Trade shows can be a lot like unrequited love.

Here’s the scenario: Two people meet. They spend time together. All is going well. It might be love. But then, one stops calling the other. The other is heartbroken. Crickets.

B2B trade show checklistNow, think about the last trade show you attended.

Your booth looked great, you smiled and shook hands — then, before you knew it, the event was over and you stared at a big bill questioning the real ROI here.

Not unlike that often-played romantic comedy plot, right?

Like romance, it’s easy to get swept away in the details of boothing at all the usual trade shows. But focusing solely the trade show event itself is a big mistake. Just because you build it, doesn’t mean they’ll come. A trade show is a catalyst — and should align with your forward vision.

Here’s a B2B trade show checklist to make the most of your investment by properly courting your next trade show extravaganza to make sure it’s a long-term win.

1. Take a Big Step Back

Set aside the catalog of overpriced rental carpets in every color of the rainbow and figure out if you should really even be at that particular trade show. Get out of the weeds and develop an overarching trade show strategy for the entire year. Evaluate each potential event for the area of greatest impact and don’t get silo-ed. Bigger isn’t always better. Sometimes, more long-term opportunities can be had by walking the floor than manning the largest, flashiest booth.

2. Start Early, Build Slowly

Each trade show you plan to attend should have its own six-month checklist. While booth arrangements are an essential piece of pre-planning, make sure you’re also nailing your visual identity and courting both the press and prospects well in advance of the big day. Your chronology should look something like this:

  1. Pitch story ideas to leading trade publications to get pre-show coverage.
  2. Plan your hook. What is the conversion you’re looking for and how do you plan to get it?
  3. Make dinner reservations at the hottest restaurants in the host city. Consider arranging a personal visit from the chef if you really need to close a deal with a prospect.
  4. Create a compelling print ad to run in the show issue that pushes to a custom landing page on your website.
  5. Review the messaging and visual identity on your display and planned print pieces for consistency.
  6. Schedule an email blast to prospects welcoming them to your booth.
  7. Send individual dinner invitations to top prospects.
  8. Finalize process for capturing contact information at the show.

3. Activate the Trade Show Funnel

Strip away all the hype and the bare bones goal of a trade show is really to identify qualified people and lead them to some sort of conversion. If you’ve done due diligence and strategized in advance, you’ll have already established whether that’s placing an order, providing you with their contact information, or something else entirely.

Booth backdrop is the top of the funnel. Information you want to get across here is company name and an informative tagline. That’s it. Signage comes next and is a little more detailed.

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Think solutions rather than benefits and keep the information to three or four concise bullet points.

Conversation is the bottom of the funnel—engage and inform—and, no matter what action you want prospects to take at-show, always get their contact information, and explicitly ask to add them to your email list.

4. Keep the Fires Burning

A trade show plan that ends when the booths come down is a huge opportunity lost. Stay top-of-mind for media and prospects with lots of follow-up. Within a week of the event, send out a press release to key trade media that mentions any new partnerships you forged—it’s good buzz for you and your new clients.

And don’t let the emails you’ve captured gather dust. Send a thank you before adding them to your regular email marketing list.

Within a month, consider placing another ad in the trade magazines that reinforces the same messaging and visual identity you employed at the event.

5. Make a Second Date or Move On?

Finally, don’t let trade shows turn into bad habits. Hold them to the same evaluation process you use for all other marketing efforts. Do a preliminary profit/loss assessment a few months post-show to see if the investment paid off. Calculate a rough ROI and see how the cost per conversion compares to that of your other strategies—and use that data to inform next year’s trade show strategy.