How to Operate a Trade Show Booth

This article was originally written by Jason Calacanis in 2009. We will be updating it in 2011. Please post considered feedback in the comments.

Since we’re less than a week away from the third installation of the TechCrunch50 conference, which I partner on with Mike Arrington of Time 100 fame, I thought I would take a moment to discuss the best practices for running a booth or table at a trade show or conference. These points are general and are intended to apply to everything from a 50-person SIG (special interest group), where you’re given a generic folding table, to a custom-built booth at a trade show like CES, held in the Las Vegas Convention Center.

This list is far from comprehensive, but I did query a number of event executives with it to get their insights. If you have ideas that you think are relevant, please hit reply and I’ll include them in a followup email.

22 Tips on How to Operate a Trade Show Booth

1. Define your goal
In order to maximize your investment in a trade-show booth or conference table top, you must clearly define your goals. A booth is ut one of many ways to obtain value from a conference. In fact, even attending a conference can be a way to grow your company. It’s important that your entire team, from marketing to product to the CEO, agree on the goals long before committing to an event.

The most frequent reasons I’ve heard for hosting a booth are:

a) to obtain leads/clients
b) to further develop relationships with existing clients
c) branding
d) educating people about your company and products
e) to support your industry or the people throwing the event
f) for the fun and enjoyment of the team attending the event (i.e. “a junket”)
g) recruiting
h) courting investors

Since your goals are going to determine your strategy, you need to really think about which one or two of these are the most important to you. Most companies will look at the list above–the same list that’s in the marketing materials that sold you on getting a booth–and say “yeah, we want to do a little of all of that.”

If you focus equally on each of the goals above, chances are you’re not going to succeed in any real way at any of them. Once you have a list of goals, you really need to prioritize them. I like to force myself to define one clear goal, like “we’re here to find an investor,” “we’re here to get press for the latest version of our website,” or “we’re here to find a CTO.”

As an exercise, consider forcing your team to select your top three goals and assign a percentage of importance to each. As a follow-up exercise, ask your team to now select, hands down, the most important single goal. If you have too hard a time with this task, you probably shouldn’t be hosting a booth–unless of course it’s 1999 or 2000 and you feel like burning through venture capital money as quickly as possible in order to take your company public.

2. Pick the right event
The goals mentioned above are very specific and they target specific categories of people: venture capitalists, clients, employees, or the press, for example. Now that you know your goals, you need to find out which conference to sponsor. Most professional conferences will either provide a list of companies represented at the event or a nice shiny pie chart with demographics.

Now you can take their word for it, or better yet, you can do your own research. The best way to figure out what trade show to go to is to ask the types of people you want to meet what trade shows they love.

For example, if you wanted to meet developers, ask a developer for a list of their favorite events.You might hear about eTech (sorry to hear it’s not returning), SXSW Interactive or Lockergnome.

If you’re looking to meet angel investors, you might hear back about TechCrunch50 or Web 2.0. For CEOs, you’re gonna hear the Wall Street Journal’s D Conference or TED. You get the idea; ask the people who actually put their money down for tickets about which events they love.

3. Develop a strategy and timeline
After you’ve prioritized your goals, you’re going to need a checklistand timeline. Your conference presence is going to have a lot of moving parts–far too many to just remember.

For example, if you want to generate leads, then you should bring your most sociable team members and charge them with getting business cards into the raffle bowl. If your goal is to land actual clients at the show, instead of just getting business cards, well then you’re going to want to bring your most knowledgeable sales people and focus on socializing over drinks, lunch and dinner. If you want to land developers, you’ll probably want to bring your developers and set up an area for them to hang out with their laptops open. (That’s what developers like to do).

The main point is that different goals will lead to different strategies and a varied punch list.

Signing up for a booth is easy but running one is not. Many marketing people are quick to sign up for a booth, but slow in preparing to run it. After you’ve defined your goals you need to develop a timeline leading up to the event, during the event and for post-event.

4. Budget properly
The cost of the booth is typically 1/3rd to 2/3rds of your total investment in attending an event. Someone just told me that the absurd $18,500 fee that people pay to demo on stage at the DEMO Conference is typically 1/3rd of the total spend once you add in travel, running your booth and preparing. $50k to launch at a conference–ouch!

NOTE: That will be the last dig at DEMO, the conference that takes advantage of startups desperate for attention, I promise! :-) .

Clearly, you need to budget for things like travel, hotels, signage, swag, raffle items, staffing, opportunity cost and food. If you can barely afford the cost of the booth, you shouldn’t be doing the event, because you’re going to cut corners on things like staffing your booth, signage and giveaways–all of which are essential.

Prepare a comprehensive budget for the event and make sure all your stakeholders understand the true cost, so that they can measure success post-event.

5. Run your budget against your key metrics
Since you have your goals and costs defined, you might consider assigning a cost to each goal and metric. For example, if your goals are equally to get prospective leads for the sales team and to recruit new sales people, and you’d also like to brand yourself a bit, you can run your costs against those categories:

a) Land qualified leads: 40% ($4,000)
b) Recruit potential sales executives: 40% ($4,000)
c) Branding: 20% ($2,000)

As you can see, I’ve modeled this conference as a local one-day event with a $10,000 cost: $5,000 for the booth, $1,000 for the raffle of two iPhones, $2,000 in swag, $1,000 for marketing materials and $1,000 in staffing costs. Since you’re spending $4,000 on generating qualified leads, you can easily back into a cost-per-lead of $10 if you collect 400 of them or $20 if you collect 200 of them.

If you normally pay a recruiter $10,000 to find a sales person, then you need to find a new sales person over 2-3 events to make this worthwhile. If you land a new sales person or two at one event, you’re way in the black.

These are the kinds of discussions you need to have before committing to an event. Again, unless you’ve got money to burn because your company throws off huge profits like Google, Yahoo, Microsoft or News Corp. Those companies have departments that can burn money on conferences without giving it deep consideration because they’ve earned that right. They have huge profits and your startup probably doesn’t. Startups and small- to mid-sized companies need to think about these things deeply, because this money might be better spent on other bullets.

6. Who should work your booth
As mentioned above, you want to pick the right category of person for your goal. If you’re recruiting sales people, you’re going to want to bring not only your HR people (who do it for a living) but also other sales people to act as references for the HR people. If you’re looking for developers, you need to bring your developers.

After you’ve found the right category of person to manage your presence, you have to buy them a copy of the audiobook or print book for “How To Win Friends and Influence People.”  If you do this, please buy it from the following URL at Audible since they sponsor my show, "This Week in Startups"

What they will learn in this famous book is, essentially, how to make yourself a likable person, by smiling, showing interest in other people and having a positive outlook. Sure it’s corny, and maybe it’s obvious to many people, but it’s well worth the investment of $10-30 to get each of your folks both the book and the  audiobook. (Make it easy for them). In fact, insist on them listening to it and have a book club-style discussion about it before the show.

7. Getting people into your booth
Be friendly, make eye contact and smile. Ask people one of the following things:

a) “Hello, would you be interested in seeing our product?”
b) “Hello, would you be interested in seeing our product and winning an iPhone?”
c) “Hello NAMEonNAMETAG, how are you doing today?” — response –“That’s fantastic, glad you’re having a good time. Let’s win you an iPhone and show you want Mahalo does, shall we?”
d) Hold out a candy bowl, and say with a big smile, “Candy?” — wait for thank you — say one of the three lines above.

If someone says “no, thank you,” say something like:

a) “OK, thanks, would you like to drop your card in to win an iPhone anyway?”
b) “No worries, perhaps another time… enjoy the rest of the show!”
c) “OK, enjoy the rest of the show. See you at the cocktail party!”

The giving of the raffle or candy taps into the reciprocity effect in psychology, which essentially states that if you do something nice for someone, they will feel compelled to return the favor. You give the candy and they will see a demo. You give the chance at an iPhone and they won’t have a problem giving you their card.

You can read more about reciprocity online, but basically it’s what the Moonies do to you at the airport when they put a flower in your hand and than ask for a donation. The book “The Power of Persuasion” has a good read/listen on this subject:

8. How to demo your product
Create a very short interactive overview of your product. For example, here is how I would demo Mahalo Answers:

Me: “Have you ever used Yahoo Answers or seen a question from there come up in a Google results?”
Attendee: “Yes/No/Maybe.”
Me: “OK, great, well, Mahalo Answers is like that but way more powerful. Here, you can see, I’ve asked people what their favorite cover to a Bob Dylan song is, and you can see I’ve received over 120 answers in just three days, and many folks embedded a YouTube video or mp3 file!”
ME: “Exactly! That’s a great observation” (i.e. something to show you listened to their response), “Let me have you try it… What question do you have today? Think of some problem in your life you’re trying to solve… maybe a vacation, car or product decision? Parenting or health?”

As you can see I’ve set this up to be interactive and engage the person and I’m showing–NOT TELLING–the core value of the product to the user. I’m getting them right into the product and having them try it. That is what you want to do: show the product and get the potential user to TRY the product.

9. Do assume the Internet will be down
I don’t know if I’ve ever been to a conference of note that had totally stable Internet for the complete show, especially at tech conferences. Have three different brands of EVDO cards as well as a canned demonstration or screencast of your product ready to go.

10. Do offer swag
Offer an easy to carry, memorable and hopefully useful piece of swag. If you’re at Sundance and it’s freezing, give out a scarf, gloves or wool cap–all with your logo. If you’re at a beach resort in Hawaii, give suntan lotion with your logo on it, a sun visor or flip flops. If you’re in New York City, give folks a bike messenger bag, a custom printed Zagat guide or a journal with a pen.

Don’t give crummy t-shirts to people with a huge logo on it. People may take them but they won’t wear them. If you are going to give folks a shirt, make it a beautiful shirt with a tiny, tiny logo on it. Make it something someone very hip would be happy to wear to the club or golf course. No one wants your huge logo across their chest unless you’re a loved brand like Nike, Google or Apple.

11. Do have a raffle
Collect business cards by having a raffle for whatever the most recently sold-out product in the world is. If there is a line for something to buy at the Apple Store or Best Buy, there will be an even longer line to get it for free at your booth. Have multiple handheld fishbowls ready so your booth agents can hold them out as people go by if need be.

Email those people after the event and thank them for joining the raffle. Let them know they didn’t win the XBOX 360, but that you are inviting them to a seminar about “how to save money with CRM” if they’re interested. In other words, your follow-up pitch should offer something else of value. Content is a great way to go, and the content shouldn’t be “all about Salesforce,” but rather about what Salesforce customers care about.

Try to go from the raffle to a conversation about a mutually-interesting topic (i.e. a webinar) to the client. Going right from raffle to client is too jarring and will feel like spam.

Another idea is to send a lesser piece of swag in the mail with some content. So, something like: “Thank you for joining our raffle at TechCrunch50. I wanted to send you a complimentary copy of ‘Silicon Valley Bank’s Guide to Doing Your Next Valuation’ as a thank you. If you have any follow-up questions, do let me know, and I look forward to seeing you at next year’s event or sooner!”

12. Have a fascinating business card
File this under “purple cows,” but having an interesting business card can go a long way.  I’ll never forget Charles Forman’s business card as long as I live.  It’s so innovative and cool that it got a story on Gawker:

TechCrunch50 demopit company Expensify featured their innovative business card in their piece on the event:

When I launched at the D Conference two years ago, I put the names of each speaker on the back of my card in a Mahalo URL. That let people see examples of our topic pages/search results for themselves. Not as innovative as the two things above, but not too shabby.

Frankly, I’m thinking about knocking off Forman’s card one of these days.

Here’s some more memorable business card examples:

What can you accomplish with your business card?

13. Wear a professional made name tag.
A custom name tag looks better than the ones the conference gives out. Check out this one for Apple employees:

14. Have appropriate signage
This is fairly obvious, but if you don’t have your name around and above the crowd height, your booth may get passed by. Big photos of good looking people are also good since that will catch the eye. People stop to look at photos of other people.

15. Don’t hire booth babes or strippers
Unless you work in the modeling, strip club or porn business, don’t hire models, strippers or porn stars to work your booth–it’s insulting to women. Now, that doesn’t mean the folks in your booth can’t be attractive and well manicured. It just means, have some taste. At last year’s conference, someone had a bunch of stripper types in hot pants and absurdly tight t-shirts. It was totally cheap, cheesy and lame. It’s 2009, people, really.

Some assorted smaller tips that don’t need much explanation:

16. Ask the conference producers for a discounted “introductory rate.”
17. Have a big dish of candy next to your computers.
18. Have three times the number of staff for your booth as you need at one time.
19. Have your staff circulate through the show giving out swag, candy or party invites (if allowed).
20. Dress your staff in the company color scheme and with the company’s logo on their front and back.
21. Consider having a game of chance (spin the wheel, blackjack , etc) at your booth.
21. Hold a post-conference recap with your team to evaluate how you did.
22. Hold a post-conference recap with the conference producers and tell them your pros and cons.


1. What’s the most unique and effective thing you’ve seen at a trade show?
2. What tips did I leave off above?

all the best,


PS – If you’re interested in this you might be interested in some of my previous posts:

How to save money running a startup (17 really good tips)

What to do if your startup is about fail (or “Don’t Stop Believing”)