Unlike any other marketing discipline, with exhibitions the idea of committing a budget tends to be viewed with the sort of reluctance normally reserved for items on the end of a barge pole. Trade fairs are viewed more as a danger than an opportunity. “They cost a lot of money and take up a lot of time,” is the typical response. After all, who wants to waste resources on meeting customers? But there is another reason why exhibitions are unique which perhaps explains this perception.
No other discipline is approached with such slipshod amateurism by so many who should know better. All too often companies exhibit because they “think we ought to be there” or have “always taken a stand at the show”. This explains why those that run exhibition stands well are so keen on the medium. Their competitors subsidise them by paying money and putting their names to a show that brings in the punters, while effectively handing all that business to companies that know what they’re doing.
So what ingredients are needed to be a successful exhibitor? What are the common mistakes? And what makes a good stand run to exploit the opportunity?
“I think that one of the biggest mistakes people make when it comes to exhibiting is that they don’t plan,” says Jeremy Britton, sales and marketing director of the exhibition specialist Cockade International. “This is in terms of considering the objective of a particular exhibition and the medium as a whole. For anyone considering more than one show per year, it makes sense to produce an exhibition plan. This is not just to make significant savings by ensuring that stands are reusable, but also to plan all objectives and resources.
“A lot of people, for example, decide to go ahead and spend a lot on exhibition space. Only later do they realise that too much of the budget has gone on square meters and there is not enough left to build a stand to fit that space – it’s a bit like booking advertising space and having no budget for the copy,” he adds.
Whether or not a long-term plan has been made, exhibition consultants report that the objectives for individual events need to be looked at more carefully.
“People aren’t specific enough,” says Jane Stanbridge, marketing manager of Clip Display Systems. “We often spend a lot of time working with clients on what they want to get from an event. We also find that even when people do have a specific reason for exhibiting at a specific show, they’re not always sure how to translate this to the stand.”
Steve Hill, marketing manager of Academy Expo, explains some of the things exhibitors should consider: “I think it’s important for people to try to define a positioning statement. ‘Are we going into this as a Rolls or a Mini? What is our USP? Is it price or quality?’ These points have to be reflected in the stand design.”
So what makes a good stand?
“The common principles are that it should encourage people to come on to the stand,” says Hill. “People need to be attracted, so it needs impact and the size should be representative of the host [big companies need big stands].
“One of the most important aspects of this is to ensure that there is a clear piece of communication. Many companies will, for example, make their logo the most noticeable graphic on their stand, but unless that logo is very well known, the majority of visitors might go straight past the stand none the wiser.”
Hill points to considering room height when trying to get the message across: “When you pay for exhibition space it is a payment for the area the stand will occupy. It doesn’t occur to the majority of users that the only restriction on height is that the structure should be safe. In most venues this means it is possible to build up to four metres without any need for proof of structural safety. A tower at this height, with strong graphics, can often be seen from quite a distance, because most of the competitors simply take shell scheme or low-level structures.
“Apart from elevation, the other key feature to making graphics work is lighting. For a relatively low cost, it is possible to make a huge improvement on the impact of the stand by using carefully placed, professional quality spot lamps – they really can transform a stand.”
Even at short distances, which is how most stands are first viewed, it is important to catch the eye. Just because someone is a few metres from a stand does not mean they are going to make an effort to inspect it, especially if the design is likely to deter interest.
“Too much information, presented instantly, is likely to put people off,” says Greg Billingsley, sales director of stand designer WBP. “It is important to keep text simple. No one is going to spend even a minute reading through text to decide whether or not to approach a stand. It should be obvious from a brief look at the stand who the company is and what it does. Using moving objects or large bright pictures is often a good way to achieve this, so long as they are relevant and not too gaudy,” he says.
Graphics aside, one of the most common mistakes in exhibition design is the fortress approach. The stand is surrounded by desks, displays and, in some cases, walls. This tends to leave only a small entrance space, which makes visitors wary (they are invading a private space).
Most professionally built stands tend to be open-plan with as little clutter as possible. Some designers go so far as to suggest that stands shouldn’t feature raised floors and ought to go straight on the existing carpet in the hall. In this way, they claim visitors do not feel they are treading on someone else’s territory, and it also saves money.
This may not be possible on large purpose-built stands because the platform conceals parts of the infrastructure – such as water supplies for catering.
But Billingsley is sceptical about building stands with such facilities: “Including catering facilities on a stand should be thought about carefully – especially on small stands. The first problem is that it is bound to cause mess as drinks get spilled and plastic cups, plates and cutlery get left around the stand. The facility also takes up valuable space, adding to clutter, and catering tends to be very expensive. It is much more cost-effective to take important visitors to the exhibition restaurant and buy them a good meal than it is to offer coffee and snacks to every passer-by,” he says.
Although the types of stand chosen – whether shell scheme, off-the-shelf design or purpose built – can vary enormously in terms of cost, the principles of design remain the same. In the case of the shell scheme, there are design restrictions, though they shouldn’t be overestimated. By opting for a corner site, for example, it is possible to use large graphics on the back two walls and to create an open, welcoming space. This may be more successful than a lot of more expensive stands.
But, regardless of stand design and budget, there is one aspect of exhibiting in which everyone starts on a level playing field. It is the most important part of exhibiting and, it goes without saying, the most overlooked. Anyone who has seen Video Arts’ film How Not To Exhibit Yourself will no doubt remember the exaggerated antics of John Cleese: arms crossed, guarding his stand with the sort of foreboding expression you might expect from a nightclub doorman. A quick walk round any exhibition will reveal that the behavioural faux pas comes in many forms.
For this reason, despite its age, the video is still in big demand, as a spokesman for Video Arts points out: “It is extraordinary that companies invest such large sums in buying space and building stands but spend nothing on training the people who will be their representatives. How Not to Exhibit Yourself looks at a lot of the common mistakes people make, such as the instant pouncing on customers and aggressive body language. The idea of the video is to show how these actions affect the visitor and to demonstrate more welcoming approaches.”
Video Arts’ philosophy that an exhibition stand is neutral territory is perhaps the best approach to bear in mind when designing and running one. The visitor must feel that an approach is not an act of trespass and the exhibitor should realise that the event is an opportunity to meet people who would not be there if they weren’t genuinely interested in the goods and services on show.