Stand up and be recognised

Throwing money at an exhibition stall does not guarantee that you will stand out from your competitors. What you need is clear ideas, intelligent design, well-trained staff and, of course, a little bit of the ‘wow’ factor, says Matt Broadhead

Exhibiting at a show for the first time is daunting. You’ve been to exhibitions yourself, and looked at row upon row of stands offering free gifts, competitions, interactive displays, innovative layouts and flashy light shows. It’s bewildering, and when you have to make your own display stand out from the crowd, attract visitors and drive sales – all within a tight budget – it can be intimidating.

Don’t despair, though. Whether you appoint a designer or decide to do it yourself, it is possible to create a stand that will impress customers, rivals and the managing director alike, without breaking the bank. Chris Parsons, client services director of stand design and build company The Exhibition Department, believes that the first thing for virgin exhibitors to do is to pick their designer properly. This shouldn’t be hard – companies are bombarded with information from large design houses, small contractors and “a man and his dog in their garage”.

Overwhelming experience

The brochure is not enough, however. Parsons says companies should treat the appointment of a designer as seriously as they would that of a member of staff. This is not always the case, he adds: “One of the most common things I see is that first-time exhibitors become overwhelmed with information and almost snatch the first three brochures off the pile.”

With stands costing tens of thousands of pounds, Parsons says it is essential for clients to check out their designer or contractor by talking to previous clients, finding out about the company, and going to the premises to take a look round.

The experts who put stands together suggest that, before approaching a designer or contractor, companies need a good idea of what they want from their stand. Marler Haley stand designer Roddy Clenaghan has 25 years’ experience in stand design. He says that a client should prepare an outline brief: “The best exhibition briefs will outline general requirements, specify the products or services they want to highlight, give us a rough idea of how much they want to spend and let us get on with it. We can then incorporate space-planning, visitor traffic flow and so on around this and come up with a scheme that functions well on various levels.” Clenaghan says that clients should book their space as early as possible, in order to get a good spot.

Parsons is more specific: “Companies should detail the stand size; the stand requirements; the marketing requirements; whether they are promoting a new product or an existing one; and whether they want to attract the greatest possible number of people or a very narrow selection of people.”

Of course, it’s not necessary to use a designer. Capital Incentives, which has been exhibiting since 1984, designs its own stands in conjunction with a contractor. Managing director Graham Povey says: “We’ve found that when we use a designer, they invariably design something that is impractical for the contractor to build. The key factor is to involve the people who are going to build the stand at the start of the design process and then all the way through.”

Top ten tips

Clip Display Services has prepared a list of ten tips for exhibiting, of which two refer to getting the brief right and setting the budget – stands can be a major investment and require detailed planning.

So what makes a successful stand? There are a number of factors, but observers are agreed that it isn’t necessary – or even always desirable – to splash out on flashy technology. As Mainstream Presentations account director Liz Morgan says: “Our experience is that technology is not always the biggest ‘wow’ factor. Presenting something different and of benefit to the visitor can sometimes be more powerful. In the case of a recent Orange exhibition, having a ‘relax’ area and inviting visitors to enjoy a head and shoulder massage was hugely popular.”

Povey agrees: “We only use computers to demonstrate our products when it’s essential. Having a continuous video playing just gets on the nerves of the people manning the stand. Technology does have its uses, though: it’s good if you actually have something you can demonstrate to visitors.”

Parsons warns exhibitors against unnecessarily elaborate and expensive features, at least at trade shows. At an event such as the Motor Show, he says “go for the glitz and glamour – get your interactive screens, videos, flashing lights – the public love it. Trade buyers, on the other hand “look under the surface at what’s really on offer. At trade shows, the stand should be the dressing that shows off the product in a well-designed, effective way.”

Deborah Hockham, project director of recruitment and volunteering fair Forum3, says: “Often, the most effective displays are simple and clear, making it easy for visitors to identify who you are and what you are doing at the event.”

Parsons warns against being too lo-fi though: “There’s still a balance to be struck. It has to look professional.”

So what should you do to get it right? As far as the physical design of the stand goes, Povey says it needs to reflect your company’s image: “We try to keep our stand very corporate so that if people are visiting year after year, the stand will change but they’ll know it’s us.” Clenaghan too, maintains that stands should have plenty of visible branding on different scales.

Clip emphasises use of space, lighting and graphics – with text kept to a minimum – as the three important elements of stand construction, and Clenaghan agrees.

As far as space goes, Clenaghan and Clip both suggest building upwards. Exhibition halls tend to be quite tall, and using that height maximises the use of space and makes your stand visible from a distance. Clenaghan, whose first step in stand design is space-planning, says that exhibitors don’t always realise how little space they have, and the designer will have to persuade them to leave things out: “One client came to us with a brief to design a 5m x 4m stand, to include a product display, three interactive demonstration workstations, storage, kitchen and seating areas. The client also wanted a seated audio-visual presentation area. With the best will in the world we knew it wasn’t going to happen, but sometimes the designer has got to go through the process of mapping out the areas just to show that it isn’t going to fit.”

Lighting is particularly important to a stand. It’s no good having marvellous graphics and sweeping curves if people have to squint to see them, and struggle to read your brochures. Lighting is essential for the second of Clenaghan’s stand-building watchwords – aesthetics. Creative use of shadow, reflection and colour, without overdoing it, can really set off a stand and be a step towards Clenaghan’s third element – magic, or “what makes the stand sparkle and be memorable for the visitor”.

The third major pillar is graphics. Clip’s guide to successful exhibiting says: “Keep text to a minimum – a picture can paint a thousand words. Consider your choice of colours – create an atmosphere on the stand which reflects your message.” Printing technology allows high-quality graphics to be printed on pretty much any surface without breaking the bank.

Design and build

Clenaghan makes the point that the graphics should be specific to and integral to the stand: “It’s a real shame when sometimes we design a stand only for the client to come along on the last day of the build-up and pin their old graphic boards on every available blank piece of wall space. Graphic images, and the messages they give out, are probably the most important part of the stand and are often undervalued by inexperienced exhibitors.”

And there are tricks you can use to maximise the budget. Parsons, who emphasises the creative use of lighting in stand design, says: “You can use existing components that have proven successful previously – perhaps we’ve had a client who spent a lot of money on certain parts of the stand and no longer requires it. We can give a new client the benefit of that material.”

Of course, design isn’t everything. First you need to ensure people get to see the stand. Hockham says: “Added incentives to draw visitors to your stand might include presentations, freebies, competitions or unusual content.”

Povey agrees: “We have some kind of traffic-builder, for instance a scratchcard competition, on the stand.”

Once the stand is built, the space booked and the invitations sent out, there remains one crucial factor: the people manning the stand. Povey believes that people are the most important factor, and so you should put your own staff on the stand – freelancers will never be quite as knowledgeable. He adds: “I think you have to have some quite strict discipline. There’s nothing worse than having people with their backs turned, talking among themselves. We spend quite a lot of money having a good team of people on the stand, smartly dressed and very knowledgeable about our products. We run incentives for our own staff, based on the leads they generate.”

Clenaghan, Hockham and Clip all echo his sentiments, adding that, obvious as it may sound, someone has to be in charge. Staff should be well-briefed and well-presented and, as Clenaghan says: “Have a separate area for staff to relax.” As Clip says, they need to be motivated.

No Noel

But no matter how well you plan, you still have to prepare for the unexpected. Povey relates the tale of one particular near-disaster: “On his TV show, Noel Edmonds used to have a ‘Grab a Grand’ box, with money floating about inside it. A few years ago, at the National Incentives Show, we tried one with our vouchers.

“We didn’t test it prior to the show and when we set it up it would not work, despite the air pressure that was coming through. One or two vouchers were floating up into the air and then coming down.

“We ended up having contractors on the stand, which doesn’t look good for the company. The show opened and we were tearing our hair out. In the end, we had to turn the whole thing around and think of another approach – we made up another game for it. If you’re using technology, do make sure it’s tested.”

And, as Clenaghan says, even if something does go wrong, you can learn from it: “Have a review of the successes and failures of the stand as soon as possible after the event. Be objective and honest. This should form the basis of your brief for the next event.”

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