Trade shows are one of the few business events that just about everyone looks forward to, and exhibitor booths are one of the star attractions. Trade shows have a way of making business fun, and you just can’t beat that.

As for the booths themselves, it seems as if everyone has visited one that they just cannot forget. Those same people then usually decide that it is time to get one of their own, or at least upgrade the one they already have.

If you’ve never put together a trade show booth, get ready; you will have plenty to keep you busy. You need to decide on size, dimensions, layout, accessories, graphics, add-on functions, etc. The possibilities are seemingly endless, since booths are limited only by imagination.

The upcoming NECA show is a perfect example of a booths’ importance. Booths are perhaps the first impression that a company makes at a show. Trade shows take place at venues that host hundreds, if not thousands of attendees and those with display booths. The shows almost look like a maze when one first enters. This may explain why first-timers can be picked out immediately, since they are the ones standing by the main entrance door with an overwhelmed expression on their face, clutching their venue maps.

Most attendees are there to learn and to expand their network of vendors, suppliers, manufacturers, partners and associates. The trade show booth is the way in which companies separate themselves from the rest of the pack. In fact, booths are meant to have a “come closer” appeal. Once the attendee gets within reach, those staffing the booth pull them in with wit, charm and experience—at least, that is the way it is supposed to work.

Prices for booths can be high, especially for the first one. It’s worth it to shell out a few extra bucks up front, since a good booth should last you through many shows. It also helps if you pick one that allows for things to be added, removed and modified.

The cost of basic booths can range from a couple thousand dollars to $100,000 for more elaborate setups. From there, you have additional costs such as graphics, sound, video, computers, laptops, televisions, brochures, literature, etc. Add to all of that the cost of transporting your stunning display to the event itself.

Since trade show booths are so expensive, it’s clear why exhibitors need to be as organized and prepared for a trade show as humanly possible.

Be prepared

Planning is a key factor in trade show booths. Trade shows are big business (as much as $83 billion annually) and those who exhibit need to make sure they know who the audience will be. This is important so that the booth and associated display area can be modified to fit in perfectly with each particular show’s theme and attendee population.

The trade show booth is a company’s way to not only put a face to a name, but for many it is a way to make a lasting impression. Large industry trade shows such as the NECA event give manufacturers, suppliers and vendors a chance to touch base with the legions of contractors who use their products and services daily.

The ultimate trade show booth is one that not only conveys a company’s product line, but the company itself. Charlotte Nash, trade show director at Leviton, said, “For example, at this year’s NECA show, Leviton’s focus is, of course, the contractor market. Our presence at the show will be directed to showing contractors our latest products, their applications, features and benefits, and support programs and how we can help contractors build their business.”

The evolution of the booth

When trade shows first started to come into their own, many relied upon simple tables with a few stacks of brochures and business cards. If you were one of the lucky few to have a trade show budget back then, you probably had a sign hanging above your space as well.

With the proliferation of available information, mainly via Web sites, newsletters and e-mail, trade show attendees are pretty knowledgeable these days. Most come prepared and already know the products and services offered by the exhibitors. Because of that, booths need to do more than provide hard-copy information. As Arnold Kelly of Graybar put it: “Customers can sit at their desks and get most of the information they want through their computer. Trade show participants must differentiate themselves and make the customer visit worthwhile.”

Times have changed, and so have booths. Many are more technologically advanced than some small businesses are. One can see things such as laptops with wireless connections and flat-screen TVs running professionally produced minimovies. Interactive kiosks are making their way into the mainstream and the tabletop option is being pushed out.

Now that you have secured the perfect booth, you need to get the word out. What good does that stellar investment do you if no one knows where to find you? Not much.

Enter the Internet. Due to the communication power of the Web, many have found they can use the Internet to promote their booths to their customers. It’s a powerful marketing tool for exhibitors.

There are other ways to get your booth noticed. Some do direct mail; others opt for banner ads running on not just their own home pages, but on those of their business partners as well. Some take out ads reminding readers to visit them at the show and help seal the deal by giving them their exact location too. Larry Wegner, director of marketing at Klein Tools, said, “Companies can best use the Internet by promoting trade shows they are participating in on their Web sites. Klein Tools devotes and lists an entire section on industry trade shows that it participates in.”

Regardless of what tactics you employ, do something proactive to get people to your booth. Relying on the show-sponsored map won’t cut it, especially at the larger events where it is too easy to get lost in the sea of booths and people.

Manpower = boothpower

Too often, companies rely on just the booth and neglect the fact that most attendees want to interact with someone who can answer their questions and address their concerns. Many attendees come armed with hosts of questions, mainly because trade shows are a way in which one is guaranteed at least a little interaction with the exhibitors. Though booths themselves are becoming increasingly interactive, you still need to have the human component present. There is nothing more frustrating for a trade show attendee than walking away with unanswered questions.

Mark Eckert of JLG said, “No matter how eye-catching your graphics are or how cool your interactive kiosks are, people want to talk to people. Having the right people working the booth makes all the difference.” This is a sentiment that is echoed by just about every trade show participant, and attendees appreciate this type of customer-focused mentality.

Whether or not you are an exhibitor or an attendee, next time you are at a trade show, take a little more time and appreciate what went into that flashy booth where you grabbed that fancy pen. Maybe you should have stayed a little longer and asked some questions, you may not get a chance like that again, at least not for another year. And hey, you never know, you might get an extra pen out of the deal. EC

STONG-MICHAS, a freelance writer, lives in central Pennsylvania. She can be reached at JenLeahS@msn.com.