Is the fear factor a major reason companies take a stand every year at the same exhibition? According to many contractors, this is a driving force in many corporate strategies. Tim Sinclair, managing director of Sinclair Mason, says the overriding thought is, “if we are not there and our competitors are, we are not performing in the market”.
But just as other forms of brand advertising now have to deliver against hard objectives, so too does the commercial event. The combination of hard-pressed marketing budgets and greater centralisation of sales and marketing is putting the design and contract business under new pressure to deliver results. As Sinclair notes: “The days of the autocrat have long gone – few have the right just to pass the expenditure.”
He says it is increasingly common practice to combine exhibition activities with careful marketing support – pre-mailing customers to invite them to visit the show, giving them good reasons to go to the stand, monitoring who does visit, and following up visitors with further information and sales contact. Tracking sales is an important objective, but may be difficult where existing customers have other contacts which could equally have generated sales.
In any case, he warns, sales should not be the only measure of an exhibition stand’s success. To derive the maximum benefit from an event, clients need to look at a broader picture than simply the physical presence. “If you see an exhibition as the be-all and end-all, you will be disappointed. You have to use other tools, like PR, speaking at the conference, playing a full role in the event. If you only take a stand, go along and hope, it will not work.”
This kind of integrated approach is now recognised as valid in exhibitions, just as much as it is in other advertising and marketing arenas. Clutter and fragmentation of audiences are an issue within events as they are in broadcasting. Contractors are increasingly demanding involvement at an earlier stage of the exhibition plan.
Paul Easty, production director at the Clearwater Group, notes that clients need to plan any on-stand promotional activity at the same time as the actual stand design to avoid conflicting messages. “The best results from exhibition investment come from achieving the best possible attention levels, profile, and visibility in communicating with stand visitors. This is all about not burying your message in the babble of media, but making the stand design and media design work together to gain sole attention and retain it,” he says.
Easty adds that there is a risk in focusing too narrowly on stand design without considering the overall competitive environment of an exhibition. “Carefully controlled media can help win this battle, but too often the items that actually communicate are considered as afterthoughts to the stand design,” he says.
Achieving this level of synergy both within an exhibition and across a sequence of events is not easy, especially if a client is not accustomed to thinking of its event activities as a whole. This is often the case where the same company uses exhibitions to sell to completely different markets – for example, the travel and leisure industry sells at events to both consumers and the trade.
“In those areas, you often get different parts of the organisation doing exhibition stands but without co-ordination. They may have similar aims and the logo is the same, but the graphics or style changes depending on the market,” says Damian Hutt, project director at Frasier International Exhibitions. His company has successfully offered designs to different departments of the same client business which achieve coherence and even re-use common construction parts.
For Ritz-Carlton, it came up with a design which combines bespoke graphics with modular construction. A series of one sq m panels was made in cream, blue and white, which, when fitted together, give the stand the appearance of a country house hotel. Fittings such as framed pictures complete the illusion, yet the elements can be used for any size of stand.
The pressure from clients for solutions to be reusable, or to take on board elements from other parts of the communications world, has made exhibition contractors in-genious. Vastly differing scales and technical possibilities are another feature of the exhibition world which they have to deal with. Hutt notes that his client, the Hong Kong Tourist Association, exhibits on anything from 18 sq m stands to 300 sq m double tiers.
Frasier International has produced a stand design which uses HKTA’s new branding, produced by Bates Graphics in Hong Kong, on graphics and materials that can be used in any size of hall. A key element of the design is junk sails. “When we manufactured them we thought, in Geneva you can hang them from the ceiling, but not in Milan or Madrid. There you have got to rely on everything going up from the stand,” Hutt says.
Reusability extends right through to the fabric of the stand, these days. Academy has put together a package it calls the midi-stand which provides flexible structures for a range of stand sizes that can be reused over a long period of time. Already used by the manufacturer STS and debt collection agency Intrum Justitia, the company believes contractors have to come up with longer-term solutions, rather than just selling equipment as a one-off.
“We focus on the top end of the market, and over one or two years and a number of events, it is both a cost-effective return on investment and a very efficient way of getting your message across,” says marketing manager Steve Hill. He says that contractors have to get used to being asked to align their designs with other communications materials, because client-side structures have changed: “Typically, there has been a shift away from having an exhibitions manager purely responsible for that. Now it has been combined with general marketing functions.”
A degree of cannibalisation of materials now seems commonplace. Academy has worked on exhibition solutions for external communications which are then reapplied to internal presentations. At Clearwater, Easty says his company may incorporate existing visuals, or shoot video footage that can be used for exhibitions, point of sale, business TV or any other medium.
“A prime example of this approach is the work we do for Rover on new car launches. We shoot a library of material, and the exhibitions people combine it with footage from other sources – such as overseas markets – to create whatever feature they need for their exhibition stands. With care, any photography, video or interactive material can be produced in a way that it can be adjusted for various languages and purposes,” he says.
Multimedia presentations are playing a major part in the change from one-off exhibition stands towards more flexible, long-term stands. Not only can they help to overcome language barriers, they may also remove some of the major construction problems which big exhibition projects entail.
One example is the work done by Sinclair Mason for Crosrol. As the UK’s leading exporter of cotton carding equipment, it has an unmissable date at the four-yearly International Textile Machine Association trade fair. Historically, its stand has been an actual cotton mill built on site, requiring lengthy pre-event construction time at significant additional cost.
For the 1995 event in Milan, Sinclair Mason designed a multimedia presentation for an 800 sq m stand which allowed visitors to follow the whole cotton carding process, including fault checking, production flows and maintenance schedules, via touch screens. “It got an incredible response and allowed Crosrol to get into China,” reports Sinclair.
It is unlikely that one design will ever serve all variations of a client’s exhibition activities (leaving aside shell schemes). What is becoming more commonplace is the use of modular systems for graphics and design elements which are just as reusable as the physical body of a stand. This does not mean image has to suffer – Hutt notes that the wooden beams and facings which make up one client’s stand are modular items that can be fitted together in a variety of sizes.
Alongside this, exhibition contractors are being asked to take on board materials or design elements which originate in other areas of their clients’ business. Equally, they may have to look at supporting those same activities with their output – multimedia is a prime example, since the visual content can be recut and retitled for a range of alternative channels.
Perhaps most importantly, exhibitions are being supported by marketing programmes to extract the best return on investment. “It is common sense – who do you want to get, how do you get them and how do you follow them up. If you build measurement in at the end, did they buy – that is important, because floor space is expensive and exhibitions are costly,” says Sinclair.
If that implies that exhibition designers are being acknowledged as marketing services partners, this might be to overstate the case. Hutt says:”It is still competitive, there are no retainers,” but he does admit that clients are moving away from ad-hoc projects towards longer-term involvement with suppliers. If the outcome is that exhibition budgets become more accountable, few would argue that such a move is long overdue.