Exhibitions are a good way to develop new business if you do them right. But if you get them wrong they can be expensive and frustrating.

To be successful don’t let competitors make decisions for you and attend an exhibition just because of their presence – but sometimes it may be a good indication that you should be there.

First time exhibitors usually ask: “Which of our competitors are already booked? How much does it cost? How many people attend this exhibition?” But the most important information is: do new business prospects for your company attend this exhibition and if so in what numbers.

Exhibitions are about audiences. Exhibition organisers exist to generate them, exhibitors participate to meet and sell to them.

Let your intended audience drive most exhibition decisions, from the events you take part in, the products you display, through to the people who staff your stand. This will help avoid another prevalent mistake which is closing your mind to new audience opportunities.

This typically occurs when the company event budget only covers an established programme of “tried and tested” exhibitions. Even when some of these events are past their sell-by date.

New events are constantly being developed and launched. Some provide better access to target audiences so before dismissing an exhibition sales person find out whether their audience profile matches yours.

The Exhibition Bulletin provides a comprehensive view of the exhibition market. It is a monthly bible of the industry which lists hundreds of worldwide shows. It breaks them down by individual trade sectors and provides contact details for each exhibition organising company.

When you make contact with the organisers it is more important to get a breakdown of visitors that meet your profile by job title and product interest than big visitor numbers. Find out if your targeted companies attend and if so which members of staff. Check whether the attendance figures have been audited by ABC or Exhibition Audience Audits.

An established exhibition allows you to plot attendance trends over the past two or three years. And also, your competitors’ involvement and where their stands are located in the hall.

Decide which events to participate in, then address the thorny issue of how much space you need and what kind of display to use. The stand must have ample room for products, staff, storage space and hospitality areas for the visitors.

If you are in doubt about how much space your proposed display will demand, mock it up at the office or factory. Failing that, contact your exhibition organiser for advice.

When you know your stand size, establish a stand position. Location of the toilet often plays a part in many exhibitors final choice. But it is best to book a corner position, allowing the stand two or three open sides.

The standard shell scheme display option will be offered to you by the organising company. It is the most cost- and time-effective method of exhibiting. All you need to do is turn up the day before the show opens and assemble your display.

It is easy to customise. Your best source of advice for customising a standard shell is the official stand contractor and this advice will be provided free of charge – a bargain when compared to design rates for custom designed space only stands.

If you are a first-time exhibitor, do not be tempted to commission the design and building of an expensive one-off stand structure as your expense will be lost on most visitors.

Custom, or free build stands as they are often called, have their place but get some experience under your belt before commissioning designs that start from 250 per square metre.

You can easily price yourself out of an exhibition before it starts because of the huge sums that have been committed to your stand. It is an unnecessary pressure.

Exhibition involvement demands you juggle different skills: detective, negotiator, designer and planner.

Exhibitors who have to cancel their stand at the last minute, or who have embarrassing holes on their stands because products that were supposed to be ready or in the country but aren’t, are the bane of an exhibition organiser’s life. So are exhibitors who do not meet important deadlines for entries in the organisers manuals for catalogue and Website entries and publicity information.

Read the information that organisers send you and act on the important items in good time. Press and publicity requests, direct mail offers and invitations to briefing meetings can help build traffic flows to your stand.

Book staff members for your stand well in advance and brief them thoroughly on your objectives, the type of visitors they are likely to meet and where they fit in the staff roster.

Leading exhibitions generate huge amounts of coverage and awareness in their relevant industries because organisers often spend hundred of thousands of pounds on promotions.

Make the most of all PR opportunities the show organiser alerts you to, particularly if you are launching a new product or service. Trade magazines will be more interested in these stories so include pictures with your press information when possible.

If the event has a conference or seminar programme running alongside, volunteer an expert from your company to be a speaker.

Link advertising, direct mail or other promotions, including your Website, to your appearance at the show. It will cost a little but may generate more visitors to your stand.

The staff you put on your stand and how effectively they sell at exhibitions is a question often asked.

Ensure your staff don’t: ignore visitors; consume food or drink in front of them; converse at great length with colleagues in the corner of your stand; talk on the telephone; read a newspaper; or be frosty and unfriendly. Many stand personnel behave this way. And these exhibitors often complain afterwards that the show didn’t work for them.

Exhibition selling is not hard. Smile and ask questions like: “What brings you to the show. Are you looking for anything in particular? Have you seen our new widget, gizmo, promotion, service?” Start a conversation; listen, smile, record the enquiry and move onto the next prospect. The process can be refined but this is the basic structure.

The reason for exhibiting is to generate enquiries from targeted business prospects. In pre-show planning, highlight how enquiries are to be recorded and, most important, how they will be fulfilled.

According to a recent survey, up to 70 per cent of leads captured at exhibitions are not followed up.

In summary, to prepare for your first exhibition: think audiences, practise those juggling skills and communicate with anyone who comes onto your stand and expresses an interest in buying your product or service.

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