Participating effectively in trade shows and conferences requires significant investment of time and treasure. I always encourage my clients to do only as many as they can afford to do thoroughly. What does “thoroughly” mean?

Essentially, have a plan and a purpose. Start early, months before the conference. Have the right people at the conference with the time, attention, and resources necessary to work the plan. Be ready to follow up after the conference. Everyone returns from these with lots of ideas and good intentions that whither the first day back at the office. It’s up to you to pick up the thread and maintain the momentum.

Have a clear goal or purpose that is consistent with your marketing message and sales targets. One way to formulate the goal is to answer the question, “If I could magically place one thought into people’s minds what would that thought be and into whose mind would I plant it?” Once you have an answer to that question it is much easier to come up with strategies and tactics to work this magic.

If you want to curry favor or access with particular people, named or just job titles, it can be useful to work with, e.g., pay, the organizers to let you see the attendee list in advance. Use this information to make a plan for making contact, e.g., hospitality suite, dinner meeting, invitation to your presentation, invitation to be on your panel, etc. Contacting people in advance and asking them about their goals for the conference, particularly things they want to learn and people they want to meet, guarantees that you will have their attention and gratitude.

If some of your key target people are not planning to attend you might offer to have them attend as your guest. Policies and norms vary but generally I think it is more acceptable to offer complimentary admission than to cover their travel or lodging expenses. For really big fish, you might arrange with the organizers to make them a speaker or panelist. Speaking slots also provide some cover for paying their expenses and maybe even an honorarium. If you buy enough influence with the organizers you might arrange to have your key prospect get an award or other recognition at the conference.

It can also be effective to pay a speaker or other big-name to come to dinner or reception with a small number of your target prospects. People love exclusivity and access and it reflects well on you that you can provide it. There is a whole sub-industry providing performers, politicians, and professional golfers for such occasions.

After the conference, follow up with everyone of value with whom you had a significant conversation. At minimum, send a note thanking them for their time and attention. Even better is sending supporting materials on a topic of interest to them, a telephone call or follow-up meeting, perhaps an offer to reconnect them with some big wig they met at the conference.