Stands that deliver

Many exhibitors simply go through the motions. But it doesn’t have to be that way, says Sarah McCartney.

There is a major trade show coming up. You have to be there. Why? Because you always go. Because the competition will be there. And because your customers will expect to see you there. If you don’t, rumours will circulate that you are short of cash.

You arrive. The contractor has built an elegant stand in your corporate colours with your products carefully displayed in glass showcases. Somehow it doesn’t look quite as impressive as it did in the marker-pen visuals. Perhaps the corporate colours, which look wonderful on business cards and brochures, are a little vivid when used for carpet and chairs.

On day one the visitors drown out the soundtrack to your new promotional film and no-one stops to watch it. And they seem reluctant to help themselves to your new key-rings. Day two: your legs hurt but you can’t sit down on the chairs without looking unwelcoming and unprofessional. The visitors don’t want to sit there in case you try to sell them something.

By day three you sit down anyway. Now that you can’t get rid of the industry’s notorious dipsomaniacs, who’ve discovered your gin and tonic. The show is declared closed, there’s a cheer from the exhibitors and you gratefully head home wondering why exhibitions are such a waste of time.

It doesn’t have to be like that. All you have to do to transform your exhibition stand is to apply a few rules of marketing.

Ask yourself what your customers want. Take a blank piece of paper (or computer screen) and answer the following questions: When you visit an exhibition stand, what do you want from it? Which stands have satisfied your needs? What do you do with the material you collect? Which promotional gifts do you still have in your office or home?

Have you done business with companies which you met at exhibitions? What attracted you to their stands?

Now ask yourself if your company’s presence at an exhibition would satisfy your own demands. Be ruthless. What could you do better to satisfy your customers’ needs?

Next, list the attributes and values of your brand. For example, in your market, are you premium-, mid- or low-priced? Are you a traditional or progressive company?

Are you fun or serious, extrovert or understated? Are you trendy or timeless, pinstriped or casual? What else describes the character of your company? Your brand values are just as important as your corporate identity when it comes to representing yourself three dimensionally. If your stand clearly com- municates the kind of company you are, as well as the products or services you offer, you’ll attract the right kind of customer.

Your stand should convey a single clear message. That may simply be: we make a lot of different products or we have worldwide distribution, or we have launched a new range.

Don’t overwhelm visitors by detailing everything that has happened to the company in the past year. Stick to a single message and use design, literature, audio-visual and promotional gifts to illustrate and support it.

At a show, set yourself one clear objective. This can be precise: generate 2m worth of new business. Or more general: remind our customers that we’re here.

Don’t go to an exhibition with more (or less) than one clear objective and one clear message.

Next, think about how to make your stand a pleasant, accessible place to do business – a place where your customers and potential customers feel comfortable. It’s not as simple as asking yourself what your stand looks like – what does it do?

Does it stop potential customers in their tracks, welcome them, give them the information they need – not too much, not too little. Then, does it give them something to remember you by? If so, great.

If not, then here are some helpful hints. Use corporate gifts that actually support your brand. Honestly, when was the last time you felt the need to own a naff ballpoint pen? Why do companies inflict them on their customers? Why do they compromise their brand values by printing their names on them? Pens don’t have to be costly to be impressive, but go for good design.

If you can’t afford to distribute promotional gifts to every visitor, hide them from view and give them to your key customers and best prospects. If you put them on show, you must allow every visitor to have one; don’t look mean and don’t make people beg for them.

If you must give away a keyring, use your imagination and make it unusual. The rule is, offer something of value.

If you want to be popular give away carrier bags. Don’t economise. People collect a lot of literature at exhibitions and if your bag breaks and the contents are propelled across the floor they will not be pleased. People like bags that are strong enough to last. They’re more expensive but they’re also walking poster sites. This is a commercial transaction. You are asking potential customers to give up their time and spend it with you. Reward them for their effort. If you are showing a corporate film, give visitors somewhere to sit and watch it.

Welcome your visitors. An exhibition stand built on a platform and staffed by suited executives is an intimidating sight. If they are talking to each other they look in- different. If not, they look too keen.

You can solve the problem by building a reception counter. Make sure that it is at the right height so that people can write on it while they are standing.

The staff behind it can sit on high stools and still be at the right level to allow face-to-face contact. You can use the area to take visitors’ details and introduce them to a member of staff who can deal with their enquiries.

Make the most of your products. Show your customers your products, don’t just give them information.

Avoid glass cases (unless you’re exhibiting diamonds). Allow your customers to “experience” what you’re trying to sell them.

If you are exhibiting food, let visitors taste it. Don’t make a film to explain to people how it tastes. For some reason, companies are less inclined to distribute 1,000 of goods than they are to spend 10,000 on hiring audi-visual equipment to show pictures of it.

At an exhibition, you have a unique chance to meet people face to face and allow them to sample your products. If you run a hotel chain, don’t put pictures of bedrooms on the graphic panels – build a bedroom.

You may have a problem if you make sewage processing plants, but you can still think laterally; hire a water-cooler. Use your corporate colours appropriately. Just because you have an orange and turquoise logo doesn’t mean your furniture and floral arrangements must be orange and your carpet and display panels turquoise. Learn from retailers. Harrods doesn’t paint the walls olive green. It creates a pleasant area in which to do business. There’s a difference between eye-catching and overwhelming.

Identify your staff clearly. Use branded polo shirts, which look good on people of all shapes and sizes. If your brand personality is more formal, then clothing companies can provide everything from the minimal – scarves and ties – to a corporate wardrobe. Make furnishings functional. You don’t usually do business sitting on armchairs. It’s a mystery why exhibition contractors supply them. Café-style tables and chairs are more useful.

With regard to corporate entertainment, keep your entertainment area private. If it’s an open area, casual visitors will feel excluded. Make sure your staff don’t desert the public areas. Most of your guests will just want a place to rest their tired bodies, grab a coffee and say hello to their contacts. But you can use the opportunity to ask your customers their opinions. Did you provide what they needed?

If you must serve champagne, then be prepared to deal with customers overstaying their welcome. Better to think creatively and serve Seattle-style flavoured coffee for those who are flagging, refreshing fresh juice cocktails for the hot and bothered, or a cup of Earl Grey.

Finally, people: your staff are the most important part of your stand, so brief them fully beforehand. Staffing a stand is an exhausting business when it is done conscientiously, so appoint a stand manager to supervise staff levels, and create a rota to prevent them from wearing themselves out.

Encourage responsibility, too. There is nothing worse for your company’s image than a hung-over sales executive half-heartedly handing out brochures during the 9am rush.

Back in the office, hold a feedback meeting with your staff soon after the event – before they forget the details. Note the successes and the failures and use what you have learned to improve next year’s effort.

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