Friday, October 30, 2009
Dan Callahan

I just returned from a large AFCEA conference that was well attended by military personnel—both uniformed and civilian.  If you generally see the glass as half-full (and employ the few tips offered below), then conferences (both large and small) can be great opportunities to engage the clients; however, without the right attitude, they can be very unsatisfying.  The key is to understand how to harvest these events for all they’re worth and go into them with a plan.  Here are my top tips for small business owners to make these conferences work.


Let me know if you agree or not, but I can attest that—in my experience, these ideas get the job done effectively. Call me “nuts” but I really enjoy trade shows because I invariably accomplish something of value.


  • Be proactive, not passive (have a plan before you arrive)

    • Select venues that are as close to your focus area as possible realizing that “smaller” can often be more effective than the very large venues, depending on what you’re offering. (e.g., information assurance and security is a specialty field, so the smaller conferences are often very focused and sometimes better than the very large conferences).

    • Even IC conferences publish the speaker tracks, and their bios and all sorts of good content weeks in advance of the conference.  You should review these and develop a plan for yourself: “who am I going to speak with? Will my competition there?  Can I sit in on the sessions?  Who are my targeted individuals for introductions and/or brief meetings?  Who will go out to dinner with me and help me understand the agency?”

    • Weeks before the conference, you should be alerting your target clients or prospects that you want to meet them at the conference. Send an e-mail that asks them, “May I speak with you for ten minutes at AFCEA–West?  I want to show you our latest product release.  I know you will be impressed!”  The reply may begin a thread that allows you to reach your goal.  Even if they say, “I won’t be attending…”, this is your queue to ask about who is attending, or if you may stop by on Tuesday to explain the product release.

    • Be ready to meet the VIPs of the agency, if a VIP Tour, is offered.  (At one recent table top trade show, this was available albeit for a premium charge, but ended up being worth it for my client). 

    • Ask for your conference host to help you with agency personnel names, numbers, etc.  At a table top event, one of the host personnel said, “there he goes… did you get a chance to meet the CIO?”.   Well, no, I did not.  So I promptly walked over to him as he was leaving (I call this the “soft tackle”), and asked if he would be returning the next day, because I really wanted to show him what we had to offer.  He mentioned that he would and we ended up having a great conversation (the next day). 

    • Make it a goal to go out to dinner with someone other than your coworkers, even a client or prospect.

  • Booth Duty – Make It Work!

    • If your trade show signage does not explain--at a high level, what your company offers, it gets a failing grade!  I noticed one pop-up display that used words like “effective”, “efficient”, “enterprise” yet failed to tell a passer-by, what the product even does.  I am a huge believer in signage that categorizes and differentiates the technology or service offering so folks immediately know what you provide and how it’s different. 

    • Do not sit behind a table or stand!  You should be out in front of any displays; this encourages engagement, conversation and handshaking.  At one table-top trade show, I almost started laughing at one woman who was so absorbed with her laptop; I wondered why she was even exhibited at the event.  How rude.  Turn off your laptop and greet folks or collect G-2 from the other vendors! 

    • Don’t send a representative who believes sales and marketing is beneath them or they’re just “too busy”.  They will tend not to pay attention to the details and will come back with complaints, not leads. 

    • As a conversation starter, learn to give a two liner (that explains what you’re offering) and then immediately ask a question.  This alerts you to as to who you’re qualifying.  Example: “We are a software manufacturer that provides collaboration and information sharing functionality around Microsoft SharePoint.  We’re a Platinum Microsoft Partner.  Does your organization use SharePoint or something else to collaborate?” Your goal is to pull the prospect into a conversation and know in which direction to take it.

    • If you begin to dump a fifteen minute technical treatise on someone, it would be nice if they wanted to hear it.

    • Wear shoes that are comfortable!  I recently had to get a wider dress shoe to avoid some serious foot pain. 

    • Keep breath mints in the booth.

    • Engage them on their terms

    • Get out of the booth and walk around, even before the show, if necessary.  Arrive early.  You can learn a ton of information and agency contacts from the other vendors.  Be ready to share: “I will give you John Doe’s e-mail and shoe size if you can get me a telephone number and favorite color of the Security Manager at the AFCYBERCOM…”  Have some fun! 

Share Your Thoughts:

Never dismiss a potential contact - even if they seem as though they aren't a good fit when you first start talking to them, try to learn more about them and what they do. You never know when any connection may lead you down a path toward your next client.

Heather - Plenty of times, at federal trade shows, I have seen influencers that did not look the part. For example, a recent conversation with a key influencerwho had a pony tail, lead to a very important follow up meeting. If I had prejudged men with pony tails, I would have been the loser. Thanks for the input! Any other great examples out there?