March 06, 2020 | Coach’s Corner | Greg Martinelli

The ROI of Trade Shows

Did you get your money’s worth this year?

November through March is trade show season in agribusiness. Between state, regional and national shows, it becomes a blur as to where you went, who you talked to and what you were supposed to follow up on. By the time you get unpacked from one show, attend a few kid’s basketball games on Saturday, and head out on Monday to the next trade show, there’s little time to sort through the pile of business cards and notes you took at the last show.

“Ah, I’ll get them when things slow down,” you reason with yourself.

Meanwhile back in your main office, key questions are forming. Maybe they are even forming in your own mind. Questions like, “Was it worth it?” “Did we need to attend them?” “Should we go again next year?”

Good questions that need good answers when spending or investing your time and company resources.

Here’s a few ways to look at the ROI of a trade show:

  • Actual ROI: Unless you are actually selling products or taking orders at a buying show, there will most likely never be a real dollar ROI. This means it will always be a gray area, judgement call as to how effective a show really is.
  • Customer Connections: Customers want to see their suppliers at their trade shows. First and foremost, it shows your support of their industry. Every Ag association has some issue. It might be political, social, legal or survival of the industry itself. Your presence and support by buying a booth means you are supporting those efforts. Short of just donating a big sum of money, supporting the trade show is often the only way to support an association.
    Customers also want to see you there because that is where the latest and greatest technology hits the market.  In their eyes, your attendance means you are aware of the new advances in technology on display at the show. You are part of their industry and you “get them." 
    You want to see customers there as well. This is a chance to meet with customers in a non-selling mode. There is a lot of down time around a trade show. Early morning breakfast time, after lunch intermissions, evening times between the end of presentations, but before everyone heads to supper. And of course, there is a hospitality room at many shows. These are all great opportunities to meet your customers in a much more relaxed mode.
    Prior to the show, reach out to your customers to see who is going and who you might want to meet up with at the show.
  • Prospects: The same thing said for customers above, can be said for prospects. This is a more relaxed environment to meet them. It may range from a short introductory hand shake to a dinner meeting at a local restaurant for a deeper discussion. Since you don’t need a sales appointment to meet with them at the show, this becomes a valuable touch point. We know it takes more than one sales call to sell a customer. This is one of those calls, which doesn’t have to include a selling agenda.
    If the show produces an attendee list, scan the list for those top prospects you want to find at the show. If you are at a place in your relationship with them that warrants it, reach out prior to the show and see if they would meet with you while there. If not, when you get there, search them out.
  • Vendors: This is another valuable connection to make at a trade show. Typically, our products are only a small piece of customer’s total operation. Our products and services will function along side a multitude of other products from other vendors. This is a chance for you to connect with those other vendors and see how your products and theirs might make a better fit for the customer. Obviously, I am not referring to your competition. However, this is not a bad time to do a drive by of their booth to see what they are up to.
  • Industry Connections:
    • Associations: They are all there: the executive director, the president, Vice Pres., the VP of membership. What a great opportunity to meet them. Expand on this opportunity to not only meet them, but ask how you or your company might be of greater service to the association.
      • Possible Opportunities to engage with an association:
      •  Offer a tour of your facilities for one of their meetings.
      •  Speaking at one of their events or at this show, next year.
      •  Additional, new or creative sponsorship opportunities. I have many ideas on this concept. The best part is the majority are very inexpensive or free.
  • Industry Leaders: This is your opportunity to network with the best minds in your industry. The PhD’s, the MBA’s, and even a few of us with BS degrees are at the trade shows. The top producers and leaders in your industry are all in one place at one time. They’re brought in to speak, hold workshops, and sit on panels. Don’t miss this opportunity to connect. Again, reach out ahead of time and see if they would take a few minutes to meet with you. Odds are, they are not booked 100% of their time at the show. Also, they are going to eat three meals a day. Why not share one of those with you? Take some time to get out of your booth and go meet them.
  • Brand Building: The ultimate ROI from any trade show is the brand you are building. We know that a good-looking booth, with good displays of our latest products is key to representing our brand. That’s good, but I want you to go one step further. Okay, may be some of my tactics are two steps further, but that’s what you need to do to differentiate in today’s noisy marketplace. A trade show is your golden opportunity to build your personal brand as well.  In my opinion, that is the most important brand to build.

To understand how, go back into sales mode and think about the folks running the trade show. What are they trying to accomplish with the show? What is causing problems for them in reaching their goals? When you get the answers, solve those problems. Here’s a few of the most common problems: show attendance, speakers, and show activities.

Every trade show I know is in search of more attendees. The bigger the better as it means more income to promote the show for the following year. Offer to bring your resources to help. Maybe you can use your social media platforms to interview the show manager and promote the top activities that will be going on. Offer to promote it through your customers, vendors and industry contacts. When doing so, look to do more than just reposting their advertisement.

At the show, there is always a need for resources. What does your company have a lot of? Most show managers will accept anything that is free and helps attendees have a better show experience.

What if you are at a show that has none of these struggles? Get creative and create our own opportunities. Look for any area of the show that is a bottle neck or that attendees struggle with. Maybe it’s finding a location at the show; a stage area that’s difficult to find or that isn’t getting much attention. Approach the show with an offer to help promote it or get signage. Obviously, with your brand on it.

Next look for any clear or open space that is not being used. Get creative on how you might use it. We parked a full-size F-150 we were raffling off in the lobby of a convention center. We set up a registration station and put our signage all over it as it became a definite conversation piece for the whole weekend.

In the speaking world, there is a term called industry speakers. That’s you. You speak specifically on your topic: nutrition, crop production, etc. The reason show managers love you is that you’re free. The other speakers are paid from the show’s limited budget. So, the show manager has to fill in a lot of time slots with free speakers. This is a great opportunity to build not only your brand but your companies’ brand. Obviously, you can’t go on stage and talk about your products like an infomercial. However, just the fact that you are presenting gives you more credibility than you can imagine. You are seen as an expert because you spoke on a topic. Someone thought enough of you to put you on stage. While you may fear speaking more than death itself, you shouldn’t. You will be talking about your industry, your technology, your products (inadvertently). That alone should give you the confidence to go onstage. If you really have anxiety about it, join Toastmasters. It’s a great way to hone your speaking skills. If still too worried, then you might offer one of your product managers or tech staff to speak.

As the last agribusiness trade shows wind down in the next few weeks and you decide to finally do something with the mountain of leads from those shows, take a few minutes to reflect on all the different pieces of ROI at the various shows. Here are two questions to prime the pump of creativity:

Did you accomplish the goals you set for the shows? Did you even set a goal for each show?

About the Author: Greg Martinelli runs Ag Sales Professionals, a sales training, coaching and speaking service focused on agribusiness teams.

For more information on Ag sales training, coaching, business development, or to obtain a copy of his new book, “A Season for Sales: Your Guide to Ag Sales Success” contact Greg Martinelli at

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