Thousands of creative innovators are gathered in Austin, Texas for the annual South By Southwest Conference. We couldn’t be happier to be in on the excitement!

Are you planning to attend a trade show this year? Whether it’s your first or fortieth, here are trade show tips for small businesses we’re using ourselves at SXSW that can help you make the most of any appearance.


What to do before the trade show

To get the most return on your investment, planning ahead is crucial.

  • Do your research. Identify the trade shows that best target your audience. Get details about the show’s objectives, other exhibitors and attendees to see if it’s a good fit.
  • Register early. Most trade shows will provide discounts for early registration.
  • Set goals. Plan how many leads you’d like to capture: there are great lead capturing devices through trade show exhibit services. Consider what can help you reach those goals, like a new product or promotion.

How to prepare your exhibit space


Having the right materials is a key element of success.

  • Choose a booth that stands out. A professional trade show booth design with crisp, vibrant colors and a clear message is your best bet.
  • Get serious about swag. When choosing your promotional giveaways, think about what will actually make it off the trade show floor and into an attendee’s luggage.
  • Stock up on promotional brochures. Always have enough brochures to hand out. It’s better to return home with extras then to find yourself empty handed. We always have a unique promotional offer that attendees couldn’t find anywhere else. By using the promotional link, we can also track sales from that particular trade show.
  • Create a lively experience. We use large screen monitors to display examples of designs from our community, and demo our product on the monitors so anyone walking by will immediately know what we do. We also have music playing at our booth to amp up the fun factor (we brought 99er Melanie – DJ That Girl – to Austin this year!).

How to prepare your team


Our very own Melanie, DJ That Girl, at 99designs’ SXSW booth

You always want to have a qualified representative in your booth.

  • Schedule ahead. If not everyone can be in the booth at once, plan to have someone who can answer most questions. Make sure lunches are scheduled and expectations from employees are set in place each day.
  • Actively engage with attendees. Always greet attendees as they walk down the aisle. Say hello, good morning, good afternoon. We’ve been at several trade shows where attendees stopped and said, “You are the first person to acknowledge me, tell me about your services.” Also, we don’t like having chairs in our booth. By keeping everyone standing, employees are more likely to be alert and ready to engage.
  • Be pitch perfect. Make sure all employees know your company’s 30-second pitch. Whatever your product or services are, all employees should be able to explain your business in just a few words. Remember that your message and pitch might change based on who you’re talking to, so have a few versions in your arsenal.
  • Ban phones and laptops. Employees tend to be distracted when they are using their own personal phones or computers. Doing their work at the booth diminishes the possibility of engagement. If work needs to be done, excuse an employee to complete it elsewhere.
  • Keep notes. Encourage employees to write notes on the business cards they collect to help remember conversations. Make sure you have a pen that can write on all types of business cards. Sharpie makes a great fine-tipped one.

What to do after the show

I use the following system for getting business cards and capturing leads. Place cards that deserve an immediate follow-up in your coat’s inner pocket. A good lead goes in your back pocket. Other leads find themselves in another pocket. When you get back to your room after the day, take out all of your business cards and you’ll have three to four piles. Send immediate leads a LinkedIn request along with an email. In a week or so, send good leads a LinkedIn request with a personal message. You can wait to follow up other relevant leads until you’re back in the office.

Are you at SXSW? Drop by and say hello!