It has the charm and competitiveness of a Broadway cattle call. There stands row upon row of exhibitors just like you, each desperately trying to gain the flickering attention of any one of the thousands milling by. It is exhausting, expensive, and often feels demeaning. But it is also vital to your business. The trade show.

In the space of three or four days, thousands of potential customers get to view and learn about your product. Here lies an enormous opportunity — if you can somehow be distinctive. Exhibitors try everything from glitzy signage and seductive music to pert young lasses serving free wine. Anything to stand out and get the attendees to hear the pitch and discover the product.

Obviously, there is no single formula for optimum customer cultivation at a trade show. But Jersey Skyline of Pine Brook, an exhibiter of trade shows, has teased apart the problem with a scientific marketing approach and developed several standards and considerations. As Jersey Skyline president Scott Price puts it, “Trade shows are an entirely different medium. The environment you create and your staff’s responses demand adjustments unlike those found in normal day-to-day work.”

Price will present “Successful Trade Show Marketing Strategies” on Wednesday, August 20, at 9:30 a.m. at New Jersey Skylines’ headquarters on Bloomfield Avenue in Pine Brook. For more information on this free program call 973-882-3488.

Price has had more than two decades to prove this point. A native of Manchester, Connecticut, he attended Nathaniel Hawthorne College, graduating in 1979 as a science major. He briefly worked for a steel company before obtaining his MBA from Fairleigh Dickinson University.

Spurred with the entrepreneurial spirit, Price joined his brother in launching a software company, along with countless others in the early 1980s. For the last 21 years, as Skyline’s New Jersey dealer, Price has worked at developing better trade show booths, tools, and strategies, plus providing a variety of trade show seminar packages.

For Price, the trade show is process that begins well before and ends long after those frantic three days.

Why go? The most important question to pose prior to attending a trade show is why are you exhibiting — what specifically are you intending to get out of this trek. “And the absolutely, number one wrong answer is ‘I gotta go because all my competition will be there,’” says Price. Attendance seen merely as an obligation rather than an opportunity guarantees a lackluster, image-shattering presentation.

Most exhibitors on the floor have arrived in hopes of generating leads that will open doors to follow up initial conversations, and eventual sales. But there are others. Some new product launchers may exhibit strictly to demonstrate. Success is based on the sheer number of folks who see their product at work. Others seek to reposition or rebrand their product — for example, bringing their inventory software from only the warehouse clients into schools. Whatever the goal, set up specific results, against which your strategies can be measured and honed in the future.

Staff training. “For better or worse, 85 percent of your trade show results are in the hands of your booth staff,” says Price. Training is crucial and often toughest for the professional sales force. On a typical sales call, the seller has time to build solid rapport; to work over time. On the trade show floor, time is compressed into seconds. Further, unlike most sales calls, where the seller is visiting an individual he knows or contacting a cold customer over the phone, the trade show thrusts potential clients — all strangers — in the seller’s face. Staffers must be ready.

“Ideally, engagement begins when the passerby is 10 to 15 feet away,” says Price. Show a courteous smile; ask an open-ended question, such as, “What brings you to the show?” It threatens no sales pitch, and cannot be answered with a yes or no. It can be social — “How are you enjoying New Orleans?” — or business — “How are you coping with the fuel prices?”

Then shut up and listen. You’ve asked this person to tell you something — let him.

Often as not, the strolling attendee will avoid eye contact because he fears being lured into an exhaustive pitch. The booth staff should recognize this inherent fear and learn to distill the pitch.

What’s in a booth? “People love to buy, but they hate to be sold,” notes Price. “The booth, therefore must be more inviting than assaulting.” If the graphic designs in the booth are too busy, the passers-by only perceive products being pushed at them. Rather, if a company makes four products applicable to the show it should bring samples of them all, but only promote one of them with signs and major brochures. Trade shows are by nature visually overwhelming. A booth with less is often more refreshing, and more visited.

Another rookie mistake is placing that square, cloth-draped table at the front of the booth. This positioning creates turf, and a fortress which fends off attendees, urging them to keep moving down the aisle. Rather, try placing the table at the back or side, making the booth staff the initial representative of the company and its product. As for booth size, Price recommends 50 square feet of floor space for each staffer. Two people can comfortably work in the standard 10 x 10 foot booth.

Following up. Handouts or promotional giveaways are not follow-ups. The average show goer today has become very leery of what he picks up.

And we hate to waste paper. The small stack of items we do pick up, gets cut in half before we pack to fly home, then cut in half again when we actually get back into the office. They are not useless, but considering most trade show fees, they should be reserved for individuals who have shown a particular interest.

Promotional items serve their strongest lure on the floor. No one remembers what company is connected with that cute bobble-headed rabbit bouncing on his desk. But as they are picking it up, they are ready to chat, and that giveaway provides an ideal conversational ice breaker.

Unfortunately, too many staffers see those taking their promotional gift as show floor scavengers, rather than potential clients. “Recently I went to a Fine Chemicals Show and picked up 35 promotional items,” says Price. “Only two of the 35 booth staff said so much as one word to me.”

No one says it is easy. The individuals staffing a booth must be up and ready the whole day. Lounging in a folding chair, eating, or being on the cell phone broadcasts to passersby that you truly are not interested in them. This is, after all a show, and the lead character is the seller, with the product as a helpful, reliable prop.

The good news is that the house is a sellout, the audience is captive, and they’re primed for your business. So summon the energy and knock ’em dead.

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