Think of the last time you were on the midway at a state fair. Every booth was brightly colored, full of interesting things to see, do, and win. Hawkers yelled: "Step right up!", "Three tries for a dollar!", "Win a stuffed bunny for the lovely lady!" Lights flashed, kids ran around, and everyone seemed to be talking at once.

A trade show is like the midway at the state fair.

There may not be quite so many stuffed bunnies at a business trade show, but the level of noise and distraction is just about the same. There are lots of other businesses competing for your customers' attention, all with product demonstrations, service information, and free giveaways. On top of that, there may be speakers, new technologies to play with, raffles, food booths, and networking opportunities.

How do you make sure that your company doesn't get lost or overlooked in all the noise and commotion?

And how can you make sure that your (not-small) investment of time and money will pay off for your company? That you won't end up sitting alone in your booth for hours, wishing that someone would stop in and talk to you?

The answer is in the pre-show preparation.

If you're setting up a display at a trade show, you have to do more than just pay for a booth space, put on a nice outfit that morning, and walk in the door for your company to get real results. You have to think about how you'll cut through all the "noise" to get in touch with your target audience.

What do you have to do to prepare?

1. Create a strategy. Saying "I want to go to this trade show and get customers" is fine, but that's every vendor's goal. You need to create a real, measurable goal for the show before you even sign up.

Ask yourself things like: Why am I here? Am I promoting a particular product or new service? Am I trying to grow into a particular target market? How many people do I want to connect with? What types of people do I want to talk to?

Then, check the show you're thinking of against these goals. You'll want to make sure that enough people will be there, that they're in your target audience, and that you have a reasonable expectation of getting a good return on your investment.

2. Determine the one (or two) things you really need to tell people about. The people you meet at the trade show will be distracted. They'll be tired (or soon-to-be tired). They may be far from home. Their feet will probably hurt, and their arms will be full of promotional trinkets, brochures, and paper they're planning to recycle just as soon as they can find a bin.

These are definitely not ideal conditions under which to meet new prospects. Don't freak them out further by trying to tell them everything you can do for them and every detail of your offer.

Decide before the show what might be most appealing to the show's attendees—you should be able to get demographic information about them from the show's organizers when you sign up. Then plan your strategy and marketing materials for the show around promoting that one aspect of your offerings.

3. Set the stage for follow-up. You probably won't make a big-ticket sale at a trade show. You'll be lucky to make a small-ticket sale unless you're selling products, but even then, it can be hard to get prospects' attention long enough for them to pull out their credit cards.

Instead of aiming for an immediate sale, set up a system to get your visitors' contact information and follow up with them later. This may be as easy as a fishbowl drawing for a prize with a disclaimer that all entrants will be subscribed to your email newsletter. Or you could offer short free consultations to those who sign up. You could also give away an article or report to be emailed to visitors after the show.

Any of these systems is inexpensive, gives you a way to get visitors' emails and/or phone numbers, and provides you with an excuse to follow up later to talk about your product or service—when your prospect is less distracted and overwhelmed.

4. Consider a promotional item. You may need to give out a promotional item to get trade-show zombie-people into your booth. If you do, then make sure it stands out—that it's not just another pen or mini candy bar.

Standing out doesn't mean that an item needs to be expensive. Some of the best and most sought-after items I've seen at trade shows have included hand-held paper fans (it can get hot in convention halls), massage lotion to soothe tired feet later that evening, and good-quality bags to hold all the "stuff" people tend to accumulate at these events.

Just make sure that whatever you give away has some value to your booth visitor and makes sense for your business. That way, it will be less likely to be thrown out after the show and more likely to make you memorable.

5. Wrap it all up with your booth design. There will be visual chaos at the show. The lighting will probably be less-than-ideal. So you'll want to design graphics and signs for your booth that are easy to see, easy to read, not too busy, and that reinforce your brand.

Your first step is to ask the organizers if you need to bring a table and booth structure or if one is provided. If you need to bring one, be sure to source supplies and make delivery arrangements well in advance. If one is supplied, ask about attaching signs, banners, and graphics to the structure. Ask if materials to hang them will be provided and if there are restrictions on attaching stuff to the booth. You don't want to show up with a roll of duct tape and discover that you'll be charged a big damage fee if you use it.

Then, plan to print large-format graphics for the booth. You'll want to include your logo and simple text about your offering. Keep this very simple—most people won't slow down while walking by, so you won't have long to catch their attention! You can also consider using photos, but you'll need very high resolution pictures to get good printing results on large graphics, and that can be expensive. Be sure that your booth graphics match your Visual Vocabulary as well.

Also, consider using freestanding or tabletop easels and printing posters. Get the posters mounted on foam core board and display them around your booth. These are especially effective near the front of the booth for visitors who can't read text that's far away.

Decide the marketing materials you'll bring with you. Again, base this on your goals and the one or two things you need your visitors to know about at this show. Don't take every piece of collateral you've ever created and spread it out on the table, because that will only make visitors uncomfortable.

Don't forget about decorating the top of your table. Ask the organizers if tablecloths will be provided, and if so, what color they'll be. If they're not provided or the color doesn't compliment your brand, you'll want to get a tablecloth for your booth. Consider putting a nice vase of fresh flowers on the table top, or a bouquet of balloons to add inexpensive color.

Think about how you'll display your marketing materials and promotional items. Should you lay them flat? Stand them up in acrylic holders? Fan them out or stack them up? You may want to try several arrangements until you find the one that's most visually pleasing.

Also, think about how you're gathering follow-up information—do you need to highlight a fish bowl for business cards or display a stack of response cards? Choosing the right place and way to display these items can really affect your response rate.

Finally, consider how the booth will look throughout the course of the event. As people take marketing materials, pillage your candy bowl, and pick up promotional items, your booth may start looking messy. Straighten it up from time to time to keep it looking professional. 

These 5 preparatory steps will help you cut through the craziness and clutter at your next trade show. And, then instead of wishing for visitors, you'll find that your booth is packed like the "win a bunny" booth on the midway at the fair!