Attending trade shows can be a hugely effective way to build and promote a company or brand. But there’s more to attending an event than exhibiting. Trade show networking is important too—not just for the company you’re representing, but for your own career and professional reputation. Networking can provide unique opportunities that might not otherwise come your way.
Networking Is Important: Why?
Why devote extra time to trade show networking when you’ll already be spending plenty of time talking to people who drop by your booth? There are a couple of reasons:
- Not every potential client or customer at the event will visit your exhibit. To meet those people, you need to step outside your booth and meet them wherever they are.
- Not every potentially useful contact is a client or customer—or even a future client or customer. Trade show networking can help you find potential customers, but it’s also a way to:
- Develop business relationships with industry peers
- Learn about industry news, both in the trade show world and in your specific field
- Meet potential mentors and others who can help you develop your career
How to Fit Networking Into Your Schedule
You’ll be busy at the event, but there are strategies you can adopt to fit networking into your trade show schedule:
- Consider extending your stay. Trade show schedules are busy, but if you fly into the city a day early and stay an extra day after it’s over, you can give yourself breathing room to fit trade show networking in.
- Train extra booth staff. Understaffing your trade show exhibit might help cut costs, but it’s a false economy because ultimately it means staff are too rushed to do their job properly. Instead, opt for a fully staffed booth and a team leader who can take over for you when needed. That way, you’ll have plenty of time to head out and network.
- Plan your schedule. Plan out your itinerary before you enter the fray of the trade show, including any blocks of time where you’ll be at the booth. Make sure to check out the event schedule for networking, speakers, and other sessions you want to attend, so you know you’re not missing out on anything.
7 Best Tips for Trade Show Networking
1. Do Your Research, and Be Prepared
When you head to a trade show, you’ll spend a lot of time preparing sales pitches and other material to woo prospective clients. But how much time do you spend preparing to network? When it comes to trade show networking opportunities, preparation is key.
Find out who’s attending the event, including:
- Companies (even competitors)
Make a list of people you’d particularly like to contact and figure out where they’ll be at the event. This can save you time at the trade show itself because you won’t have to spend hours tracking people down.
2. Practice Your Talking Points
It’s a good idea to identify your main talking points in advance. This is especially useful if you’re introverted, nervous, or just new to networking. Practice what you want to say and how you might say it. Try it in front of a mirror—or even record yourself—to get an idea of how you come across it.
As well as talking points, keeping a mental note of conversation-starters and questions can be helpful. When you meet someone new, it’s easy for the chat to stall once you’re past the initial greeting and introduction phase. Keep some conversation starters in mind and you won’t have to worry about those dreaded lulls. For instance:
- “You said you work in [city or field]; how did you end up there?”
- “What do you like most about what you do?”
- “What is the biggest challenge you’re dealing with right now?”
- “I’m really interested in the kind of work you’re doing. How could I transition into that area?”
3. Fully Commit to the Networking Process
To get the most out of networking, it’s vital to be committed to what you’re doing. Whether it’s something you naturally enjoy or an activity you have to force yourself to engage in, there are considerable benefits to be had if you can do it right.
With that in mind:
- Don’t go to networking events and then stand around on your phone.
- Don’t wait for people to approach you. Take the initiative and talk to people you don’t know.
- Take ownership of publicizing yourself. Nobody else can do it for you.
- Actively look for opportunities to make your voice heard.
It can be difficult, especially if you’re shy or introverted. But the payoff of trade show networking is worth the effort.
4. Keep Your Hands Free and Your Information Handy
Make sure at least one of your hands is always free. You’ll be spending a lot of time greeting people and handling business cards—either your own or someone else’s. It may seem like a small thing, but it’s easy to start feeling awkward if you’re continually fumbling with your phone or a drink every time you want to exchange information with someone. Keeping your hands free ensures that the situation never arises.
At the same time, make sure it’s easy for you to lay your hands on your business cards when you need them. Aim to have plenty of them, so you don’t risk running out before the end of the trade show. Finally, when you receive cards from new connections, put them in a different pocket from the one your own cards are in. Mixing up your own and others’ cards is a sure way to single yourself out as a networking newbie!
5. Make Your Story an Engaging One
This applies not just to your brand or company story but your own professional story too. Trade show networking is more than just repping your brand—you’re also representing yourself. The people you meet will want to know about you, as well as your company. You’ll need to be able to talk about your professional history in a way that’s concise and to the point but interesting and engaging too. To do this, take those questions you’ve prepared to ask new acquaintances and apply them to yourself. How did you get into the industry? What led you to working in your current position? What’s your biggest challenge?
6. Be Authentic, Approachable, and Professional
Authenticity is important. It’s usually easy to tell when someone is truly interested in what you’re saying or whether they’re only interested in furthering their own agenda. Don’t be the person whose sole interest is talking about themselves. Instead, make a point to ask questions and listen attentively to the answers.
It can be hard to strike the right balance between professional and approachable. Dress too professionally and you may appear intimidating. Too casual, and you’ll look like you’re not taking the event seriously. Make sure to check out the dress code and aim to hit the middle ground in terms of what you wear.
7. Don’t Go for the Hard Sell Right Away
Everyone you meet at a trade show has an agenda. Whether they’re selling a product, gathering leads, or launching a new product, they have their own motives. And everyone knows you have an agenda too. That’s why there’s no need to jump into pushing yours as soon as you make a new contact. Don’t come on strong right away. Focus on getting to know people before you introduce your subject of interest.
Make Trade Show Networking Pay Off
Whether you’re exhibiting your own company’s products or working for a company or brand, it’s always essential to cultivate new networking interactions. Developing your career means developing a broad network of professional relationships. And while some of those relationships will happen organically, trade show networking is very often a source of the most valuable contacts. Learn how to effectively network at trade shows and other events, and your path to success will open up.