Design Counsel

An exhibition stand is not just an area in which to entertain as many unwitting visitors as possible, in the hope that you might happen across some useful contacts in the process.

A stand is a marketing tool, often costing as much as 250,000, and should combine the ability to put across the company message while inviting people in.

Enticing potential customers into your orbit used to be unfocused, but these days, it is an art form. All this depends on how exhibitors brief their designers. Without clear, concise instructions, enough time to produce proposals and brief a production company, and a budget to work to, designers struggle against the odds. But responsibility also rests with them.

“In the battle of the brief, a good designer has to ask the right questions in order to know enough about the client to deliver the best solution,” says Michelle Harkness, marketing co-ordinator of Enigma Design. “If every last detail is not covered, the budget will not cover what is missing.”

Ideally, the designer and production house should be involved from the beginning. It reduces the likelihood of communication gaps and has the added advantage of immediate input from the people carrying out the work. However good a stand looks on paper, a designer does not have to deal with the practicalities of making it work.

“The most beneficial relationship is where everyone involved in producing the stand is brought in to the first meeting,” says Graham Page, director of production house Jupiter Display. “Knowing the requirements from the beginning allows us to tell clients whether what they want can be done within time and budget constraints.”

There are three recurrent problems. The most common complaint from designers and production companies is timing. The optimum amount of time from inception to the construction of a medium-sized stand is three months but it is, apparently, a rare luxury to have so long.

“We have debated this for years,” says Page, “and have never worked out why, when exhibition space is booked a year or more in advance, stand graphics are so often agreed only a week before the event. Even if we work a 24-hour day, there still comes a point where either the job cannot be done, or the compromises made mean there is a risk of sending out an inferior product. Then, not only is the client unhappy, but it reflects badly on us, as well.”

Exhibitors’ reluctance to disclose their budget – on the grounds that “if we tell you what it is, you’ll spend it all” – is also counter-productive. Without knowledge of budgets, neither designer nor production house can gauge whether the initial concept can be fulfilled.

Cost is, of course, a thorny issue. You get what you pay for and although recession cleared out many of the cowboys, there are still some in the industry. If a design/production company considerably undercuts its competitors, ask whether the quote covers the entire job. Otherwise, the final invoice may be a shock, with add-ons raising the original price considerably – rather like buying a BMW and finding you have to pay extra for the steering wheel.

Exhibitors then need to consider the position of the stand relative to entrances to exhibition halls, location of competitors, and nearby distractions. Being next to a bar may sound like a sociable place to be, but it could encourage all and sundry to drift on to the stand, rather than a focused audience; or worse, the bar may prove a bigger draw. And check who supplies electricity, water and other facilities, and what they cost.

Then there is the nitty gritty. “Most companies who go to exhibitions are unaware of the different ways of presenting themselves and have problems identifying the best way to communicate with their target market,” says David Gregory, managing director of Brickworks. For example, a paper distribution company for many years had a stand where paper featured large. Recently, it changed the emphasis, to its core message – transportation, not paper – making it distinct from paper manufacturing companies exhibiting nearby.

A purpose-built stand is expensive, but companies attending several exhibitions a year will get their money’s worth. It requires a one-off budget, so about 150,000 will cover several events and embrace supporting literature as well. Alternatively, there is an extensive range of off-the-shelf or pop-up systems, which have twin advantages for the exhibitor, says Gregory: “They are flexible and also allow the client to buy the component structure out of one budget and use another for graphics.”

Great Lakes of North America switched from shell system to purpose-built for World Travel Market 1997. FCB TravelMarketing, which represents the region, invited one designer, Benham Events, to tender, giving a list of criteria the stand had to meet. These ranged from the use of a new corporate logo to a storage area for literature. FCB also provided rough sketches to illustrate the required effect.

“Benham Events took over all the planning of the stand and the minute but essential details, which are so time-consuming,” says Charlie Hampton, account manager for FCB. “This was one of the biggest advantages of using a design company. It made planning during the run-up to the show so much easier.”

But Gregory warns: “Too often, exhibition stands are designed for designers or design’s sake. Design and graphics don’t sell products. Exhibitions are about meeting people, drawing them in.”

And finding out what encourages or discourages visitors is a science in itself. A stand that is too clean and precise, too hygienic, is off-putting. To tempt people in you must consider style, colour, texture, a moving screen, sound, a product focal point and how it is lit. These are all vital to what you are trying to say or sell.

“If the design is not right, people will shy away from the stand,” says Iain Liddiard, presentations director of Page & Moy Marketing. “Designers must involve people by hitting their senses and emotions, designing to avoid logjams and allowing people to flow around the stand. But it should not be seen as a 3D version of the corporate brochure. It is about touching and experiencing things, and face-to-face communication.”

Exhibitors would also be wise to check stands at the factory before they go to sites. Clients often assume they should leave everything in the hands of manufacturers but last-minute alterations are easier made off-site.

To make life easier for exhibitors, designers can have a detailed form for clients to complete. This should list all vital points. Marketing and communications agency Academy Expo takes on anything from a single display unit to a large stand, from creation to construction.

According to head of marketing Steve Hill: “All our account handlers are armed with a visual briefing form which covers everything required to design a stand. There are lots of constituent parts and if we leave out any small detail, it could dramatically alter the design.”

The company also gives clients a brochure listing all aspects to be considered when preparing an exhibition brief.

Hill pinpoints budgets and timing as major drawbacks, and says if exhibitors will not state their budget, Academy Expo does not view them as serious potential clients.

Hilton International asked Academy Expo to design a stand for World Travel Market 1997 and will use it at seven exhibitions until the end of this year. A pre-requisite was that it could be scaled down from 55 square metres at WTM to 15 square metres, according to the event. This was a departure from the norm of having a different stand for each exhibition and using more than one design company.

“We wrote a brief for the stand and invited a number of companies to pitch. A lot of designers did the hotel room look and we wanted something different. Academy Expo put a lot of thought into it and suggested a structure that scaled down well,” says Hilton’s business travel marketing manager, Sandra Cregan. “It was important to us that people felt they could walk on to the stand, and Academy Expo’s design was curvy, open and welcoming.

“We will look at a new stand for 1998-99 and will put the work out to tender again but Academy Expo will be a strong favourite because it has worked well with us this year.”

Sticking with one designer who knows your company culture eases the stresses and strains of the brief. But above all, attention to detail, timely briefing and a set budget will ensure you do not stand to lose money at an exhibition.

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