An unprecedented rise in the number of trade exhibitions over the past decade has helped this form of marketing become as essential to many companies as mail-outs and cold calling.
But there are fears that many companies are not getting the best value for money from exhibitions, either because they misjudge the importance of good content or because they fail to take into account the number of additional costs that can suddenly – and expensively – appear, putting paid to their budget calculations.
According to figures from trade body the Exhibition Venues Association, 2000 saw the largest number of UK exhibitions over 2,000 sq m since records began in 1988. There were 868 such shows, a three per cent increase on the previous peak years of 1997 and 1998. The total hall space occupied was 7.56 million sq m, an increase of more than a fifth on the previous record of 6.16 million sq m, set in 1997. The number of visitors grew to over 11 million in 2000. But with so much extra demand for exhibitions, and many smaller companies entering the field for the first time, there has been considerable confusion about how to negotiate fees for exhibition space and the best way to gain maximum value from this medium.
Exorbitant and unexpected extra costs can include everything from electricity supply to mineral water and coffee. If, for instance, an extra cable is needed for a lighting display this may ramp up the costs. And suppose there is a technical glitch, and a piece of technology needs urgent attention from the venue’s maintenance staff? Further expense may be involved.
Someone else’s problem
Larger companies can afford to hire professional specialists if they are serious about marketing through conference venues. The likes of motor manufacturers and packaged goods brand-owners will employ large-scale operators such as Imagination, which designs and mounts exhibitions for Ford, or Fraser Randall, which mounts exhibitions for big brands such as Red Bull. In these cases, the designer will be responsible for the additional costs that arise, or will pool them into the overall price for which they bill the exhibitor.
But for smaller operators, problems can arise when exhibitions are left to a marketing manager or director who has little experience of organising such events. They can find a few nasty shocks coming through in unforeseen expenses.
Angelique Martin, marketing executive at exhibition contractor Clip Display, says: “People underestimate how much the electricity is going to cost when they calculate the total expense of exhibiting. From power, to screws, to extension leads, exhibitors need to be totally aware of the costs. People don’t realise how much goes into an exhibition. When you look at exhibitions for the first time, it is difficult to think of all the elements. There’s a lot involved.”
Martin believes that, increasingly, people are recognising the value of face-to-face marketing in an exhibition hall, particularly in business-to-business sectors. “It brings together the four Ps of marketing [product, place, price and promotion] ,” she says.
The big exhibition operators insist that they are completely open about their costs, and publish full lists of the extras they charge for. But Wembley Conference Centre director of sales and marketing Peter Tudor says that everything is open to negotiation, and adds that it is hard to come up with a fixed set of costs for running exhibitions because there are so many different requirements and varying approaches – even within similar exhibitions for similar exhibiting companies. “We are happy to look at organisers’ particular requirements – ‘one size fits all’ never works in this industry, because there are so many different types of exhibition,” he says.
He says Wembley includes in the price it charges organisers the assistance of a technical manager, an event manager, car parking and traffic marshalling, medical cover, fire officers, RAC road sign directions and a security co-ordinator. Three major areas that are not included are the great variables: power, waste disposal and water. While a knitting exhibition will make minimal use of these, that will change for an industrial equipment show.
But Tudor stresses the importance of ensuring that exhibition stand organisers give themselves the best chance of taking advantage of all the work they have put into setting up their stall. For clients with small budgets, Tudor recommends a number of ways of maximising the return on their spend. Most important is direct mail sent to potential visitors to the stands, including existing and past clients. This should be accompanied by a follow-up phone call to ram the point home.
It may also be a good idea to provide an incentive to visit the stand, such as a redeemable voucher offering the chance to enter a competition. Making use of the raw material – the stand – to make an impact by finding ways of using the height of the stand, and exploiting music and visual media, are also seen as important. Staff training is crucial too.
Demand the best
But not everyone involved in exhibitions is so sure that the little hidden extras are a major issue. “If you have a good contractor doing your stand, the extras shouldn’t be a client issue. If you have a poor contractor, sack them,” says Brian Michael, chairman of TwentyFirstCentury Communications, which organises exhibitions for a range of clients.
Michael believes that the biggest issue when attempting to get value for money from exhibitions is exhibitors’ approach to content: “As a contractor, you supply the marketing message. The client understands that, but misunderstands how much time it takes to put quality content together.”
He explains: “Content is usually the poor relation. You see things being done in a rush, because people are so focused on making sure they get to the show. If you walk around exhibitions, you see lovely stands, but poor content.”
He insists that content is often undervalued and overlooked, added on at the last moment after all the other arrangements have been put in place. While bookings for exhibitions may be made up to a year in advance, Michael says he often sees exhibitors hunting for appropriate content a month before the show. The money shelled out on unforeseen extras is minimal compared with the waste of money represented by poor content, he believes.
Walking round a stark and cavernous exhibition hall can be an alienating experience. Row upon row of stands often seem half-deserted, but there may be one stand that everybody is crowding around because it has a quality piece of content such as an interactive terminal, a game or a video monitor playing an interesting ad or film.
Like any marketing, saliency is the most important thing – in television, successful ads are the ones that stand out, rather than those that just mimic the rest. Why should things be different in the exhibition sector? Exhibitions represent an opportunity for face-to-face contact that is rarely possible in other scenarios. But attracting people to a stand is no easy feat, and trying to make the content stand out is one of the hardest jobs for exhibitors.
If the industry is to continue to grow, exhibition organisers have to ensure that they make the maximum effort to be transparent in the way they charge their clients. But many of the problems that arise are down to the inexperience of exhibitors themselves and lack of preparation. They have few alternatives to using contractors, at least for their first few shows, and even then they should be prepared for all sorts of unforeseen charges. But the biggest waste is not making full use of the opportunity to present stunning content that attracts people away from rival stands.