How To Exhibit At Jewelry Shows

This article originally appeared in the form of a workbook. It was designed to be read, mulled over, written in and drawn upon. In the workbook version, the text appeared on right-hand pages, with tips and advice on the left-hand pages, along with space to answer some questions posed or to use for your own notes. This version will follow a different format, but will offer much of the same information.

You’re not expected to agree with every thought. Indeed, thoughtful and measured disagreement is healthy and useful. But if you disagree, stop and think for a moment why you disagree. Make sure you have an intelligent response, not just a negative reaction.

It’s a fact. Some people have 20 years’ experience exhibiting at trade shows; others simply have one year’s experience repeated 20 times. Where do you belong?


“We learn from our errors, perhaps most of all from our shameful mistakes. I therefore begin with a story at my own expense.” Stephen Jay Gould

As I start this article – packed with observations, facts and research – on how to become a more effective exhibitor, let me preface my comments with a true story.

Several years ago I was judging a trade show in Dallas, Tex. First, I presented my seminar to the exhibitors on the do’s and don’t’s of exhibiting; then I walked out on the floor.

Several hours later I awarded the first place ribbon to an exhibit that violated almost every “rule” I had preached!

The exhibit was flush to the aisle. It allowed no ease of interaction. The exhibit staff was forced to mill about in the aisles. But, boy, was the exhibit effective! It was a pyramid of cacti and succulents that shot at least 20 feet into the air. It was a kaleidoscope of color and assorted varieties of plants. Soft, peppy cowboy music played as exhibit staff handed out samples and distributed literature. Drawings for their products were conducted every half hour.

The exhibit violated about every rule known to trade show experts – but violated them so outrageously that it was effective. I was informed later that that particular exhibitor exhibited only once a year…at that show. The company usually wrote about 85% of its yearly orders at that time.

So what you are about to read is a compilation of guidelines and experiences that form a general consensus of what can and should be done to maximize your effectiveness at a trade show. But if you are fat, dumb and happy with your current results, I don’t recommend scrapping what you’re doing and rebuilding from scratch. Instead, use common sense and see if some of this material can be incorporated in your plans.


Why do you exhibit? Hold on; that’s not such an obvious question. People who conduct research in this field say there are many reasons why people exhibit at trade or professional shows. Among them:

1. Show the flag, let people know that you’re still around.

2. Check out the competition.

3. Make sales.

4. Service long-established customers.

5. Meet people.

6. Get feedback on your lines (and your competitors’)…and on and on and on.

I’m sure these all are justifiable reasons why some people exhibit but I must confess that I exhibit for one reason, and one reason only: to make sales. Oh, to be sure, the sale might come a year later, so I would accept the answer of “Getting leads.” But I’m not interested in being a professional visitor, a “hale fellow, well met,” or even being a good entertainer. I want to make sales because sales translate into income and more income means my family can enjoy such luxuries as food, clothing and shelter. Strangely, my family has grown used to regular meals. Now they expect them! I have found that whereas it is true that you cannot buy happiness, you can rent it for long weekends. But only if you sell!

The staff of Trade Show Seminars interviewed more than 1,000 exhibitors at trade shows throughout the United States and Canada in 1990 and 1991 and found that 100% of them who exhibited more than twice a year did so for one primary reason: to sell.

Once you understand that most people do indeed exhibit in order to gain sales, you next must focus on how to get people who are interested in your product to stop at your exhibit. These are people who might possibly place an order.

Factoid: Research indicates that only about 16% to 20% of attendees on a show floor at any given time have a specific interest in any one exhibitor. They may not be interested in your product, or they already have a supplier for the product or they have some other reason for not wanting to stop at your exhibit.

It’s easy to build traffic if all you want to do is produce gross numbers of people who left a card or stopped to chat. Simply give away microwave ovens, popcorn or radios. Or have a “personality” in the exhibit to sign autographs. Or put in a putting green or a dart board.

You’ll attract the numbers, all right, but they won’t be the “right” numbers.

Some exhibitors will tell you that if they can build a big enough crowd with a magician or card shark or whatever, then they’ll find the right customers in that crowd. But I’ve seldom seen it happen. I’ve seen people with no interest in turf stop at a nursery exhibit to sign up for a radio. Many people who could care less about gold chains will stop at a jewelry exhibit just to try three putts on a “golf green” or grab a free this or that. Basketball hoops are popular. People stop, shoot…and move on.

The exhibitor beams. Another body stopped at his exhibit. Yes, and another body took up time and space, then moved on without the slightest interest in your product.

If you use a traffic builder in your exhibit, three rules apply:

1. It must relate to your product or service.

2. It must further your sales objectives directly.

3. It cannot be offensive to some reasonable element of society.

The same basic common sense applies to give-aways at your exhibit. Do you know where the cheap pens, rulers and whistles that glow in the dark and play Dixie end up? Ask the maids in the hotels around the trade show. Or just glance in the trash cans in the convention center. Most people will accept your little novelties, then toss them away at the first convenient stop (or take them home as gifts for the kids).

So let’s start with the premise that you are at a trade show to sell more product. Anything that hinders, or does not promote, that effort is wasted time, energy and effort. We need to focus on our primary objective: to attract people into the exhibit and to explain our product/service with the goal of selling.

One of our first considerations is the design of the exhibit. You might be interested to know that big, expensive, commercially-produced exhibits certainly gain the “oohs” and “aahs” from the crowds but they don’t necessarily outsell small, less expensive exhibits. The key factors in an exhibit’s success are:

1. Staff knowledge and behavior.

2. Design of the exhibit – (a) openness; (b) shapes, colors.

3. Follow up.

Let’s turn our attention now to the actual mechanics of designing an effective exhibit in terms of shapes, colors, and creating a customer-friendly environment.


Exhibiting at a jewelry show is radically different from exhibiting at most other trade gatherings. First and foremost, security is a prime concern. Not only are the items displayed small and easily pocketed but the dollar value per item is unusually high. Perhaps only exhibitors at coin, stamp or other shows of small objets d’art rival the dilemma faced by a jewelry show.

Dilemma: How to display merchandise in an open and friendly manner and still maintain security.

All Trade Show Seminar Inc. research indicates that an exhibitor has a greater chance of selling if the potential customer can enter the exhibit area easily, view the products on display and converse with exhibit personnel. The key words are:

Enter the exhibit area easily.

Research also shows that certain exhibit designs are more effective than others in bringing people in off the aisles; that the way exhibitors dress is directly related to sales success; and that even the colors used in the exhibit can help or hinder the sales process.

Most exhibitors at jewelry shows appear purposefully to defy the most basic concepts of exhibiting. They build “forts” by placing tables and display counters across the front of their exhibits, literally defying the customer to enter their space. They display merchandise flat in the back of their exhibits or on the bottom shelves of glass cases. Prospective customers have to bend over awkwardly, or crane their necks and peer into dimly-lit corners.

Most of the exhibitors dress in a casual fashion, more appropriate for social activity. They tend to lounge about in chairs, sipping coffee and chatting with other exhibitors while customers flow by like Ol’ Man River.

Then these exhibitors complain about the show and their lack of business!

This article is designed to provide basic, fundamental guidelines for exhibitors, guidelines that can be used as benchmarks for future shows – but not as absolute, unbreakable rules. A seasoned, professional exhibitor knows when and how to deviate from standard accepted practices and does so with a purpose and for a reason.


In reality, there are only two types of exhibit: open and closed. One is easy to enter and examine items; the other cannot be entered, or at least cannot be entered easily, and usually ends up with the exhibitor on one side of the table and the attendee on the other.

Figure 1 is a classic example of a closed exhibit and Figure 2 is a vanilla open exhibit.

All other designs simply are variations of the open and closed exhibit formats. For example, JCK produced an excellent little guide a few years back which illustrated the following types of design (Figures 3-10):

The store counter (Figure 3): If used properly, the store counter applies in a situation where you want to see a lot of customers briefly, over-the-counter if you will. But building groups, getting customer involvement and confidentiality are difficult under these circumstances.

The display demo (Figure 4): This allows the exhibitor to highlight one product or a group of products. You can feature the product you want.

People will tend to congregate around the table in the center which gives you an opportunity to perform an intricate, detailed demonstration, perhaps on a continuing basis. You can both display and demonstrate.

The display center (Figure 5): This looks something like the flow-through and look (Figure 9), where you generally depend on the display itself to do all the work. If you try to stop customers to talk to them, the result usually is a traffic tie-up that blocks the entrance.

In the demonstration center (Figure 6), on the other hand, salespeople can approach customers as they’re looking at the displays. Then they can move them out of the traffic flow to talk to them.

This center is designed to demonstrate a variety of different products or services. Each table can have a different display. This is an exhibit that allows salespeople to greet customers and qualify them. The salesperson can guide the individual customer to the table or tables of most interest to him or her.

The collector (Figure 7): This is an ideal layout if you want to gather people into a group for a short presentation or demonstration. They walk in past your display, then enter a larger room. And the exit is somewhat hidden so they have a natural tendency to remain together, especially if there’s a salesperson there to intercept them.

Random access (Figure 8): This layout is good if you just want customers to look at a display or pick up literature. It’s ideal for handling a huge traffic volume or to expose the audience to a quick message.

Flow-through and look (Figure 9): This layout also is good if you want customers to look at a display or pick up literature. It’s ideal for handling a huge traffic volume or to expose the audience to a quick message.

Mini-conference/private conference (Figure 10, page 346): Use these conference designs when you must have confidentiality. You can vary the design by having more than one private room or area.

All these layouts are simplifications; they are just ideas. When you design your own exhibit, you’ll probably expand on one of these basic designs or combine features from several of the basic designs.


Dead center. Most seasoned pros know that the most heavily trafficked area is dead center. Everything intersects there. Better yet! Dead center near the competition. Piggyback on the competition. You’ll build more serious traffic!

Location myth #1: Locate near a restroom or food service area. Why? Because lots of people congregate there? Sure, but for the wrong reasons. People tend to enter and exit the restroom areas quickly. Exhibits near food service areas often become garbage collection areas.

Location myth #2: Locate near the entrance doors. Why? People tend to use the entrance area as a place to meet friends and then leave the exhibit hall. Also, this area tends to get congested; traffic blocks up, forcing people away from the exhibits. Select the “first in” area only if there’s plenty of space between the doors and the exhibit area.


Most jewelry exhibitors tend to adopt the closed exhibit format because it provides maximum security for merchandise and provides psychological comfort by creating a traditional store counter model. Unfortunately, research reveals that the open exhibit concept is far more effective in promoting sales.

At first blush, these appear to be contradictory designs but they are surprisingly compatible once you understand and remove certain psychological barriers.

Most exhibitors want to place their merchandise front and center in the exhibit because they feel that’s where they gain maximum visibility. Thus they shove a table or counter flush to the aisle. But in doing so they create a fortress-like appearance that forces potential customers to stand in the aisle as they try to examine the merchandise. Not only is the customer now a traffic barrier to others in the aisle but there is no privacy when interacting with the exhibitor.

Several beneficial things occur if you simply move the table two or three feet into the exhibit area (Figure 11):

1. Merchandise still is front and center.

2. The customer now is out of the aisle and into the exhibit.

3. Confidentiality and privacy are created.

4. Interaction between customer and exhibitor is promoted!

5. The customer now can sit down in the exhibit.

6. Viewing of goods is improved.

7. Security is maintained.

8. Psychologically the exhibit is friendlier.


Most show exhibitors display their merchandise with the flair and imagination of a carnival vendor. Usually they imitate in-store displays and jam as much merchandise as possible into the available space. The counters have flat shelves with indirect lighting that produces stabbing shadows and darkened crevices. Please understand a basic concept of exhibiting:

Presentation of merchandise is the sizzle that sells the steak!

A mortal sin in exhibiting is to display items flat on tables or counters in the back of the exhibit or to display them at lower than waist level. Items must be up and visible to be displayed more effectively.

Slant boards (Figure 12) are the single most effective way to present jewelry in a static display.

A slant board simply is a covered board with slots or loops to hold items securely in place when the board is elevated to make viewing easier. Research shows that the most effective slant boards have a six-inch elevation front to back, are about 15 to 18 in. long and have three or four rows of displayed items.

Sales personnel have long known that you never display more than three similar items in the same price range at one time.

The width can vary and can have various shapes to create pleasing aesthetic lines (Figure 13).

Slant boards may be covered in a soft material that does not detract from the merchandise displayed. Because various gems and objets d’art are accented best by different colors, it’s impossible to lay down hard and fast rules on color. But certain guidelines apply:

Preferable colors:

  • Lighter gray

  • Coral

  • Maroon

  • Peach

  • Pastel

  • Off-white

  • Black

  • Colors to avoid:

  • Bright orange

  • Pea-green

  • Neons

  • Shocking red


  • White, green, blue – object appears larger

  • Red, orange – object appears smaller

  • Light colors – advance

  • Dark colors – recede

  • Orange, yellow, brown – stimulating

  • Red, violet – aggressive/disturbing

  • Dark blue, green – soothing


Best:Black on white

Black on yellowNext:Yellow on black

White on black

Dark blue on white

Darker greens on whitePoor:

Red on white

Red on yellowAvoid: Green on red

Red on green

Orange on black

Orange on white

Black on blue

Yellow on whiteNote: Obviously exceptions exist. These suggestions are for readability, not for design purposes.


The use of lighting is perhaps one of the most overlooked facets of exhibit design. Rookie exhibitors often don’t even think of the effects of lighting on their space, but the professional exhibitor knows and understands the power of illumination!

I have walked exhibit halls in three continents and have never seen a room where the “normal” overhead lights are adequate to really light an exhibit. Most extra lighting, however, is restricted to the illumination of the exhibit’s name sign. That is important but we need more. As we’ve seen in the section on design, each exhibit should have its own separate lighting. It doesn’t have to be expensive. Often a $35 tripod and hooded light from a discount store is enough. It should be directed at the “magnet” that will draw an attendee’s eyes right to the show special – and the magnet better be sufficiently interesting to hold the attendee’s attention.

Other lighting is desirable. Recessed corner lights are effective if you use display cases or counters. The key is to understand that direct lighting will attract the eye and the best way to focus the eye on the magnet is through specialized focused lighting.


Another common mistake is simply to loop hanging items at the rear of the exhibit. Smart exhibitors present selected strands separately with appropriate individual lighting. Use professionally prepared signs – not hand-lettered notes – to announce variations in design, weight, color, etc.

If you don’t feel the need to have a table or counter front and center in the exhibit area, congratulations! You now have the opportunity to develop a really creative and customer-friendly exhibit.

Obviously, forget about placing any type of barrier in front of the exhibit. By eliminating the fortress-effect of the front table/counter you can literally triple the display area (see Figure 14).

The ability to interact with your customers is increased geometrically. In fact, studies reveal that an open exhibit easily outsells a closed exhibit – and by a considerable margin. The evolution of open exhibits follows the pattern shown in Figure 15.

A basic open exhibit is good but an open exhibit with side-tables and a back table with elevated displays is even better. Far and away the best open exhibit is one designed to take advantage of the traffic flow in front of the exhibit. The exhibitor who ascertains in which direction most foot traffic is moving, then places a table (with his key show item) to catch maximum eye exposure, increases sales potential (see Figure 16).

In this demonstration, the staff determines that the traffic is moving predominantly from right to left, so they place their key item or “magnet” in the left side of the exhibit, where the customers’ eyes will linger longer.Note: You have two to three seconds per running foot of exhibit to attract someone into the booth.


IBM studies show that stations 46 to 52 in. high have advantages over regular tables:

1. No bending.

2. More privacy.

3. More comfortable.

4. Good viewing.

You’ll have to ask the show decorator in advance for such stations. I have risers built that I can slip under my tables to elevate them. (Yes, I also have my own extra-long skirts for the tables.)


1. Arrive five minutes before your shift is to begin. Chat with staff and ascertain problems, questions, etc.

2. Never leave the exhibit unattended. If you’re the only staffer and nature calls, leave a sign saying exactly when you will return. Don’t leave a sign that says, “Be back in 10 minutes.” When did you leave?

3. Dress professionally to instill confidence. Leave wild, ultra-modern apparel at home. Look like a dependable business person.

4. Wear your name badge on the right side so it’s easier for the customer to read when you shake hands.

5. Do not smoke or eat in the exhibit.

6. Stand, do not sit in the exhibit.

7. Be pro-active, not reactive. Make eye contact and step forward with your hand extended. Don’t wait for the customer to approach you.

8. Keep the exhibit area clean. A cluttered, dirty exhibit is a poor way to make a first impression.

9. Remember, when you are not on duty – rest. A trade show is not a social event for the exhibitor. It is hard work. Long trade show hours and late night activities do not mix.

10. If problems occur, tell the show sponsor immediately. The sponsor, just as much as you, wants the show to be a success, so that you will come back. The sponsor will try to solve your problem – if he knows about it.


Everyone knows you need good eye contact to build confidence in the buyer-seller relationship. But that is only half the story.

You’ll notice that, as a person walks down the aisle at a trade show, he or she has a definite pattern of eye movement. Usually, the first place the eyes go is to the sign identifying the exhibit.

We know that, for maximum results, the sign should be 40% to 50% of the length of the exhibit and at least two feet wide. You should use a sans serif typeface for the lettering and identify what is being sold, if the company’s name is not easily recognized.

After the sign, the buyer’s eyes move to the material on display in the exhibit, coming to rest at the far corner of the exhibit as it is approached. This is where you put the show special or “magnet,” preferably with a separate light illuminating the item.

After looking at the merchandise, next the buyer usually seeks out the exhibitor who is standing in the exhibit facing the aisle. This is the point where smiles and nods are exchanged.

The fourth placement of the buyer’s eyes is the key for movement on the exhibitor’s part. If the customer looks at the exhibitor and then looks down the aisle again, this usually indicates disinterest. But if the customer looks at the exhibitor and then looks behind him into the exhibit for a second time, bingo! This usually indicates interest. Now the exhibitor steps from the exhibit, extends his/her hand and greets the potential buyer.

Always use professionally prepared signs in your exhibit. Even little informational signs must convey an impression of professionalism. Hand-lettered signs and post ’em notes are for rookies. Be a pro!

1. Use sans serif type (plain, without fancy embellishments).

2. Some modified serif might be acceptable.

3. Avoid decorative typefaces – they’re confusing and hard to read.

Remember, all signs and graphics must be clearly readable/recognizable from the middle of the trade show aisle, often a distance of 15 feet or more. Use the eye ball test. Walk into the aisle and see if you can read the signs in your exhibit easily.


End booths have a tremendous advantage, if properly designed. But exhibitors lose if they simply see an end booth as an exhibit space at the end of the aisle.

The key is the pipe and draping. Always check with show management, but I have never encountered a show that required an end booth to keep the pipe and drape up.

Look at Figure 17a and then at Figure 17b. In 17a, the exhibitor has left the pipe and drape up and has a clearly defined niche. Unfortunately, it looks small and is seen as an attendee circles the end of the aisle. Any traffic at all forces people wide.

Now look at Figure 17b when the pipe and drape have been removed (the old boundaries are shown with dotted lines). You’ll note that attendees will tend to turn right into the exhibit, not around it. Clever display material can actually maneuver attendees into the exhibit as part of the normal foot traffic. Plus, psychologically, the exhibit area looks much larger than the single space it actually is!

If at all possible, remove the pipe and drape. You’ll see a new wide-open, attendee-friendly design that draws people into your exhibit.

Incidentally, you can do the same thing with an end-of-the-aisle exhibit simply by dropping the pipe and drape at the end of the aisle. Again, the space looks much bigger and more friendly.


The oversized exhibit (Figure 18), or what some call a multiple access, is exactly what it appears to be – much larger than a double or even triple booth space. These big exhibits can be 50 by 50 ft. or even take up an entire section of an exhibit hall. The key describing factor focuses on the fact that there are many ways to enter and leave the exhibit, often without being addressed by the exhibit’s personnel.

It’s easy to create a well-organized oversized exhibit that makes well thought out use of space. But in reality much money is wasted creating elaborate designs that simply aren’t functional.

The basic premise of the oversized exhibit is to draw attendees out of the aisles and into the center of the exhibit. You may have demonstration stations and conversation tables set up on the perimeter. But the key is to draw people into the exhibit.

The center of the exhibit, therefore, should be hollow or be a place where attendees can sit down for unhurried conversation or a demonstration. This is one of the few exhibit spaces that permits sofas, tables and even a coffee service. There simply isn’t enough space in a single or double booth for such a luxury.

The danger in such large exhibits is the potential of “losing” attendees as they weave in and out. It’s important to place the “magnet” or special attraction well away from the aisle to draw attendees in and then to have enough staff on hand so the potential buyers don’t get “lost.”

There are various formulas to figure out how many staffers you need for an oversized exhibit but the one that’s worked best for me is this: simply figure out how many 10 by 10 ft. exhibit spaces are included in the oversized area, then multiply that number by 1.5. This gives you a rough working figure to start planning.

That figure, of course, gives you only the count for sales staffing. You will need more people if you also offer a hospitality area.

Some organizations with oversized exhibits dress their staff alike, in matching suits or sports clothes. Trade Show Seminar exit interviews don’t reveal any advantages in that strategy and some people feel intimidated if they’re approached by an army of uniformed sales personnel. My personal observation is similar. If an exhibit has only uniformly dressed personnel on duty and if few of them are talking with attendees, people have a tendency not to walk into the exhibit.


You know the answer to that question. You always stand at a trade show if you are physically able to do so. Non-verbal communication tells a person that someone sitting down doesn’t want to be disturbed, but a standing person signals openness and accessibility. If you have back problems and can’t stand for long periods of time, do what I do with my staff.

I have bar stools with wooden legs cut to fit each person’s height. The legs are cut so the stool is rear-end high which lets a person lean back against it, placing the buttocks on the stool without sitting down. For all intents and purposes, the person “appears” to be standing, but all the weight is transferred on to the stool.


Make sure you shake hands. It’s the only socially acceptable way for strangers to touch and we know it’s easier to sell someone if there’s a feeling of trust and social bonding, something promoted by shaking hands. This is especially important for women. Women of my generation were taught that men shook hands, not women, and a man was taught it was the lady’s choice whether to extend her hand or not. A gentleman did not force the issue by extending his hand first.

Well, this is fine if we’re going to a ball, a Cotillion, or a Presidential reception. But I work a trade show to make contacts and sales, and so do you. So, men, you will extend your hand first as a sign of friendliness and greeting and it doesn’t matter whether it’s a man or a woman who’s approaching. Women, in sales you better extend your hand for a business handshake – or you will lose a tremendous psychological advantage.

Always wear your name badge on the right side of your body. That is the side of the body that rotates forward when you shake hands.

Most people simply grab the name badge holder and clip it on the breast coat pocket. Since most people are right handed, that is a natural move. However, we want people to remember our names. So professional sales personnel always wear their name badges on the right hand side – even if it means you have to bring your own see-through holder and put your name badge in the holder.

You must wear your name badge where it can be seen plainly. This means you don’t half cover it with a suit lapel, nor do you fasten it to a belt, a purse, or tape it to your shoes. You wear it so it is up and clearly visible.

When you approach someone at a trade show, extend your hand and greet the person. Unless you know someone, use his/her last name and your first name; avoid undue familiarity, which often offends people. For example, “Mr. Smith, hi, I’m Sherlock Helms.” Now, that’s no problem if you’re addressing a man. But what if it is a woman? There’s no hard and fast rule for this situation but I’ll tell you what I do. I try to glance at her ring hand. If I see a ring, I automatically call her “Mrs.” If I do not see a ring, or if I can’t see if she’s wearing one, she becomes “Ms.” My experience is that most married women in the business world are not offended by “Mrs.,” indeed they expect it. I also find that more women, in this day and age, are offended less with “Ms.” than with “Miss.” But that’s my experience. If you have a better way, use it!

When you approach a prospect don’t ask a question that can be answered “yes” or “no.” In other words, do not say, “Mrs. Smith, hi, I’m Sherlock Helms. May I show you some…?” She can say “No,” and where do you go from there?

Instead, ask questions that require an answer other than yes or no or do what I do and give a statement such as, “Mrs. Smith, hi, I’m Sherlock Helms and I’d like to show you….”

When greeting:

1. Don’t ask questions that can be answered “yes” or “no.”

2. Pull a response from the attendee.

3. Examples:

“What is your biggest mover?”

“What are you using now?”

“What are you looking for?”

4. My favorite: “I’d like to show you….”

You’ll find that with a little practice you can greet the potential customer, shake hands, and give your statement while turning your body and pointing into your exhibit. At my seminars, I call it the “Helms Trade Show Two-Step” which, incidentally, women seem to master more quickly than men. I think that’s because they’ve been dancing backwards their whole lives!

In any event, exhibit personnel must be pro-active, not reactive, dress properly, step from the exhibit, greet and shake hands, and address the attendee properly. It’s not that hard. In fact, it’s quite simple once you understand the basics and the importance of doing it the right way.


If you must have chairs in your exhibit area, it can be extremely effective to have your company name silk-screened on to canvas-back deck chairs. Coordinate all colors in the exhibit area.

Whenever possible, use carpeting in your exhibit. It dresses it up, gives the impression of quality and class and eliminates the coldness of a concrete floor. It also softens the area and makes it easier to stand for long periods.

Whenever possible, provide your own skirting for demonstration stations and tables. You then can color-coordinate the exhibit’s interior, giving a more professional appearance. Also, you can have your company name silk-screened or applied to the skirting for dramatic effect.


The “Big Three” everyone knows:

1. Do not smoke in your exhibit.

2. Do not eat in your exhibit.

3. Do not sit down in your exhibit.

But a second set of guidelines also is important:

4. Do not chat with other exhibitors if customers are on the floor.

5. Do not leave your exhibit unattended.

6. Do not dress inappropriately.

It should be obvious that smoking and eating discourage people from wanting to visit with you. Sitting down is equally bad from a non-verbal communication standpoint.

People are hesitant to break into another person’s conversation, so if you’re engaged in idle chatter with another exhibitor, you both lose. The unattended booth was the No. 1 complaint that Trade Show Seminars staff identified in exit interviews with show attendees in 1990 and 1991. Some people were angry, some frustrated and some almost amused that an exhibitor would leave an exhibit unattended. They all took their business elsewhere!

How to dress at a trade show varies depending on the show and the expectations. Some shows demand suits, ties and business apparel. Others may be more casual and no one publication can give all the options. Suffice it to say that neatness and cleanliness are required.

Jewelry show exit interviews found people commenting on the cleanliness of finger nails, whether shoes were polished and the presence or absence of neck ties. These are items that probably would not be mentioned at a farm equipment show.

Certain factors stand apparent, however. You dress in a way that’s appropriate to your customers’ expectations or to your product. If you’re dealing with doctors, lawyers and Indian chiefs, you’d better dress in a manner to inspire confidence. It doesn’t mean you have to imitate their dress. Indeed, a golfing resort exhibit staff might most appropriately dress in white slacks, sweaters and have golf clubs in their hands. But the dress must be reasoned out and appropriate. Chances are that if you sell Rolex watches and you wear sweat pants, an open-necked shirt and have an unlit cigar in your mouth, you won’t create the image you need!

True story. In 1987, I was “fogged in” at the airport in Medford, Oregon. In fact the whole region was experiencing such bad weather no air traffic had come in or left the airport in three days. We even made the national news. I arrived at the airport, ticket in hand, without much hope of leaving but found the airline had chartered a bus and all passengers were going to be taken to Klamath Falls. It was only about an hour away but on the other side of the mountains where the airports were open.

As we started to leave for the bus, a woman from a local television station approached me and asked if I would do her a favor. Her crew had shot some footage of the fogged-in community and wanted to get it to their national affiliate in Portland. She asked if I would take the package for her and drop it off at an airline counter in Portland, where their personnel would pick it up.

I agreed, but then a question hit me. Why me? I mean there literally were a dozen of us heading for the bus. Why did she select me? So I asked her. I swear on my mother’s grave, she looked at me and smiled and said, “You look reliable. You’re wearing a suit and tie.” No joke! I knew the other people getting on the airline bus; two Rotarians, a minister and even a representative of the airline. But they were dressed casually in ski garb and traveling clothes.

If you think the way you dress doesn’t influence others, you are wrong.


The fiddle factor is the sales technique that says you have a much greater chance of selling a product if the person visiting the exhibit can touch it, feel it, smell it or bite it. If you can get the attendee involved in the sales process he or she gets the feeling of ownership. Sales & Marketing magazine once had a chart that illustrates this point:

Don’t just show a watch. Put it on her. Let her see how it looks and feels. Give her psychic ownership.


Some sales personnel think they can talk themselves into sales. Yet every study on selling in the past 10 years, of which I am aware, tells us the same thing: Good salespeople listen more than they talk.

Oh, someone in your life probably said to you, “My, you’re a silver-tongued devil! I bet you could talk a pig into a ham sandwich.” So you thought to sell you had to talk. Wrong. High on the list of any sales primer is the ability to listen. When you ask questions that provoke an answer, you can discover a person’s needs!

A good salesperson, especially at a trade show, listens much more than talks. The sages of the ages have told us this simple fact:

“Nature gave us two ears and one tongue so we could talk the less and listen the more.” – Zeno

“Give all men thy ear, but few thy voice.” – Shakespeare

Even the Bible alerts us to the folly of talking too much. It tells us that Samson killed 10,000 men with the jawbone of an ass. And 10,000 sales are lost every day with the same weapon! In the exhibit, ask questions that make the attendee talk so you can understand his or her needs, wants and desires. Don’t try simply to move inventory. Try to solve a dilemma for the attendee. Try to fix a problem.


You’d think, in this day and age, that exhibitors would be more sensitive to social norms and cultures than to use women in their exhibits simply to draw a crowd. But even a cursory examination of some major shows reveals that dinosaur brains are still alive!

Never use a woman as a sex object in your exhibit. Never. Studies show that most women resent such a sexist approach to selling and many men are put off by the ploy. Use staff members who know the product and/or service and can discuss it intelligently. I once judged a show where two women in bikinis posed with attendees for photographs in the back of an oversized exhibit. As I stood there and watched, two things jumped out:

1. Only men were in line and yet 50% of the attendees were women.

2. After getting their photo taken, they walked out of the exhibit without being contacted by the exhibit staff.

At another show, I saw a large manufacturer have a calendar pin-up queen sign autographs of her posters and semi-nude calendars. She was dressed in a tight, red leather halter, mini-skirt and high heels and leaned over a draftsman’s table to the admiring stares of a long line of men. None of them seemed the least bit interested in the product being displayed. A Japanese exhibitor and I watched the line for a few minutes and then he said, “You Americans have an odd way to sell trucks.”

Afterwards, he walked back to his exhibit which was busy with prospects examining cut-away models of engines, feeling sections of fenders and discussing warranties.

The use of women as sex objects has never been acceptable. In this day and age, anyone who thinks that using models and semi-dressed women to build a crowd ought to be sent to the nearest psychologist to find out what other illusions are lurking in the dark recesses of his atrophied brain.

Whenever I am asked to help sell from an exhibit at a trade show I always determine first if they want me because of my good looks and sex appeal or because I know the product and I have good sales skills. If I feel they’re using me simply as a sex object, I decline. (Hey, it could happen!)


Factoid revisited: Some research indicates that only 16% to 20% of the attendees on a trade show floor at any given time have an interest in an exhibitor’s product or service.

That factoid has tremendous implications for the serious exhibitor. It means that perhaps 80% of the people flowing like a river past his exhibit are not potential customers and any literature he gives them will be thrown away!

There are certain guidelines to be followed when developing literature:

1. Since most people make buying decisions long after a show is over, make sure the literature you give them is pregnant with facts, figures and statistics that will allow them to make an intelligent, informed decision in the privacy of their offices.

2. Go lightly on fluff, pictures and flowery verbiage. People see through that promotional propaganda. Check the garbage cans at the show site and in hotels and you’ll see what they throw away.

3. Three-hole punch your handout literature. Studies show that punched paper hangs around longer than unpunched paper. Why? No one knows for sure. But some theorize that when you were a student in school you were told to save punched papers and put them away. Perhaps this is a psychological throwback, but it is true.

4. Never run out of literature! Never. Never. Never!

5. Finally, never simply hand out literature to people as they walk by or exit your exhibit. Always go over the handouts with the attendee and even ask, “Does this answer your questions?” Literature simply thrust at people as they walk by or exit your exhibit gets tossed at the first opportunity. You must discuss all handouts if at all possible!


A not-too-scientific but very accurate way to determine the type of literature that’s kept and thrown away is to look in the garbage cans at the end of each aisle. Or ask the maids what they see as they empty waste baskets in the hotels adjacent to the exhibit hall. We usually hire college students for this “sophisticated” work and the results are always the same. They find beautiful, four-color, glossy photo graphs of equipment and products that are long on artistic design but short on facts, figures and statistics.

It’s worth repeating. People will smile and take almost anything you thrust at them but they toss it the first chance they get if it isn’t meaningful to them.

Do not count your show a success just because you gave away “X” number of pieces of literature or collected “Y” number of business cards.

Target your efforts on potential buyers, not mass numbers. Rifle your efforts, don’t shotgun. Any hunter will tell you the same story. Flock-shooting doesn’t work. It just makes you feel good. Focus only on those people who can use your product or service.


I don’t profess to be an expert on all facets of carpeting but recently I read an interesting article by someone who obviously researched the topic of the use of carpeting at trade shows. The author suggests that carpet padding should not be used under the carpet because it makes walking on the carpet like walking on sand. That is, at a trade show where you’re standing and walking for hours, the padding actually works to fatigue your legs. I experimented with both padded and unpadded carpeting and the author is correct! Padding may seem like a great idea but actually it’s more tiring on the legs at a long show.

Try to use carpeting whenever possible. Yes, it is hard to ship and expensive to rent but the added dimension it gives to an exhibit far outweighs the hassle. A color-coordinated carpet gives the image of stability and class.

The next time you are on a trade show floor, look at the exhibits with carpeting and those without, especially if they are next each other. The uncarpeted exhibit looks like a second-hand store. Exceptions? Sure. Large equipment shows or certain outside shows. But, for the most part…carpet the area!


While flying to a seminar recently, I read an article on business cards that amused me. It extolled the virtues of business cards with color photographs, pop-up designs and promoted the use of vivid hues and tones. I noted that the author worked for…the manufacturer of such cards.

Use common sense. How much confidence would you have in a surgeon who handed you a card with a color photograph and a pop-up design of a scalpel? Or an attorney whose card has a smiling face and a pop-up law book? Trade Show Seminars Inc. conducted surveys of more than 500 attendees at five major shows in 1992 and our findings were emphatic: when it comes to business cards, the highest favorable response is for a simple white or off-white card with black or dark blue ink, with a company logo or design.

Remember you are selling confidence, not flash-and-glitter. You are a serious professional, an exhibitor…not an exhibitionist! Gimmicks that detract from your serious message have a negative effect on your ability to close a sale.

Aside from the design, your business card obviously must be instantly available and clean. You may think that mentioning cleanliness is unnecessary. But even a cursory glance at many cards collected at shows reveals bent edges, stained faces and (gasp) even notes intended for personal consumption on the back.

Years ago, a seasoned trade show pro showed me a technique he used to gather information, using the attendees’ own cards. Every time he spoke with someone in his exhibit, that attendee was asked for a business card (if a card wasn’t available, they were asked politely to fill out a brief survey form).

After they left the exhibit, the exhibitor would simply write #1, #2 or #3 on the back of the card, with whatever shorthand notes he wanted. His system worked this way:

#1. Hot prospect – contact ASAP.

#2. Good potential – contact within two weeks after show.

#3. Poor prospect – no follow up unless special circumstances noted.

His system separated the obvious good potential customers from the low potential. My staff put one modification in this system. At the end of each day, we gathered in one room for a de-briefing session. We dumped all the cards on a table and divided them into the three piles.

By using a personal computer with a phone modem, we transferred the information, on-the-spot, to our main computer in the office. The next morning, a secretary retrieves the information, merges the names, addresses, etc., from our transmission on to a pre-written follow-up letter, and packets of information are sent with personalized salutations to all #1’s and #2’s.

Often, when the attendee gets back to the office from the show, that package of information is waiting. It makes quite a positive impression.


Send something visibly different from the material you distributed at the show. It may be the same basic information, but it should appear new and different to garner attention. Also, everyone who’s designated a #1 gets a promotional package that includes a sample audio tape or a video tape of one of my presentations, depending on the conversation, and a pre-stamped, mail-back postcard to see if the person wants to get on a permanent mailing list. Those designated as #2’s get the same material but only after the #1’s have been handled. The #3’s get a personalized letter but no package of material unless they initiate the correspondence.

Our research indicates that about 95% of the business we generate at trade shows comes from those individuals we instinctively designated at #1’s or #2’s on the spot.

This technique has yet another reward. Many exhibitors mail material to everyone on a show’s registration list. Yet we know that only about 20% of the people at any given time have an interest in any one exhibitor’s product or service. This is a great deal of material to be sent to people who will throw it away! Since it costs me more than $5 to send a follow-up packet, including video tape and sometimes next-day delivery, I can’t afford to send material to dozens, if not hundreds, of attendees who do not want my material in the first place. The hidden value of this system is simple. It allows you to cull the #3’s from any registration list and helps you save money by not mailing to the wrong people!


1. Is your exhibit’s name at the highest point possible, giving the attendee easy recognition of your product or service?

2. Is your sign styled in sans serif or modified serif letters? If not, why not?

3. Are your graphics the correct size to be read easily from the middle of the aisle? (At least the headings.)

4. Does your exhibit allow easy access or have you created barriers between you and the attendee?

5. Are the counters and tables at the recommended height of 46 to 52 in.? If not, why not?

6. Is the entire exhibit well lit, especially your exhibit’s name and show special or magnet?

7. Are you using carpeting?

8. Is your literature three-hole punched?

9. Are you using something to make the exhibit friendlier and less severe, such as green plants and flowers?

10. Have you selected the color combinations carefully, based on color research?

If you answer any of the above questions “No,” please take a sheet of paper and state your reasons. A “No” answer isn’t necessarily bad if you have a legitimate reason for not following the commonly accepted practices.


1. Do you have pre-show meetings with your staff to discuss goals, objectives, techniques and questions?

2. Do you have a dress code that all staffers know and acknowledge?

3. Does the exhibit staff know that the exhibit should not be left unattended if at all humanly possible?

4. Has the exhibit staff been coached on the right kinds of questions to ask to pull an attendee response that starts conversation – and to avoid questions that can be answered “Yes” or “No”?

5. Does the staff realize the Fiddle Factor principle discussed earlier and the importance of attendee involvement?

6. Does the staff understand the eye movement pattern discussed earlier and how to interpret the signals?

7. Have you provided breath mints and other hygiene aids so the staff can interface easily with attendees?

8. Have you provided for follow-up sessions each day after the show closes so all your exhibit staff can get together and discuss relevant issues and problems discovered that day?

9. Does the exhibit staff realize that the show is not a social event for them and they literally should be early to bed and early to rise? That they should not eat, drink or smoke in the exhibit?

10. Have you impressed on your exhibit staff the fact that when they are not in the exhibit they still are “on duty” and must realize their off-show hours behavior reflects back on the company?

If you answered any of the above questions “No,” please take a sheet of paper and state your reasons. A “No” answer is not necessarily bad if you have a legitimate reason for not following commonly accepted practice.

Now that you know and understand the basic “rules” of exhibit design, find a sheet of graph paper and use it to re-design your exhibit for maximum effectiveness.


At trade shows, people usually look for four ways to differentiate your product from others:

1. Superior quality.

2. Brand image.

3. Customer service.

4. Special market.

What is your special “hook” to separate your product from the others? Can you prove it?

What is your way to differentiate?


For small items, do:

1. Display them vertically.

2. Mass them on walls.

3. Use shelves and elevate them.

4. Get them up and visible.

Do not:

1. Put them flat on a back table.

2. Crowd them all together.

For large items (those you cannot demonstrate), do:

1. Use fewer shelves.

2. Use more graphics.

3. Use more photographs.

4. Use more charts.

Do not:

1. Try to jam large products into too small a space.

2. Think that directing people to an outside area where the items are on display will be as effective as a floor show.


1. Hands-on demonstration.

2. Spontaneous conversations.

3. Technical specification sheets.

4. Pricing information.

5. Networking with other attendees.

6. Vendor-guided equipment demos.

7. Scheduled personal appointments.

8. Lecture presentations.

9. Videotaped demonstrations.

10. Magazine reprints.

11. Unmanned running demos.

12. Movie theater presentation.

Successful Meetings Magazine, May 1991 (page 14).


It’s estimated that a listener’s impression of you and your product is based on the following percentages:

  • Visual55%

  • Voice38%

  • Words!7%

Make sure you look like a serious business person or you’re doomed before you start.

The best lasting impact is made by product demonstrations, both formal and informal. Since most buying is made after the show, remember that you must create a positive impression in the prospective customer’s eyes!

After 3 hrs. they remember After 3 days they remember
If you tell something to someone 70%