You never get a second chance to make a first impression.

Trade shows can be an exciting venture for the exhibitor and attendee.  Those that are traveling may be visiting a new and exciting city where there will be “Welcome Receptions”, “Keynote Speakers”, fabulous restaurants to try and a little bit of sightseeing if time permits.  Trade shows are a great way to market your product if you are the vendor/exhibitor and can be very successful if promoted properly.  Depending on the trade or industry in question and how well the show is marketed to potential customers, you have the opportunity to make a favorable impression to anywhere from thousands to tens of thousands of attendees.   Unfortunately, many exhibitors – and “sales reps/attendees” will unknowingly commit a variety of booth blunders that may have a lasting effect on their business image and reputation.  

Remember, the days are gone when a faux pas was simply spread by “word of mouth gossip” and could easily be defended or clarified by hearing the other side of the story. One thing is still true though, “a picture is worth a thousand words”…AND..the words may be right there with the picture/video- on Facebook or YouTube!  One never knows when they are being photographed or recorded, legal or not, by the time it’s been removed, it’s probably too late. 


To help guide you towards a successful exhibit at your next trade show, here are my Top Ten…in “Letterman style”, “ways to improve your trade show etiquette” for the Exhibitor and Attendee:

Exhibitor/Vendor Etiquette:

#10 – Maintain Your Booth: Unless your particular industry is “Organizational Skills” and you are demonstrating the “messy look” for effect, your booth should be well-maintained, free of clutter, and appealing to the visitor.  Remember to keep boxes, cords, refills and other set-up tools, hidden under a skirted table.

#9 – Food and Drink:  You should never be caught eating or drinking in your booth.  While it is difficult to manage “manning your booth” all day without help or food, just keep in mind the operative word here is “caught”.  Once can’t expect you to work a 12-14 hour day setting up, breaking down, and greeting thousands without a bit of sustenance!  Look for the appropriate time that you may be able to discreetly eat fruit or something quick unless you have arrangements for your booth for your absence.

#8 – Never Chew Gum!  Okay, in my opinion, that should be anywhere, anytime, but….some habits are hard to break so if you’re a gum-chewer, please, refrain from doing so when you are meeting, greeting, explaining, or just standing and smiling.  Gum, by its very uncouth requirement of chewing it like cud – over and over until it forms a ball of tasteless rubber in your mouth, can knock the “polish and panache quotient down significantly”.

#7 – Dress Appropriately – It is impossible to impose one dress code on the variety of trades there are.  Suppose it’s the surfing industry?  Companies promoting surf boards, wax, clothing lines, sunscreens, vacation destinations, competitions, and fabulous flip-flops are not likely to be dressed in suits and ties to present their booth or product.  The theme of such a show would be one of the draws for many as they stroll comfortably in flowered shirts, shorts and sandals.  The point is…the exhibitor still  must use modesty and taste while making choices appropriate to their industry.

#6 – Never Leave Your Booth Unattended – Yes, I addressed this briefly in # 9 but more on how to manage this challenge:  If you are the only rep (not the best case scenario) to  man your booth, you will need to make “booth buddies” on either or both sides of you.  Hopefully, they are not your biggest competitor.  No one expects the neighbor to answer questions or sell product.  The idea is to get out and get back briskly so your customers are happy to wait…or to come back shortly.  Choose a slow time so as not to distract your buddy from his own work and don’t take advantage by stepping out for an  hour long lunch at the nearby oceanfront bistro!  Make your necessary stops at the restroom, grab a quick lunch and head back with abundant gratitude to your neighbor.  

#5 –Don’t Oversell – Not a one of us wants to be “oversold”.  The vendor that talks too much and offers too much too soon…will likely sell the least.  Be approachable, friendly, ask a few questions to engage your customer or simply ask them if you can have a moment of their valuable time to demonstrate a particular product.  We all know the “massage chair” guy has them lined up, right?  They don’t have to say much…just listen to the customer in the chair ooohing and ahhhing for 10 minutes!

#4 – Speaking of Booth Buddies – Whether it’s your own booth buddy or the neighboring booths of which I spoke in # 6, keep the friendly chatter to a minimum.  People are strolling by and trying to check you out without you knowing they are checking you out.  Attendees may not want to interrupt if they see you engaged in a conversation.  Some people are uncomfortable with certain social graces, like how to enter a conversation properly.  If you are with a customer, briefly make eye contact with the passer-by, smile, and nod slightly to indicate they are welcome to approach and listen (if you are not in a private appointment situation at the time, and generally, the convention floor is not conducive for same).

#3 – Visiting the Competition – Touchy situation here.  It’s pretty tempting to want to take a little time to see how everyone else is displaying, sample some yummy treats or grab the fliers/cards/brochures of our competitors.  Remember, word spreads fast.  Someone knows someone who knows you, your booth, your product and your reputation.  While it’s not illegal to visit the competitor booths, it is highly unethical to whisper to others in their area to stop by your booth and check out your great prices on XYZ!  That goes for negative gossip about your competition as well.  I’m more about honesty and integrity in these situations.  I’m happy to pass by a booth and if addressed by the vendor or some mutual silent dance of interest has been displayed, I will politely introduce myself,  my company, where on the floor our booth is, compliment their own booth and wish them great success during the show.  Small talk among peers and competitors is expected, just know your boundaries.  Keep it short, polite, and positive.

#2 – Keep Fully Stocked – Never run out of anything.  Brochures, fliers, cards, candies, samples, raffle tickets, entry forms, novelty items, tote bags, napkins/plates/cups/utensils (if food items are the industry) need to be readily available until the last customer has left the show!

#1 – ...and the #1 “way to improve your trade show exhibitor etiquette”  – Exercise the “Three G’s” – Grip, Grin, and Greet – Always be ready to engage your potential customers with a smile, a firm handshake and a warm and sincere greeting.  Welcome them to the show, and thank them especially, for taking the time to stop by your booth.  Make sure you make direct eye contact during the handshake – not so long as to scare them with your fixed eyeballs, just the few seconds it takes to shake their hand in 2-3 movements.  Like in every social situation,  never underestimate the power of the first impression; which takes place in the first seven seconds – and most often begins with…the “3 G’s”.

Attendee Etiquette: 

#10 – Wear Comfortable Shoes – Again, consider the type of industry but as a visitor, while you are still expected to display appropriate attire, tasteful comfortable shoes will go a long way when pounding the pavement for several hours.

#9 – Don’t Overstay Your Welcome – Again, as in most social situations, overstaying one’s welcome is rude and can cost the vendor business.  Visit many booths, get your questions answered, accept the novelties offered and move along doggie!

#8 – Consumption of Food – Okay, one of the best trade shows I ever attended was a “natural and organic food expo” and wow….SO MUCH FOOD…although I’m sure I would enjoy ANY FOOD EXPO for that matter.  One thing for sure, every booth has SOMETHING to taste.  “TASTE”…that’s what I said.  Lingering around your favorite food booth to have lunch on their samples is a “tres faux pas”.  Graciously accept the sample, comment on the delightful flavor, ask questions if interested in the product and  again, move along doggie!

#7 – Tote Bag Etiquette – Many booths offer “insignia/logo tote bags” to promote their company.  Love that.  Many can be used at the grocery as your recycle bag.  Refrain from over-filling your bag with everything from every booth because you have some sort of “hoarding mentality” and feel you must take everything in case you ever need it.  It’s one thing to collect items of interest for further evaluation, consumption or use, but it won’t go un-noticed as you sling bags on each shoulder and both arms as though you just scored at Nordstrum or are living out some Rodeo Drive scene from “Pretty Woman”!  

#6 – Crowd Control – Some conventions are packed with attendees.  Maneuvering the floor gracefully, let alone finding the booths you’ve circled on your Exhibit Map, can be daunting.  Using the always popular phrases of “Excuse me, pardon me, may I, etc.” will get you through that mess much more quickly than shoving, elbowing and trying to get the front spot at  … guessed it…the massage chair booth!  Once there, sign up or get in line and wait your turn like a good sport.

#5 – Refills – Again, speaking of filling your bag/s…maybe the vendor won’t notice that you’ve been back three times to “sample” the chocolate covered strawberries or throw more key chains in your bag but I wouldn’t risk the embarrassment.  

#4 – Social Interruptions – It’s never easy or comfortable to interrupt a conversation but knowing how to do so with grace and proper etiquette can boost your confidence in so doing.  If a vendor is busy with another customer, wait for a moment to see if he plans to address your needs; pick up some information from the table and after a brief acceptable period,  politely offer two options as you are walking away; 1.)  Upon making eye contact, simply say “thank you, I’ll just take this info and stop by when you’re not busy”, or 2.), Say to the customer “Excuse me”, then to the vendor “I don’t mind waiting unless you’ll be a while”. Both of these options give the vendor a moment to reply, because you have in fact, been just as polite to his customer in your inquiry.

#3 – Again With the 3 G’s?? – Yes.  One never knows where the relationship is headed in business; so whether you are the vendor or attendee, make your first impression, your best impression.  See Tip # 1 of Vendor Etiquette. Why is it not #1 here?   Well, it could be, but the #1 tip here is equally important and to some, even more important.

#2 – The Power of  Thank You – Just because you paid to get in the door doesn’t mean you shouldn’t appreciate the effort of the vendors and venue staff.  Saying “thank you” for the goodies you take, the information you receive, directions to nearby tourist spots and any other reason to say “thank you”  should never be underestimated.  It is a powerful little “two-word” statement and never over-used.  Alternatively, if you’ve been given considerable time and attention from an exhibitor and the possibility of even working together in the future on some shared concept, make sure you send a “hand-written” Thank You note within the first week of said time together.  Not everyone has a beautifully engraved stationary wardrobe for such occasions, but even a nice pre-printed monogrammed note kit from a stationary or office supply store will serve the purpose.  Note cards that are conducive to the industry are also acceptable, for instance, I am in the etiquette business and while I love a lovely 100% cotton engraved look and feel, I am happy to send an artist’s watercolor rendering of tea service or flowers or any other such image that recognizes the artist…and complements the business at the same time.

#1...and the #1 way to improve your Attendee Etiquette is….. DON’T BE A SNEAK! – Business to Business Protocol – You’re in the same industry as the vendor but you didn’t pay to exhibit your wares.  You came to sell your product on the sly!  This is one of the biggest taboos of trade show etiquette and it can happen in a number of ways, but to name a few:  Direct solicitation of other attendees while parading the floor; sneakily posing as an interested customer at a competitor’s booth to gather useful data; and pitching a vendor on your product while they are busy trying to address their customers.  Nothing will seal your reputation quicker than this little plot you have in mind, so step up…either rent a booth and work it or pay your attendee registration fee and listen and learn about your industry in an appropriate manner.

I hope these etiquette tips will help you enjoy your next trip to the convention floor, whether as an exhibitor/vendor or attendee.  Conventions can be a great time for all, albeit hard work for many, but knowing the social and business etiquette associated with the event, will help everyone to have a wonderful experience to share with friends, family, peers and employers.


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