How to Turn Your Trade Show Booth Into a Customer Conversion Machine!

Posted by Jason Biddle on Sep 10th 2019

Originally Published:

Customer Acquisition - It's Magic!

Customer acquisition – It’s Magic!

In the first article of this two-part series I explored some of the common trade show booth missteps exhibitors make that prevent them from winning new customers. Ending bad behavior is an important and necessary step in successfully courting business conference attendees but that alone doesn’t cut it. Not making mistakes only serves to keep the door open for the chance to connect with prospects. The key is the next step: executing good behavior.

So what does “good behavior” look like? The short answer: laying the groundwork for building relationships with prospects that will bud into life-long customers. The long (and more helpful) answer is found in the following set of principles that is applicable to any business in any industry, whether you sell Hawaii Chairs:

Or Solafeet units:

Or any other kind of product or service. Before jumping in entirely, though, take a second to consider an important preface that sets expectations for implementing this “how-to” guide.

The Big Picture

Winning customers with your trade show booth essentially comes down to incorporating a sales system into your presentation. Not very groundbreaking? Keep reading.

Most exhibitors simply copy the same sales process they use elsewhere and paste it into their trade show booths. Unfortunately, the strategies that may work in other settings don’t fly at business conferences. Changes must be made to get customers; a new process is needed.

Typical Sales Approach

  1. Qualify prospects
  2. Build rapport
  3. Identify needs
  4. Pitch
  5. Answer objections
  6. Close

New Sales Approach

  1. Attract passersby
  2. Build rapport
  3. Qualify prospects
  4. Schedule follow-up

Sticking to these adapted sales steps will yield the results you’re looking for: more customers. But there’s something else you need to keep in mind before diving into this new sales process.

Sales is a Science AND an Art +

Sales is Left Brain and Right Brain

The verdict is in, and it turns out both schools of thought are wrong (er, kind of). The age-old debate of science vs. art in the world of sales really isn’t a debate at all; it’s a collaboration. And the same applies to following the procedures below for winning customers with your trade show booth.

Science without art results in forcing prospects (against their will) into a specific sales cycle, awkward conversations that lead to nowhere, and failing to think outside of the box to solve prospects’ problems. On the other hand, art without science yields languishing sales cycles, inconsistent sales activity, and poor follow-up protocols. Combining the science and art of sales means harnessing the power of a disciplined process with the finesse of situational awareness. “Okay enough already! What’s this got to do with this article?”

The steps I’ve outlined are the science piece of the puzzle; the art needs to be supplied by you. Adhering to the prescriptions in this guide will only give you the theory as a foundation for your trade show booth. Determining the best ways to implement these principles comes from your knowledge of the industry, business conference event, and prospects in attendance.

With that in mind, let’s explore the best practices for winning customers.


George W. Bush throws up the Hook ‘em Horns with Jeff Madden in support of the 2005-06 Texas Longhorn National Champions

George W. Bush throws up the Hook ‘em Horns with Jeff Madden in support of the 2005-06 Texas Longhorn National Champions.

You may remember from the first article that using gimmicks unrelated to your value proposition, like Booth Babes and raffles, should be scraped because they inadvertently steal the attention away from your company and service. Even though these efforts ultimately backfire their sincere intention to attract attendees is spot on. It’s important to be sincere, but not sincerely wrong .

Keep the sincere intention; change the execution.

Evaluate what you do and consider how you can embellish it in an eye-catching way. After all, the purpose of your booth is to create opportunities to sell your product or service, right? So the value you offer needs to become the attention-grabbing focal point of your entire exhibit. Your hook needs to highlight your product or service. Pretty novel idea, huh?

Let me paint the picture for you.

As attendees roam the trade show floor they look out over all of the booths and one in particular sticks out above the rest, “Wow, what is that? Let’s go see!” Onlookers see a throng of people forming and can’t help but investigate (no one wants to miss the best booth!). Before you know it your company has become the talk of the town: not your Booth Babes; not your free iPad; your company. Need a little inspiration? Check out these exhibitors who hooked visitors by making their products and services the main feature of their booths in a creative and appealing fashion.

Get Up Close and Personal

Nelson's Wildlife Safari Source:

Nelson’s Wildlife Safari

What does Nelson’s Wildlife Safari do to stick out? Easy. Bring a poisonous reticulated Gila monster and watch joyfully as visitors stop by to Instagram, Tweet, and Facebook about their experiences. Check out the curiosity stirred up in the lady in the red suit jacket; she’s so enthralled by the spectacle that she’s paying no attention to her friend’s chatter! And the key takeaway here is that Nelson’s hook is, in fact, his service.

If Nelson’s company sold The Back Up or The Boyfriend Body Pillow then breaking out a venomous lizard would be nothing more than a ploy to draw a crowd. Lucky for Nelson, his service is naturally (no pun intended) entertaining.

Now you may be saying, “That’s not fair! What Nelson does is inherently more exciting than what my company does!” I’d say you’re probably right, but consider how different the results would have been if he just perpetuated the trade show booth status quo and took the easy (boring) route. Nelson could have simply brought a retractable company banner; brochures and rack cards with plenty of information about his service; a monitor with scrolling images of happy customers; and a raffle for a free giveaway.

How would that have turned out?

He would have had streams of passersby who feigned interest in his service, a fishbowl of business cards of unqualified leads who only wanted the raffle prize, and a moderately happy (but still unqualified) contact who won a Best Buy gift card ( better use it quick!).

Instead Nelson inspires genuine interest in his service because he makes it the highlight of the attraction. As a result, visitors experience the value of his service first hand and become legitimate prospective customers. Both versions of the booth represent the same company, but the difference is that the successful one has a hook that showcases the service in an engaging way.

If your products and services lean closer to the mundane end of the spectrum don’t let that be an excuse; all it takes is a little extra creativity. Take a hint from NRG.

Make a Power Play

The Human NRG Wheel

The Human NRG Wheel

When it comes to energy companies, NRG is the largest independent electricity producer in the U.S. So how does a corporate juggernaut like NRG break down barriers to connect with prospective customers? Why, offer up a human-sized hamster wheel, of course!

“How does this relate to NRG,” you ask? Initially the contraption seems unrelated, but in reality it is an exceptional demonstration of one of NRG’s products: renewable energy. As guests stop by they are invited to take a spin (no pun intended) in this giant wheel to help generate the energy needed to power the very same booth they’ve come to see! Or if the idea of being NRG’s guinea pig seems a little too much, stationary bikes that also generate electricity are an alternative option.

NRG uses its booth as an opportunity to interact with attendees in a fun way, educate them about how electricity is generated, and showcase NRG’s innovations in the realm of renewable energy. These combine to form a winning recipe for building relationships with prospective customers. And it never would have happened if NRG forewent building the human-sized hamster wheel.

An effective booth always starts with a hook.



In 2005 former Florida Governor Jeb Bush signed the Stand Your Ground self-defense bill into law, often referred to by critics as the “Shoot First” law

As your hook attracts visitors to your booth it’s tempting to go into sales mode and start qualifying them with questions. Resist the urge! Even though the ultimate goal is to sell your product or service, it’s important that the transition into the “sales process” be natural rather than forced. Before you start with all the sales questions, you have to shoot first.

Shooting first means creating a unique and enjoyable experience for all attendees (not just the qualified ones!) to interact with your brand before talking business. The hook reels them in; now you have to keep them there. Think of it this way: fun first, work later. Don’t scare them away with a sales pitch!

Can I interest you in some snake oil?

Can I interest you in some snake oil?

The point is to establish rapport with your visitors; help them see that you’re a human just like them and not some sales robot. When guests understand that you aren’t out for blood they will be much more amenable to sticking around for a conversation.

Some of you may scoff at this approach. “I’m supposed to help all of my guests engage with my brand without knowing whether or not they are qualified. But isn’t that ineffective?” Prima facie: yes. De facto: no.

Remember that if you come out swinging (selling) you’ll get knocked out (turned down). Showing that you care about everyone having a good experience speaks volumes about your authenticity. And people can detect when someone is being genuine or not. This trustworthiness is what reassures your guests that it’s safe to drop their defenses and open up to you.

So your efforts must center on creating a relationship with every single visitor, and the quickest way to build a relationship is through shared experiences. Whatever activity you use, be sure to make it fun, entertaining, educational, and, most of all, related to what you do. Nelson’s Wildlife Safari and NRG are great examples of double dipping by using a hook as an engaging experience, but this doesn’t always have to be the case. Check out a couple more exhibitors who nailed creating interactive booths.

No Guts, No Glory

Designed by Specialty Graphic Solutions

Designed by Specialty Graphic Solutions

Alde International Systems AB is a Swedish company that produces heating systems for recreational vehicles. In 2012 Alde expanded into the United States and needed to put its best foot forward when building its brand at industry trade shows.

What makes Alde so special? The superior technology and performance of its heating products is one of a kind; information that is communicated much more powerfully when shown rather than told. So Alde did just that by creating a booth that reveals the guts of its products and showcases the innovation at work inside.

The exposed recreational vehicle on display at the Alde booth is enough to lure in visitors, and the insider’s view of how the heating system works holds guests’ interest. All the while as attendees marvel at the technology and ask questions to learn more, they are unknowingly becoming fans of Alde. And suddenly the engaging experience Alde offers at conferences helps the company gain market share in a new territory.

Go Out On a Limb

Hurricane PowerLOK

Hurricane PowerLOK: great hook + hands on demonstration

In 2013 Hurricane Safety Systems launched its company and product line in a very crowded hunting industry. Facing competitors with a tight hold on the market because of their strong customer bases and rich histories, Hurricane Safety Systems opted to introduce its proprietary tree stand locking technology directly to consumers at trade shows. But stealing customers from competitors is no easy task; especially when you’re the new guy on the block.

So how do you make prospects fall in love with your brand and kick those past lovers to the curb? Give them a test run of your product and show them that the grass really is greener on your side.

Hurricane Safety Systems’ booth gives conference visitors the opportunity to see for themselves exactly how the tree stand works and how it measures up to the rest. There’s risk in putting your product out there. What if it fails? What if it isn’t as good as the competition? What if it’s a flop? Don’t let the “what if’s” scare you; the reward makes it worth the risk.

The booth for Hurricane Safety Systems gives the fledgling company the unique opportunity to demonstrate the value of its products through a memorable and hands-on experience that wins over new customers.

Don’t forget to get down to business.

As your guests are interacting with your booth ask them questions and get to know them. The more you learn about each visitor, the better equipped you’ll be to tailor your approach to each prospect.

Don’t be too nosey, though: investigation without agitation. Ask open-ended questions that allow the visitor to share plenty of information about themselves and their companies. The ultimate goal is to qualify them as a true prospect.

Above all else, be natural. Canned scripts can be spotted from a mile away. The easiest solution is simply to be genuinely interested in each and every person who stops at your booth. Look at it this way: even if visitors don’t become customers, they could become friends (and, you never know, they may even refer their friends!).

Be sure to pay attention, too. You’ll be using this new knowledge you’ve gathered about your prospects in the very near future (more on this coming up).



At this point those who have taken the time to pay you a visit, experience your booth, and entertain your questions are naturally expecting some kind of sales pitch for your product or service. Here’s a little secret: just because they expect it, doesn’t mean they want it.

Wuh - WhatIn fact, you should do just the opposite.

Don’t sell to them!

That’s right; don’t sell to them. Instead, make arrangements to follow-up with them. Now before you go all Barret Jackman on me, allow me to explain.

It may seem counter-intuitive to “back down from the sale,” but in reality it’s the best strategy for truly developing lifetime customers. In fact, scheduling a time to follow-up is music to your prospects’ ears; it’s exactly what they want to hear.

“I thought time kills all deals?”

Yes, but the truth is that very few prospects are ready to pull the trigger after a 5-minute encounter with a stranger. The real maxim is “selling too fast kills all deals.” Let me frame it another way (indulge me, here!).

Imagine you're at a speed dating event


Imagine you’re at a speed-dating event (trade show) and you finally find someone that strikes your fancy (prospect). You don’t stop the whole event and try to make a pass at them (sell), do you? If you do, you end up getting rejected for being too forward (selling too fast). The best approach is to exchange contact information and plan to go out on a date (schedule a follow-up appointment). This helps your newfound interest (prospect) see that you are looking for a long-term commitment (mutually beneficial relationship) and not just some one-night stand (sales commission). Make sense?

As far as follow-up is concerned, it’s important to know that the prospects you encounter at your booth will land in different places along the sales cycle. Therefore, you must adjust your follow-up protocol accordingly:

  1. E-mail if the prospect expresses interest in the service
  2. Phone if the prospect shows a desire for the service
  3. Face-to-face meeting if the prospect exhibits buying signals

Clearly state how and when you will follow-up with prospects so they know what to expect. Once they leave your booth, immediately record the information you learned about them on the back of their business cards, on a voice memo on your phone, or whatever method works best for you. Note: accurate information is vital!

Closing the Loop

When it comes time to reach out to these contacts, be sure to give it a personal touch by referencing the conversations you had at your booth. This goes a long way towards developing relationships because it shows your prospects that you care enough to remember them. If you aren’t able to recall the details of the people you meet, then you won’t be able to turn qualified prospects into customers. Keep in mind that it’s a marathon, not a race, and this guideline will kick start your journey.

Following this procedure will give you an effective system at continuing the conversations you have with prospects and creating opportunities to win customers through your business conference exhibit.

Don’t let your trade show booth be the first and only time that you interact with your prospects; use it as a launching pad for building strong relationships with life-long customers.

Now it’s your turn to share!

  • What was your favorite trade show booth you’ve visited? What made it so awesome?
  • What trade show booth tactics have you implemented that have helped you get new customers? Have you adapted your sales process specifically for trade shows? If so, what changes have you made and why?

Take a moment to share your insights!