When you stop and consider what goes on at a trade show, you might think that only the exhibitors and show management actually work during the event, but you would be only half right. Thousands of your fellow business owners (and competitors) will be there working as well.

They’ve discovered ways to turn the time and expense of attending a trade show into an investment that pays ongoing dividends. With a little planning and forethought, you can do the same.

As you would question any investment you might make, ask yourself the same sorts of questions regarding attending an industry trade show.

Foremost in your mind would be, “What is my exposure and what could I expect as a return on my investment?” Know that by planning ahead, the cost of travel and lodging for many industry shows within the United States are nominal. The possible benefits to your company are staggering.

I’m not suggesting that every trade show you attend will send revenues rocketing ever higher, but it only takes one time-saving tip or new marketing idea to pay for your travel one hundred fold.

Ask yourself these three basic questions before making plans to attend a show: who, where, and what?

Who Should Attend

The answer here may seem obvious, but you would be surprised at how many business owners feel that they do not have the time to attend themselves and send their least senior (least expensive) employee with vague instructions to “Pick up some literature.”

You can imagine the value of the results in such a case.

That’s not to say that anyone in your business could not benefit from attending a show. It’s just that what they should do there, would be very different from what you should be doing.

If you are the owner, a partner, or ceo of the business, your purpose at the helm of the business is to steer its course. While you may be familiar with the waters today, those shoals and reefs continue to change. To prevent running aground, you need to update your charts at an industry event at least once a year.

I mentioned that every member of your business could benefit from attending an industry trade show. Exposure to the trade floor alone will give your employees a new appreciation of the depth and scope of the industry they are in.

More importantly, the educational opportunities for them are enormous. Your sales and marketing staff will have numerous seminar tracks to choose from.

Before you invest in seminar packages, make sure each staff member you wish to attend is able to commit to the time and travel. Employees who seldom, if ever, have traveled on business, may not appreciate the investment you are making in their training. You will want to make them aware that meeting these training commitments is every bit as important as showing up for work any other day.

If you doubt that the dollars you invest in seminars will pay off, consider the cost of mistakes you pay for now because employees often are “learning by doing” instead of “learning before doing.”

Where to Go

If your business is within 300 to 500 miles of a major industry event, the lower cost of travel may answer the question for you. Besides, at those distances, you can also expect to meet face to face with your own suppliers.

While those two factors may ensure your yearly attendance at that particular show, consider the benefits of traveling further from home.

Just as plants flower from cross-pollination, so can your business. Consider traveling to a show on the opposite coast or heading far north or south of your own base of operations.

Not only can you get a look at standard practice with the locals, you can further your lead on your own competitors by bringing home a hot new product or technique that hasn’t had time to migrate throughout the industry.

What to Do

I’ve already mentioned the value of seminars available at our industry events, but they are only one of the three most valuable areas of interest available to you.

The second, and most obvious, is the trade floor itself. Yet, you would be surprised at how few people know how to work the trade floor. For many individuals, walking the show means meandering up and down the isles in hopes of spotting something of interest.

With no clear focus for their actions, the bright lights, colorful displays, and sheer volume of information available can reduce them to glassy-eyed prisoners on a forced march.

To get the most out of your time on the show floor, begin building a list of “must-see” vendors. The preshow flyers list a great many of the vendors already committed to the show.

However, once you have your credentials and show book, do not head immediately to the show floor.

Convention centers are vast spaces, and the lobby areas at the entrance to the show will be crowded with attendees; a short stroll away from those spaces can bring you to a much quieter area.

Sit down with a legal pad and the show book. Look up the entry for each one of your must-see vendors and note their booth numbers. Now, peruse the listings from front to back. Note the names and booth numbers of vendors that have piqued your interest.

The final step in this exercise is to start a new list on a fresh page and list each vendor in numerical order by booth number. At this point, you have a roadmap of your trip across the show floor with all your planned stops in order.

So, is that all there is to it? Not quite. You haven’t even begun to work the most potentially lucrative opportunity at a trade show: your fellow attendees. During your entire visit to the show, you will be surrounded by thousands of your contemporaries.

More importantly, you are surrounded by hundreds of years of accumulated knowledge. When you tap into it, you will have discovered the real secret to working a trade show. Welty is a freelance writer and consultant in Bovey, MN.