Most exhibition organisers will be aware of the pitfalls of not providing a quality service for exhibitors: bad press, low attendance and low repeat bookings. An unsuccessful event, in short. In spite of this, there are still shows that appear, to exhibitors, more intent on selling floorspace than on providing a good service. This is not to say that the industry is awash with rogue traders: it is more likely that some companies are overstretched because they are trying to offer too much.
For some events, the sales process is so demanding that it leaves little time, or indeed resources, to support small, first-time and overseas exhibitors. Simply dumping a vast manual on these exhibitors, when the job of managing an exhibition often falls to the sales manager, the director’s PA or the owner, all of whom are busy and quite possibly lacking in relevant expertise, is not an ideal scenario.
Organisers do provide a lot of helpful information, but often this is buried in manuals, with the onus on the exhibitor to uncover it. Sadly, these weighty tomes can be so overwhelming as to prevent exhibitors from making the most of the exhibition. That is unless they have the time and resources to pick through them – and time, for the novice exhibitor, is generally in short supply.
“Information tends to be either too detailed or lacking in vital, basic facts,” says GPJ senior vice-president and managing director for Europe Neil Jones. “FAQs and summarised manuals can be useful, and booking forms need to be more flexible. It is also imperative that information arrives in good time for the event. Recently, a manual arrived less than two months prior to the event and didn’t include opening times.”
Who are the exhibitors?
Jones says organisers need to get to know their exhibitors; that way, they should be able to provide a better service. Standard packages can ease the participation of small companies. For overseas exhibitors, cultural differences are not always accounted for. “UK organisers need to appreciate that costs should be provided in euros and dollars as well as in sterling,” he continues. “Organisers need to be more flexible with their opening hours to account for the time variables, or at the very least they should provide the exhibitor with details of their local office hours.” For first-time exhibitors, he suggests that manuals can be simplified and summarised. “Putting the information online can also be very helpful,” he says.
“A number of organisers are looking at doing online manuals and CD-ROMs,” says National Boat Show director of marketing James Gower. “This makes the process of returning forms easier and takes away the margin of error that usually occurs with sending them back late, missing deadlines and so on. Administratively, it is much easier for everyone.”
Colin Sneath, managing director of exhibition marketing consultancy Credo, has this advice on manuals: “Don’t open it. Give it straight to your specialist exhibition practitioner and sleep soundly at night.”
Indeed, for an organiser to hold the hand of each exhibitor through the whole experience would be unfeasible in terms of cost and time. So employing a third party makes sense.
“Some organisers are planning to include this as part of the booking service,” explains Debbie Finlay of Proxy, a company that offers an exhibitor support service covering everything from putting together press packs to helping companies fill out their registration forms and generally making light work of the paperwork and legislation that can get on top of the novice exhibitor.
One such organiser is Quantum, which runs the Restaurant Show. “Linking up with companies such as Proxy has meant that we can offer a comprehensive service without over-extending ourselves,” says event director Lorraine Wood.
This year, the Restaurant Show hosted about 50 small, first-time exhibitors, out of 300 exhibitors in total. “Quantum has a specialist salesperson who deals with these first-timers,” says Wood. Once they are happy, the exhibitors are passed to a company called OpsDirect (which is sub-contracted to handle the exhibition operations), and then on to Proxy. They get a full support programme laid on for them.
This gives organisers the opportunity to invest in what they know: “Our salespeople are experts in their own field,” says Wood. “They know their industry and can pass on good ideas to smaller exhibitors. They know what works.”
Many organisers seem to believe that, once they have carried out their promise of delivering the right audience and a professional environment in which to meet them, it is up to the exhibitors to promote themselves. However, this doesn’t have to be the case. There are many other ways for organisers to help exhibitors publicise and promote their attendance.
“A good example is the exhibitor support pack that we developed for our first Schroders London Boat Show at ExCeL, in January,” says Gower. “It provided detailed guidelines and tips on marketing and PR; equipped exhibitors with advertising templates, Web banners and buttons; and directed them to external resources including our PR agency and creative agency, from which they could seek further help and advice.”
In addition to the support pack and the regular newsletters to exhibitors, the National Boat Show developed its website to be consumer- and exhibitor-friendly. It contained a forum page for exhibitors to allow them to share their experiences and knowledge of the new venue with others; a question and answer facility; information; maps; and further marketing information. It provided a great opportunity for first-time exhibitors to learn from others who had more experience.
Desktop dos and don’ts
Similarly, display and exhibition solutions company Nimlok has recently launched a CD-ROM containing a wealth of ideas, designs and tips for getting the most from exhibiting. It contains an exhibitor tools section focusing on planning, people skills, promotion and productivity (the four P’s of successful exhibiting). Interactive worksheets and checklists cover topics such as designing a lead card, “dos and don’ts” for stand staff, budgeting, and measurement and evaluation.
“Most organisers don’t realise that sometimes the basic things are the most daunting for small and first-time exhibitors,” says Nimlok national sales manager Jamie Zavoral-Brown. “Organisers need to educate exhibitors on the options they have. I don’t think the small exhibitor realises the many opportunities there are to partner with the show organiser to get pre-show marketing. More education and guidance in this area is certainly helpful.”
Many exhibition organisers run training workshops for their events. “These workshops are available to all sizes of exhibitors, so nobody loses out,” says BI UK marketing manager Richard Ayres. “Larger companies may choose not to take up these opportunities, but they can be a major benefit to smaller and first-time exhibitors. Some include speaker sessions from past exhibitors, passing on suggestions of what they have found to be effective. Often organisers give suggestions on how to follow up leads after the show, on ways of generating dialogue with companies and how to measure the success of an event.”
But what if an exhibition organiser doesn’t offer a training workshop, or if the timing isn’t right for a company’s own exhibition timeline? The Association of Exhibition Organisers (AEO) produces a range of free booklets – from How to Exhibit to How to Measure Exhibition Success. It also runs a series of training roadshows.
“We visit 16 towns across the UK, holding seminars for about 100 to 150 people each time, telling them how to make their exhibitions work for them,” explains AEO group chief executive Trevor Foley. “If you’re going to spend thousands of pounds on exhibiting, spending &£95 on some training makes sense. It’s a truism to say that those who have half a day’s training will perform better at their exhibition.”
In case an exhibitor can’t make one of these training days, the AEO has produced a video called Make a Stand. It covers all aspects of exhibition training and includes an interactive CD-ROM e-learning course to ensure that the key points of good exhibition practice are hammered home.
It is good business sense for organisers to help exhibitors make the most of their exhibition – a successful exhibition is, after all, what they are aiming for. Most organisers may not have the time to lead the novice exhibitor through the whole process, but there are strategies they can employ to smooth their journey. Even if some novices are inept at marketing themselves and it’s as much as they can do just to get to the event, with all the resources available, there is no excuse not to make a decent attempt.