If your last convention experience was more DOA than ROI, take heart. We asked a number of trade show vets and professionals to address three questions: What's the best way to prepare for a trade show? How do you maximize time and energy at the show? And finally, how do you handle info and contacts after it's all over? Here's a gallery of timely tips and helpful advice.

PREP TIME
Yeah, yeah. You learned the Boy Scout motto 20 (or was it 30?) years ago. Now's the time to dust it off for use. Here's how.

Start yesterday. "We begin preparing for next year's show after this year's show is over," says Kevin Donnellan, communications manager for Cold Stone Creamery, a 500-store ice cream retailer. "We analyze the good, bad, and ugly of what happened and provide solutions while it's fresh on our minds. Did we have the right manpower? Can we get a better space on the show floor? Getting more buzz at a trade show is always a result of planning."

Erin Foster, Kodak's worldwide director of public relations and events, says the company does a "recon" before every show. "We want to know who's registered," she says, "what products are showcased, what media has attended in the past."

Go With a Goal. Don't spend money on trade shows just because rivals are going or because they are the "premier" shows for your industry, warns Mark McClennan, a director for Schwartz Communications. "Are you there to meet prospects, raise visibility, position the company as a thought leader?" he says. "Then customize everything you do to reach that goal."

Work the Web. Dan Cole, vice president of sales and business development for the giant Consumer Electronics Show held in Las Vegas each January, says preparation should include a visit to the show's website, where you'll usually find preregistration forms, hotels offering discounts and shuttle buses to the hall, lists of exhibitors, a schedule of speakers and conferences, and - don't miss this - a map of the show floor. Properly used, Cole says, a map can save you hours of frustrated wandering.

Get a Flying Start. Schwartz's McClennan, who advises dozens of clients about squeezing the most out of trade shows, says the real work starts on the plane. "Don't sit with your own people on the flight out," McClennan says. "If it's a big show, odds are someone sitting near you is going. You can network with them, maybe identify a new prospect."

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