Getty Images

How to Conquer a Trade Show

Plan ahead and bring a list of priorities, but wait until you get home to make any major spending decisions.

By Billy Manzo, Jr.

Are you ready for trade show season? You should be. But there’s more to getting ready than just booking hotel rooms and making reservations at your favorite restaurants. Trade shows are often treated as social events where pizza makers from around the country meet and have a good time, but that ain’t gonna make you money, guys. What’s gonna make you money is 1) building relationships with manufacturers and 2) understanding where the market is going before your competitors do. 

So there’s work to do, and you need to be prepared, especially if you’ve never been to one of these events before—or if you’ve attended them but have never really accomplished what you wanted.

LRA Expo people sitting at table drinking
Courtesy LRA Expo
Getting Prepared

Preparation begins at home. Once you’ve made your travel plans and registered for the event, get your hands on the show floor plan. Why? It will dictate what you put in your luggage and how you schedule your time and chart each day. For many shows, the last day is the best day for conversations and meetings. Since everyone is locked and loaded on that first day, by the last day many reps are standing around and looking at each other in their booths. So plan on having those long, intricate conversations with manufacturers’ reps on that last day.

Next, sit down and make three lists: A list, B list and C list. Priorities for your business go on the A list: a new dishwasher, mixer or stove, flour, cheese or salt. Attack them first. Locate those manufacturer booths on the floor plan and figure out a path to each that won’t wear holes in the soles of your shoes.

Then, move on to the B and C lists. The B list features important, rather than priority, contacts, and the C list covers where you want to be two years from now and all the fun but not totally necessary stuff.

Related: Why you should dress to impress for success in the pizza biz

Next, pack your printed sales reports and photos of your product. Notice I said “printed.” You might have charts and photos on your phone, but a hard copy—in an actual manila folder—will let manufacturers know that you’re more on your game than the guy they just sat with 10 minutes ago. And pack a good pair of sneakers or shoes, plus your “dress to impress” clothes. If all this means taking a bigger piece of luggage, so be it.

Finally, if you can afford to bring your top employee with you, do it. If you can get that employee to drink the Kool-Aid of your brand and understand what you’re trying to accomplish, you’ve got a great ambassador. That person will have so much information to talk to your customers about: “I just went to this event. This is what we saw and did. And this is what we’re gonna do. Oh, my God, we’re so excited.” That can set your vibe and tone for the year. 

man sampling wares at nightclub and bar expo
Courtesy Nightclub & Bar


During the Show

OK, so you’re at the trade show, there are hundreds of vendors in front of you, and suddenly your game plan is ready to go out the window because you saw something sexy. Stop right there! Don’t do it. Stick to the plan!

Make a note of said sexy item and add it to your C list. Then march onto the show floor and introduce yourself to all of the companies you want to meet and work with. Shake hands with everyone on your A, B and C lists. Give them your card and say, “I’d like to make an appointment with you on the last day before the show closes, if possible, or whenever is convenient for you.”

Chat with your vendor reps about where the cheese market or flour market is going. The oven guy might say, “Before you make a commitment this year, these ovens are not what you’re looking for, but six months from now, we have another oven coming out. It may be a little more expensive, but it might fill your needs better than this one.” Feel and touch all of the products you’ve seen in publications and on TikTok prior to the show. Experience them all.

But don’t—I repeat—don’t get what I call “excited chicken syndrome.” Don’t open up your checkbook and commit to anything. Right now, you’re just evaluating and taking notes.


After the Show

Once you’re back home, take a day or two to recover. Then look over your show notes and evaluate, reevaluate and make your decisions. How long should you wait before you follow up with manufacturers? As far as I’m concerned, the clock runs. All of these reps are going to have at least a month to play catch-up with their contacts, but that doesn’t mean you can’t drop an email or a text today to say, “Thank you for meeting me. I’m looking forward to 2023 and a future relationship.”

Remember, you may have conquered the trade show, but now the real work begins.  

Billy Manzo Jr. is a veteran restaurant operator and the owner/chef of Federal Hill Pizza in Warren, Rhode Island.