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Lessons from 141 Trade Shows

Lessons from 141 Trade Shows

Paddle North's origins are filled with grit - like the “ pack a truck and dive into trade shows” sort of grit. We’ve done that 142 times. Sometimes all the way to Annapolis, Fort Lauderdale or Kansas City. 

A decade on, even with a heightened focus on e-commerce, the enduring lessons from over 140 in-person selling events continue to shape our strategy. If in person events and selling at trade shows is something you’ve considered for your business - here are some of the things we’ve learned.

1. People Buy

We wouldn’t do this if it wasn’t profitable. People consistently buy stuff and of the 142 events, I can count on one hand the number of events that lost us money (very rare, but it does happen). The rest have been big wins, and some were exceptionally big wins. We’ve paid as low as $500 for a booth to generate $50,000+. Although the average booth (10’x10) costs $1-2k. As we’ve grown, we’ve required more space, which has moved booth costs to $3500 - $10,000 range.

2. Stand Out

If you’re going to do the work to show up, show up and look good. There are a lot of very tired looking brands and booths at events. It’s not terribly difficult to come with an above average presentation & brand that looks different. 

People viewed us as a “real company” among many cheap imitation products. Our logo, products and booths stopped people in their tracks – the online equivalent of “clicking” the link or a thumb stopping ad on Facebook.

3. Conversation Rates are High

If getting someone to stop at your booth is the equivalent of a web click, the average conversion rate is significantly higher than you can expect online. In our experience, any conversation over 3 minutes in length has a ~15-20% chance of closing on the spot. We’ve narrowed our event list to shows with over 20,000 attendees, it would be very rare for us to participate in a smaller show.

4. Placement Is Key

Not all spaces are created equal. It is very possible that an event with 20,000 attendees will have some booths that only a fraction (~5,000) of people will actually see. It’s happened to us many times.

If your placement is poor, your experience and sales will suffer. For example, our first year at the Wisconsin State Fair was not very profitable for us. We barely broke even, and would not have returned for a second year if we had not relocated. Moving to a higher traffic location at the fair quadrupled our revenue; a few years later, we relocated again and saw an additional doubling. Booth placement is perhaps the most crucial factor to get right, and sometimes you just won’t know until you go.

5. Ask other Vendors

Before signing up for a new event, do some research. Here’s how to do it: Most shows publish a long list of exhibitors, call them up or send a few emails out. Ask questions about traffic numbers, best areas of the show and trends of the event. Other vendors will tell you how it is and offer this information freely.

6. The Energy Marathon

Sustaining energy throughout an event is a challenge. Repeating the same pitch demands stamina. Crafting a consistent, engaging narrative is an art in itself. It’s easier when it's busy - the slow days are the most draining. There’s no secret here beyond wear comfortable clothes, have good shoes, and drink water.

7. Beyond the Sale

While many transactions unfold at events, capturing orders and customer information is vital for future engagement. Many of the customers created at the event became longer term brand advocates and the lifetime order value can skyrocket by collecting their information. Collect email addresses - you’ll thank us later.


If you're contemplating events as a key component of your sales strategy, take a few shots. The payout can be really worth it. We view each event as an annual recurring revenue stream and look beyond the revenue it produces in one year. It can take some work to uncover the right events that fit with your product, but once it clicks, it can repeat (or grow) every year.  Then prepare to grind, sell and have some fun!


Follow Pete on Twitter  → @peteyboardman


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