless activity..

    I have occasionally been in front of some great stands and have seen the occasional person taking notes, greeting clients with questions, taking down details and follow up details.

    These I find are mainly the peopole representing businesses who exibit because they were offered a free spot to replace someone who did pay for the space but did a no show.

    The organisers often simply want to fill the space so the trade show looks busy.

    How do I know this, well gentlemen, I am a space filler junkie…

    The various companies that I have owned of the last 30 years have regularly filled these empty spots and done well by doing what the others do not do…

    The old business adage, find what your competitors or other similar businesses are not doing properly and then make sure you do that!

    Trade Shows are great and can be brilliant events to showcase solutions if you are serious about making relationships with clients that you know may attend and generally, you do not have to spend thousands of dollars trying to find them, they will find and make up their mind about you there…

    Make sure to do the research and homework about the event or show you set up at and make sure you have a broad message that suits the wider audience.

    Leave the sales to another time and make that face to face…

    Make the event an opportunity for the visitor to tell you what THEY need you to help with and not what you want to sell them…

    OH, keep an eye out for me at the next trade show….

    I will be one of the people walking around and spruiking to the people that others are trying to ignore or hoping they will walk on by…

    PS: Keep plenty of pens on the stand and have some form of targetted engaging offer to get the visitor details from…

    I find two seperate offers… The freebie offer that everyone throws the card into to win and another serious offer targetted for only those who want to keep a relationship with.

    Well it works for me…

  5. 1. Choosing The Right Exhibition

    Whilst it is basically true that trade shows and exhibitions are still possibly the most effective direct marketing medium, caution should still be exercised over the choice of event. Not all exhibitions work or will work for you.

    There are around 360 exhibitions taking place throughout Australia each year involving an estimated 10,700 exhibiting companies. The challenge that companies here face is to ensure the right companies exhibit in the right exhibitions.

    In order to conduct the selection process for your business you must establish soem goals.

    Possible goals include:

    Generate sales
    Gather leads for post show follow-up
    Identify agents, representatives etc

    When you book space in an exhibition you are not buying floor space you are buying an audience so you must really ensure that you choose to exhibit in a show that attracts the type of audience that will purchase your products or services.

    In evaluating an exhibition you should ask a number of questions of the organiser relating to:

    Previous audience analysis.
    Ask for a copy of the past or a current show catalogue.
    Is there computerised registration?
    How does the organiser plan to promote the show?
    What media is to be used to market it?
    How will visitors find your display in the exhibition?
    Is the visitor database available after the show?

    Obtain contact details of previous exhibitors and do some research.

    Will the organiser be conducting a marketing campaign to your target audience.

    The reputation of the exhibition and the organiser are also key elements in your decision to exhibit.

    Find out what others in the industry think of the event and the organisation.

    Ask industry associations whether they are supporting or participating in the show and ask them about the organisers reputation.

    Ask your customers which shows they attend and why?

    Check with industry publications as to whether they are exhibiting and is the show growing ?

    2. Pre-show Administration

    Okay, sure you are busy. We know that you have lots on your plate. There’s never enough time to do everything you want to do. But if you do just one thing, read the Exhibitor Manual. Why ?

    You will save money
    You will get what you need, when you need it
    Your show experience will be productive
    You will reach your show objectives

    If you don’t take the time to read the manual now ………..

    You may encounter higher costs
    You may not be able to obtain the services and supplies that you will need.
    You may encounter frustrating delays and inconvenience

    3. Pre-show Promotion

    It really pays to begin selling prior to the show. You not only promote higher attendance at the event, but more importantly, you are letting your customers and prospects know where to find you at the show. Here are some proven techniques to try.

    Let your customers know you will be at the show and note the location, dates and times of the event.

    Mail special invitations or show admission tickets to your customers.

    Schedule your additional advertising to coincide with the show dates.

    Find out when and where advertisements promoting the show will appear and buy adjoining advertising space

    4. On-site / Showtime

    Offer price discounts or value-added promotions.
    Target customers / prospects on-site and schedule specific appointment times during the show.
    Develop easy ways to qualify new prospects such as collecting business cards or conducting a prize drawing.
    Hand out unusual giveaway items with your name and phone and fax numbers imprinted on them.
    Distribute discount coupons valid for a specified time period after the show.

    5. Post-show Follow-up / Evaluation

    Immediately following the show, contact all prospects / customers who visited your stand.

    Analyse coupon redemption patterns and build a database for the future.

    Ask for referrals from prospects and customers.

    Begin planning for your next show.

    This is just an example of the things to consider in order to have an effective trade show exhibit… Sadly, this effort is generally beyond the resources of most companies that I know that exhibit..

  6. I wholeheartedly agree with this article. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been to a trade show and left wondering what I got out of it. Which means the exhibitors got nothing out of me.

    I’ve often found that when the person manning the exhibit space is the owner/has a vested interested in the company, you see more personal touch with regard to selling/marketing. Otherwise it’s usually just some salesperson who although makes commission based bay, still doesn’t care to engage potential customers with proper technique.


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