To Go or Not to Go: Choosing the Right Events for Your Small Business

There’s a lot to consider before you sign up for an event. Learn how to choose the right trade show or conference for your small business needs.

Industry trade shows and events can help you stay current with trends, raise company visibility and connect with customers and partners. But they also require a significant investment of your small business’s time and money.

The trick to getting your money’s worth from an event is to be disciplined during the selection process. You probably have all the information at your fingertips to make an informed decision for your small business — you just have to use it.

Ask yourself the following questions before deciding to go to an event.

Does It Have What I Need Right Now?

Payback from a show is only possible if an event’s offerings map to your pressing needs. While this may sound obvious, plenty of small companies attend some shows reflexively, or head out to events without fully understanding their value.

For example, if your focus is on gaining new customers in a competitive marketplace, events that are organized to showcase new product innovations may be misses. While you should certainly keep up with product trends to succeed, you can do this from your office, and save your time and resources for shows that more directly support customer acquisition. Likewise, if you are looking to build your visibility, the right show is the one that accepts you as a speaker. You may net more from a good show that provides this visibility over a great show that does not.

Do I Need to Attend the Big Industry Trade Shows?

All industries have at least one “gala” trade show a year. This is the one with the huge booths, the parties and the press coverage. These “see-and-be-seen” shows can lack actual opportunities for smaller companies, though. The reason? They tend to pay back for larger players that can attract people with big parties and gimmicky trade show booth antics.

Of course, you might be able to ride the wave and make contacts for projects and partners. More often, though, the people you want to meet may be far too busy at these shows to spare a few minutes to talk. If you attend these events to keep up with industry innovations, keep in mind that you can do most of this through news and social media. You may not swear off these events forever, but consider from year to year whether attendance moves your small company toward its goals. You can sit it out for one year if the answer is no.

Are People at the Trade Show Looking for What I Offer?

One piece of the puzzle is identifying a show attended by the people you want to connect with. Another is the state of mind of the people at the show. For example, if you attend an event to connect with buyers for your public relations services, you may have a difficult time getting mindshare if they are focused on seeing new trade show displays and flagging trends ahead of the competition.

Ask yourself what motivates people to attend the show you’re considering, and look elsewhere if you think their motives don’t align with yours. Look for events that offer the best opportunity to share your message — perhaps shows your target buyers attend to build their efficiency or learn from peers, for instance. Following prospects on social media can give insight into other places you may intersect with them.

Do I Know Attendee Titles?

Event organizers understandably tout the names of the companies committed to exhibiting and speaking. It is easy to get excited about access to these organizations and overlook the important step of verifying who exactly from these companies plans to attend.

For example, if you sell research, the senior vice president of sales is not likely to help you much. Likewise, someone in finance or a chief information officer is not a good contact if you want to pitch marketing or recruiting. To find out whether the people you seek will be at an event, dig into the agenda, session by session, to determine who is speaking. If the event website has an agenda that is not filled in, contact the event organizer for more details. If their information is scant, review social media for chatter about who is going.

Of course, cost is also a major factor in deciding whether to attend a trade show. Along with attendance or exhibitor fees, travel and lodging, consider the opportunity cost related to being away from your business. Weighing these costs against the potential benefits can help you choose the shows with the greatest gains to your small business.