What is a Trade Show? A Complete Guide

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Entrepreneurs and small business owners across a range of industries often consider whether attending a trade show is worth it as they seek to boost sales. For small to midsize business (SMB) owners, choosing the right trade show and presentation strategy can contribute to their share of voice and help them better understand how they stack up against the competition.

Using trade shows, you can fix multiple business problems. First, you avoid the trap of ideating and building solutions in a vacuum—without getting an in-depth view of your competitive landscape. Also, you can avoid overspending on marketing that misses your intended audience.

This guide will help you better understand the purpose of trade shows, the different kinds, and how they differ from other business events. With this knowledge, you can start sketching out a trade show strategy that maximizes your marketing, gives you a deeper view of your competition, and paves the way for fruitful partnerships.

What is a trade show?

A trade show is a business event designed to bring together businesses in a target industry. During the show, companies showcase their offerings, talk about their work, and sell directly to customers—B2B, B2C, or a combination of both.

For SMB owners, trade shows often present golden opportunities to connect with customers, earn respect in their industry, and gain a deeper perspective on what the competition is up to. Even companies with truly cutting-edge solutions may struggle with direct marketing. It can be difficult to interact with customers face-to-face; a trade show gives you this opportunity.

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Since trade shows typically focus on a specific industry, they give smaller business owners an intimate look at what their competitors are doing. In this way, a trade show can help you break the cycle of continually creating and problem-solving in a professional bubble. Once you see what the competition offers, you can borrow ideas and figure out ways to differentiate your product or service.

How are trade shows different from other business events?

Trade shows differ from other business events because they have a different format and present unique marketing opportunities such as: 

  • Narrower focus: Some business events feature executives and other stakeholders from a broad range of industries, but a trade show attracts a higher concentration of organizations within a particular sector.

  • Orchestrated presentation format: Some business events serve as meet-ups, enabling people to network with others in a freeform, relaxed atmosphere. A tradeshow is different in that participants purchase space to showcase their offerings.

  • Product demos:  Since trade shows attract industry leaders and members of the media, some companies use them to demonstrate new products or features. You can either demonstrate what you’re offering at your booth or present it to the larger community during a prearranged session.

  • Competitor insights: Some business events are more about the people and culture driving an organization than their products and services. At a tradeshow, however, you get the opportunity to learn about what your competition is bringing to market.

The purpose of trade shows

Trade shows have several purposes and how you use them to your advantage depends on your growth and marketing goals. For instance: 

  • Product promotion: Whether it’s a new product or service or a well-established one, trade shows are a great way to introduce new offerings to customers and the media.

  • Generating leads: You can generate and nurture high-quality leads by collecting contact information, engaging with visitors to your booth, and reaching out to B2B customers who may benefit from your offering.

  • Market research: Trade shows have hundreds or thousands of people milling about, allowing you to gather feedback about your product or service. You can give people who fill out a brief questionnaire a souvenir or other marketing collateral, such as a branded USB drive, as an incentive.

  • Industry trends and tech: Some trade shows include presentations by industry experts. You may learn best practices or about new technologies or techniques that could benefit your strategy.

Why are trade shows important?

Trade shows are important because they can give your business multiple strategic advantages. For example, a software company presenting at a trade show can showcase its benefits to dozens of potential business clients—or more—gaining an attentive audience that may otherwise be hard to come by.

For an SMB, a single trade show appearance can yield enough leads and exposure to revamp its entire brand identity, power the success of a new product launch, or gain enough leads to significantly shift its revenue numbers toward the black.

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For example, suppose you own a small company that produces IoT devices for rescue workers. You’ve recently developed a device that automatically transmits the ambient temperature, body temperature, pulse, and oxygenation rate of firefighters and other rescue professionals. The problem is relatively few people know about your innovative product. There are also bound to be questions regarding how your product aligns with data protection regulations.

Using a tech-focused tradeshow, you can:

  • Present your product to members of the media.

  • Showcase its features to public officials or those in charge of procuring tech for fire and police departments.

  • Answer questions from the media and others about how organizations can use your product without violating data protection standards.

The opportunity to network is another one of the primary purposes of trade shows. For example, suppose your company makes IoT devices for factories and warehouses. Employees use them to scan barcodes and log and track the progress of production, storage locations, and product data. Your hardware works well, but your software has been clunky.

By attending a trade show, you can network with software producers who can program solutions for your IoT device’s operating system. Not only can you find people to work with, but you also get a chance to see the quality of their work, especially if they have rented space at the show or presented to attendees.

What are the types of trade shows?

There are a few different types of trade shows, and choosing the one best for your company will depend on the kinds of networking or marketing you plan to use the show for.

Industry-specific trade shows

An industry-specific trade show focuses on a specific group or niche of companies in a particular business sector. For example, manufacturers may want to attend the:

  • International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS): This takes place in Chicago and features companies that produce solutions for metal cutting, fabricating, gear building, and more.

  • PACK EXPO: This also takes place in Chicago and focuses on packaging and processing companies.

On the other hand, if you run a consumer electronics or software company, you may be more interested in:

  • Consumer Electronics Show (CES): This is one of the biggest trade shows in the U.S., featuring a wide range of electronics, software, and computing solutions. You can find CES in Las Vegas in January of each year. 

  • VMware Explore: This is a relatively new trade show that started in 2004 and originally had the name VMWorld. It focuses on virtualization and cloud computing. It typically lasts five days and has been held in Las Vegas, San Francisco, and Barcelona, Spain.

International vs. local trade shows

International trade shows feature exhibitors from a range of countries worldwide, while local trade shows focus on a specific location and pull in businesses from that area.

Each type of show has its own advantages. For instance, an international trade show may be a better choice if you want to network with a wider range of companies and expand your reach globally. However, by going to an international event instead of a local show, you may not gain access to businesses in your area you could sell to or network with.

If you choose to attend a local show, you may be able to maximize your local networking and sales opportunities, but you may not boost your overall exposure in the general market.

Start exploring your trade show software options

Armed with this guide, you now understand the different trade shows that may be best for your organization and how to leverage them for networking and marketing opportunities. 

Next, get in touch with a Software Advice advisor to learn more about the tools that can help you level up your marketing initiatives. Our advisors are available to answer your questions and provide software recommendations tailored to your industry and budget—all for free.

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