Trade shows – a gold mine of targeted people


In 2017, digital marketing surpassed television advertising in terms of money spent to become the No. 1 way businesses get the word out about their product or services.

The attraction is obvious. Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter all have an expanding base of users and an increasing number of tools to target specific people or businesses. This work can be handled in house without hotel and travel costs. Those same tools make it easy to calculate return on investments, and it is easy to do A/B testing to figure out which messages or sales pitches resonate the most.

Even with the rise of social media, a tried-and-true method that involves personnel and conversation is steadily growing as well…industry shows and expos. According to Statista, which tracks trends across a number of industries. The percentage of companies expecting to increase the number of trade shows has surpassed those expecting to cut back every year since 2010-11. In 2016-17, the most recent numbers available through Statista, 26 percent of companies surveyed were going to do more shows in 2017-18 versus 6 percent expecting to do fewer.

“For exhibitors, trade shows have a gold mine of targeted people,” said Cindy Hupperts of AMS Controls Co. in Maryland Heights, Missouri. “They are captive. They are right in front of you. It’s face to face. As expensive as trade shows are, that’s invaluable contact.”

AMS Controls makes machine controls for metal forming industries, including custom roll forming, HVAC, light gauge framing, tube and pipe, and metal building machines. AMS does two large shows a year, Fabtech 2018, which is in Atlanta, Georgia, in November; and MetalCon 2018, which is in Charlotte, North Carolina, in October.

“Fabtech is larger. It has more in terms of attendees and visitors. MetalCon has more of our specific customer base,” Hupperts said. The company invests in the yearly events even though they’re still working on how to accurately measure the effectiveness.

“We have a very long sales cycle. These are large capital investments,” Hupperts said. “How do you measure ROI on a contact that might have been made five years ago.”

The growth isn’t just in the large, national shows. The Dayton (Ohio) Region Manufacturers Association has been putting on its Advanced Manufacturing Technology Show for the past 12 years.

“Ours is a regional show. You have to be based or have a sales presence within a three-hour drive of Dayton to be an exhibitor,” President Angelia Erbaugh said. The group took over the show right before the Great Recession and saw attendance fall from an average of 3,000 a year to 2,200 in the depths of the economic downturn.

“We have ebbs and flows, but it’s been building back gradually every year,” Erbaugh said. “In 2016, we had nearly 3,500 attendees, which was a record. We moved to a new venue and that hurt the crowd last year. We’re hoping to get back to that level this year.”


Obviously, costs vary with the type and size of the show or expo. offers an excellent breakdown of the costs.

The industry average to buy portable displays is $100 to $150 per square foot. A 10×10 display, for example, will cost $10,000 to $15,000.

That’s just the display, which is a one-time cost. For each show, you have to factor in cost of floor space, graphics, travel and expenses, electricity, shipping and promotion. The industry rule of thumb is to multiply the cost of your space by three. The average floor space costs $21 a square foot. If you are eyeing that 10×10 space, expect to spend $2,100 for the space and $6,300 for the entire event.

Those numbers don’t include the hidden costs — staff planning time, set up and tear down, and shipping and storage of your trade show equipment. Then there’s sales literature and giveaways. It is expected that you have something for people to take away after visiting your booth. Over time, though, this cost may trend downward as younger executives look more toward digital messages. Companies now are increasingly using Touchscreen Interactive Table Technology and iPad trade show apps to immediately send info about the company to interested inboxes.


Even if you can cut costs on literature, trade shows are a significant investment. Just showing up and hoping for the best isn’t a solid plan for any business. Jonathan Baco, the vice president of marketing for SureCall, a signal booster manufacturer based in California, offered some solid tips for Forbes as part of its communications council:

  • Have a backup plan for the backup plan. If it’s a very large,
    expensive show, have a weekly planning meeting or call
    with everyone involved for at least a month before the
    show to make sure everything is progressing at the same
    rate. Then expect things to go wrong. Have a spare computer, spare batteries, cords and other audio/visual tools.
    Show up early and get to know the team running the show
    and to track down missing packages or equipment.
  • Use all available channels to publicize your attendance.
    Leverage social media, do an email blast, send press
    releases to your social media. If your budget allows, send
    direct-mail postcards. A busy booth attracts customers
    who want to be a part of something big. Get your best
    customers there to visit you to help build the buzz.
  • Set a measurable goal. To do well at a trade show, your
    group must want to be there. Attitude and posture mean
    a lot. Still, this isn’t just a social event. These are major
    investments in time and money so you need to decide on
    a metric to judge the show’s success and track it. It could
    be increasing your company’s social media community,
    meetings successfully booked or leads to follow.