By Stacey Gavin

If you’re heading to a trade show, you already know that you’re positioning yourself to rack up some serious exposure, valuable leads and big-time brand recognition. Good for you! Exhibiting at trade shows and other industry events is proven to help you grow your business while spending less. This is especially true for the big-wig exhibitor who shows up with an incredible custom-built trade show display and 10 employees to staff it.

But what about the solo exhibitor who’s just getting his business off the ground? If this is you—fear not! There’s still plenty of pieces of the trade show pie to go around for the little guys, as long as you have a solid strategy in place before you enter the convention center for the first time.

Is It Worth it for Solo Exhibitors?

The return on investment (ROI) of trade shows is notoriously tricky to calculate because it requires you to assign value to the leads and sales you generated from participating, which may not be measurable for a period of several years. With that said, there is strong evidence that most trade shows deliver a positive ROI.

Of course, solo exhibitors will invest less up front and, when they focus on creating effective trade show strategies, they will still come out on top for an ROI in the positive. Here are some of our best trade show tips for solo show-goers who want to be sure their presence is well-worth the initial investment.

1. Learn to Create Effective Displays for Less

When it comes to budget-friendly trade show displays, the lightweight, portable and reusable displays beat out the bulky and customized displays any day.  These kinds of setups are a one-time investment, but you can order new skins to customize your message for every trade show you attend.

They’re easier on the wallet, but they’re also much easier on the solo exhibitor who may not have help setting up before the show starts. Look for pop-up displays, retractable banners and lightweight counters that can reasonably be transported and set up by one person without the help of bulky tools, costly professionals or shipping companies. Don’t try to cobble something together with miscellaneous posters and folding tables. Invest in a proper display that’s specifically designed for fast setup.

2. Use Grassroots Marketing

The biggest and best trade shows should provide some marketing for you, but you’ll still have to get the word out in your community that you’ll be planning to attend. Through social media, email marketing and direct mailers, let your industry connections and clients know when and where you’ll be exhibiting. If possible, entice your audience by offering exclusive deals or swag items to those who stop by as a result of a specific marketing effort.

3. Ask for Favors from Family and Friends

The biggest issue with solo exhibiting is that you’ll probably be expected to man your booth from open to close on several consecutive days without many real breaks. When you do need to sneak away, you’re forced to close your booth and may miss out on potentially valuable leads.

If you’re showing near where you live, see if you can have a friend or family member relieve you on occasion so that you can take a few minutes away. It may be worth your while to hire some part-time help (or maybe even consider a staffing company) to take off some of the burden.

The best trade show workers are those who are energetic and upbeat, so you need to give yourself the occasional break so that you remain chipper and engaged.

4. Don’t Rush Through Interactions

When you’re the only person at the booth, it’s really easy to feel like you have to rush through each interaction so that you get the most possible face time with the most possible leads. But spending time with each customer and being patient can help you achieve other goals beyond lead gen.

Talking with attendees face-to-face can provide you with great feedback and new ideas, and we all know that valuable market research and product refinement is costly. Take the opportunity to talk to those in the industry while you have this incredible access.

5. Leverage Your Literature

Here’s the thing about showing solo: You will inevitably have to make people wait, and that’s a good thing because it means that your display is generating interest. With that said, people aren’t always going to wait for you to wrap up your current interaction so that you can give them an in-depth demo or pitch your product.

To ensure that you don’t send visitors away without information, make sure you have easily accessible literature on your table so that people who may not have time to wait in line can still grab some quick information that they could reference later. 

6. Spend Money in the Right Places

Sometimes it’s not about spending less, but spending smarter. Funnel your trade show dollars into the elements that you know will bring in the most visitors, like quality swag, good booth positioning and high-quality, easy-setup displays. You might also consider upgrading to a booth with fast, wired internet so you can have interested show-goers take digital demos while you’re busy interacting with other attendees.

7. Set Clear Goals and Do Your Research

The show exhibitors who know exactly what they want to get out of each event are the ones who will have the most success, as goals can help better direct your approach and where to spend your money. Setting up shop at a trade show can help you get to know others in the industry, roundtable early-stage versions of your product, gain more followers on social media, connect with industry leaders and gain more adopters. Prioritize your goals and then tailor your exhibiting strategy to support it.

Going All Day without Losing Steam

The worst thing you can do as a solo exhibitor is bite off more than you can chew and wind up cranky and exhausted, which will turn off attendees whom you may be able to convert into high-value customers.

In addition to providing attendees with the resources of a large booth on a solo exhibitor’s budget, you need to support yourself—ask for favors, stay hydrated and get away from your booth for meals at least twice a day—to ensure that you don’t run out of steam and risk losing quality leads.