Work The Room

So, it’s your first time at a conference, and you have never been on a trade-show floor. Or, you have been there before but don’t think there is anything for you. Or, maybe you are just shy and don’t feel comfortable in a large crowd.

The following tips should help as you venture into 100,000 square feet of exhibits, vendors, friends and new experiences.

Do three critical things before heading out to a trade show:

1. Be sure to have your admission credentials; you don’t want to have an embarrassing situation at the front door. It’s like getting tossed out of line at a VIP club for not being “on the list.”

2. Wear comfortable shoes. You are going to be standing and walking on a concrete floor for the next three or four hours, and that concrete is hard!

3. Be sure to take a sufficient supply of business cards, from 50 to 100, for you will meet many new people. I usually put 20 loose cards in a pocket that I can get to quickly, and keep a reserve in another pocket. Having cards in a convenient location is critical. As you work the room, you will find your hands tied up with materials people hand you, food and drink, along with a lot of hand-shaking. You don’t want to fumble around digging cards out of a card carrier or purse when you have plenty of other things going on.

The Juggling Act

Entering and working the show floor takes some forethought and planning. On the way to the entrance, take a look at the floor layout in the conference guide, and note the main entrance and buffet lines.

For those who like to eat first and then get down to serious booth coverage, determine whether the room is right-handed or left-handed upon entering. Since most rooms are right-handed--most people walk in and turn right or go straight--you can beat the crowd by turning left. To get to an uncrowded buffet (if there are multiple locations), proceed to the back of the room, passing by some of the serving stations if necessary.

People in crowds are like cattle at times--they just follow the line in front of them. Selecting a line in the back usually assures you won’t get food that’s already been picked over or drinks from a bartender who’s rushing.

If you don’t have a specific agenda, have just run into a bunch of friends, or don’t mind chatting while standing in line, jump in wherever you are comfortable.

Balancing food and drink on a trade-show floor is a learned skill. It is a multi-tasker’s major challenge that takes practice, practice, practice. Think about it. With a plate in one hand and a drink in the other, a friend introduces a vendor who is selling the one item you absolutely have to get information on during the visit, and you want to shake hands and hand him or her a card.

Sometimes it’s a matter of setting priorities, which is why I like to eat first, and then work the floor. If necessary, find out the company’s booth number and stop at a more opportune time.

Build Relationships

Now it is time to get down to work (and you thought this was all fun and games). The exhibitors at a trade show are there to meet you and show the product lines they represent. They are nice people, not the typical used-car salesmen trying to push you into something you do not want or need. Make the effort to get to know them. Some will become great friends, and they are an invaluable source of information for you to do your job better.

There are people I met as exhibitors 25 years ago that I never bought anything from, whom I can call to this day for information or a contact. You may not buy something, but you may be able to refer a colleague to them in the future. They may not be selling something you need today, but they may be selling something you need next year. Build the relationship; you never know when it will pay off.

Exhibitors are critical to the success and continuation of annual conferences. Without their financial participation, support and sponsorship, the funding to conduct the entire program would be severely impacted. Their support is so critical that, without them, you probably could not afford to attend the conference because of the increased cost.

Shopping For Products

If you don’t have any particular product you want to see on the floor, start in one corner of the exhibit hall and work your way down each aisle in a methodical way. Stop by the booths with products that you know you will need in the near future, but also stop in the booths with items you think you will never use. The one you will never use may be the one your boss wants you to look into two months from now.

You don’t have to spend much time in each booth, just enough to drop off a business card, obtain a business card and some information, and chat for a few minutes.

When searching for specific items or vendors, do a fast tour of the entire floor, scope out the booths in which you are interested, and then come back and spend more time with them. Or spend three hours on opening night cruising the floor and seeing where everything is, and then come back the next day and spend serious time with the vendors you really want to see.

As you develop more friends and contacts in this business, you will also find that six hours is not enough time to “work the floor” because you will spend much of the time socializing.

Gather The Goodies

Do you remember that earlier thought about keeping your hands free? Several booths will have a shopping bag or small backpack as a giveaway item. Find one of these early in order to fill them with promotional information and other giveaway items.

I have more can coolies and coffee mugs than I can count, but I remember who gave them to me every morning when I take a mug from the cupboard. Having you remember that specific vendor is one of an exhibitor’s main goals.

There will be playground pieces to climb on, putting contests to enter, wheels-of-fortune to spin and a myriad of other “come ons” to get your attention. Play every one! It is there to enjoy. These are great ways to interact with peers and the exhibitors, and you can win some interesting prizes.

By the time it’s over, your feet and back will be sore from walking, you will be losing your voice, you have a shopping bag full of information to review, and the pocket full of your business cards has been replaced by a pocket full of exhibitors’ cards. You have met a group of new people who look forward to seeing you again. Congratulations! You are now a successful trade-show-floor traveler.

Jack Mathison is the assistant director of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Arts for the city of Hollywood, Fla. He can be reached via e-mail at

Bryan BuchkoComment