With a little advance planning, a visit to a trade show can reap more benefits than simply bringing in more sales.

Tradeshows also present opportunities to learn from other business owners, network, meet mentors, and maybe even find potential alliance partners.

If this is your first show, either as an exhibitor or an attendee, do a little pre-show research.

First, determine which is the best show for your company. In many industries, there are several shows each year in different parts of the country. You need to decide which is likely to give you the most return on your investment.

Go online, talk to friends and associates who are show veterans, and contact your local trade association or the group running the show you're considering attending. Do your homework - it will pay off.

See which companies exhibit at a particular show. Many shows have exhibitor lists online, or you can contact the company or association that runs the show and ask for a list of exhibitors and information. Look for a show with companies whose products are similar to yours, whose products you'd like to buy, or whose products are complementary to yours. If someone is interested in widgets, they might also want to pick up a gizmo.

Don't be afraid to ask for advice from other owners in your industry about the advantages and drawbacks of specific shows. You would be surprised how willing others are to share their knowledge.


Do your homework

Advance preparation is critical. Ninety percent of the work you do for a tradeshow should happen before you set up your booth the first day. Or, if you're an attendee before you enter the exhibition space.

That means finding out who'll be attending and contacting them to set up meetings as well as send out pre-and post-show mailings to prospective customers, attendees, and current customers.

Look at the show schedule and see what seminars or discussion panels are offered. They can be excellent learning opportunities and a chance to meet exhibitors and attendees in a quieter setting than the exhibition hall.

Plan your days but also plan to be flexible so you can squeeze in appointments with people you meet at the show, or attend a last-minute event at the show.


If you're exhibiting

You don't have to have the biggest and flashiest booth to draw customers. But you should make sure your booth clearly represents your brand image and product or service message.

If you aren't already working with a marketing professional, consider going directly to a company whose business is entirely about building booths for tradeshows. Many tradeshow booth manufacturers or resellers have standard booth configurations you can easily customize with a little help. Check the Internet or ask an associate or a trade association for someone in your area.

You don't necessarily have to spend a lot of money to have a great exhibit. If your budget only allows for a cloth draped table and a large banner, you can make it look appealing to passers-by. Use large high-quality photos or run a video that's eye-catching.

Remember, the goal is to create a booth to help sell your product. So do your best to attract people, not distract them.

Be sure to test out the booth in your warehouse or parking lot. Map out space and include everything you will need from the booth to the power cords. There's nothing worse than finding yourself still setting up your booth as attendees are walking in, or realizing you have too few or too many items in the space.

It's okay to have comfy chairs at your booth for guests to relax and chat, but don't succumb to relaxing in one yourself. You're there to draw people in - not to take a load off.

If you have giveaways, choose something that people will want to keep using long after the show ends, rather than toss in the trash as they are packing to go home. Remember some attendees may be traveling long distances and won't want to fill their bags with items they can't use.

Having candy or snacks can be a draw. People who reach out to grab some of your chocolates or cookies will probably look at your booth. If your snacks are particularly good or unique, they just may come back in search for more.


If you're walking the tradeshow floor

Again, plan ahead and decide what you want to accomplish while you're at the show. Set some goals and aim high. Maybe your primary mission is to simply see what's out there or to keep up with the latest trends and styles.

Regardless of your primary goals, remember, this is a great learning opportunity. Seek out exhibitors who have products or services similar to yours, talk with them about what they're doing and learn from them.

Maybe your goal is to purchase items while you're there or negotiate future discounts.

That means a lot of walking, looking, asking and taking notes. Go through the show directory before starting your exhibition hall trek, and choose the exhibitors you want to see. Once you get started, you'll see plenty of other booths you'll want to stop by. The key is to be sure you have time to do what's really important.

You will be doing a lot of walking so dress professionally but also comfortably, especially when it comes to your shoes.


When you get back home

Two important words: Follow up. If you're an exhibitor, keep the relationships you started at the show going. Even if customers aren't ready to order right away, you want them to keep you in mind. Regular communication is the key to building brand awareness and sales.

As an attendee, you want to be sure that an exhibitor remembers any discussions you had about products or discounts. Following up will let them know you're a serious buyer.

Either way, hold on to those contacts you made and communicate with them regularly, or at the very least, at the next trade show you attend.