Trade Show Marketing for Coffee Exporters

A new version of the trade show exhibition guide for coffee exporters is available for download. The document published for the International Trade Centre as a part of the SheTrades global initiative includes additional details planning tools for coffee exporters attending trade marketing events.

Coffee trade shows can be an effective marketing tool for exporters. They put coffee origin branding in front of buyers, and are central industry meeting places for the diverse coffee economy.

Timor coffee exporters at Singapore trade show

Timor-Leste coffee exporters at Singapore coffee trade show

The specialty coffee trade believes in the principle that every differentiated coffee is unique. Specialty coffee buyers want to know where their coffees come from, and know the producer. The need to taste each unique coffee plus a desire to maintain relationships cements the importance of in person meetings. As a result, coffee trade shows (trade fairs, expos) play critical roles in the marketing of green coffee.

Coffee exporters and buyers maintain routine contact in the course of normal business. This leads to the creation of relationships beneficial to both parties over several seasons. Strong bonds of loyalty, even friendships develop that support productive longterm trade relationships. Coffee exporters’ participation at international coffee trade exhibitions can lead to first introductions. More often, shows provide an opportunity to socialize in person with existing partners in an efficient, yet busy, few days.

Efficiency and the potential of securing new valuable trading business comes at a price. Exhibiting at any coffee trade show is expensive. Costs are not limited to space reserved from the host event organization. Beyond booth space and display, there are many others that you may not have considered. Travel, advertising, and exhibit service fees contribute to making exhibitions expensive.

Sending a delegation of ten people to an international coffee trade show can cost $50,000 or more. Since so much is at risk, it is important to plan to achieve a return on investment. When done right, trade show activity can be sustainable — even profitable activities. We designed this guide to assist any coffee exporter who wants to be more effective marketing at specialty coffee events.

Choosing an ideal coffee trade show

Specialty Coffee Association Japan expo

Specialty Coffee Association of Japan 2016 Tokyo expo entrance

Selecting an appropriate coffee trade show is the first and most important aspect of event marketing. There are many events to choose from each year. It’s almost as if one can exhibit at a different coffee show each week! Besides specialty coffee, there are food and hospitality shows, restaurant, confections, grocery shows, and others.

Professional coffee industry events are best to promote to green coffee buyers. Major shows include (but are not limited to):

Shows like MICE draw regional attendees, others like the SCA Global Expo have a broad international audience. If targeting a specific region of the world, it is important to know what shows are influential in that area.

There is little overlap in green coffee and roasted coffee buyers at events, with few exceptions. Larger food industry events may offer coffee pavilions or dedicated halls that are also suitable for green coffee. Examples of these large shows include:

Coffee festivals, or food and hospitality events are best to promote roasted coffee to wholesale or retail coffee buyers. These include:

Choose a target audience of green or roasted coffee buyers, then promote one or the other, but not both. Combining both will be confusing to attendees.

Coffee exporters sometimes organize a regional or national show representing local production interests. These include:

When choosing a show for your coffee organization, consider the following criteria:

Who are the attendees?

Show management companies offer demographics information to prospective exhibitors. Lists may include the number of participants, country of origin, company category and job function. Sometimes, these include key interests and spending budgets obtained in registration surveys.

Other exhibitors are often a good source of information too. Look for other coffee exporter organizations. Direct competitors are a good sign. Contact exhibitors from companies you know who exhibit at the show for their review of past years.

Ask your current buyers what coffee shows they attend, and their goals for being there. Often times, the shows that your customers attend are the ones that you should too.

What are your coffee export organization’s goals for the coffee trade show?

The main reason to attend a trade event is, of course, sales focused (“we want to sell more coffee”). But consider these other possible broader opportunities:

  • Build brand awareness. Most business identified through coffee trade show activity is not conducted at the event or even immediately after. It could take months or years to close business identified at a show. Trade show marketing often acts as a first point of awareness or introduction. Building awareness is a valuable contribution to an organizational sales effort. It builds a foundation for all other sales and marketing effort.
  • Hold customer meetings. Industry events provide an opportunity to meet with a large number of existing trade partners in a single forum. Use the time to discuss ongoing or new business matters, and socialize with customers. Social activities build trust, which is of critical important in the specialty coffee industry.
  • Gather intelligence. Use shows to learn what and how other coffee exporters are promoting coffees. Visit competitor displays and check their appearance. Gauge competitor effectiveness at projecting a compelling message. Taste coffees from other coffee exporters to better understand the competition.  Adapt good ideas from your competitors and apply them to your own marketing plan.
  • Learn. Send staff to shows so to learn more about the coffee industry or how to conduct export business better. Everyone can learn something new from attending lectures or skill building workshops. SCA events offer educational courses to perform better as a coffee cupper, roaster, or barista. Better understanding the industry and how consumers use coffee will improve selling effectiveness.
  • Develop strategic partnerships. Consider aligning with regional trade groups, barista or roaster associations, other national coffee associations with common interests. Banding together with others can improve the effectiveness of sales activity.
  • Meet the press. Trade press attend events to cover stories generated within the industry or announcements made at the show. Form relationships with editors or other media representatives. It will improve possibilities for future exposure. Involve trade media in your activities at shows. Make media impression a key metric for evaluating success of the activity.

Budgeting Costs

Reserving booth space at an event is a small piece of a coffee trade show budget. Consider:

  • advertisements (show guide, trade media)
  • catering (water for coffee, milk for espresso drinks)
  • display equipment (brewing equipment, grinders, airpots)
  • exhibit (show provided or custom exhibit)
  • furniture rental (chairs, tables, sofa, plants)
  • hosted events (dinners, parties, hospitality suites, cupping rooms)
  • inbound and outbound freight (freight, plus show drayage)
  • marketing materials and supplies (handouts, samples)
  • services (electricity, cleaning)
  • sponsorships (competitions, show features)
  • staff salaries
  • supplies (extension cables, cups, paper filters, towels, cleaning supplies)
  • travel expenses (flights, hotels, meals, ground transportation, visas)

Be sure to investigate costs before committing to an event, as complimentary services change for each. Consider requesting a sample budget from the event organizer.

Using estimates for the items above, create a budget for the activity. Later, record the number of leads originating from the event. That way, you can estimate the cost of acquisition for each sales prospect and determine the return on investment for the activity. Do the same for each other goal of the event. For example, media impressions, partner opportunities or customers met. These combined metrics help to determine the value of a show for future planning.

Choosing to exhibit or not

Contracted booth space is a visible central space on the exhibit floor. It provides a known place of meeting and cupping demonstrations for new customers. Exhibiting can be expensive and limits staff ability to explore the full event and take part in other activities.

In some cases it may be more productive to attend the show without being an exhibitor. Exhibit at shows th

Busy Yemen coffee cupping

Busy Yemen coffee cupping at the 2015 SCA Seattle expo

at serve your regional sales interests or otherwise give your export entity credibility. If not central to your marketing and communications plan, attending may be a better option.

When exhibiting make use of the extra services offered to exhibitors, such as a show guide listings or access to a cupping room that add value. Badge scanning (lead retrieval) equipment is available for a fee that collects more data from badges than appears on a business card.

The most effective exhibits are clean, open, and staffed by professional but engaging representatives. Approach the customer in a friendly and assertive but not threatening manner. The use of canvas images or banner screens is a cost-effective display alternative to traditional booth construction. Weight of show materials is a significant consideration. Remember that everything must be shipped or carried to the event venue.

Yemen coffee exporters

Inexpensive banner stand display promoting Yemen coffee exporters

Visual messaging

The message projected by a display should be clear and consistent with minimal use of text. This is particularly for international coffee shows, where language may be a barrier. An exhibitor has less than 3 seconds to convey an appealing image that will attract attendees. Striking imagery (mountain scenes of coffee fields, etc.) can help to catch attention, but will only attract the right audience if the message is relevant. For example, “we grow coffee and conduct business using best practices”.

When attending a show NOT as an exhibitor you can still reach many goals and will have the added freedom to not be confined to a booth. Never try and sell green or roasted coffee to other attendees or exhibitors. Selling coffee out of a suitcase walking down the aisle at trade fairs is prohibited, and considered rude by most buyers. Never give green coffee samples to potential buyers who do not request them. Unrequested green coffee samples are almost always thrown in the trash.

Offsite events and hospitality suites

hotel hospitality suite

Hotel hospitality suite

Another alternative to exhibiting, hosting offsite events or parties. These can be at nearby restaurants or a “hospitality suite,” at a close hotel. Suites can double as a reception venue and a meeting room away from the busy show floor. Be sure any hospitality suite is near the conference floor, as most attendees have busy schedules and are reluctant to travel far.

Marketing materials

Less is more, when considering marketing materials to bring.

  1. they are costly to produce and heavy for exhibitors to carry to the event, and
  2. potential customers do not want to carry them home either.

Bring a simple one-page (or double sided) sheet with basic information about the coffee exporter and origin. This should contain mostly facts and some attractive photos of coffee and national or regional culture. Avoid sales language like, “we grow the world’s best coffee”. Individual business cards with an email address or website are often the best way to receive follow-up inbound calls.

Yemen coffee brochure

Yemen coffee brochure distributed at the coffee trade show

Coffee samples

Bring coffee samples representing lots that are for sale. If out-of-season, collect coffees representing your exports throughout the year. Bring the best of what you have to offer, but be sure it is representative of what the organization produces. Do not groom defects from samples to make them appear better, as such tactics do not build trust.

It is appropriate to have a small quantity sample packs of green coffee on-hand (150-250g). Do not bring more than a dozen or perhaps two dozen (12-24 sample packs). Serious coffee buyers will provide instructions to ship samples to them directly after the event. They rarely want to carry several kilos of various coffee samples home in luggage. There are some countries where green coffee samples cannot be hand-carried and must be imported using special procedures. So, do not bring too much green coffee to a show, you may only end up carrying it home.


Before the Show

Determine logistics and service requirements

  • Determine which utilities the show provides and what others (e.g. water, power, drain, cleaning, furniture rental, carpeting & padding, etc.) must be purchased
  • Complete forms and pay fees to the event for these service
  • If brewing coffee: procures brewing, grinding equipment, water, power, cups and paper napkin supplies
  • Identify which goods are being shipped to the show location, to staff hotels or will be hand carried
  • Determine if there are there rules or fees associated with the shipment and carrying of goods to the venue
  • Identify the coffee samples you will bring and where they will be roasted

Show rules and administration

  • Confirm show dates and times for exhibitor registration and setup
  • Confirm show hours for attendees
  • Determine if health forms are required to serve brewed coffee samples
  • Determine insurance needs (required in USA). Has an insurance certificate been filed with the show organizers?
  • Register booth staff
  • Complete show listing guide and select correct category
  • Pay outstanding invoices. Confirm payment information is on-file with the show contractor in case of onsite orders

Pre-show marketing

  • Schedule customer meetings, social engagements
  • Contact customers and potential customers to determine who will attend, schedule meetings
  • Identify and reserve time for potential social engagements (special events, hosted parties, etc.)
  • Identify meeting venues and/or restaurants for social activities
  • Inventory handouts or other marketing materials
  • Develop new 1-page information ‘sell sheets’, as necessary
  • Develop an “elevator pitch” — a 30 second description of the company that can be told on demand
  • Develop a list of talking points or common information that all booth staff should know
  • Create a “lead sheet” with pre-printed form fields for name, company, email, notes about discussion and sales contact
  • Conduct a pre-show trade media campaign to build awareness and traffic
  • Take advantage of exhibitor promotional opportunities, such as enhanced guide listings, scheduled cuppings, cooperative marketing and press releases
  • Develop a short press announcement about some newsworthy activity or accomplishment to distribute
  • Identify trade media contacts who will be at the event
  • Promote participation and booth number on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram)
  • Add mention to email signatures for routine business communication for company staff, “See us at the XYZ Show in Seattle, booth #xxxx, 20-24 May, 201X.”
  • Add show and booth information to trade media advertisements scheduled to run at or near the same time of the event;
  • Request a pre-registered attendee list from show organizers and use for personalized invitations. DO NOT solicit buyers by email indiscriminately.

Develop a schedule of booth activities and operations

  • Create a list of all booth staff attending the show with hotel information and mobile phone numbers for each, distribute to all staff
  • Determine what time staff must arrive (and where) for pre-show meeting
  • Schedule time and responsibilities for booth setup and tear down before and after the event;
  • Determine booth cleaning schedule for staff during event;
  • Determine booth staffing schedule for each day of the event (rotating to allow show viewing and meetings)

Conduct pre-show staff meeting
1-2 hour meeting held in advance at the show recommend during setup or immediately before the event opening

  • Discuss show hours, registration process
  • Address team spirit, collaborative message projected to customers
  • Discuss prospect qualifying procedures and collection/distribution of sales prospect information, “lead sheets”
  • Distribute talking points and information sheets
  • Explain and demonstrate nonverbal communication cues
  • Lead collection procedures (how to collect, distribute after show)
  • Establish a policy about personal items & clutter
  • Establish a policyaboutg personal food and beverage in the booth space

During the coffee trade show


  • Maintain a professional but friendly appearance. Approach potential customers assertively but not forcefully or aggressively. Cultural adaptation may be required.

Qualifying questions

  • Do not open a conversation with a sales pitch or ask a question that can be easily dismissed, such as “how are you today?”
  • Provide attendees an easy way into conversation. Try asking a question that is not confrontational, and allows the visitor to discuss their interests.

Sample questions

  • “What brings you to the show?”
  • “What are your goals for attending this show?”
  • “What does your company do?”
  • “What’s the most interesting thing you’ve seen at the event so far?”

Listen to the answer and proceed into natural conversation. Continuing to narrow-in focus on those topics of interest so that you may better respond to his or her needs.

Using this method of questioning and listening, get the following useful information:

  1. Industry the prospect represents
  2. Role or function the prospect performs
  3. Does the prospect use coffee? If so, what, how and/or where?
  4. Does the prospect buy coffee? If so, green coffee or roasted?
  5. If roasted coffee, does the prospect work with a roasting business? Who?
  6. Is the prospect satisfied with the current supplier or are there perceived issues for improvement?
  7. Request the best next action to proceed (arrange a meeting, send sample, schedule follow-up call, etc.)
  8. Agree to next action and record

The purpose of interactions at the tradeshow event is to gather information that will assist a sales transaction. This may happen weeks or months (possibly years) after the show, so record careful notes about each discussion.

Define show staff responsibilities

  • Comply with show policies, etiquette and procedures outlined in pre-show meeting
  • Follow assigned schedule for setup, booth attendance, cleaning and tear-down
  • Record lead sheet information for any contact with a prospect, media, or potential strategic partner
  • Agree all lead sheets will be stored in one master list and distributed electronically booth staff
  • Observe other exhibitors: walk the show floor and pick a most favorite (best) and least favorite (worst) booth at the show. Discuss as a group on the final day of the event.

Post show

  • Hold a wrap up meeting will on the final day of the event to discuss challenges and successes (recorded for project notes)
  • Distribute lead sheet contact information from the show to staff
  • Thank all visitors by email. Staff person listed on each lead sheet is responsible to complete the indicated follow-up actions.
  • Tally metrics (impressions, contacts, media contact, sales revenue, etc.)
  • Tally total costs
  • Record sales contact information associated with show for future planning.
  • Analyze the cost per metric to determine if the show was a good investment.