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Are Trade Shows Obsolete?

October 6th, 2009 · 14 Comments · Trade Show Marketing

One might think with the rise of the internet and online marketing, that there has been a shift of marketing dollars and resources away from traditional trade show marketing to online marketing and even “virtual” trade shows. That may be true.

One might also think with the recession and economic hard times, that companies have been cutting back on their trade show marketing expenditures. That is probably also true.

And finally, because of these things, one might think that trade shows are becoming a thing of the past, a proverbial marketing dinosaur, a modern day Pony Express. One might ask, “Are trade shows obsolete?”

The answer to the question, “Are trade shows obsolete?” is a resounding no. Trade shows are not obsolete, rather, trade shows are still very much alive, and are still an important and effective marketing method.

Marketing, like most things, changes, improves, evolves, goes through fads, and also “rediscovers” old truisms. One of those truisms is that there is no substitute for face-to-face (human interaction) marketing. There is also no substitute for the economics of a target-rich environment. And people will always want free stuff, and will always be interested in filling their bags with trade show giveaways. There will always be trade shows. Trade shows are here to stay, and will remain a powerful marketing tool.

The Power of Trade Shows Today – Running the Numbers

An estimated 110 million people attend more than 4,000 trade shows in the United States and Canada every year.ย  That’s a lot of people, and a lot of trade shows.

And according to the marketing experts who crunch the numbers, trade shows remain the more cost-effective way of face-to-face marketing when compared to doing office or field sales calls. Although exhibiting at a trade show is not inexpensive, the opportunity to meet and talk to so many high-value prospects can pay off. It is a big investment… but it can have a big payoff.

To compare the costs acquiring leads and sales via trade show exhibiting versus field sales calls, consider the following numbers, provided by

For the past 10 years, an average of 81%-83% of trade show attendees have some kind of buying power.
The average attendee spends 9.2 hours at a 2-3 day trade show.
86% of visitors to your booth will be new contacts.
77% of visitors to your booth will remember your company for up to 10 weeks.

Cost per lead from show averages $212.
Cost per lead from field (sales call) averages $308.
Cost per sale from a show averages $705.
Cost per sale from the field (sales call) averages $1140.
Thatโ€™s 38% less to close a sale from a trade show lead!

Comparing meeting prospects at a trade show versus doing field sales calls, trade shows have the advantage. Of course to be fair, the numbers are a little different when you compare the costs of trade show marketing to internet marketing, but sometimes you just need face-to-face marketing and a focused prospect environment to find prospects and make sales.

Like any tool, trade shows are only effective if you know what you’re doing. You need to pick the right trade show to exhibit at. And you need to do proper trade show planning (don’t be a trade show kinsella) and you need to do proper trade show promotion. You need to make sure you design the perfect trade show display (or at least avoid bonehead trade show display design mistakes), and that you have a well-trained trade show booth staff. You should be aware of the common trade show exhibiting pitfalls, such as having your trade show booth swarmed by trade show zombies. And in the end, you need to know when to “panic” and make sure things happen, and when stop, take a deep breath, relax, and let trade show zen take over.

Should you run the numbers and decide to exhibit at a trade show, may karma smile upon you, and may you have much trade show success!


14 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Will // Oct 10, 2009 at 1:36 pm

    Wow at those costs per lead, you better have a product with a good profit margin. Or are these usually buyers who if they become a customer, purchase large quantities. If I went to a trade show, the free stuff would be great, but I would be a waste of time, lead wise. Probably most people are like that, hence the high cost?

    Glad to see you back, Steve. Look forward to your next non-trade show post. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • 2 The Trade Show Guru // Oct 12, 2009 at 12:11 pm

    Hi Will,
    You are right. Trade shows are usually not for selling direct to the consumer, but more so for setting up business deals or large purchases, or for selling high value items (like molding machines or tractors).
    I’m sure there will be some more non-trade show related posts coming soon. ๐Ÿ™‚
    Thanks for stopping by. ~ Steve

  • 3 Ian Framson // Oct 13, 2009 at 1:38 pm


    So long as people conduct sales, you will have the need for in-person meetings and relationship development. As technology advances, we have an ever increasing challenge to put email, Webinars, teleconferencing, and all other forms of “virtual” communication in their rightful place. These electronics means of contact are efficient, but they are no substitute for in-person traditional face-to-face communication.

    Ultimately, people buy from people they know and like — and the trade show environment is a great place to solidify relationships and build new ones. Many of the best contracts that were ever written began with looking the other person in the eye and a firm handshake.

    When planning trade show booth design, it’s often difficult to strike a balance between showcasing your wares and making your booth staff approachable. Many companies are using technology to engage their visitors and showcase web-based products and services. With our internet-in-a-box solution, exhibitors are creating WiFi cafes in their booths to attract and retain visitors while providing access to the web and personal email. Software-as-a-service companies and firms with content-rich websites are displaying their virtual selves alongside their human selves in their booths. If you have a website where you collect contact information or process online transactions, providing a kiosk or laptop (with an internet connection) can be a great place to send a visitor in your booth when the conversation leads to the “next step”.

    Trade Show Internet can help exhibitors keep their internet costs low and share strategies of how to best deploy technology in the trade show booth environment — but please make sure your technology never eclipses the real reason why you’re there, to interact with and engage your customers in relationship building conversations.

    In success,

    Ian Framson
    Trade Show Internet

  • 4 Mitch // Oct 15, 2009 at 8:21 pm

    I don’t think trade shows are obsolete either, but I do think some of the people running them are trying to kill the industry.

    I went to one last week for home and small businesses, which was badly attended. The problems were many. It wasn’t advertised well. It also had many vendors that had nothing to do with either home or small businesses. I mean, not a single office supply company, nor office furniture. There were a couple of restaurants there, tons of banks and credit unions, and a few hotels.

    There were some government agencies there that help out, as well as all of the Chambers of Commerce in our area, but that was about it. To me, these folks are just failing us.

  • 5 Barbara Ling, Virtual Coach // Oct 16, 2009 at 5:29 am

    The key for successful trade shows is to obtain profit (ie, leads, orders, networking, viral marketing) – I’ve seen lots of people, however, really miss that boat with their exhibits!

    I enjoyed learning about that back when I was manning my own. It helped a lot.

  • 6 The Trade Show Guru // Oct 16, 2009 at 11:17 am

    hi Ian, Thanks for your comment about trade show internet.

    hi Mitch,
    You wrote: “I donโ€™t think trade shows are obsolete either, but I do think some of the people running them are trying to kill the industry.” LOL
    Just like businesses and websites, not all trade shows are well run, and it’s a bummer to exhibit at or attend a trade show that isn’t well run…

    Hi Barbara,
    Your are right that people should not even think about trade show exhibiting unless they have a plan for success (which usually involves making a profit and NOT generating a loss!) Thanks for stopping by. ~ Steve

  • 7 Will // Oct 17, 2009 at 1:39 pm

    @ Mitch – That is a great point about relevancy. I went to a garden show this summer where more than 50% of the displays/vendors had absolutely nothing to do with gardening. Some where as off topic as wireless phone vendors, banks, or home water purifiers. I think because the groups that put on these shows need a certain number of booths filled to break even, they take all comers.

  • 8 Internet Strategist @GrowMap // Nov 13, 2009 at 1:46 pm

    Here I have a nice to your blog all ready to #followfriday you and I can’t find a Twitter address for you anywhere. Are you not on Twitter?

    I found @tradeshowguru and others using that phrase but none of them are you.

    While I’m here I thought I’d invite you to check out my Best of GrowMap post I linked to this comment.

    Invoking my “Friend of the Guru” comment policy name exception as usual. ๐Ÿ™‚ I’ll be back.

  • 9 Tim // Nov 14, 2009 at 1:15 pm

    We just attended the huge Agri Trade Show in Red Deer, Alberta and that show is always incredibly busy. Booths have to be reserved years in advance, in many cases, unless there is a cancellation I suppose. It is an agricultural show, which leaves it wide open for a variety of items. Everything from home products, to farm equipment, to building supplies and tools. It is definitely an event that is alive and well.
    My observation is that most sales don’t happen at the show. People like me go there and look at everything, collect a few goodies and take some cards and pamphlets. Then a week later I might phone and try to wrangle the trade show special price out of someone.
    I’m pretty sure all the big deals happen this way too. If you are buying a harvester or combine, for instance, you might think it over and see who is going to give you the best deal before you put your $300 000.00 on the table. People wait for fall specifically to go to this sale and hold off buying because they know there are always Agri Trade Show only deals. And I’m pretty sure most farmers never buy online, so real world is where its at.

  • 10 The Trade Show Guru // Nov 14, 2009 at 7:54 pm

    hi GrowMap,
    Sorry, I found you in the Akismet bucket and it looks like you’ve been in there for a few days with some unsavory company. Anyway, I dug you out and hosed you off. I’m also sorry I don’t have a twitter account (at least yet). I guess I’m still living in the last century. I’ll click through and check out your post though. ~ Steve
    Hey Tim,
    Good to hear that it sounds like the Agri trade show is alive and well, and bury. That is a good sign.
    And I agree with you that people probably think a bit before they pull the trigger on a 300k deal. And they’d also want to see the product (like at a trade show) rather than buy it based on a picture on the internet. Trade shows are still relevant. Good insight. ~ Steve

  • 11 Anders - Trade Show Infotainer // May 14, 2010 at 11:22 am

    Trade shows will always be around in my opinion because humans are social animals. Even though there are more virtual trade shows these days they will never take the place of what we know as a trade show. If you look at the ancient Bazaars of the middle east they were very similar to a trade show. They have always been around and will continue to exist. I’m not sure who said it but the quote sums up my feelings.

    “No matter how much you click place to place, you will never replace face to face.”

  • 12 The Trade Show Guru // May 15, 2010 at 9:42 am

    Good points that we are “social animals” and the value of “face to face” marketing. I agree that trade shows will always be a part of the marketing mix. How much of the mix may change, but they will remain a part of the mix. Thanks for stopping by again. ~ Steve

  • 13 Trade Show Mentalist // Oct 7, 2010 at 5:00 pm

    The issue isn’t always are the leads any good, it’s often how good are the sales reps. I have worked hundreds of shows for over 30 years and most of the time, the reps just stand there doing nothing. I literally pre-qualify the leads so that only quality attendees come into the booth, but many times the reps don’t approach them to penetrate the lead further.

    The marketing people do their job which is to get people to the booth and get out the message. This is what I help them do, as well. In some cases, I have educated the reps as to how to more effectively deal with the leads I bring in, but still you have those reps who do nothing.

    Trade shows will be around for a long time. Where else can you get large numbers of like minded people together to talk about their issues, concerns, etc. What needs to be done is for sales mngrs and the like to start viewing shows as a vehicle for improving relations and developing opportunities and to train their reps on how to make shows work.

  • 14 Scott Tokar // Feb 10, 2011 at 2:16 am

    No way are tradeshows obsolete!

    There are more reasons than just direct sales to drive companies and prospects to a tradeshow…

    Live, in-person, image management and brand awareness strategies are important marketing directives in today’s web-based “twitter” centric world…

    Public relations and new product launches are also important reasons to exhibit. Look at the “buzz” that surrounds the new products each year at CES… It’s hard to get on Good Morning America with just a website or a twitter account during the CES show, you gotta be there to be in the game!

    Now, add the fact that many “tradeshows” are connected with industry specific meetings or conventions… Smart marketers will support the industry that they sell to… If you don’t exhibit you will be missed by an organization’s membership…

    And lastly, continuing education units (CEU) must be done in person for many medical professionals… Medical tradeshows are part of education and it will be a long time before we see those go away…

    As a tradeshow magician, I see all aspects of trade show marketing and many cross sections of industries… I’m happy to say that tradeshows are here to stay!

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