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How to Decide if a Trade Show Makes Sense for You

When your company pays thousands of dollars to exhibit at a trade show, you have to monitor whether the investment paid off.  Your numbers don’t have to be prefect (and they probably won’t be at first). But you can build on the data you collect, and as you get better at measuring your return on investment, you’ll also get better at figuring out why you should be exhibiting at a particular show.

What Numbers Will You Collect? It’s easy to count booth traffic. Toss out those that have no purchasing say and the resulting list is your leads. However, tallying the sales revenue generated from those leads is a more useful, difficult and sometimes inaccurate measure. What you want in the end is a figure that tells you if it was worth exhibiting: ROI. And to get that number requires follow-up and discipline to show the sometimes lengthy route through emails and sales reports. There are several considerations that complicate the ROI question. ROI is also about intentions (yours as well as the attendee’s) and quality of leads and something called exhibit efficiency.

Why Are You Exhibiting? Having a booth at a show is often done not solely to generate sales. If a primary reason for exhibiting is something other than sales, tracking leads isn’t the way to figure the return on your exhibiting dollar. You might be using the trade show as a way to build brand awareness or to improve engagement with your customers. You might feel you need to be there because the major competition is all there. These are valid reasons to be at a particular show. But these considerations are not quantifiable, at least not in the same way that product sales are tallied.

That said, the majority of trade show exhibitors simply count the number of leads and do ROI calculations based on that, which is just fine, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.

Skip Cox, president and CEO of Exhibit Surveys, a company that created a free ROI Toolkit[1], prefers the term Return on Objectives to ROI, and looks at measures such as “exhibit efficiency.” This indicates the percentage of a company’s total audience with whom the exhibitor had “meaningful engagement.” So, if you are a small manufacturer of pumps and you attend the Power-Gen International Show, your total audience would be some portion of the 20,000 attendees—let’s say 85. Of those, the 40 who came by and talked to the booth staff, viewed a demo or requested a follow-up are the ones that really count: your exhibit efficiency.  (According to Exhibit Surveys’ figures, exhibit efficiency averages 49 percent of total audience.)[2]

Another free ROI Calculator that is somewhat simpler is available on the Midcourse Corrections website.[3]

Good Numbers to Have If you are trying to justify a budget, you might like to know that the average cost per visitor reached is $274. This is based on the total direct cost of exhibiting and applies to attendees who recall having a meaningful engagement in your booth.[4]

You might also like to know that it costs a lot more to identify a prospect and to close a sale by any other means than at a trade show, according to a 2009 study by the Center for Exhibition Industry Research. According to the research, the average cost to identify a potential customer at a trade show or exhibition was $96 versus $443 to identify a prospect “by means other than a trade show.” The average cost to close a sale with a trade show lead is significantly lower because it requires fewer follow-up sales calls. The figures (from 2009) are $2,188 versus $3,102.[5]

Getting Good Data

Cox said in an interview that even a company new to exhibiting can “look at shows in an objective way and make decisions” about whether to choose a particular show or not. “If people are willing to put the time in and call the organizer and talk to them, they can get the information they need to make decisions,” he said.


[1] ROI Toolkit

[2] Trade Show Trends

[3] Calculating ROI for Your Tradeshow

[4] Calculating ROI for Your Tradeshow

[5] Trade Show Executive Research Roundup

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