Business Networking: 6 Ways to Network with Exhibitors

That is, when you’re NOT an exhibitor yourself!

Really tough to do by the way. Why?

Because business owners and sales people exhibiting at conferences, conventions, trade shows, product shows, and expos want to sell their products and services while collecting lots of business cards. Of course!

And if you’re looking to sell your product and service to them (as in the exhibitor), they don’t want to talk to you. Well, they almost never want to talk to you. Can you blame them?

Exhibitors pay a lot of money for a piece of real estate called a booth (that they spend countless hours at) for the right to promote their message through branding, networking, and selling. All they want to do is discuss their products and services, collect business cards, give demos, showcase videos, distribute collateral, have fun with whatever gimmick they may have in their booth, and give away as many tennis balls, phone chargers, pens, and tchotchkes as possible.

That’s the deal.

As an attendee (and non-exhibitor), how do you network with exhibitors that have invested in a booth to push their agenda when ultimately, you’re looking to push yours?

It’s a totally different dynamic than meeting fellow attendees or exchanging business cards with contacts you make at the local Chamber.

Fundamentally, as an attendee at a trade show, you’re not on equal footing with an exhibitor.

Some exhibitors will just brush you off if you talk to them and they realize you’re not a potential prospect. Some will be downright rude. While still others may just give you lip service in between talking to “real prospects” and will go into radio silence when you try to follow up with them after the conference.

How can you avoid this? Well, you can’t.

business networking at trade showsBut if your business model is B2B and working the trade room floor as a conference attendee is part of your marketing plan, here are some ways to help you be much more effective at networking with exhibitors you meet!

Be an Exhibitor
Yes, being an exhibitor yourself will immediately put you on much more even footing. From one exhibitor to another, how can we refer each other more business? How can we support one another right here at the event? This is especially powerful if you share the same target market and that’s the focal point of the trade show where you’re exhibiting. What’s great is that having a booth doesn’t mean you need to stay there. You can still walk the floor and even schedule appointments with contacts you make to visit your booth. Also, being an exhibitor gives you marketing leverage with the association or company running the event. They certainly want to keep you as an exhibitor. Of course, being an exhibitor may not make good business sense for all businesses. Exhibiting takes time, is a big investment, is hard work, and often requires collateral in the form of screens, backdrops, table sets, and other materials. Don’t forget the tchotchkes!

Network, don’t Sell
It’s easy to forget but keep in mind that networking is about learning, helping, asking questions (more on this below), listening, and figuring out ways to start a valuable relationship. It’s not about pitching your product, setting up a sales appointment, asking for introductions, assuming a “close”, and making the whole conversation about you. Of course, if an exhibitor happens to be interested in learning more about your product, service, or offering, great. But don’t assume the sale and keep the tone light and collaborative. Your goal is to set up a follow up conversation, so you can both learn more and potentially develop a relationship. And those things take time!

Be Interested/Ask Questions/Participate
Yes, all of that! It’s sometimes difficult but be interested in the products and services being offered by exhibitors. And by interested I mean interested in learning more and therefore being smarter than you were before. The best way to become more interested and to in fact learn more is to ask questions. Lots of them! How did you get involved in this business? What is your background? How long have you been in business? What have you learned about your customers over the years? Have you exhibited here before? What specifically are you looking to accomplish at this event? What will your follow up look like? What percentage of your contacts at events like this convert to actual business? How do you know? What are some other events that you plan on exhibiting at? Given what I do, are there events you might suggest? If I were to meet a prospect for you, how would I know? What is the best way to refer you prospects? Who is a great referral partner for you? How can I be a resource for you at this event? Open questions like this will help you learn a lot and hopefully answer similar questions about your own business. How about yourself? Also, be sure to participate in demos, food tastings, games, raffles, virtual tours, and contests. The exhibitor will be excited about all of this so make sure you get excited too. Have fun! Position yourself as someone that is willing to help and as a probable referral source.

Be Respectful of Their Time
Once an exhibitor realizes that you’re not a potential buyer, they will stop talking to you so they’re available to speak to others that approach their booth. Again, you can’t blame them. Just know this and be understanding going in. Make sure to let them know you recognize that they can come and go as they speak with you. Being respectful of the time of an exhibitor (remember, they’re paying for their time to exhibit) will go a long way. So, don’t overstay your welcome. Also, if there are key exhibitors that you’re targeting, you might want to visit them during slower periods so you can maximize your time with them while not taking peak exhibiting time away from them.

Follow Up
One of the biggest mistakes exhibitors make is not scheduling the necessary time it takes to follow through on the contacts they made and cards they collected at an event. The cards remain in the “fishbowl” and it becomes less clear over time who should be contacted and why. Without follow up nothing else happens. The same thing goes for your networking initiatives when collecting cards and related contact info from exhibitors. If it makes sense and is appropriate, ask the exhibitor (assuming you had a good connection and valuable talk) when a good time might be to reconnect. Maybe even set aside a day and time. In fact, schedule a follow up meeting! Make your follow up begin when you’re still face to face with the exhibitor. Just make sure there is a good reason to reconnect. Ask yourself the following questions. Do you like them? Did they like you? Was there a lot of valuable information to discuss? Was there mutual interest? Are they a possible prospect for you? Are you a possible prospect for them? Can you refer each other business? Can you continue to learn from them? Can they learn from you? Is it purely social? All good! Just remember to mention your thoughts when you offer to exchange cards to make sure the feeling is in fact mutual.

Stay in Touch
The kiss of death for almost any good relationship (exhibitors, contacts, referral sources, clients, prospects, friends, family members) is not staying in touch. The best way to get to know people better, develop the relationship, increase the level of trust, and even form friendships is communicating on a regular basis – whatever that means. How do you know how to stay in touch? And how often? Just ask! What would be the best way to keep in touch? Scheduled monthly, bi-monthly, or quarterly calls work well. Staying in touch will almost always be on you so make it happen. Remember Out of Sight is Out of Mind (OOSIOOM).

As in all networking scenarios, you won’t connect with everyone you meet. But these approaches will help you gain more confidence, learn more about an industry, profession, product, or service, build more and better relationships, land more business, and have more fun when meeting with exhibitors.

Just don’t forget to grab a pen!

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