Behind the scenes

There is more to a successful stand than an eye-catching display. Well-conceived promotions and pre-show work can help hold visitors’ interest beyond the bright lights.

It’s an age-old problem. A company wants to exhibit at a trade show, but to justify the expense it has to ensure its stand attracts as many people as possible.

What’s the best way to achieve this? A video wall? Too passé. A liberal sprinkling of female hostesses? Too tacky. Perhaps a state-of-the-art stand design? Too expensive.

Cost implications aside, Nick Swallow, communications director at design company Furneaux Stewart, believes the way a stand is designed is crucial. He claims that if you can come up with something completely different, the chances are people will flock to it.

“We take an holistic approach to stand design. Rather than having a video or moving sculpture that acts as a distraction in the corner of a stand, the attention grabber must be the stand,” says Swallow.

“In the mid-Nineties, we set up six or seven silver Porsches on a racing line curving round the stand at the Birmingham motor show. The beauty of that was it was showing a sequence of images of the Porsche going round a corner.”

The Porsche example is good as it also illustrates the importance of a stand being in tune with the corporate image of a company. A fancy design is generally no good if it is not relevant.

Companies still need to be creative, however. The consensus is that a video in the corner of your stand is not enough. And even the latest in big screen, surround-sound technology is unlikely to impress a public which has grown tired of the “multimedia extravaganza” tag which used to be such a selling point.

Swallow likens a trade show to the high street, suggesting that an exhibitor’s frontage, like a shop’s, must strive to be the most visible and attractive.

The difficulty is that every exhibitor is aiming for this, so it’s hard to differentiate yourself from the crowd.

Lois Jacobs, chairman of communication events agency Caribiner Europe, picks up on this point: “Lots of people now have very beautiful stands, which has created an homogeneous standard. It all becomes a little bit like wallpaper as people wander through the exhibition.”

The fact that it’s so hard to create an eye-catching stand makes pre-show work all the more important. Many companies with trade show experience suggest it’s vital to make people aware that you’ll be exhibiting. And if this can be combined with an incentive for people to visit the stand, so much the better.

Pre-registration promotions and direct mail programmes are becoming increasingly common in an effort to create interest in a forthcoming exhibition. Individual exhibitors should be consulting with show organisers to get pre-registration details which can be used for promotional purposes.

Jacobs at Caribiner believes in the power of targeted mailings, and stresses the importance of integrating the message. “A theme works well when it’s used on invitations. It’s less important on the stand but it’s good if it’s a theme which summarises a corporate message,” she says.

Virgin Vouchers also increases awareness through pre-show mailings to its current clients as well as through its trade advertisements.

However, Capital Incentives managing director Graham Povey is not convinced such activities are particularly beneficial. He argues: “If someone is going to a show it’s because they want more information. They usually come to a show to see a wide number of suppliers, so they’re not coming just to see you.

“It’s important they know you’re there, but as long as you’ve got your PR right in the show guide, I don’t think inviting people in the build-up to the show works.”

Visitor incentives

Povey believes incentives alone can often work best in attracting visitors. “We always have a competition on the stand giving people the chance to win gift vouchers. It’s amazing how many people it gets on the stand.”

Promotions clearly work best when they’re in keeping with the company. Ian Allchild, managing director of Avenue Exhibitions, cites the example of Debenhams offering a reward card to everyone who visited its stand, giving them ten per cent off goods bought at Debenhams within two weeks of the show.

Running a competition or offering the incentive of a free gift can also be done quite cheaply. The prizes a company offers don’t necessarily have to be expensive, just have perceived value.

Once a company has attracted a visitor to the stand, the real test is keeping them there. Good sales staff are a benefit as they will know how to approach people in the correct way, though Allchild suggests the more senior the staff the better. “In many cases it’s the people back at the office, doing the work day in day out, who know the company most thoroughly. Maybe they should be on the stand.”

Jacobs, too, believes it far better to have your own informed staff working the stand rather than glamorous male or female hostesses. She points out, however, that thorough training beforehand is imperative as working a stand can be a gruelling experience.

Povey comments: “You have to look genuinely friendly, happy and alert. People slouching about or talking among themselves on a stand are not attractive. So many people waste money by having uninterested staff on their stands.”

Keeping it relevant

Original and innovative stand ideas only work if they’re relevant to the product or service being offered. And while it’s probably a good idea to have something on the stand visitors can join in with, interactivity is less of a novelty these days and Swallow suggests it often serves little purpose beyond entertainment.

“Interactivity is a card we play with caution. It has become a bit old hat. It also risks descending into the realms of an arcade game. It’s amusing but does it sell the product?”

However, Virgin Vouchers business development manager Tim Scarff believes there are ways you can get visitors to interact on a stand without becoming too gimmicky.

He says: “If we have a presentation and the flow is controlled by visitors they can go at their own pace. They can touch and feel some of our products. It gives them a tangible idea of what we offer.”

A bigger issue for Virgin Vouchers is the dilemma of attracting too many visitors – one of the luxuries of having such a big brand. A high number of people on the stand can be counter-productive, as sales staff become tied up.

Scarff explains: “What we’ve found in the past is we get a lot of people on the stand purely to play the games or get the freebies, not because they’re interested in our product.”

Focus on prospects

This has led Virgin Vouchers to break the mould somewhat with an enclosed stand at the Incentives World 2000 show in February. Genuine prospects were fed through a concealed walkway, taking in an interactive presentation as they walked through, unhampered by crowds.

Like Virgin Vouchers, companies should be looking to design the whole visitor experience. And there may be three or four different types of experience that need to be created depending on the level of interaction a company wants to have with its visitors.

Good direction

The majority of visitors know what they want to see at a show, so if they can be directed to a stand from the start with well-targeted pre-registration promotions, that can be a distinct advantage.

But no matter how hard a company tries, the fact is some of the major trade shows can be ghastly experiences for visitors and a vacant chair is likely to be far more appealing than an eye-catching stand.

The bottom line is that all-singing, all-dancing stands might attract a large number of visitors, as will stands with quality giveaways, but if you can’t keep them there, all your effort, not to mention expense, will have largely gone to waste.

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