Christina Cyr
Dec 23, 2017 · 7 min read
Photo taken at one of our booths, after hours (without the crowds)
  1. Running a booth is expensive. After you count in the cost of the booth, flights for all the booth staff (even if it’s just two founders), hotels (fingers-crossed you are the same gender and are comfortable sharing a room to save money), flights, meals, and marketing materials such as posters, flyers, etc., the total adds up very quickly. Our first outlay was for a booth at MWC in Barcelona, and even at the smaller 4YFN startup hall for two founders was $10K. Totally worth it (yes, contrary to this article’s title, but please see my Footnote (1) ), and yet painfully expensive.
  2. Our team observed the attendees were overwhelmed with all the conference stimulation and that our message was not sinking in. This fact was witnessed across all the various conferences where we had booths.
  3. Signup hurdles. We wanted to leverage the vast number of people we were seeing each day and in the very least convert them to our (infrequent) mailing list. At one booth we thought it would be smart to have people sign up for our mailing list on a tablet/laptop, instead of handing out flyers (which we assumed were invariably tossed). Yet zero people touched our device. In fact we quickly found that in this day and age people became visibly uncomfortable when asked to input their personal information via someone else’s device. We even tried out QR codes so people could use their own phones (not as successful for conferences in the USA where QR readers don’t necessarily come installed by default on phones like it does with WeChat, etc.). In the end we discovered that people were happy to sign up via an old-fashioned clipboard/notepad, paper, and pencil — particularly if the table was hand-drawn. The more casual the setup (“Oh, we finally just threw this together because so many people were asking if they could sign up for more information…”), the better. It was totally our style anyway, so we were happy. I admit that it is still a pain to read everyone’s writing afterwards, but worth it because it also made us feel connected to that person as themselves, including remembering when they wrote it down, how they wrote it down, what we were talking about, what they looked like, who they actually were (ex: they mentioned their daughter, who loves building with littleBits…), etc. Those extra minutes counted to us, and perhaps to them as well, as our unsubscribe rate is quite low.
  4. Social media/emails are a better bet in the beginning. We are living in the age of information. When people meet you in a booth it’s not like they can click a link above your product you are holding to check out its Amazon 3rd party reviews, or click a link above your head to investigate your LinkedIn profile. But most importantly, attendees do not have a link to BUY YOUR PRODUCT (or support your crowdfunding campaign) in front of their face. At most of our booths we were not even allowed to sell product (and some required a local license, etc.) since the conferences we attend are more of a B2B space, and when we first started we were exclusively B2C to gather more information about our customer. In contrast, when you send someone an email or social media post, the link to buy your product is right in front of them and they don’t have to explain to anyone why they might change their mind so they are even more likely to click…and, consequently, since they are right there any way, I mean I might get distracted in this day and age and forget, so let’s…just…purchase.
  5. Conference attendance in some industries is falling off considerably, especially for those without an educational track. We tried a booth at the 20-year-running Northwest Women’s Show for several reasons: we wanted more data points about female customers prior to launching our campaign, the show was local so there weren’t any expensive hotels and airfare, and the booth was inexpensive). The companies around us said they had had booths at the show for the last 7 years and made zero sales that year at the conference, whereas previous years had been profitable. The following year I attended an industry Northwest Gift Show, where my friend featured her new contact lens case. This show was designed for places like Nordstrom, etc. to buy product in large quantities for future seasons. The event probably had over 200 booths, yet I was one of only five people roaming around the floor. In contrast, about a year later CES had its 50th year celebration, and there wasn’t any room to walk amongst the booths in some places in the startup hall. Yes, the Amazon-age of click-and-it-will-arrive-tomorrow-on-my-doorstep hit in 2016 and businesses are indeed moving at different rates to pivot to where the customer has moved. However, I also observed that conferences which actually had an educational track seemed to be faring better than those without. For example, The NW Women’s Show seemed to fare better the following year after they merged with an educational track.

Christina Cyr

Written by

CEO, dTOOR & The Cyrcle Phone | Biochem, Physics, Engineering & an unrelenting passion for electronics | Have taught >200 people how to build their own phone

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