“Grab your lanyards, trade shows are plotting a comeback!” So says the Wall Street Journal in an article written on March 12, 2021. The good news continues with the announcement that the World of Concrete, the largest trade show for the construction and masonry industry, has been given the green light to be held in Las Vegas, June 8-10, 2021. With vaccines and safety guidelines fueling the resurgence, it’s time for booth staff to dust off their skills. Remember the good old days when booth etiquette was all about not chewing gum, congregating with colleagues, eating in the booth, and staying off the phone?

Pre-COVID exhibit staff would cheerfully invite customers into the booth, and shake hands as if to say, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship”. Now it may be wiser to take a different approach when establishing that sought after relationship. First things first:

Communicate Safety Protocols

Before we talk about new considerations for greeting visitors, event managers will need to brief exhibit staff on the safety guidelines from not only the CDC and the convention center venues, but also from what the company will expect of their staff. Update your training to include discussions on expected traffic flow, booth layout changes to accommodate distancing, mask requirements (wear one!) location of hand sanitizing stations, booth disinfecting protocols (who and how often), and booth engagement and attraction strategies for the new normal.

Greeting and Engaging with Attendees

All the tried-and-true techniques for greeting visitors still apply: Ask open-ended questions, rather than questions that illicit a simple yes or no. This technique works well for starting conversations and encouraging visitors to be forthright about what products and services they are looking for. Continue to engage attendees with professionalism, warmth, friendliness, enthusiasm, and make sure your staff is well-trained on product knowledge. But now it will be paramount for your booth staff to be mindful of the new social expectations.

  1. Respect Boundaries

Give attendees enough space to help them feel comfortable. People may want more control over how closely they stand to you or how long they are willing to engage. Although you will still want your staff to encourage people to come into the booth, a better strategy would be to look approachable but refrain from seeming overly eager. Allow attendees to make that decision for themselves. In short, your staff needs to be aware of the now famous words “social distancing”.

Booth designs can facilitate distancing by using floor decals, clear partitions in demo areas, and strategically placed products.

  1. Avoid Unnecessary Personal Contact

One of the casualties of COVID-19 is handshaking. This warm and natural way of greeting people may be a hard habit to break. Fortunately there are many substitutes like elbow and fist bumping, a friendly nod of the head, or even tapping feet! If, however, the visitor initiates the handshake, it may feel awkward or rude to turn it down and you may risk alienating them. Dealing with this situation will be a personal decision. Suggest to your staff that they not initiate the handshake but show flexibility and empathy in deciding to participate. It may be best to politely go ahead with the handshake keeping in mind that there will be plenty of hand sanitizers in the booth to use afterwards. We envision moments of levity and humor when using creative ways to greet each other.

Keeping the Humanity in Trade Shows

With new engagement rules making it more challenging to communicate in a warm and natural way, what can we do to assure that connecting with attendees remains memorable and special?

  1. Become an Active Listener

Remind your booth staff that listening attentively will be more important than usual. Active listening is more than just hearing someone speak. When you practice active listening, you are fully concentrating on what is being said. You listen with all your senses and give full attention to the person speaking. Nodding in agreement and paraphrasing back to the visitor takes the emphasis off you and puts it squarely on the other person. Displaying this essential skill will be noticed and appreciated by attendees and will benefit staffers in more ways than just in the trade show environment.

  1. Smile and the Whole World Smiles with You!

With facial expressions partially hidden behind a mask, the old saying “the eyes are the mirror of soul” takes on new meaning. Facial expressions are key to social contact. Now exhibitors will have to depend on their eyes to convey emotion. It’s easy to forget to smile when wearing a face covering. However, not even a mask can hide a genuine smile – it breaks the ice and sets the tone. Smile and your eyes smile too and will distinguish your company as being helpful, friendly, and good-natured under changing and challenging circumstances.

  1. Assume the Best in People

Everyone will be navigating the new safety protocols and finding their way together. Exhibitors will need to ensure that they and their visitors comply with the rules governing pandemic prevention. However, a mask may slip, and hands may shake. Go easy on people and cut them some slack. Assume that everyone has good intentions and won’t purposely break the safety procedures. A delicate balance should be struck between enforcing strict rules and the attendee experience. We suggest that exhibitors designate a COVID/Health Monitor to deal with flagrant or flippant rule violators in a firm, yet compassionate way.

Conclusion

Yes, trade shows are projected to make a comeback. We are navigating this new and changing world as we go along. The same goes for exhibitor etiquette in the age of COVID. It will be more important than ever for your booth staff to practice exemplary customer service, maintain positive, friendly and helpful attitudes, and be highly educated on products and services. At the same time, staffers must respect visitor boundaries and expectations while not losing the connections that are unique to trade shows. Oh, you still don’t want your staff to chew gum, but they just might get away with it behind the mask. 🙂

TPG has years of experience developing and facilitating training programs for your events, sales personnel, and franchise owners. We’ll help your team prepare for success. Let’s get in touch!

Related: The Humanity of Trade Shows (Posted February 2019) – One Bad Apple, Why Your Exhibit Staff Matters (Posted November 2015)