The key to the show

Ensuring that your exhibition attracts the right leads and generates a good return on investment is dependent on two things – solid pre-show promotion and advertising, together with prompt post-event follow-up, says Ruth Prickett

You’re standing on a small platform overlooking a vast hall seething with competitors and potential customers. Suddenly the lights dim, the noise dies down and a spotlight illuminates you. Is this your worst nightmare or your favourite daydream?

This probably depends on your experience of exhibitions. A huge industry show is supposed to be a superb way to promote your brand and products to a captive audience of key customers. A well-attended, well-organised exhibition should generate hundreds of leads and display your latest creation and ongoing expertise in a way that dazzles your friends and humbles your enemies. It should enable you to talk to your buyers, find out what they want next, monitor trends in your market and generally help you to keep one step ahead of the game.

Or maybe not. Exhibitions are expensive. Too many companies spend a fortune sending salespeople halfway around the world to stay in smart hotels and man impressive stands only to find that leads fail to materialise into orders. Add to this an economic downturn, a nervous financial director and Web technology that promises cheap, quantifiable ways to reach clients and undertake market research, and marketers should ask what they really gain from exhibitions.

Wembley Arena Conference & Exhibition Centre senior commercial and marketing manager Julie Warren says: “I really do believe that exhibitions are an excellent way of communicating and networking. Face-to-face contact is vital. There is nothing more effective than being able to sit down and find out what people really want.”

Success stories back this up. “Attending and exhibiting at industry shows is a unique opportunity to get a feel for the market. Our teams visit other stands to gain knowledge of competitors’ marketing activity and to measure the general mood of the industry. It’s also a good chance to reinforce our group branding and reiterate exactly what our unique selling points are, in the way only face-to-face contact can,” says Elite Hotels marketing manager Debbie Whitehead.

Different methodology

With exhibitions, it seems, it’s not what you do, it’s the way that you show it. Successful exhibitors display the right things in the best way for their customers.

Orange, for instance, took two stands at the GSM exhibition in Cannes in February. One was dedicated to products; the other was a relaxation and massage area. This area had no sales reps, just a team of masseurs offering head and neck massages, comfy chairs and coffee. Kevin Button, exhibition director of creative communications agency Mainstream, says: “One of the Orange words is ‘Relax’ and as a brand promotional thing it was extremely successful – more so than the conventional stand. Many people said it was their favourite area of the show.”

Different methods work for different industries, but many of the lessons are simple and universal. Despite this, organisers, venues, exhibitors and visitors agree that the basics are often ignored. “Some 40 per cent of exhibitors don’t come back,” says Richard John of training company RJA.

Part of the problem is preand post-event planning and analysis. John adds: “You can’t think of an exhibition in isolation. It has to be part of your marketing strategy. This can involve sending out invites and ads. For instance, the Marketing Expo this year attracted about 300 exhibitors. The PR agency did a wonderful job, but less than 75 companies put anything in the press office.”

Pre-show planning should also include identifying your objectives. Companies get carried away designing stands and planning the logistics of getting staff and materials in place and forget to clarify their aims. John says: “The first question most companies ask when an organiser calls them is ‘Who else is exhibiting?’ They don’t ask about visitors, they just want to know whether their main competitor will be there.”

Be prepared

Ian Rudge, co-founder of organiser 100% Design, agrees that one of the biggest problems is that companies don’t think about why they are exhibiting. This means they select the wrong event or prepare inadequately. He says: “Most visitors come because an exhibitor sent them an invite, so the best database of clients wins. It sounds basic, but most don’t do it. You can’t just build a stand and expect people to turn up.”

Warren suggests setting up specific meetings with key clients. She also recommends planning a product launch to attract press. “Find out what PR the event organiser is doing and see if you can piggy back it. Don’t just wait for someone to come to you and say ‘let me write about your wonderful stand’ – you’ll wait for a long time,” she says.

The average attendee at an exhibition visits 12 stands and spends about eight minutes at each. Most will have decided which stands to visit in advance. John asks his clients to work out how much the stand will cost, in order to set realistic targets. He says: “If you work out how much your people are costing you an hour, you realise that long lunches and late starts are very expensive. Consider three people on a stand for three days, talking to an average of four people an hour. This means you should get 288 leads. Most companies get nothing like this, but it’s no good blaming staff if you haven’t told them what to do.”

Single Market Events managing director Tim Etchells agrees. “If your aim is to generate leads, you need to have a target number and process these as quickly and efficiently as possible. Progress should be monitored throughout the day. If you’re not achieving targets then change them or your methods immediately. You should have a meeting each evening with the stand team to assess strengths and weaknesses and then another one each morning to rebrief and motivate staff,” he says.

Wasted resources

Follow up is another neglected area. John says: “Some 70 per cent of exhibition leads are not followed up, which is an incredible waste.”

Rudge agrees, he says: “We get lots of phone calls afterwards from people saying ‘I asked for a brochure from xxx and never got it.”

Salespeople, who phone up six months later and say “It was nice to meet you at the recent show”, amaze Etchells. Collective amnesia seems to affect stand teams once they return to the office. He adds: “You should always do post-show evaluation within four weeks of getting back.”

Poor staff training is a major problem. Everyone has horror stories about unmanned stands or hungover exhibitors, who preferred reading newspapers, talking to cronies, or even knitting while talking to visitors. John has reservations about whether salespeople are the best staff to man stands, since they are geared towards clinching a sale rather than generating contacts. He says: “Customer service people are often better, because they are used to talking to strangers and regard staying in a hotel as a perk.”

Europeans are usually poor at approaching strangers and often ask: “Can I help you?” – to which the answer is usually “No”. Training should also include tactful ways to get rid of time-wasters, and staff should get adequate breaks – which does not mean time to visit competitors’ stalls. All this involves leadership. Etchells says: “Someone senior from the marketing team should be at every exhibition to lead the team and watch what’s happening.”

Once you have done the pre-show analysis, fixed targets, sent out invites and trained staff, consider your stand. Drinks, food, free gifts, competitions, computer games, even acrobats are used as everyone strives for originality, but with all these options it is easy to forget the customer.

“Having open-sided stands is important, because there are no barriers to getting up and speaking to people,” says Maeve de Burgh, whose company TJW organises business and recruitment fairs. She believes that interactive stands are popular, but argues that they do not have to be expensive. She adds: “An animal grooming parlour that brought in dogs to groom was very successful and some colleges offer haircuts and manicures.”

At the other extreme, she praises the Teacher Training Agency for its futuristic stand surrounded by Internet portals, while the RAF offers a cockpit simulator. “But you can be too clever and become off-putting and intimidating,” she says.

Warren agrees. “Your stand has to catch the eye, but also be relevant to what clients are looking for. For instance, if you sell cornflakes and your stand shows baked beans, you won’t attract the right people. You can be as clever as you like with the image, but it still has to say cornflakes. You want to stand out as professional or state of the art or reliable, not as ‘oh my god, what are they doing?'”

It is not enough to do something because it’s what competitors are doing, or because it worked last year. It is also vital that any gimmick reinforces your message. Consider spending more on a stand with elements you can reuse throughout the year. Button’s company, for instance, has created computer games for clients to use at events and roadshows.

Exhibitions are hard work, but the onus should not fall on one party. After all, everyone wants an event to be successful. Most organisers run briefing sessions for exhibitors and should provide statistics about attendance. PR and pre-event marketing can often be shared, and there are usually opportunities to sponsor something or run a seminar as well as a stand. If you know what your customers want, and provide it, exhibitions should never be a nightmare.

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