Trade Shows 101: Tips for Planning your First Exhibit

As your cannabis company grows out of its start-up stage, so does your need to increase brand awareness and feed quality leads into your sales funnel. Many companies find that the most efficient and effective way to meet their target audience face-to-face is to exhibit at trade shows – literally setting up a temporary pop-up retail environment with other related businesses. Where else are hundreds of people who want what you’ve got going to make the concerted effort to seek out you and your wares?

As much as we rely on the Internet for buying things, trade shows are still thriving for one reason: people still like to buy from people they’ve met and trust, who can answer their questions, and at the same time be able to compare multiple vendors’ products and services. Well, that environment in today’s business world is called a B2B (business-to-business) trade show. (But expect a major change in the mix of shows in 2018 when a flurry of business-to-consumer, a.k.a. B2C, shows are likely to be added to the current B2B show mix)

Launching your inaugural face-to-face marketing campaign on the show floor isn’t without challenges though.

Coming out of Hiding

1st, as an industry, cannabis has been in hiding for a long time. Whatever analogy you want to use – “beating your own drum” to publicly raise awareness or “putting your best foot forward” – marketing isn’t something that’s ingrained in the cannabis industry’s DNA. So coming out of the cannabis closet to publicly promote their products hasn’t historically been the industry’s strong suit.

The current state of exhibiting at cannabis trade shows was first described to me by an industry colleague as being “like a bad swap meet”. Personally, I’ve seen a mixed bag of good, bad, and downright ugly exhibits.

The majority of exhibit properties at the cannabis shows I’ve attended have been cookie-cutter small pop-up back walls, with graphics that may or may not even tell the attendee who the company is, what product or service they provide or the benefits they offer. Then the exhibitors add tables right next to the aisle that creates a barrier that says to visitors, “KEEP OUT!” and stack it with cheap giveaways. (And, really, when was the last time you made a buying decision based on a cheap pen?) Next, the staff hides behind the table, avoiding eye contact by sitting in low chairs facing toward their next-door neighbor’s booth and not the attendees walking the aisle. They’ve effectively barricaded themselves into a “safe” environment where they don’t have to talk with prospects. If rookie exhibitors are looking to fellow exhibitors to set the bar for a professional “look” to aspire to, I don’t believe they’re getting a lot of positive inspiration at current shows. It’s the perfect time to improve on how we exhibit and the experience attendees have at shows.

Right now, exhibitors have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to elevate the professionalism of the entire cannabis industry as we move from what I’ve heard referred to as the “Wild, Wild West” of the transitional period before legal adult use kicks in California in about 3 months. We still have time to reshape the perception of our industry – by showing the buying public and other businesses, the media who are closely watching our public personae, and the politicians who are still influencing the future of cannabis businesses – that we’re professional and mean business.

Start at Strategy

2nd, there’s a steep – and not inexpensive – learning curve for new exhibitors when they take the plunge into the world of trade shows. Without much forethought, start-up companies may jump at an opportunity to exhibit by signing a contract for booth space.

But they’ve missed the most important step: planning their strategy. Did they research that they’re investing in the best shows where their target market will be attending? Do they have a clear vision that focuses on meeting their marketing and sales goals and objectives? If not, when the show’s over and the return-on-investment (ROI) they’d hoped for doesn’t materialize, they’ll likely be disappointed and down on trade shows as a marketing medium. But it’s not the show’s fault if they didn’t do their homework.

So before investing in exhibiting, ask yourself:

  • Who’s our target audience? What are their wants and needs that our product/service provides a solution for?
  • Based on this identified target market, are we going to participate in B2B (Business-to-Business) trade shows or B2C (Business-to-Consumer) public shows?
  • Will we participate in horizontal cannabis shows that cover a broad gamut of the industry’s products and services? Or is a better strategy to focus on vertical shows that target a much narrower niche, such as cultivation?
  • Should we exhibit at local, regional or national shows, based on our sales model?
  • Will we pick the show with the largest quantity, or most qualified, attendees?
  • What size booth space is right for the number of exhibit staff we’ll need to interact with the number of attendees in our target market? How many interactions can our staff handle if the average interaction takes 7-10 minutes? What percentage of these interactions will be qualified leads?
  • How will we translate our brand promise into the look and feel of our exhibit? Will it be memorable?
  • Can we hone our key message or unique selling proposition on our booth graphics to convey it to our prospects in 7 words or less, like a billboard?
  • If booth space is usually 1/3 to 1/2 of the cost of exhibiting, how much will we need to budget for exhibit marketing?

These questions are just the start of a long, ongoing process of 1,000 questions and decisions you’ll need to make to effectively display the public face of your company and product on the show floor.

My best advice to clients who want to take the leap and exhibit is to start at the outcomes you want from trade shows, then work backward. My initial conversation with potential exhibitors goes something like this: “Pretend the show’s over. What happened? What results did you get out of exhibiting? Was it a profitable use of your time, money and effort?”  With your destination in mind, you can plan your route to successful exhibiting!

Meet Candy Adams, DCN’s newest contributor

Candy Adams, CTSM | CEM | CMP | CMM, affectionately known throughout the trade show industry as “The Booth Mom®” for sharing her expertise and experience with rookie exhibitors, is the definitive source for exhibiting best practices. With 25+ years’ experience as an exhibit project manager, 450+ shows under her belt, 20+ years as EXHIBITOR Magazine’s award-winning columnist penning “Exhibiting 101” and conference faculty member for EXHIBITORLIVE, she’s the go-to guru for exhibit management. Candy provides hands-on freelance exhibit project management, consulting and exhibit staff training to companies without a dedicated in-house exhibit manager through her company, Trade Show Consulting.

Learn more about Candy at:

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