This website uses cookies to store information on your computer. Some of these cookies are used for visitor analysis, others are essential to making our site function properly and improve the user experience. By using this site, you consent to the placement of these cookies. Click Accept to consent and dismiss this message or Deny to leave this website. Read our Privacy Statement for more.
Intelligence and Sales: The Role of Trade Shows
Share |


In this article: Our author shows how intelligence can be used before, during, and after a trade show to positively impact their booth experience, the customer journey, and the likelihood that they will buy from your organization.


Competitive Intelligence Magazine
CIM is the premier voice of the Strategic, Market, and Competitive Intelligence community, published continuously since 1998. By curating original, high quality content featuring progressive ideas and best practices, we empower intelligence-driven growth and strategic decisions. Members can click above to browse the full archive. 

This article was originally published in Summer 2019 (CIM Volume 24, Issue 1).  



The primary focus of much that I have written about trade shows lies in the ability to use them (the venue/ location) to accomplish your organization’s intelligence objectives. Trade shows and other events as I have frequently written provide more than just sales opportunities. Nevertheless, they are also important for sales. Accordingly, this issue’s column focuses on the sales side of intelligence at conferences and trade shows: how intelligence can be used to maximize the potential to make sales both at and after the trade show. It is about how to use the intelligence process to develop the needed customer insights to make sales happen. The article is written from the perspective of those who are staffing the organization’s trade show booth, those that are tasked with making sales happen. Something that I have had the opportunity to do on many occasions!


To set the context to sales and trade shows, I am going to quote from two comprehensive reports on trade shows which readers are encouraged to download to get even more insights about trade shows. The first is the recently released 2018 Attendees ROI playbook from the Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR). The second is a 2009 report done by Tradeshow Week looking at, “the value of conventions and tradeshows today.” Both are comprehensive looks at trade shows from the perspective of both exhibitors and attendees. To be clear, attendees do go to events with buying on their mind. The recent CEIR report drives this home noting that 97% of attendees go to these events with shopping-related objectives (see Table 1) — however, only 36% plan to make a purchase at the show. The 36% that are at the show to make purchases have likely already done a lot of their pre-purchase homework while the other 61% are at the show as part of their looking for a solution phase of their customer journey (more on customer journey later). Ten years before the CEIR report, Tradeshow Week had similar results with 23% of the attendees responding that they planned on making a purchase at the event.




“According to the attendee survey respondents, 49% of attendees or their companies take less than three months to place an order with an exhibitor they met at a show. Owners, CEOs, and presidents make quicker purchase decisions, as 61% said they buy from at least one exhibitor within three months of the show. …Eighty-eight percent of attendees said they consider conventions and tradeshows to be an important part of their product sourcing and buying process. ”



From the exhibitor side, Tradeshow Week reported that close to 40% of the exhibitors responding to the trade show weekly survey reported that it took at least a year to close on sales from event leads (Table 2). Interesting to note is that the duel key motivators for attendees going to a show (shopping and learning) have remained virtually unchanged as priorities for many years. “CEIR has monitored motivations for attending an exhibition since 2000. The top-ranked priorities remain remarkably the same, with most professionals bringing two goals with them: shopping and learning. It is a longstanding trend that the top-ranked motivations for attending are seeing and experiencing new technologies and new products, and keeping pace with the latest industry trends. Face-to-face (F2F) interaction with experts and peers is also of high importance.” (CEIR 2018 report)


The Trade Show Industries Advice for the Booth

For exhibitors: given the importance of trade shows in their customers’ buying process, it is not surprising that industry experts have focused on providing advice on how exhibitors can in a sense make it easier for potential customers (attendees) to buy from them. World exhibition experts such as Barry Siskind have long written about how to design booths for maximum effectiveness, how to manage the booth to enhance sales opportunities and even how to train booth personnel to ask the right questions. I encourage readers who are interested in maximizing trade show ROI to read one of Barry’s many books and articles. Barry’s advice fits nicely within the intelligence field – so much so that Barry and I have done several seminars about maximizing trade show ROI called “Trade Shows: inside and outside the booth.” Barry writes about the need to profile those that go into the booth and develop a response appropriate to address them. Some of those that visit the booth are not really interested in buying, they could, for example, be competitors seeking information on you or attendees simply interested in your swag (give away). Some actually are potential customers, and the idea is to quickly identify these potential leads and move them as quickly and easily through the buying process. Barry has great advice on how to quickly identify the objective of those who visit the booth and deal appropriately with them. Barry even has advice on how to best reach out to attendees based on their age:


“Exhibitors need to know that the way to approach GenXs is different than the way to approach baby boomers. Gen-Xs are comfortable online; by the time they get to a trade show they already know about the exhibitors at the show, have read reviews, and asked online (via Twitter, Facebook, etc.) if anyone knows about them… I see a lot of companies moving away from talking about products and service and using the shows more as a tool to engage clients to discuss issues, problems, solutions that are beneficial to both instead of just a sales pitch.”


Barry also has great advice on how to ask the right questions to attendees at your booth to enhance the possibility of sales. In exhibitor online Barry Siskind was asked to respond to the following question from an exhibitor:


“My booth staffers are well versed on our products and company, but when it comes to opening a conversation with strangers at trade shows, they’re completely tongue-tied. What questions should they ask to get the conversation started?”


His advice: Don’t ask a question that leads to a sales pitch; Don’t ask a question if you don’t want - or care about - the answer; Don’t ask a question if you don’t know what to do with the answer; Start on common ground; Give visitors an easy way into the conversation; Make it about them. Readers are encouraged to download the article and look at the details on each of these recommendations. From an intelligence perspective, the advice arising from Barry’s recommendations and others in the trade show industry is:

  • Before going to the show, develop a profile procedure for those that will be going to your booth.
  • Before going to the show, develop response strategies for your boothers (those manning the booth) to action based on the profile identified. This needs to be done consistently.
  • Before going to the show, train all those who will be in the booth on interview techniques (how to ask the right questions).


The Competitive Intelligence Industry Advice for the Booth

In the October/December 2015 issue of Competitive Intelligence Magazine, Jana Sedivy and I wrote about customer journeys and journey maps. Customer journey recognizes that the actual purchase of a product/ service is but one step in the process. Sales experts talk about the sales cycle. Customer journey experts similarly talk about a cycle, but one that continues long after the purchase has actually been made. Customer journey divides the process into four steps: Experiencing a problem/looking for an opportunity, looking for a solution to the problem/opportunity, onboarding (after they have made the purchase and before they start using it) and ongoing usage. Bad experiences in onboarding and ongoing usage will impact subsequent purchases. Table 3 graphically presents a journey map.



Think about this from a sales perspective. The 36% of attendees that CEIR reported that they went to the show to make a purchase have already been through stage 1 (experiencing a problem/looking for an opportunity. They are likely well along stage 2 (looking for a solution to the problem/opportunity) and depending on the experience they have had with you or with your competitors have a predisposition based on both stages three and four (onboarding and ongoing usage) which will shape what they are looking for in terms of overall relationship from a potential supplier. For the 64% who likely will be buying from someone after the show they are somewhere in the journey and how you approach them and what you tell them in your booth will impact how far they go on the journey with you. Clearly, this confirms the earlier advice about the need to profile those that enter your booth. This is also where capturing the right information at the booth on the attendee could be crucial for post-show follow up and can lead to a high potential sales lead (or conversely result in a turned off customer). Generally, customer journey provides a lot of event intelligence opportunity. The following is taken from my article with Jana.

  • Experiencing a problem/looking for an opportunity: Elicit information from customers or potential customers about their future plans while they are at your booth or you are at theirs.
  • Looking for a solution to the problem/opportunity: Trade shows are a great place both for identifying customers and potential customers looking for a solution to the problem/opportunity and learning more about the steps they are going through and also for talking to the experts/friends they talk to (and who write in social media) about what they are saying about you and your competitors.
  • Onboarding: At trade shows your customers can tell you about their experience with your organization’s onboarding process as well as their experience with your competitor’s onboarding process. This can help you improve your onboarding process, or at the least, you will learn what you need to do regarding onboarding to satisfy the customer/potential customer.
  • Ongoing usage: Talk to existing customers at the show. Ask them about the best experiences they have had with ongoing usage and the worst. This is also where sentiment analysis and word mapping software are important as these analytical tools can help you understand what the customers are saying.


Competitive Intelligence Advice to Boothers – Talking to Customers

The advice laid out above puts a lot of onus on boothers to talk to customers at the booth to identify who they are and where they are at in the buying process. But competitive intelligence has more advice to the boothers for increasing sales. A July 13th 2018 trade show article titled Top 7 Reasons to Exhibit at Trade Shows lists as reason #1 sales and lead opportunities and #7 listen to customer feedback. The advice so far has been to help with #1 to identify sales and lead opportunities. #7 listening to customer feedback helps with understanding and hopefully helping to improve the customer journey. However, there is another reason to talk to customers. That is to help your organization sell better, and the technique is called win/loss analysis. The trade show and in particular your booth is a great place to talk to both customers who have bought from you (the win) and those that turned you down (the loss). This is your opportunity to learn why they took the actions they did. It’s a great opportunity to listen (emphasis on listen and not argue, explain away, etc.) to your customers and lost customers as they explain what they think about your company, your products/services, their experience with you and so forth. Look for frequently occurring words that are brought up, and what they are discussing. This may also be where word maps and sentiment analysis of what is said at the booth becomes critically important. Remember you are there to LISTEN AND LEARN.


Competitive Intelligence Advice to Boothers – The Customer Profile Pre, at and Post Show

I hope from all the sales related advice mentioned above about profiling customers (existing, potential, those going to your booth) shows you how crucial this is. But what goes into that profile? What do you need to collect to increase the probability of making a sale? Fortunately, competitive intelligence has advice for you. This article has already mentioned the need to know where the customer is at in their journey, their past experience with you, competitors and others and so forth. Add to this their pain points. I like how Nan Bulger, the past CEO of SCIP defined competitive intelligence in terms of putting your customer at the center of your intelligence efforts. It’s about making them more competitive, and more satisfied and certainly the questions you ask around the profile you are developing on them will help you do this. However to make the sale requires more than just knowing where they are at in their journey and their pain points, it also requires having knowledge of the buying process of the organization, what drives it, how purchase decisions are made. I have lots of stories about the right product/service not being bought by the potential customer simply because the sales pitch did not recognize the organization’s process. For example, do potential suppliers need to be ISO certified? Do they need to have complimentary systems for integrated ordering from the customer? The trade show does provide a unique opportunity for your boothers to find out more about how the particular customer’s organization buys products and services.


There is another part of profiling that you may need to consider as well – the expression qualified trade lead has always been something that has intrigued me. It’s the idea of: is it the right kind of customer, the right potential sales size and so forth. As part of the profiling, boothers need to know what the company is looking for in terms of who is a “good customer.” One of the more frequent intelligence projects that have been proposed in my competitive intelligence mentoring program are finding the right customer/prioritizing customers and markets.


All of this is to say that boothers need to have a profiling template to fill in on those that visit them at the booth to help both qualify the attendee, figure out how to best respond to them and to help determine the most appropriate way (including message) for post-show follow up. To the extent possible, it would be great to have already filled out elements of the profile for those attendee’s that you know will be at the show, that you have targeted to meet or that are already well into the customer journey with you.


Let me tell you a story about the better profile advice. A few years ago I was at a trade show trying to help my client identify products to buy in the future. It was about laying out a purchasing road map for the next ten years for a client that would be buying millions of dollars in equipment. This client is also an influencer in the industry. I went to a potential supplier booth and asked a lot of questions to a very nice and knowledgeable salesperson. I explained why I was there, that the client would be purchasing millions of dollars in equipment over the next ten years, but needed to know the future evolution of the product. She was a wealth of information and generally very pleasant. I left the booth favorably impressed and looking forward to the follow-up information she promised me. A month later I got an email from a salesperson from the company but not the one I dealt with at the show. The email started with a friendly introduction that noted that I had visited their booth and talked to another sales person (so far so good). The sales person asked me about what I was buying now and how they could help me. My response was that I was not buying now, but I was recommending to my client what to buy in the future (I had told the salesperson this). I mentioned that it was part of a foresight procurement program. I had to restate everything I had said at the booth (this did not make me too happy). The company salesperson replied with another email (frankly a rude one) that demonstrated a complete lack of knowledge of the client, their needs and their buying process, suffice it to say the undertone of this person’s email was that I was wasting his time. This experience was not a good one. I did not have the information that I was promised. Based on this experience, my client will likely never buy from that exhibitor. The concern, of course, being, if they are this bad at the sale, imagine how bad they will be post-sale. This all could have been avoided had the boothers profiled me and my client properly, identified where I was at (the client) on the customer journey (at the beginning), asked the right questions about the purchasing process, criteria, who was involved and then passed on the profile to the appropriate person in the company to help us in our journey.


Competitive Intelligence Advice to Those Who Design the Booth

Here is where my experience and history in trade show management come together with my experience in trade show intelligence. Getting the right people to your booth depends on many of the factors listed in this article, but it also requires the right messaging (both on the booth, in social media pre and at the show), the right booth design and even the right marketing collateral. Trade show experts write a lot about this. So next time you are at a show look around to see what works (and what does not). What are the trends? Talk to people whose booths are attracting the kind of people you are interested. Talk to people who visit your booth and ask what brought them. Develop the insights needed to enhance the possibility of getting the right customer into your booth — a quick story on this one. I took a bunch of companies to a trade show in Japan. Traffic at their booths was sparse, and they did not know why (I knew why). After a day and a half, I asked if they had gone to the Japanese pavilion to look at the Japanese booths, to learn how the local experts position themselves and their booths for the local market. I then had a local (Japanese expert) take them to the Japanese pavilion where they learned among other things that Japanese branding and messaging in this industry was very different than what they were used to in North America and that booth design was different. The companies will be more competitive next year.



According to the 2018 Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR), 97% of those attending trade shows are there to shop. While only 36% will put in their orders at the show, almost all attending said that the show was crucial in their purchasing decisions and many would be purchasing something from an exhibitor after the show. Eighty-eight percent of attendees told Tradeshow Week that trade shows and conventions were an important part of their product sourcing and buying process. This all means that intelligence is needed pre-show to identify the best potential customers for you to go after at the event. It is needed to figure out where those visiting your booth are at on their customer journey and how best to approach them. It is needed to figure out how best to sell to the attendee and their organization.


Some of this can be gathered pre-show for better targeting of perspective leads at the show, and some of this needs to be gathered at the show to help with post-show lead follow up. All of this requires a lot of attention pre-show to develop appropriate profile methods, forms, and training for booth personnel (in terms of how to ask the right questions.) It’s about developing appropriate systems so that sales leads can be maximized at the show; so that you can be one of the 36% that result in a sale at the event and generate great leads that lead to sales success after the show.



1. 2018 Attendees ROI playbook – CEIR Center for Exhibition Industry Research

2. Tradeshow Week, host/sets/toolkit/files/The_Value_of_Conventions_ and_Tradeshows_Today_TSW.pdf

3. Barry Siskind interview, 2011, https://www.

4. Customer Journeys and Journey Maps: An Exciting Concept for Intelligence Teams and Trade Show Intelligence, Jonathan Calof and Jana Sedivy, CIM, October-December 2015

5. Top 7 Reasons to Exhibit at Trade Shows,

6. asp?ID=1055


About the Author

Dr. Calof is recognized as one of the leaders in intelligence and foresight. A professor of International Business and Strategy at the Telfer School of Management at the University of Ottawa, Dr. Calof combines research and consulting in competitive intelligence, technical foresight and business analytics to help organizations develop key insights on their competitive environment. 

Jonathan has given over 1000 speeches, seminars and keynote addresses around the world on intelligence and foresight and has helped several companies and government agencies around the world enhance their intelligence, foresight and business analytics capabilities. In recognition of his contribution to making fact based decision making a reality, Jonathan has been given several honors including Frost and Sullivan’s life time achievement award in competitive intelligence; Fellow award from the Society of Competitive Intelligence Professionals; Honorary Professor at Yunnan Normal University in China; Appointment to the international advisory board for the Russian Foresight Committee of HSE;, Honorary member of the Russian Society of Competitive Intelligence Professional; Board of advisors for the Centre en Intelligence Economique et Management Stratégique(CIE'MS/Center for Competitive Intelligence and Strategic Management in Morocco. Interest in his work has also resulted in several interviews on radio and in print around the world and has been featured in publications around the world.

He is a prolific author with over 150 publications to his credit. As well, Jonathan is the author and co-editor of several books on competitive intelligence including co-editor of the Competitive Intelligence Foundation’s Conference and Trade Show Intelligence book and executive editor for Frontline Safety and Security Magazine.. He also pens a column on event intelligence for Competitive Intelligence Magazine.


We are a global community of Intelligence Strategists - leaders who leverage insights and best practices to enable smart strategic choices and transformational growth.

SCIP - Strategic & Competitive Intelligence Professionals - 7550 IH 10 West, Suite 400 - San Antonio, TX 78229 USA