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The return of trade shows: What you need to know to get ready for Expo East

June 29, 2021

Trending up: tongs and handshakes. Trending down: masks and social distancing. The SRW crew took our well-vaccinated team on the road to find out what in the world it might be like to attend a trade show again. The long and short? Um, it was pretty great. 

Sweets and Snacks is an annual show dripping with salt and sugar, but this year we were delighted to find a heckuva lot more natural brands (including a few of our favorite client partners) in attendance. None of us hooligans had been around more than 20 people in the last 18 months so we had no idea how this whole thing would go, but we were shocked by how normal the whole thing seemed. Here’s what we learned that will help you get ready for Expo East…which, by the way, we think you should attend.

  1. Offer sampling options. Naked samples. Pre-packaged trial size. Full size. The most effective booths gave visitors an option for how they wanted to experience their samples. Putting out some naked samples allows for visitors at that comfort level to use tongs or toothpicks and serve themselves up. Single-serve sample packs were the most common selection. But it was also great to see brands doling out full-size options (at great expense to them, of course). The best-loved booths offered all three. For beverage brands, effective activations offered sample cups with removable lids.

HOOLIE TIP: With so many extra containers or wrapping on your samples, be sure to have ample trash space for discards. We were left holding our own garbage at many booths.

The well-prepared team at Joolies dates offered a variety of sampling options.

2. Masks are not happening. 

As one client put it, “the masks lasted about an hour.” It was too challenging to carry out conversations and sampling while masked up, so brands…didn’t. They left the masks by the way-side as they weren’t required by the venue. The venue did offer “i’m vaccinated stickers” which helped set some minds at ease. 

HOOLIE TIP: Make your own branded I’m vaccinated stickers or pins for the folks leading your sampling. 

Loved seeing the smiling faces of the nib mor team.

3. Handshakes are back. 

This was weird for me. The first time someone went to shake my hand I almost fainted. Then it kept happening again and again. If this makes you uncomfortable, invest in a great hand-sanitizer that you love re-applying. 

HOT TIP: Offer a high-quality, nice-smelling hand sanitizer at your booth. Your visitors will be grateful!

4. Standout booths still stand out. 

Our award for best booth goes to Old Trapper Jerky. Holy moly. A fireplace with a smokestack, an upper level meeting area, and the cushiest carpet you’ve ever set foot on. Their booth was bustling every second and they demanded big attention. 

HOOLIE TIP: Commit to a theme and hit it hard. Be the booth where people say “did you see the one with the smoke stack?!” People will make an extra trip to go see you.


Props to the design team at Old Trapper – this booth was a show stopper. 

5. Sparse attendance can work to your advantage. 

On the drive home, we commented on how much less exhausted we felt than usual. That’s surprising given this was our first time on the road in a year and a half. The difference, we realized, was that we had fewer conversations, and each one was more meaningful. Our partners reported the same was true for them. At this show, you weren’t waiting in lines to have conversations. There was more of a steady stream – including plenty of buyers. It was okay to stop and chat for 20-30 minutes at a time. It was downright refreshing. The relationships in the lower-attendance world are about quality, not quantity, and if you handle it right, this can be a big advantage. 

Day Two badge pickup was quite manageable. 

6. Even if you’re not exhibiting, there’s work getting done. 

Many brands walked the floor. Every brand broke bread. The networking component of trade shows has always been among the most critical reasons for brand leaders to attend, and this has only grown in the post-COVID world. There wasn’t an empty seat at the Marriott Bar, where many deals were getting done. 

HOOLIE TIP: Start those chats at happy hour. Bars close early in the new world.

Someone’s happy to be back on the circuit. 

Still not sure if it’s time to get back out there? We get it. But if you won’t be in Philly this September, you may be missing out on some big opportunities. Weigh risk versus reward and decide what’s best for your team. And if you’re there, let us know — we’ll be holding a happy hour 🙂