Maximizing Event ROI: How to Close Deals on the Event Floor

I’ve been to a lot of events in my career: sometimes as a sponsor, sometimes as a vendor, and other times as an attendee. Depending on the day I am the prospector or the prospected, the hunter or the prey.

Over time, I’ve noticed the number and quality of interactions between attendees and sponsors has gotten worse. People used to approach sponsors’ tables and booths, but now they avoid the exhibition hall altogether.


One reason is that with so many vendors and new technologies, people are experiencing sales overload. Every day, they’re getting emails, cold calls, LinkedIn messages, and other communications from people trying to sell them something. Between the constant noise and the arduous process of buying and implementing new tools, many aren’t interested in learning about something new.

Another contributing factor is the shift in the buying and selling process. Research shows that buyers can get 70% of the way through the procurement process without interacting with a salesperson. When buyers are empowered online, they’re much less interested in checking out new products and services while attending events.

My personal theory is that is has nothing to do with the buyers and everything to do with the sellers. Along with the theme of less attendee traffic to booths, I’m also seeing more and more vendors hanging out behind their tables. They sit there with their heads down, noses to their phones and tablets. I’ve even witnessed attendees have to work to get the attention of the sponsors. Sad, but true.

Companies are spending tons of marketing dollars on these events but often send junior team members who never learned the right way to work a booth. Further exacerbating this problem, many of the booth jockeys and inside sales reps aren’t used to meeting people face-to-face, and then are left to man the table alone, without a mentor in sight. This might have worked in the past, but research shows that this approach doesn’t work for younger reps who are just starting their careers.

With all of these challenges, how do you get ROI from trade shows, conferences, and events?

The Right Way to Work a Booth

Most events provide two or more chairs per booth. Being on your feet all day takes a toll on you, and those chairs sound pretty good after a while. Do not give in to temptation.

If you’re going to work a booth the right way, stand in front of the table at all times. Standing makes you appear ten times more approachable than sitting.

I have a simple rule when my team is working a booth or table: Don’t get caught behind the table.

When you’re not actively holding a conversation, scan the room and look for people milling around. Be approachable–make eye contact and smile to initiate a conversation.

Don’t think it works? Put yourself in their shoes. Who are you more willing to meet: someone sitting behind a table checking their email or the person who made eye contact and proactively approaches you?

While you’re having a conversation, remember that people want to be treated like people, not prospects. This isn’t the time for a hard sales pitch.

Sales Pro Tip: Remember who you meet. Say “hi” when you bump into them in the elevator, at the hotel, etc. Some of the best relationships are formed when you run into each other outside of the expo floor.

Start the Conversation: 3 Must-Ask Questions

You smiled and made eye contact, shook hands and introduced yourself, now it’s time to talk.

People attend events and conferences for a reason. According to Craig Elias, event attendance is often a signal that something might be loosening the status quo within an organization.

The only way to find out what that change might be and what the organization’s needs are is to ask. Here are the three questions you must ask during the conversation:

  1. What’s your business?
  2. What brought you here?
  3. Which speaker or topic have you found the most useful so far? Why?

Let’s break down why these questions are so important:

1. What’s your business?

Conferences and events are unique because you would NEVER ask this question when prospecting on the phone. At events, you ALWAYS ask this question because there is no possible way for you know without asking.

There are two main reasons to ask this: determining if their company falls within your ideal customer profile and learning more about other companies.

If a company is outside of your ICP, keep the conversation short but friendly.

Regardless of whether or not the company is a fit, don’t just stand there smiling and nodding. Ask follow-up questions. Use your business acumen and really try to understand what it is they do and why they do it.

We have a mantra for events: Be interested, not interesting. When you are genuinely interested, people will open up.

2. What brought you here?

This question is much more than an icebreaker. In the words of SPIN Selling, 90% of people at professional, educational, or association events have an explicit need. “What brought you here?” or “Why did you come today?” is the key to unlocking that need.

Typically, the person will answer with something generic like “I came to learn and network.” Then they’ll say something like “What we’re really struggling with is…” or “I absolutely need to figure out…” or “It’s critical the we…”. These statements are all explicit needs.

Pay close attention when their tone of voice changes. When you find a moment later on, write down the explicit need statement on the back of their business card, using their own words.

3. Which speaker or topic have you found the most useful so far? Why?

Another casual question that reveals a lot of useful information. Remember, people go to these events for a reason.

When you find out what content has been the most useful to them, you’ll quickly know if your product or service matches the need. Example: They answer that they really enjoyed the keynote on Marketing Automation Best Practices. You sell marketing automation software. It’s a match.

On the flip side, if they say their favorite session covered prospecting and you sell customer service training, it’s probably not a match.

People love talking about themselves and sharing their opinions. Be genuinely inquisitive, keep asking questions and actively listen. While these three questions are important, what’s more important is to go into conversations without expecting anything in return.

The Art of the Business Card Swap

In a world where tapping phones or connecting on LinkedIn to swap contact info is the norm, I believe the business card is more important than ever.

We know that if a person makes a small commitment now, they are more likely to make a larger commitment later. There is excellent research explaining this in the book Influence. They use product parties as an example. Once you’ve committed to going to the party, you’re much more likely to make the bigger commitment of buying something at the party.

When someone gives you their business card, they are making a small commitment to you. After meeting them, you’re probably going to go for a larger commitment: a scheduled meeting, and you’re likely to get it.

Once I have a conversation going a build some trust and rapport, I offer my card to them. There are two psychological principles behind this:

First, by giving you are more likely to get in return. Give to get is a great concept to embrace at events in general.

Second, social proof encourages people to do something when they see others around them doing it. If other people are handing out business cards, it’s logical for me to as well.

Business cards are also valuable because they typically have direct lines and cell phone numbers listed. It makes follow up much easier for both parties.

Ignore cries of “Business cards are dead!”. Order them and hand them out.

Drive ROI at Marketing Events

Arrange Appointments with Prospects Before the Event

Check out social media channels in advance to find out if any of your prospects will be at the event. Reach out to them and book a meeting while they are onsite with a message like this:

Jennifer – I noticed that you will be at the AA-ISP meeting next week in Chicago. Can we get together and have a drink at the bar?

The beer meeting hits all the marks of why people attend events: to learn, to socialize & network, and to have fun. Another great tactic I picked up from Ken Krogue is to make your CTA a meeting with the CEO at your booth.

The idea behind Ken’s method is that prospects are much more likely to say yes when it’s a meeting with a senior executive instead of a junior marketer or sales person. As Ken says, “CEOs are higher on the trust ladder.”

Jennifer – I noticed that you will be at the AA-ISP meeting next week in Chicago. Can we set a time for you to meet our CEO that day?

Since adopting the practice of arranging appointments with prospects in advance, we get ROI on marketing dollars before we even show up for the event.

Preparation & Follow-Up Matters

Events are more than the hours you spend on the floor. What you do before and after events directly impacts your ROI.

When you’re preparing for an event, be sure everyone who will be representing your company can answer “What do you do?”.

Make a cheat sheet with the answer. Write 3 to 5 sentences about what your company does from the perspective of your clients. Be sure everyone has a copy and PRACTICE with them.

Here’s an example:

Sales teams use our software to gain insights from conversations happening in their business every day. Many companies are already recording their calls, but they aren’t doing anything with the recordings. The platform allows sales leaders to see what’s actually happening on calls and enables sales managers to coach reps efficiently at scale.

The trick here is to be brief and take the conversation back to their needs and how you can help.

Connect on LinkedIn Immediately After the Event

This one is a no-brainer that we all let slide. Find the people you met and send them a LinkedIn invitation. Change that terrible standard LinkedIn invitation message to something like:

Bob – great meeting you today. I enjoyed our conversation about how you need to convert more of your marketing leads into opportunities. In a separate email I’m going to send you that research brief we discussed.

Make it a reminder of the conversation that is about them and their explicit need. Another bonus for connecting on LinkedIn is that if you use Sales Navigator you will receive an email if the person moves to a new organization.

Follow Through: Do What You Say You Will

It’s common to have twenty or more quality conversations with prospects in a day at events. The majority of the conversations result in tangible next steps for both sides. It’s up to you to take notes on those next steps and do what you say you are going to do. You also want to remind the prospect to do what they said they are going to do.

Bob – I enjoyed our conversation very much. As promised please see the attached research brief that will help you with the lead to opportunity issue you’re having. You mentioned that you’d like to schedule a call with your colleague Barbara. Please let me know what works best for you next week.

Effective event lead follow up is all about getting the buyer to take some tangible action. Make the buyer do something that shows their commitment to change.

Put Your Leads & Notes Into Your CRM

As the saying goes in our offices: If it’s not in Salesforce, it doesn’t exist.

When adding leads to the CRM, make sure you include the explicit need you wrote on the back of their business card, next steps for both sides, and any other details from your conversation. The little things matter, so keep notes on everything.

Mobile applications like ScanBizCards allow you to take a picture of the business card and populate the lead record automatically. Caveat: the software isn’t perfect. Don’t be surprised if fax and phone get mixed up for example. If you use an app like this, make sure you manually review and fix errors in your CRM.

These are just some of the things you can do at an event. What insights and tips do you have for events? Share your thoughts in the comments.