Effective Networking at Trade Shows

A Special Series from North American Wholesale Lumber Association

So, you’ve got a trade show coming up. Whether you’re exhibiting or just attending, you’ve got a lot to think about. First of all, don’t panic. Trade shows are a great opportunity to create connections and build your business, but they aren’t the Olympics. At trade shows, everyone can win. One sure way to win—that is, get the most out of your trade show experience—is by mastering the art of networking. 

Pre-Show Prep
Effective networking begins long before the event kicks off. You don’t want to over-plan your approach to the show, but you should be prepared enough to allow for informed conversations with potential business partners. If possible, try to get ahold of the attendee list beforehand. Some events, such as NAWLA’s Traders Market, offer the list online. 

Jennifer Raworth, manager of market communications and sales support at Interfor, prepares her team for trade shows by creating a pre-show document. “[It] lays out everything’s that’s happening at the show, including the agenda, the people who are attending—if we’re able to get that list—and the exhibitor list, because sometimes great contacts are actually other exhibitors,” she says.

Once you have a list of attendees, target a few people that you know you’d like to speak with at the show, and send them an email suggesting a meet and greet. Don’t go overboard with scheduling meetings, however. Time is precious at trade shows, and you want to leave room in your agenda for organic conversations to emerge. 

In the Thick of It
You’ve made it to the show. If you’re an exhibitor, your booth is set up and you’ve got a smile on your face; if you’re an attendee, you’ve arrived early to map out the space and make the most of the trade show floor hours. It’s game time. But don’t put too much pressure on yourself; you’ll end up looking stressed and unapproachable. 

Get in the mindset that you’re here to meet people, have good conversations, and, most importantly, have fun. Business opportunities will arise once you’ve made a genuine connection with someone. If you come into an interaction with an obvious agenda, you won’t accomplish much. You’re likely not going to close a deal on the spot, so don’t force it. 

The key to a fruitful interaction is brevity and relevancy. Instead of having a rehearsed elevator pitch about what your company can offer, ask the person about themselves and their business. Your goal should be to collect business cards, not hand them out. Ask questions, and let what you can offer arise naturally. When it does come time for you to talk, tell a story instead of pitching the same marketing copy from your website. Stories tell much more about who you are than business jargon. The people you meet are much more likely to remember you if you shared something interesting with them. 

However, even if you’re having a good conversation, don’t become tied to one person. Quality conversations are important, but, in this setting, you want to maximize the amount of people you’re able to meet. 

If you’re exhibiting, be sure to have good booth presence. Your attitude and body language can close you off to connections if you’re not intentional about them. “Try not to block yourself from attendees,” Raworth sug-gests. “That includes being on your cellphone and eating or drinking in the booth. Try to avoid having chairs in your booth, and don’t put a table between you and the attendees. Try to make yourself as open as possible to attendees.” 

If possible, leave your booth and go talk to other exhibitors. Networking with exhibitors can be just as fruitful for your business as speaking with attendees. 

Follow-Up or Flounder
The connections you make at a trade show will be for naught if you fail to follow up afterward. At the very least, you should send a thank you email to the people you spoke with. 

“Follow up within a week to 10 days,” Raworth says. “It needs to be done quickly or otherwise they will forget about you. If nothing comes from that first one, follow up within a month to try to keep that contact open and fresh.”

Let them know that you enjoyed the conversation, and include specific references from that conversation. This will demonstrate that you listened to them and are genuinely interested in their business. The nature of trade shows is that everyone will see hundreds of people in a short time frame; the more you can stand out, the better chance you have to be remembered. In addition to direct emails, connect with the people you met on social media to continue the rapport you had on-site. 

– Kip Fotheringham is vice president of Hampton Lumber Sales Canada and chairman of the NAWLA 2016 Traders Market Committee.


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