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The five Ps for maximizing trade-show participation

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My sister and I recently took a trip to Southern California to see my oldest son for a long weekend. We had a blast. It was a quick escape where everything fell into place, resulting in time and money exceptionally well spent.

What helped us have such a great travel experience? We made the effort to plan our activities and fall-back options before we even booked our flight. We planned to play and then played out the plan.

When was the last time you carefully planned a trip to a trade show? Unfortunately, one of the areas where marine businesses often cut spending in conservative times is marketing and trade-show travel. This can prove to be shortsighted for a number of reasons.

When approached the right way, trade shows can be the juice to help keep your boating business fresh and competitive. Hard to believe? It's true, but there's a catch: Whether attending as an exhibitor or simply soaking up information, getting the most from your time, travel and trade-show investment takes more than showing up.

Once you've made the decision to attend a trade show, how do you maximize your return on the event? For the strategic, successful manager, I recommend you begin your trade show participation by looking at five Ps: plan, people, products, prospects and programs.

  • Plan: Gaining value from trade-show participation starts with creating a plan for generating a return. Start with some questions to get your plan into gear. What will it cost to attend the show? What tangible benefits do you want to receive from the show (information, sales, etc.)? Who should attend in terms of knowledge they'll gain and bring back? After the show, how will you measure the success of your plan? Add other questions to your list, but be sure to include this crucial one: How will you use the trade-show experience to improve your business?

Your trade-show plan doesn't have to be complex, but it does have to be created. Don't step onto the show floor carrying only an empty bag for collecting freebies. Instead, carry a plan for collecting knowledge and answers to the above questions.

  • People: There are two parts to the people component of the trade show: the people you select to attend the show and the people you intend to meet there. Make sure those attending have the seasoning needed to glean value from the show's content and mentor others who are going and need to learn this skill. Each person who attends should have clear action items they'll be working at the event.

Divide and conquer for maximum coverage or, at times, stick together as you coach others on what to look for. Arrange a thorough debriefing with your team after returning home to include sharing and executing post-show tasks. A quick tip: Everyone should have business cards and a scratch pad handy to network and jot down notes, ideas and insights throughout the show. Don't count on random recall - take notes.

While virtual relationships are the rage, nothing replaces the energy of face-to-face interactions. Manage the other people component - those you want to connect with at the show - by finding out well before the event who will be attending. Check the exhibitor list, network with industry buddies and touch base with your trade association. In advance of the show, set up coffee, drinks or dinner plans with suppliers, manufacturers, journalists, analysts, industry superstars, trade association members, friends and colleagues.

Conversation, insights and input gained from these interactions can be wonderfully enlightening. I had breakfast with a colleague at a conference where we mutually developed a sales approach that ultimately produced several hundred thousand dollars in opportunities. Had we done this over the phone, the likelihood of such strong results would have been much smaller. There are many benefits to managing the people factor at trade shows; I know you'll come up with several others.

  • Products: As you work your way through the exhibit hall, listen to speeches and breakout sessions, and keep an ear tuned to what successful players are doing with industry products. What products are they picking up or dropping? Which innovations are being embraced? What do they see future customers buying? Compare this to how you're managing inventory and products in your boating business versus what your competitors are doing. What does this product information imply in terms of suppliers, partners and manufacturers?

Think of the trade show as your product shopping mall, competitive gold mine and strategic idea factory all in one. Are there products that could make you more resilient in a slow market or drag you down? Continually keep dealership and merchandise updating in mind as you view products at the show.

  • Prospects: Enhanced product knowledge gained at the show should be put to work by translating it into sales prospects. What are industry survivors doing to attract prospects versus the prospecting mistakes or missteps that were made by businesses that dried up and closed their doors? Ask others who don't compete with you which marketing and sales tactics are yielding results. A trade show is a fabulous place to find the missing 5 percent in your prospecting and sales formula leading to 15 percent or more in increased revenue.

Be inquisitive on specific sales approaches, too. Listen to the buzz around the show and find out the best way to prospect different products to different customer demographics by getting input from suppliers, partners and other non-competing dealerships.

  • Programs: This is the final trade show "P." Programs should result from the debriefing session you'll be holding after the show. Manage your debriefing to generate post-show follow-up programs and actions using trade-show information to help grow your business. Programs put into motion after the show are all about improvement and, as you'll recall, improvement must be a major factor included in your trade show plan.

What programs should you implement to make your business better? New promotions? Changes to your product line? Analyzing your customer base? Giving the dealership a facelift? Updating your Internet presence? Implementing a customer appreciation project or frequent buyer program? Whatever it may be, programs put into play after the show should be geared toward improving your business and sales.

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A well-planned trade show can definitely turn into a trade show well-played. Just as my son, sister and I had a terrific time together and happily played out every aspect of our weekend plan, you can do the same with your plan for attending a trade show.

Approach your next show with these five Ps and you'll find another P will soon surface - performance.

Manage trade show attendance with improved revenue and performance in mind. You'll end up with a plan well-played, and you'll enjoy the benefits it brings.

Mary Elston has spent more than 20 years in management in the transportation, consulting and technology industries. She is a member of the National Speakers Association and author of the book, "Master Your Middle Management Universe, How to Succeed with Moga Moga Management Using 3 Easy Steps." Contact her at

This article originally appeared in the June 2010 issue.



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