Conferences and Exhibitions:The master plan

A marketing or exhibitions manager discussing the cost of a stand booking with a show organiser could find themself facing a few hidden dangers, as only 20 per cent of the costs are visible.

Among many experienced managers, exhibition costs have a legendary infamy – like TV advertising production there always seem to be many extraordinary costs and the planned budget is rarely overestimated.

Specialist events managers are expected to gain maximum value from spending, to buy cost effectively and to be precise in managing exhibiting budgets. How do they achieve this? Before committing to an expenditure there is a fundamental question which should have a major influence on the budget – what is the objective of exhibiting?

Richard Armitage is managing director of RT Display Systems, which manufacturers the Octanorm modular stand system, and is also president of the British Exhibition Contractors Association. He observes: “Many organisations pay insufficient attention to thinking through what they want to exhibit and why.”

The objectives should impinge upon each of the six issues and costs areas of exhibiting: which shows to choose; stand design costs; storage and transport costs; stand fixtures; generating advance customer interest; staffing the stand.

Which shows do we exhibit at?

Although the cost of the space is typically only 20 per cent of the total cost of exhibiting, each booking produces a virtually complete new set of costs.

The Australian Tourist Commission typically exhibits at about eight major shows each year as well as staging four events of its own. Catriona Gray, manager, retail and events Europe, manages a budget of nearly 1m per year.

“We provide a stand on which our customer companies pay to join us. So, before booking and deciding how big a stand we need, we review their feedback questionnaires from the previous year and consult many likely customers. The decision to join is based on the amount of good enquiries they expect to generate, allied with the estimated total cost of exhibiting.”

Richard John, managing director of ECS, advises companies on exhibiting: “Analyse detailed information about attendees from organisers to see how far visitors might overlap, but pay most attention to the opinions of several other companies who exhibited last year.”

Charterhouse Promotions markets leisure vouchers to the promotions industry and creates incentive programmes. Having exhibited at all three competitive shows in 1997, this year they will be spending the same budget all on one show – Incentive World at Wembley. “It is not the quantity of leads but the quality of contacts and business which makes exhibiting cost effective,” says managing director Peter Nicholson.

He adds: “A review has to be taken purely on the basis of sales, return on investment and at a stage when all follow-up has been thoroughly exhausted. Being at a show, being seen and to network is a bonus but not a reason in itself.

“Considering all the business we produced through new customers and the business with existing contacts which we progressed during the show, we concluded that it is now only worthwhile to exhibit at Incentive World.”

The cost of stand design and construction, and minimising storage and transport costs

These two substantial costs are closely interlinked, particularly for overseas events when transport can dictate the type of stand used.

For freebuild stands, the choice of construction is between traditional custom build or modular. For a one-off event, each can be a valid option.

But when exhibiting regularly, when durability comes into the equation, or when the stand must regularly be transported across significant distances, then re-usable modular systems help keep down the cost.

Derek Darley of 3D Design, who arranges the design, transport and building of American Express stands throughout Northern Europe, has been gaining maximum value from the durability and flexibility of a modular stand he bought nine years ago. The stand has now been used at over 50 shows worldwide.

Jim McConville, managing director of Trade Promotions Scotland, advises on and manages exhibition arrangements for many organisations, notably Scottish Trade International for the Scottish Office, which is essentially the Scottish pavilion at many international shows. The size of his stands also depends on the number of companies taking space within the pavilion. “I need flexibility of size and structure for different shows and late changes, and with many shows overseas, I must keep transport costs down.

“I put my work out to tender each time but specify the Octanorm modular system because it meets my needs and because I have a large range of re-usable graphics ready to fit on to it. I hire the Octanorm for every show, even though the regular use might make purchasing it viable. But including the cost of storage and the variety of stand sizes it doesn’t add up.”

ECS’ John highlights an issue which should be considered by those exhibiting in the US. “Unless you can move in and set up your stand in less than an hour, you have to wait for and use venue staff to put it up. A portable modular system can minimise transport and this cost.”

McConville also points out that modular systems are faster to break down after the show, a factor which is an increasing pressure upon contractors and stand managers.

In the world of large capital business equipment such as agricultural and industrial machinery, demonstrating the product at shows is a major and core part of the marketing plan, even though it is very expensive. Train makers Adtranz launched two new trains by transporting them to the Wembley Conference & Exhibition Centre for the Railtex 97 exhibition. Publicity manager Emma Marrin says: “At 100,000 the total stand cost was not cheap but it justified itself. The cost of transporting the 23-metre, 75-tonne exhibits paled into insignificance against the cost of the 250-square metre stand and the double decker stand.”

Ian Cluett, sales manager of Britannic International Exhibition Services suggests a radical way of reducing transport costs on one-off use stands transported back from, distant locations such as the Russian states. “Don’t bring them back. Dispose of them or perhaps store them. It’s the most cost-effective approach.”

The stand fixtures and furniture

Chairs, tables, display racks, refrigeration for frozen or chilled products or for drinks, coffee machines and kettles, plants – the cost of equipment for a stand can be substantial. So too can the cost of storing and transporting it. Again, major regular exhibitors such as McConville and Gray hire virtually everything each time, saving on storage and transport.

However, hiring is not always possible. When Britannic designed a stand for BP Oil at the Caspian Oil exhibition in Baku, Azerbaijan, every important item, from the modular stand to the fixtures and fittings, had to be transported.

Companies with smaller shell scheme stands take an entirely different viewpoint. Colin Fredriksen, sales and marketing director of Vision Innovations which produces small technological devices such as revealers for the promotions industry, believes in making the stand space work and earn its value. “Our products need to be seen in action. We use the stand to demonstrate them stylishly and effectively and so minimise the area taken up by furniture,” says Fredricksen.

Generating customer interest in advance

All this spending will not reap its full potential at the exhibition without investing time and money on marketing activity in advance publicising your appearance .

Stand managers determined to make the most of a show normally budget for pre-show mailing of invitations and tickets to customers. Setting up appointments to take place during the show and taking advantage of opportunities arranged by the organisers also help.

Staffing the stand

Travel to and from the show, hotel rooms for several days, lunches and dinners – staffing a stand at a three-day out of town show, and certainly an overseas event, can easily push rthe cost to well over 500 per person.

Keeping staff to a minimum is the simple solution, but over a long show workers tire and become less effective.

“Have staff working in shifts over no more than five hours a day if possible,” advises John. “And consider renting an apartment for several staff together rather than hotel rooms. Also, exhibiting at overseas shows becomes more cost-effective if stand staff plan to stay for several days after, either pre-booking meetings with customers or arrange follow-up appointments during the show.”

All the experts agree on one cardinal rule for controlling overall exhibition costs – good planning. As Gray explains: “I plan everything very precisely and make sure I include every detail in my tender documents so there is no reason for extra costs in the invoice.”

Or, as McConville of Trade Promotions Scotland says: “My approach is summed up in three words – plan, plan, plan.”

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