Going to a Trade Show
Summary: Writing daily from Tech-Ed 2004, Eric
gives you tips and advice about exhibiting at trade shows, drawing from
his experiences at this show, as well as past events.
Monday, 7:30 a.m.
I arrived in San Diego yesterday for Tech Ed 2004
where SourceGear will be an exhibitor. Like most events of this kind,
Tech-Ed is both a "conference" and a "trade show". The conference
portion consists of scores of Microsoft product managers telling the
attendees how great Microsoft technologies are. The trade show portion
consists of scores of companies telling the attendees how great their
products are. The mixture of these two ingredients has attracted over
10,000 geeks like me who are now swarming around downtown San Diego
wearing really dorky badges around our necks.
I'm still sitting in my hotel room at the US Grant. The exhibit hall
opens at noon. We did most of the setup of our booth yesterday
afternoon, so we're pretty much ready to go. I've got a few hours this
morning so I need to spend some time working on this article. It's due
I Like Trade Shows
Trade shows are my favorite of the basic "marcomm" (marketing
communications) tools because they are so interactive. Advertising and
PR are primarily one-way communication, from you to the customer,
without much chance for information to flow the other way. In contrast,
a trade show offers face time. Coming to the show this week will give
us the opportunity to meet in person with prospective customers. They
will tell us their opinion of our product. They'll ask for features we
don't have. We'll have the increasingly rare opportunity to experience
the people in our market segment as real people.
We also get face time with our competitors and partners. We get the
chance to see a broad spectrum of companies in our space and observe
what they are all doing.
We also get face time with some of our existing customers.
Throughout this week, people who already use our products will be
stopping by the booth to chat. Some will simply want to meet us in
person. Some will tell us how happy they are with the product. Some
will tell us how we have disappointed them in some way.
The entire package provides us a perspective that cannot be obtained
in any other way. Other marcomm tools certainly have their place, but
there is nothing like a trade show. In this column, I will talk about
trade shows as a marketing tool for your small ISV. I will share
several stories from my own experience, as well as some tips for how to
get started in trade shows.
Choosing a Show
After you decide you want to try exhibiting at a trade show, your
next decision is to figure out which one. Regardless of your particular
market segment, there are almost certainly a variety of shows from
which you can choose. SourceGear is a developer tools company in the
Microsoft ecosystem, so we choose our shows accordingly. We basically
always have a booth at Tech-Ed and at the Professional Developers
Conference (PDC). Sometimes we do a booth at VSLive as well.
I recommend that you attend a trade show before you commit to being
an exhibitor. Spend plenty of time walking around the show floor and
observing carefully. Bring a digital camera and take lots of pictures.
Critique the booths of other vendors. Pay attention to what they are
doing and whether or not it seems to be working well for them.
Show Me the Money
Exhibiting at a trade show is both cheap and expensive.
It's cheap because it is a one-shot expense. Contrast this with
advertising where the magazine's sales guy is going to try to convince
you to buy an ad every month for an entire year. A trade show is a
single event, with no lingering commitments to annoy you later.
But trade shows are still awfully expensive. If the idea of spending
$10,000 on a trade show appearance sounds scary, then you may want to
look elsewhere. At some shows you can probably spend less, but not by
Over the last few years, SourceGear usually spends between
$25,000--30,000 (US) for each trade show appearance. This week, we
wanted to simplify things a bit, so we chose to have a 10-ft.-by-10-ft.
booth (10x10) instead of our usual 10x20. I think we'll end up spending
between $15,000--20,000 dollars for this show.
But the opportunity to spend more is almost unlimited. The "gold"
sponsors at this show probably spent several hundred thousand dollars
I still remember one show where we probably spent a little too much.
People at the company started getting crabby as the expenses kept
rising. When it came time to make the travel arrangements, I asked if
we needed a rental car in Los Angeles. One of my partners sarcastically
asked why we didn't just wait till we got out there and buy one.
Registration and Booth Selection
Preparation for this event started several months ago. We registered
as an exhibitor on January 26th. Payment for the booth space itself was
due immediately. The cost was $6,995 for the booth itself, plus $300
rental fee for a table and two chairs. If the pricing of that furniture
seems outrageous, get used to it. You can rent all kinds of stuff for
your booth, including furniture, equipment, and more. The rule of thumb
is that the weekly rental fee will be approximately the same as the
price of buying the item new. It stings, but the principle here is the
same as the reason you pay five bucks for a hot dog at a baseball
game--it's their convention center, not yours.
After we have registered as an exhibitor, we know that we have
reserved our booth space, but we do not know yet where it will be.
Booth selection usually takes place several weeks after registration.
This year, Tech-Ed allowed exhibitors to choose booths in approximately
the order that we registered. SourceGear ended up in the third wave of
booth selection, which opened at 11:00 a.m. Pacific Time on February
Considering the amount of money you're paying, it makes sense to try
and get the best booth location you can. Usually you can see the map of
the trade show floor in advance and identify two or three desirable
locations. It's usually better to try and get a booth on the end of a
row. Try to be in a high traffic location, such as near an entrance or
other item of interest.
If the booth selection Web site opens at 11:00 a.m., you should be
there at 10:55 a.m. with your finger poised over the mouse. Our booth
selection opened right on time, and I grabbed our desired booth within
seconds. We ended up with booth 1743, directly across from the Visual
Studio kiosks in the Microsoft pavilion. Except for the giant pillar
which somewhat impairs the visibility of our booth, this location is
perfect for us.
After booth selection, you will receive an exhibitor's guide of some
kind. This is usually a small book containing all kinds of information
you need to be prepared for the show. The most important thing in that
guide is the calendar of deadlines. This will tell you the last day for
each thing you need to do. For example, if you want to purchase an
advertisement in the conference guide, there will be a deadline for
registering for this additional service.
Monday, 9:30 a.m.
The job description for people who deliver the San Diego weather report on television involves two simple responsibilities:
- Announce the fact that it is 68 degrees
outside, trying very hard to give the impression that someday the
temperature might actually vary.
- Tell the viewers whether it is cloudy or sunny.
Today is one of those days when it is 68 degrees and cloudy. In
Illinois, we get three days a year where the weather is this nice, but
since this is approximately the worst weather San Diego has to offer,
the locals describe this as "bad weather". Nonetheless, the walk from
my hotel to the convention center was unbelievably pleasant. I am now
sitting in the SourceGear booth drinking coffee. I still need to finish
a couple more details on the setup of our booth.
Physical Stuff in Your Booth
When I stop to think about it, the word "booth" is a strange term
for the piece of floor space we have rented. It is a square, 10 feet
long and 10 feet deep, with blue carpeting covering the floor. The back
of the booth is a black curtain, approximately eight feet tall. Another
much shorter curtain marks the boundary between our booth and the one
next door. There is an electrical cord and an Ethernet cable.
Everything else is in the booth is your responsibility, and there is
a wide range of choices available. If you want furniture, banners,
signs, computers or televisions, you have to rent them or bring them
with you. Most of the booths larger than 10x10 are filled with
professional systems that integrate furniture and visuals. The PatchLink booth here is really outrageous. It has a stairway to a second floor that contains an observation deck of some kind.
Many of the 10x10 booths use a professional system as well, albeit
on a smaller scale. Our booth has a folding backdrop with vertical
panels that we printed with our company graphics. This system set us
back around $10,000 or so, but we've been able to use it many times.
Some of the 10x10 booths are much simpler. Many companies simply
rent furniture from the convention center and hang up printed banners
and signs. We've done quite a few shows this way. This approach is
cheap but the results can be very professional. I always recommend
people start out this way for their first show. Keep it simple until
you are really comfortable with how things are done at these events.
If your booth is going to have computers or fancy backdrops, you
will have more stuff than you can carry in your luggage, so you'll have
to ship things to the show site in advance. For this show, we shipped
three crates and two boxes, totaling about 500 pounds or so. I haven't
seen the actual shipping costs yet, but we did get our stuff shipped
out by the first shipping deadline. Waiting until the very last
shipping deadline will cost you more.
The exhibitor guide will tell you whom to call to schedule the
pickup of your stuff. A big truck will show up and take your boxes and
crates away. From that moment until the moment you arrive on the trade
show floor, you will worry about whether your stuff will be there
complete, intact, and on time. This actually happened to us at the PDC
last fall. Most of our boxes were missing in action when we arrived at
the booth for setup. Don't plan to arrive at the show at the last
minute. If your boxes got lost, you'll need extra time to track them
Tuesday, 12:50 p.m.
The worst thing you can do at a trade show is to be boring. I won't
name names, but there are some booths here that are really easy to
ignore. I always find this to be somewhat sad. Renting space here is
not cheap. It's important to find a way to be interesting.
Companies do all kinds of things to draw attention to their booths,
with varying results. In the sections below, I describe a few things
which have worked for us and a few things that don't seem very
Poking fun at ourselves
At Tech-Ed two years ago we made our first announcement of
SourceGear Vault. Because we made this announcement over six months
before shipping the product, we knew we would be criticized for hyping
our "vaporware". So we decided that it would be easier if we made the
joke ourselves. We bought a fog machine and spent the week standing in
a booth filled with wispy vapor
rolling around. Our booth was awfully hard to ignore, and we got the
opportunity to tell lots of people about our upcoming product.
Poking fun at others
Self-deprecation is safer, but sometimes you can make use of a good-natured joke at someone else's expense.
At Tech-Ed last year, somebody at Microsoft introduced a marketing
campaign that simply had to be the target of a parody. They selected
several well-known gurus and declared them to be "Software Legends".
The convention center was filled with life-sized cardboard cutouts of
these legends, each of which directed people to visit the Web site at softwarelegends.com.
I tried to resist the temptation, but in the end, this target was just too easy. We created a parody Web site at notalegend.com and showed up at Gnomedex
with a life-sized cardboard cut-out of me. This joke ended up being a
huge hit. Even now, almost a year later, about a dozen people
approached me this week to tell me how funny that was.
But do be careful about causing offense. Burning bridges is always a
mistake. I have had the chance to speak with several of the software
legends and the people who produced the campaign. I am delighted to
report that no one was offended by our spoof.
"In a world ... "
The concept for the promotional campaign for Vault was to advertise
the product as if it were a movie. The product packaging is a DVD-style
case. We made movie posters with that distinctive typeface at the
bottom. The magazine advertisement was a variant of the poster. But
most importantly, we produced a brief movie trailer that we have shown on a plasma screen at several trade shows.
Although we often hear glowing praise for this campaign, not
everything about it was as successful as we hoped. Some trade show
attendees didn't want to stand still long enough to watch the trailer.
Some people didn't accept our poster giveaway because it was too big to
But in general, this effort has brought outstanding results. The
best part of the whole campaign was the voice-over for the trailer. As
people stand in our booth and watch the video, they suddenly realize
they have heard the voice before. The voice in our trailer is Hal
Douglas, the same voice that is heard in many of the actual Hollywood
movie trailers. He is also the guy who appears in the movie trailer for
Comedian, which, incidentally, is truly hilarious.
The original budget for the Vault promotion and launch was $85,000,
but we ended up spending about $89,200. The difference was Hal's fee
for 20 minutes of work, and it was worth every penny. His voice
eliminated all chance of our movie trailer being cheesy or amateurish.
We've used it for several shows now, and the Vault movie trailer has
been a great tool in making our booth interesting.
People go to all kinds of measures to counteract the sheer boredom
factor of their booth. The most common approach is to give stuff away.
As I look around the show floor, I see the usual array of people who
visit booths for the specific purpose of collection T-shirts, rubber
balls, hats, and everything else they can find. We've done this in the
past, but I have always had questions about the effectiveness of this
approach. The obvious concern is that freebies do little more than
attract people who are simply searching for freebies.
Yesterday, somebody walked slowly by our booth, carefully keeping
his distance to ensure that we did not speak to him. As he walked by,
he scanned our signs and materials and apparently decided quite clearly
that he was not interested in our products. He maintained his speed and
proceeded to the next booth.
And then he noticed the baseball cap sitting on our table. Baseball
caps are a popular freebie this year, so he assumed we must be giving
them away. He stopped, turned around, approached our table and asked us
what he had to do in order to get a free cap. Ironically, that baseball
cap wasn't even ours. It belonged to a customer who had simply placed
it on the table as he was talking with us.
Another popular alternative to being interesting is to collect
business cards for a prize drawing. I'll confess that this approach
usually seems downright silly to me. For example, the booth next to
ours is giving away an iPod. Drop your business card in a fishbowl. At
the end of the week, one card will be drawn and the winner will get the
prize. Later, all those business cards will probably get handed to some
sales guy who will use them to pester people.
If this technique works for them, great, but I am honestly not fond
of it. In this case, the iPod has absolutely nothing to do with their
business. They have artificially increased the quantity of their booth
traffic, but not the quality.
In my opinion, the absolute worst way to generate artificial
interest is the tactic that is commonly known as the "booth babe". The
basic idea is to staff the booth with an extraordinarily attractive
woman. In many cases, the woman is a little-known model or actress who
was hired for the week and knows absolutely nothing about the company's
Thankfully, I don't see this classless tactic happening here at
Tech-Ed this week, but I've seen it at various shows before. Please
don't do it. I'm not saying you have to go out of your way to staff
your booth with ugly people. I just think people like companies who
recognize that their customers are smart. Staff your booth with the
right people to talk about your products.
Wednesday, 9:30 p.m.
So far, the show is working out pretty well for us. The traffic in
our booth has been okay, but not extraordinary. Tech-Ed usually isn't a
truly high-traffic show for us. The crowd here is a mix of developers
and information technology (IT) people, but our product only appeals to
the developer side. This illustrates a point about trade show audiences
that ends up being true more often than not: rare is the show that can
deliver you several thousand people with absolutely all of them being
Since SourceGear is a developer tools company, we only attend shows
where a significant percentage of the attendees are software
developers. We further constrain our choices to the shows which are
Microsoft-centric, since that fits our product positioning.
However, I suspect that at least some of my readers are selling
products intended for normal people. I don't know the landscape for
other shows, but I do know that basically every significant market uses
trade-show events. For example, I recently attended a woodworking trade
show. In many ways, it was very similar to my own experiences, albeit
with fewer laptops and more sawdust.
Using trade shows in your project scheduling
I really like to use trade shows as deadlines for project
milestones. Sometimes we tie the actual product ship date to the date
of the show. On other occasions we simply use the show date as an
interim milestone. Either way, the opportunity to show a product to
customers provides a nice incentive to get things completed and
polished. This week, we decided to begin telling people about our
upcoming bug-tracking product here at Tech-Ed.
I don't believe in project scheduling that is 100% date-constrained.
However, a little date pressure can help drive things to closure. The
trade-show date is completely immovable. Ludicrous as it may sound, I
remember a couple of times where I wanted very badly to call Microsoft
people and ask them to push an event back a week to give us more time.
Attaching this milestone to Tech-Ed forced us to make a decision
about the official product name for our bug-tracking system. We've had
an internal code name all along, but we really wanted to finalize the
actual name before we showed it to customers. At the last possible
moment, we decided Friday morning the name would be "Dragnet". We
rushed our data sheets to the printers, picked them up later Friday
afternoon, and I brought them to the show in my luggage.
Thursday, 8:00 a.m.
When I first got started writing for MSDN, I was unaccustomed to
working under a deadline. For my first article, the due date arrived
and I think my editors expected me to submit the article that morning.
By now they understand that when I said I would submit my article
today, I meant that it would sent by the end of the business day as
defined in the Hawaiian time zone. So I've still got several hours left
to get this wrapped up, but at this point, I think I will make it
without having to ask for an extension (again).
This is the last day of the show. I am reminded once again why I
like trade shows so much. Just as I mentioned last month, there is an
old saying about pizza and sex: "When it's good, it's good, and when
it's bad, it's still pretty good". I think the same thing can be said
of trade shows. This week's event has frankly not been our most
successful show. Booth traffic has been okay, but not great.
But the show has still been pretty good. We talked to lots of
potential customers and told them about our products. Some of our
current customers stopped by to say hello. We got to see a whole bunch
of interesting people from blogspace, including Chris Kinsman, Julia Lerman, John Bristowe, and Korby Parnell.
We had some great conversations with folks on the Visual Studio team.
We took a walk and saw a seagull. We ate dinner at an unbelievably good
Brazilian restaurant. We had a nice chat with one of our competitors.
My point here is this: There is a strong temptation to try to
measure the success of a trade show appearance strictly in dollars from
new sales leads generated at the show. If you really want to do it this
way, I won't stop you, but I think you're missing the point. There are
intangible benefits to appearing at a trade show that are very hard to
quantify. If we talked ourselves out of future trade show appearances
simply because we didn't generate enough sales to cover our direct
costs, we would miss out on those intangibles.
The show will officially close at 3:30 p.m. this afternoon. At 3:31
p.m., things will be crazy. People will start tearing down their booths
immediately. The carpets will be rolled up and carried away. Table
covers will be removed, revealing that the $300 rented table underneath
is actually worth about twenty bucks.
Luckily, teardown is a lot easier than setup. All we have to do is
take everything apart and cram it back into our shipping crates.
My favorite part of teardown is folding the backdrop. When fully
extended, our backdrop is about ten feet wide and seven feet tall. This
afternoon I will unhook three connectors and then give the whole
structure a little nudge and watch as it quietly collapses to something
about the size of a bed pillow. It's so cool.
The very last step is to put shipping labels on our crates and walk
away. It always feels strange to just abandon them there on the floor,
but somehow they always seem to make it back to our office.
Eric Sink is the non-legendary founder of SourceGear,
a developer tools ISV located in Illinois. Despite his obvious disdain
for Illinois weather, Eric still thinks the best part of every trade
show is coming home to his wife and daughters. Eric's weblog is at http://software.ericsink.com/.
This article originally appeared on the MSDN website.