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Conferences: Get the Most Out of Your Trade Show Experience

last modified Aug 07, 2019 08:52 AM
Exhibiting at a conference can be an extremely effective way to meet with potential customers and generate leads, as well as build your start-ups brand presence and create a buzz. But they can be expensive and if not planned well, can waste your small company’s limited resources. Advanced and strategic planning is key to making the most of the experience. So we asked two of our founders, Vaughan Wittorff, Co-Founder & Chief Commercial Officer at PetaGene, and John Pettigrew, Founder and CEO of We Are Futureproofs, for their thoughts on how to approach an exhibition.

1. What's the one most important thing you would recommend exhibitors do at conference?

VW: When exhibiting, make yourselves approachable and engage directly with delegates. None of your staff should be sitting down unless they are in a meeting with a potential customer - even meeting them standing up can be preferable. Do not stand inside your booth boundary looking out at the delegates walking past - instead stand in the aisle facing into the flow of foot traffic, making direct eye contact with delegates as they walk past. Put free merchandise (we use branded water bottles and high-quality chocolates) on a cocktail table at the front of your booth somewhere. Anyone who glances at your booth on the way past or takes free merchandise deserves a question. We try: “I saw you glancing at our booth - do you work with BAM or FASTQ files?” or as soon as they pick up free merchandise: “I get to ask you a question now". Everyone will be happy to answer a direct question at this point and will stay for more if it turns out they are a potential customer. If they aren’t a potential customer, disengage quickly by saying: “Then you get a free chocolate.” Try to get carpet that matches the aisle carpet colour so that there is no sharp boundary at the edge of your booth. When you start a conversation, stand alongside the customer facing towards the booth and talk to a talking point on the booth to explain your business - that way it is harder for the customer to disengage and walk away.

JP: Prepare. Success at conferences is all about preparation - setting up meetings, researching the opportunities and going to the right sessions and parties.


2. How do you choose which conference to exhibit at?

VW: In our particular sector, the largest conferences and exhibitions are in the US. We choose to exhibit annually at Bio-IT World Expo, and ASHG. We have tried out or considered, but have now chosen not to exhibit at European conferences like ESHG and BioData World Congress, for two reasons: 1. The European exhibitions are typically twice the cost and have half the number of delegates of the US exhibitions, and 2. Delegates (including European ones) seem to take the exhibitors at the US trade shows much more seriously - a higher proportion visit the booths at the US shows and are in fact-finding/decision-making mode.

Having said that, we do attend the European trade shows as delegates. We are business-to-business and many of the companies who are exhibiting are potential customers of ours. By walking the floor and approaching the exhibitors directly, we make good use of the fact that they are often relatively available to speak at these European trade shows. It is harder to do this extensively at trade shows where you are yourself exhibiting.

JP: We’re a B2B business in an industry that is not innovation-driven so, although conferences and trade fairs aren’t generally a source of large deals, although they are crucial opportunities to meet existing and new customers, to catch up with industry news, and generally to be seen. They’re about presence, not contracts.

A key question is what sort of presence you have. When we launched our product at the Frankfurt Book Fair, to try and make sure our brand got out, it was marginally effective (a good number of leads but it didn’t make back the cost). I have taken a table on shared stands from industry organisations, which is convenient, friendlier and a lot cheaper than having your own stand!

Arranging meetings beforehand is crucially important, with the walk-by meeting a relatively rare event. Instead, I generally either arrange meetings for other people’s stands or find a convenient place to talk (coffee shop, seating area etc.). This works well, especially if you can scope out the venue and establish where will be likely places to sit and talk!  


3. What do you do to gain visibility?

JP: At trade shows, I rely on three things. First, preparation, with lots of emailing and phoning beforehand to get meetings. Second, social media is big in our industry, so I make sure to be around and vocal especially before major events. Third, I rely on personal branding so that I’m a recognisable figure. For example, I like wearing hats so I’ve made this part of my image, and it means I’m easily spotted across a crowded room or at a party. 


4. How do you make the most of networking opportunities?

JP: Again, preparation is important. I use social media to build a profile, so lots of people are aware of me before I even arrive. But the most important thing is to get to know the connectors - those people who know everyone 

and can connect you to the people you really need to talk to. The great thing is that these people are usually easy to find and easy to get to know (it’s what they do). 

Persistence is the key. Don’t treat a networking event as a chance to make sales. Instead, it’s where you get to know people who may give you business in the future but, for now, just get to know them. Indeed, one of the best things you can do at a 5. networking event is to solve someone else’s problem (without trying to sell them your own stuff).


5. What should you do as follow up after the event?

JP: I’m a big believer in quick email follow up within a couple of days, just to say thanks for the meeting and offer to answer any questions they have. Arrange a next meeting as soon as you can, either in person or by video if you must.


Vaughan Wittorff is Co-Founder & Chief Commercial Officer at PetaGene,based at ideaSpace West. PetaGene’s unique compression software addresses challenges caused by growing volumes of genomics data. It achieves savings of between 60% and 90% in both storage costs and data transfer times compared to BAM and gzipped FASTQ files. Find out more here.


John Pettigrew is CEO and Founder of We Are Futureproofs, a platform helping publishing teams deliver books to market on time more easily, reliably and cheaply, by enabling them to manage their proofs more effectively and empowering them with clear, appropriate insights into their projects. John is responsible for product vision and leadership, customer relationships, business development and pretty much everything else that isn't writing code. Find out more here.


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