By Henry Feng

For those of us in the sales profession, trade shows are a vital part of our work. These annual events convene an entire industry to learn from each other, connect and pitch new products and solutions. I always look forward to traveling to destination cities for three or more days packed with inspiring new content, face-to-face meetings with new and old clients, long dinners with colleagues and connections, and of course, the excitement of wandering around a trade show floor.

As I reflect on many of the things I miss most about life before the COVID-19 pandemic, trade shows rank high on my list. As we continue to press on with virtual meetings and remote working situations to prevent the spread of infection during this global pandemic, we must adjust to a new normal: Virtual Trade Shows. Over the past year, I learned to adjust and even succeed at a few virtual trade shows. While we look ahead to a spring and summer with continued safety measures like physical distancing in place, we can anticipate more virtual trade shows in our future. 

As you prepare for your next virtual trade show, here are some of my favorite lessons and tips to help you come away from a virtual event feeling almost as invigorated as if you just came home from a convention center in Las Vegas.

Work with the organizer more effectively. Traditionally, in-person trade shows allow you to contact your leads for new customers directly to set up times to meet throughout the event, for formal and informal meetings. When you are attending a virtual trade show, the organizer of the event has the ability to help you pre-match with potential customers. One trade show we attended in 2020 did an excellent job connecting vendors with potential customers through a pre-matching process that allowed us to pre-book appointments seamlessly. Other trade show organizers might not have a process for pre-matching, in which case you will have to do extra leg work prior to the event to find leads and schedule time with them.  If you notice an organizer that doesn’t have a pre-matching process, then get ready to work for it. You have to pre-reach out to all of your leads, and book appointments to be more effective. Don’t wait until the last minute. To make the most of the virtual trade show and your time and money spent there, you must take the pre-matching process seriously and focus your research and communications strategy on that. 

Stick with focused and powerful solutions. Time is limited at a virtual trade show. Attendees will not have hours to meander around a trade show floor and shop a myriad of displays at your booth. That’s why it is so important to work with your marketing team to develop short, focused solutions to present at your online booths that target specific themes. We are in the public health industry so our theme for all of our virtual trade shows this year was managing the pandemic and preventing infection outbreaks. We were able to build a package of products around that theme to present through our virtual trade show booth. This way, when customers viewed our virtual booth, they quickly gathered the theme and the solution we provided. You want customers to understand what you offer in a direct way. Targeting your booth to help them figure out how you can help swiftly is much more effective and respectful of everyone’s time.

Follow up!  Don’t just get the virtual trade show done and move on with your work, forgetting about it. Follow up is much more important after a virtual trade show than even an in-person event. During a virtual trade show, most of your virtual meetings will only be 30 minutes or less. You won’t have the opportunity to follow up with a meal or connect at networking events to provide more details or build a relationship. That means you simply must follow up to close the deal. This is the time you may send samples, give a quote, address concerns, answer questions and generate new opportunities on top of the topics you spoke about during the trade show. 

Connect outside of the event, too. A virtual trade show doesn’t allow any salesperson to meet with everybody they want to meet. In a live event, there are many opportunities outside of the officially sanctioned trade show hours to meet with others over meals or at unofficial networking events. During a virtual trade show, you will have to create these opportunities yourself. A virtual trade show provides the perfect opportunity to call the list of people you did not have the opportunity to officially meet with. It gives you a reason to call, topics to discuss and if you are strategic, the opportunity to present your company’s solutions. 

Just like their in-person versions, each virtual trade show is very different. Some organizers manage a transition to virtual seamlessly and make it easy to participate in and maximize your time. Other organizers struggle to keep up with virtual planning, which means you have to put the work in to get the most out of it. While the economy reopens gradually and we all wait patiently for our vaccines, we will need to continue to work within the virtual space. In some cases, companies may choose to continue to offer virtual trade shows and there may be more opportunities to save money and reduce our carbon footprint by attending them. Keep these tips in mind to make the most out of the opportunity.