Top 20 Hidden Rules at Trade Shows

Posted by Exhibitor Source on Jan 2, 2019 10:45:00 AM
Exhibitor Source

Rules, rules, rules.  What about the rules that no one tells you about?  Rules are necessary to keep trade shows and events running smoothly, and they help businesses and clients manage their expectations. However, as important as it is to know the show hours, the drayage costs, the convention hall requirement particulars, and more, it’s equally important to know the “hidden” rules (that no one tells you about) that inevitably accompany every show.

Knowing the hidden rules of any given situation helps us guide our behavior and expectations. Unfortunately, there’s no little black book of hidden rules. They are the kinds of nuggets you learn on the fly. For example, there’s the 5 Second Rule:  “When a piece of food falls on the floor, you can eat it if you pick it up within five seconds.” There’s the age-old adage of “Leave things better than you found them.” And there are hidden rules that we learn over time to bow to, “First impressions matter. You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”

Mysteriously, we STILL don’t know the hidden rule about which way the toilet paper should hang.  No one quite knows the truth of it. But we DO know that trade shows also are governed by similarly hidden, yet immutable rules.  Perhaps you have already run up against them without realizing it or discovered them through arduous experience.  Since forewarned is forearmed, here are the hidden rules of trade shows:

1. Clear Messaging, Not Too Much Wit :  While constructing marketing campaigns, marketers have a tendency to become enthralled with their own cleverness and envision attention-getting exploits that do not support the company’s underlying marketing vision and messages. For example be careful with antics that are using a street smart angle on a message.  Also exercise caution with attention grabbing talent that does not understand your overall position and why… it can be hard to interpret because it lacks the company’s fundamental positioning..

2. In-Booth Music:  One of the best ways to catch attention on the show floor is to use music.  I have walked more shows than I can number and music is consistently one of the best ways to draw attendees in.  One consideration is that performed or recorded music, that is played in your space is likely subject to laws that govern music that can be used, due to the fact that most if it is copyrighted music.  To conserve funds and still want to do music in your exhibit, you can consider royalty-free music.  There are several companies that can help with royalty-free music:,  I attended the NADA show with one of our clients who had music playing and one of the show management reps came by with a decibel meter to make sure our level did not exceed 85-decibels (standard for most shows). If you want a particular song or artist, you can plan on some charges for use of the music.  Fees for using music can range from several hundred to a few thousand.  Until you select the song list, it is difficult to determine the overall cost.  To figure out costs, there are several agencies that manage licensing are available to collect charges associated copyrighted music.  Here are a few websites to consult:,, and

Mueller Video Bar

3. Too Many Words:  The more words you put on your exhibit, the fewer people who will read it. Be informative, but be brief. At some point, your attendees are going to be on intake overload. If your booth boasts a lot of text, they will be drawn to the quick read at the next booth over. And remember that the bigger the main visual image on your exhibit, the clearer your message will be.

4. Design Limitations:  And by the way, before you get any wild ideas about the awesome exhibit design you’re planning, the colors of your trade show display will likely be determined by either your brand’s colors, the latest trends in design, or your company president’s spouse. That doesn’t mean you can’t be as creative as you like to be in designing your exhibit; it just means that there will be limitations to consider, as well.

5. Crowds Draw Crowds:  The more people you have milling around your exhibit space, the more people will be drawn to your exhibit. In addition, the more fun attendees who populate your space, the funner business will be after the show. Entertaining people create an easy, lively, carefree, happy atmosphere. It’s the kind of atmosphere where people lower their guard and you can see what they really want and need. That means business. Work to create an exciting, enjoyable space for people to congregate. Fun people = serious business!

6. Big and Clear:  The clearer your name badges display your COMPANY NAME and personal name, the better informed your visitors will be. When people browse through your exhibit, they need to be able to see who you are, what you do, and if you can help them. Don’t waste their time!

7. The Right Questions:  The more efficient and concise your determination of potential buyers is, the better chance you have of getting a qualified lead. You have about 4 seconds to convey what you sell to the average fast-paced buyer at a show. Once you determine that a buyer is a potential, get to the point and ask about them. Ask a GOLDEN QUESTION like, “What specifically are you looking for to enhance your business?” OR “What are you hoping to find at the trade show this week?” Whatever you do, gear the conversation to be about them, not you. Don’t launch into your canned pitch the second a prospect steps in. Let them get comfortable  and take the time to find out what problem they have that you can help solve. Ask open-ended questions and encourage them to tell their story. People love to talk about what they need. They don’t like being told what they might be able to use. Tailor your responses to what they’ve been saying, and you’re on your way to building a beautiful friendship.

8. Hospitality Limits:  The farther a visitor has traveled to attend the trade show, the greater the level of hospitality you should offer. The goal here is simple: make it worth their time and make it memorable. If you know they’ve traveled a distance, commend their dedication and compliment their good taste in trade shows!

9. Be Interested:  The less interested your booth staff is, the less interested your buyers will be. The more you sit or read or eat, the less likely buyers are going to be to ask questions, inquire about services, and peruse your products and displays. Try to have an open, welcoming posture of standing, always avoiding the arms-crossed, I-dare-you-to-talk-to-me stance. And by all means, turn off and stow your devices. Be present for your customers and they will be present for you.

10. The Boss Effect:  The more distance between the booth staffers and their boss, the less effort the staff will expend. For this reason, the presence of a leader is important. A leader keeps the vision and the goal in mind, and keeps the employees motivated. A boss in the booth serves as a visual reminder of why the staff is there.

11. Two Ears, One Mouth:  The best booth staffers talk a little and listen a lot.

12. Leave Sour Staffers The worst booth staffers complain a lot and never listen.

13. Cut Down Breaks:  The longer a booth staffer stretches out their break, the fewer leads they will take when they are actually staffing the booth.

14. Comfort Matters The better-looking the booth staffer’s shoes, the more likely they’ll be ditched at some point in the day. We’ve all bought the gorgeous pair of shoes only to find that they are not functional except for a 5 minute red-carpet walk. This doesn’t mean you need to require everyone to wear UGGS. It just means that comfort is at least as important as style when it comes to standing on your feet all day. And believe it or not, when you’re feet are hurting, it shows on your face!

15. Tenure Pays:  The more years you exhibit at the same show, the more you will have repeat customers visit you in your booth. This is a no-brainer, but it takes some intentionality to make the most of it. As you see the same people year after year, you have to up your relationship game. You can’t just stick with the old faithful, “Hey! How are you? What brings you here? Good to see you!” Seeing regulars offers you the chance to go deeper, to reflect on years past, to ponder what’s been working and what hasn’t. It gives you the chance gain a lasting trust as the years go on. And THAT is a cornerstone of sales.

16. Inferno Leads The faster you follow up on leads, the greater the sales you will generate from that show. Leads grow cold quickly. Maybe someone else woos them before you get to them. Maybe they have a change of mind or heart. Maybe the pressing need they had at the show has been resolved enough to no longer be a need. Maybe the energy you had for the show has waned. Maybe you’ve lost the motivation to follow through. Any way you cut it, it pays off big time to immediately follow up with leads to get the best results.

17. Procrastination Costs The longer you wait to plan your event, the more it will cost you in money, time, and stress. Not only will you pay more for show services, late deadlines, rush shipping, last-minute airfare, etc., but you’ll be rushed to work out the details of traveling and the show itself. The stress of going over budget and trying to work with limited, last-minute options is reason enough to have a solid plan in place early on.

18. Humor, Not Offensive:  Appropriate humor is memorable and engages attendees. When humor is offensive or similar, it can be potentially distasteful, lame, or just does not tie back to your messaging.  Some topics need to be considered carefully before attempting humor related to it.  Topics for conversations can also be taboo for humor at trade shows, such as religion, politics, or poking fun at a particular group.

19. Frugal, Avoid Cheap Marketing can be done without being expensive and trade show marketing is also the case.  Tap into your creativity, not your bank account when devising creative endeavors that attract the attention of attendees. However, do not misunderstand frugal with cheap.

20. No Blocking The cardinal rule of thumb that governs trade shows is “Line of Sight.”  The key to interpreting this rule is simply not to obstruct the view of neighboring exhibitors.  You've paid a premium for your company's booth space, however that does not mean you can use your space any way you desire. The line of sight rule dictates that you can't place anything taller than 4 feet in the front half of your linear booth space.  If you want to break the rules, you can request a variance. However don’t expect a yes when you ask for the exception.  There is a chance, if none of the other exhibitors are likely to complain and the request is reasonable, the variance may be granted.

Island Designs

 This article is inspired by "18 Hidden Rules of Trade Shows" by Mike Thimmesch and first appeared at

Topics: Nashville trade show displays, Nashville trade show exhibits, Nashville trade show installation, marketing, trade show marketing, Blog

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