Trade Shows in 2021: Your 5-Point Strategic Checklist

Published February 4, 2021

Good-bye 2020, hello 2021. 

As we collectively bid-ado to the year that was, now is the time to start making serious strategic decisions that will have an out-sized impact on 2021. But even if this year is better than the last (it has to be, right — right?!), there is still some lingering uncertainty for the business community.

One of the largest uncertainties is the possible return of trade shows. An important channel for many businesses, trade shows make up the second largest source of B2B revenue in the US. With that in mind, businesses everywhere are anxiously awaiting the green light to reactivate one of their biggest channels. But how do you plan for an event that may-or-may-not happen? 

We surveyed 103 sales and marketing professionals on how their businesses navigated lead generation in 2020 and how they are thinking about trade shows in 2021. We distilled our findings into a 5-point checklist you can use to frame your strategic planning for the new year. (You can read the full report, The State of Trade Show Lead Generation, on the SalesRoads blog)

  • Review Your Pipeline 

Trade shows were essentially non-existent last year. So if you’re still in business, you likely found other ways to generate leads. If you were previously reliant on trade shows for lead gen, maybe you aren’t so reliant anymore. That’s a good thing because our data suggests trade shows will have depressed turnout through 2021, which may predicate unpredictable ROI when they do eventually return.

With this in mind, it makes sense to take stock of what is working before you decide how to approach the riskier investment in trade shows. 

  • Establish Internal Parameters

We asked our respondents when they would feel comfortable attending a trade show and 68.9% said sometime by Q3. This tracks closely with a survey conducted during the same time period by MarketingLand which found 6/10 marketers would attend a trade show by Q3. But the same MarketingLand survey found something else — 66% of marketers will not attend a tradeshow without a vaccine, even in Q4.

What about you and your team?

Will you feel comfortable at a busy event later in the year? What if the vaccine rollout lags? What if an employee gets sick at an event and brings it back to the office? These are all deeply personal questions without an obvious answer. Establish parameters with your team for when you will-and- won’t follow through on a trade show. Continue to update those parameters as the year moves on.

  • Recalculate What You Need to Generate an ROI

We established 69% of our respondents would attend a trade show by Q3, but that still leaves 31% of respondents who said they won’t feel comfortable at a trade show during that time. Furthermore, 9.7% of respondents told us they won’t feel comfortable at a trade show until 2022. 

Perhaps more importantly — only 41% respondents told us they would restore 100% of their trade show budget, even if completely safe to do so. In other words, businesses are not planning to invest as much in trade shows, period. This almost certainly guarantees you can expect fewer leads from the trade shows you do attend. 

Let’s use our figure and pretend you see 41% fewer leads from a big event — what’s your game plan to generate an ROI from the other 59% you do get? Is your SDR team ready to maximize those leads? Are you finding ways to schedule meetings before the trade show? What about your marketing automation platform? 

These are the questions you need to ask yourself before even considering a trade show.

  • Consider All Options

Even if your current lead gen initiates are falling flat, that doesn’t mean trade shows are your only option. In fact, our respondents told us they were finding overwhelming success with their investments. Take SDR-based lead gen initiatives; for every respondent who told us their SDR initiative was not successful at all, roughly eight respondents told us they we’re at least somewhat successful. This was true for both in-house and outsourced options. Virtual events were also successful at a slightly less impressive 5.5:1 rate. 

Another important consideration is your current channel diversification. We found that respondents who activated three or more new channels were 5X as likely to report positive revenue impacts compared with those who only activated one new channel. Consider a new initiative if you haven’t already.

  • Set a Budget

By now you should have a sense of what options are available and what the risks of those options are. Now comes the hard part, committing to your plan with a budget. 

Avoid the temptation to underfund your investment — our analysis found companies who reallocated 50% or more of their planned trade show budget to other lead gen activities were 17X as likely to report positive revenue outcomes compared to those who invested 49% or less. 

Put in concert with our previous finding that firms who invested in 3+ channels were 5X more likely to experience positive revenue outcomes compared to those who invested less, there is a compelling argument to consider launching two initiatives and balancing your investment to favor strong performers.  Depending on your current biz dev strategy it may even make sense to remove trade shows from your 2021 planning altogether and focus strictly on maximizing your chances of success by pursuing less-risky alternatives. 

In any event, you’ll need to consider your own business conditions and the risks of any choice you make. Whatever direction you move, don’t wait so long as to let your competitors get a jump on your planning before we even end Q1. 

Author Bio: David Kreiger is the president and founder of SalesRoads, a nationally recognized SDR outsourcing and lead generation service provider. 

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