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How to Attract Attendees to a Conference Exhibit Booth

By Sarah K Perlman
June 23, 2022

Hello and welcome to the 2022 SIIA AMPLIFY Conference! 🎙 We’re coming to you live from Washington, DC, where hundreds of nonprofit professionals are learning about best practices in association publishing.

This is my first time exhibiting with SIIA, although I’ve been a member of their Association Council (formerly known as Association Media & Publishing) for years. Building my booth was a bit daunting at first; I’ve attended and worked many conferences but I wasn’t sure what the right angle was for my own business. As we’ve discussed, marketing yourself is hard and I have a particular paralysis when it comes to marketing my own business.

In my previous life at the Federal Bar Association, I purchased a prize wheel and used it during events to promote upcoming conferences. We had smaller prizes that related to the locations of the upcoming conferences as well as big ticket items like a free registration. It was pretty popular—who doesn’t like free stuff?—and also very LOUD while the wheel clicked against the spinner. Good times.

So in planning my Silverbrook booth for AMPLIFY, I reminisced on the good old times with the “wheel of destiny.” I decided to ask my former work wife coworker and conference whiz Melissa Schettler about using the wheel to entice attendees to visit me.

“The great thing about the wheel is that it’s so customizable,” she said. “You can use it to give away free stuff to people in exchange for their business card—which gives you guaranteed leads. If you include some big-ticket items, it’s also a way to showcase some of your offerings and let people know what you can do.”

Sounds like a great business plan, and I also felt like it would showcase my fun personality and help people know that I don’t take myself too seriously. 🥸 I definitely wanted to include it in my booth! So I started the joyful process of buying things to give away. I structured my prizes so that I had more low-ticket items (stickers, magnets), some mid-priced (pencils and pop-its), two work-related but lower-priced items (free blog posts), and one major big ticket item that really shows the value of what I do (a marketing audit). I also made sure to put the actual cash value of the work-related items so that people understood the value of what they were winning. Here’s the final look of the wheel:

The Wheel of Destiny!

OK, so I planned to use the wheel. What about the rest of the booth? The space came equipped with a 6-ft table and a chair, but I didn’t think I wanted to just be trapped behind a table all day. Plus, how would I be able to see the wheel if it was on the table facing attendees and I was behind the table? I decided I needed more assistance from an event planning expert, and contacted Kate Koch of KFK Associates.

“The best thing you can do is either eliminate the large table or find an alternative way to use it,” she said. “You definitely don’t want that division between yourself and the attendees. You also have to remember that you’ll be moving around a lot and interacting with people, attending sessions yourself, and greeting people and shaking hands. The table just obstructs all of that good energy.”

Hmmm. I knew that I needed some sort of table to hold all my prizes and to hide my boxes and bags that I would be carrying, but I wanted to heed Kate’s advice on the booth layout. I decided to turn the table 90 degrees and have it at the side of the booth with the wheel at the front. That way, the wheel is closest to the attendees and I could stack my prizes out of the way behind it. This is how it turned out:

Don’t mind the wrinkles…

Side note: I also bought my own tablecloth in a brand color to differentiate my booth from all the black tablecloths that come with the setup (see in the background). I neglected to take it out of the package beforehand, however, so it is ultra wrinkly. This is bothering me less since it’s turned sideways, but still—ugh. Next time, I’ll steam it before folding it back up nicely!

At this point, I had the wheel and accessories figured out, but I still had no idea what to do about the background of my booth. In some cases, the conference planners will have “pipe and drape” (curtain) walls set up between booths to demarcate the exact dimensions of the booth. In this case, the tables are just out in an atrium and you kind of have to just stake out your space as best you can. Not my favorite, but I made it work. In either case, I knew that a simple banner wasn’t going to cut it.

I researched different exhibit booth branding options, and there was a massive range between $1,200ish and $10,000+. You can buy your own flooring, have multiple walls, have your own lighting, built-in screens for multimedia displays… the options go on and on. I ended up going with a company that offered an 8’x8′ backdrop that promised it could be easily put together by one person (important). The backdrop came with an awesome hard shipping case, which is key, and they have this really cool option of buying graphics that turn the case into a podium! Of course I’m bougie and had to get that option—how cool.

Once I decided on the setup, I had to design the graphics. This was by far the hardest part of the booth choices because I need this investment to take me through several conferences. It needed to be relevant to my brand but also flexible enough to speak to attendees within my target market at different events.

Another side note: This conference sponsorship came with an ad in the Association Council’s magazine, and I had spent a decent amount of time coming up with my full-page ad. I decided then to use that as inspiration for my website redesign and apply the same theme to my conference backdrop!

Because I’m a pro, it only took about 15 minutes to craft the designs once I knew the direction I was headed. I uploaded my art, and a couple of weeks later my booth was delivered! I did a trial run in my living room, which was hilariously cramped, and it really is easy to put together by myself. Here’s how the whole booth turned out:

I lurve it so much!

But, even after all this planning I still wasn’t done. The conference sponsorship also included the option to provide an insert in the bags given to all attendees. How could I pass up that opportunity?! I knew I didn’t want to provide an 8.5×11 sheet or even a postcard that would just get lost in the shuffle. I needed something unique but still cost effective that people would find value in and keep around for a while.

I started thinking about what the attendees would use. These people work in media and publishing, so they likely prepare files for printing at least occasionally. Since print is an area of expertise for me, I ran with that idea. I developed a prepress checklist and a press checklist so that people could cross all their i’s and dot their t’s before going to press. But what format should I use?

I still didn’t want it to get lost, and I wanted it to be useful on both sides of the item. I decided to put a ruler on the other side, which forced the page size to be 13″ and provided and extra bump of value. I included my business card information so people would have it on hand. AND, to add another layer of “don’t overlook or throw this away,” I had them letterpress printed on the same stock as my business cards! An extra expense, but worth it in my opinion. Here’s the front and back of the bag inserts:

If only you could feel the texture.

So I’m sure you’re wondering what the ROI is on all of this work, right? How many people have actually come by my exhibit booth? Well, I’ve collected information from around 65 attendees who spun the wheel, and most of those had conversations with me about my services and shared their pain points with me.

Honestly, when it comes to ROI, I’m not sure I can put a price on the branding element. I’m getting my name known, and who knows how long someone will remember me and my information down the line? I have a great feeling about exhibiting here, and it’s been a really fun change of pace to meet new people in person and represent my company. This is everything I’ve worked toward, and it feels like it’s all finally happening! 🤗

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