As a business owner, you’re constantly on the lookout for effective ways to reach more customers, increase sales, and create business relationships.

And while a booth at a small business expo or marketplace could help you meet these goals, the cost of banners, tables, and a canopy may have you putting it off as an eventual goal.

But you don’t have to! Whether you hope to someday have the hoppin’-est booth at the expo or don’t ever plan to set up a folding table, you can still take advantage of these sales and networking opportunities by simply attending. All you need is a plan and a little prep.

Here’s the ultimate guide to crushing your next small business expo — without a booth.

Decide Your Goals Before the Expo

The first step in your marketing plan for attending any expo as a business owner is to set an overall goal.

This will define your purpose and help you set measurable targets for your efforts. When attending a small business expo, there are a number of opportunities to reach out to consumers or other businesses that might be interested in your products or services.

Your goal for attending an expo without a booth might be:

Brand Marketing and Awareness
  • Introduce yourself and your company to consumers.

If you haven’t already created a quick elevator pitch for your business, this post will help you do that:

B2B Networking
  • Open doors to new merchandisers that may want to sell your products to their customers and clients that could be interested in your services.
Drive Website Traffic
  • Distribute freebies and/or literature with a URL-specific call to action.
Collect Leads
  • Opt-in new customers as subscribers to a mailing list. (If the next step in your sales funnel is to send a printed pack of sales literature, instead of collecting addresses, bring these to hand out.)

Research the Expo and Its Vendors

There’s no reason to walk into an event blind.

Successfully networking at a small business expo without a booth begins with solid research of both the attendees and the vendors.

Here’s how you do that:

Consumer Research

If your goal is to reach new customers, start by researching the demographics and interests of the attendees of possible events. Big expos sometimes publish this information for advertisers and vendors.

If you don’t find any hard analytics, you’ll still be able to get a feel for the audience by looking through the event’s website, social media promotion, and image galleries.

But the event itself doesn’t necessarily need to be your niche. What do I mean? Let’s say you make custom-cut, metal, beer signs.

While a craft-beer expo or beer-tasting festival would undoubtedly be amazing, you may also have success attending car, boat, home, and motorcycle expos.

What’s important is that you reach your target customer — or vendor.

B2B Opportunities

If you’re visiting a small business expo to make B2B connections, research the registered vendors in advance. If the event is still a ways away and the vendors are not yet listed, look through the records from previous years.

As you look at each one, ask yourself how you could help them. Maybe your product fills a gap in their inventory or is something you know their customers won’t want to live without. If you offer a service, would it be useful to them?

Yes, you’re interested in what these vendors can do for you, but a first-time meeting at a small business expo isn’t the place for a hard sell.

You’re there to plant seeds by introducing yourself, your business, and your value. Of course, you’re still prepared when someone is interested and wants more information.

Even if the conversation never focuses on your products or services, you can still offer to exchange business cards without it being awkward, especially if you’re wearing a name badge printed with your business logo.

Important note: Just be sure to remember what conversation goes to which business card — or make a quick note of it after you’ve walked away. This will help you personalize the warm emails you’ll be sending to follow up.

Don’t know how to break the ice? Strike up a conversation by telling the vendor that you’re the owner of a fill-in-the-blank business and you’re considering renting a booth at the expo next year so you can ask for their advice.

Ask About Advertising Opportunities 

If you create physical products, check to see if the event hosts a raffle. Some craft shows and markets collect product donations from their vendors and then raffle them off to attendees.

Depending on the event, those prizes may be displayed somewhere prominent, mentioned repeatedly to customers as the event staff sells raffle tickets, and announced during the raffle itself.

That’s a lot of eyes on your business. Even if you’re not hosting a booth, you may be able to donate to the raffle if you contact the event organizer in advance.

Prepare for Virtual Visitors

Not having a booth doesn’t mean you can’t hand out freebies or business cards — and each and every one, whether it’s a glossy postcard or a cake pop, should include a specific call to action.

And chances are, you’ll be directing all of those follow-ups and leave-behinds to a webpage with a specific task. The same goes for B2B marketing, though in this case your current business card may suffice if it includes a URL to a B2B-specific page or site.

You may decide to create a new page or lead magnet specifically for this event or direct traffic to an existing URL or website. The point is that before the expo is your chance to update and optimize these pages for incoming traffic.

If your CTA is an opt-in or entry form, you may even write a special welcome email or success page for event attendees.

Depending on the goal of your interaction, you can send prospective businesses and customers to:

  • Your portfolio
  • An order form
  • Your shop page
  • An entry form for a giveaway
  • A lead magnet
  • Your ecommerce site

Contests and Giveaways

If you’ll be promoting a digital lead magnet, contest or giveaway, you’ll want to make it as easy as possible for people to enter or opt in.

  • Create a shortened or easy-to-convey URL that people can easily type into their phone on the spot using Bitly or another site.
  • You may also want to create a QR code and have it printed onto cards — or on a shirt so participants can scan you.
  • You can also bring along a dedicated tablet and keep it open to your opt-in or entry form so interested attendees can use it to sign up as well.

Freebies and Samples

Incorporate your CTA into samples and freebies as well.

Even without a booth, you can hand out things like:

  • Pens
  • Magnets
  • Water bottles
  • Mini soap bars
  • Stress balls
  • Cake pops
  • Bath bombs
  • Stickers
  • And a number of other affordable promotional items!

Important note: Just be sure that each freebie is packaged or printed with the URL you’re promoting and a clear call to action.

Working With Event Organizers

If you plan to openly offer free cake pops from your cake-decorating business or something similarly substantial, like a giveaway, you may want to contact an event coordinator in advance.

Explain to them that you’d like to walk around and collect entries or pass out your goodies (simply push those cake pops into a decorated Styrofoam ball on a stick so they won’t get smushed — you can always refill it) and therefore won’t need a booth — or create a traffic jam.

Be prepared to offer your business credentials, pictures and/or a sample of your freebie, and your website address. They may say no, but they also might be willing to allow it for a small participation fee.

Plus, you can point out that you’re offering something of value to their attendees.

What You Should Bring to an Expo

Depending on your specific marketing goals for attending the small business expo, you’ll want to pack a number of things, most of which should easily fit in a satchel or messenger bag.

These include:

  • CTA-specific promotional material for B2C
  • Print literature
  • Printed QR code
  • A badge with your name and company logo will make you look official
  • Freebies
  • Sample product to show B2B contacts (if you can wear it, wear it)
  • Wear a shirt printed with your company logo (and maybe a QR code)
  • Your sign-up or opt-in URL
  • Extra external phone battery
  • Tablet
  • Business cards for B2B contacts

After the Expo

Once the expo is over, you’ll want to determine the number of leads you collected with any sign-up forms as well as any boosts in traffic on web pages you may have promoted.

  • If your CTA included a specific URL, you’ll want to keep an eye out for increased page views that were accessed directly, meaning that they weren’t sent to the page by a link or other traffic source like social media.
  • Direct traffic statistics can be monitored using Google Analytics.

Important note: If you handed out promotional material that included a URL, as opposed to signing up people on the spot, the traffic may continue trickling in for weeks or longer.

Following Up With B2B Leads

Remember all those business cards you collected? Well, for those leads that didn’t ask you to contact them immediately after the expo, you’ll follow up with a warm email a week later.

This isn’t a sales letter, but should include a call to action or at least an email signature that offers more information on your business. The idea is to keep the conversation going.

Based on your previous interaction with the B2B contact, your warm email should:

  • Be short
  • Mention how you met
  • Reference something memorable from your conversation
  • Include a link or resource of interest (you could say something like, “I saw this article after our conversation and thought of you.”)
  • Ask about scheduling a meeting to talk about what you can offer
  • Mention any sponsored content or advertising availability, should you have a website
  • Thank the person for their time

To keep in contact without cluttering their inbox, you may also want to follow any potential B2B contacts on social media. Although, I don’t recommend friending every account they have or you’ll look like a creeper.

When to Get a Booth

While it is possible to get results by attending a small business expo without a booth, there are a lot of good reasons to consider renting your own event real estate too, especially if you want to draw a crowd.

Consider renting booth space if you want to:

  • Sell or show off your inventory
  • Hand out a high volume of samples
  • Sign customers up for your service
  • Accept orders on the spot (great for personalized items like cakes and signs)
  • Showcase your company at a B2B event
  • Demonstrate your product
  • Enter juried craft shows

Time to Get Extroverted!

Promoting your business at a small business expo without renting a booth is a lot of talking to strangers and striking up conversations, but it doesn’t have to be stiff and intimidating.

Not too extroverted? Read this for some tips:

These events (even the B2B ones) are designed to be entertaining and informative. Marketing aside, make it your primary goal to have fun and chat with people.

If you’re outgoing and upbeat, connecting with customers and prospective business partnerships is only one introduction or icebreaker away.

What small business expo will you have a presence at — with or without a booth?

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