Thinking big? look small

Smaller exhibitors are the lifeblood of consumer shows, but many of them claim exhibition organisers ignore their needs to concentrate on the big spenders, says Richenda Wilson

No industry is made up exclusively of large corporations. The handful of giants will be surrounded by myriad smaller enterprises and support services. And these small businesses are the bread and butter of trade and consumer shows.

If an event organiser has several hundred stands to sell it will want a sprinkling of big names, but it is the minor players that will make the show profitable, filling out the hall and adding diversity to the content on offer to visitors.

But do venues, organisers and production companies sometimes lose sight of this, ignoring the smaller exhibitors in favour of competitors who have more to spend? They certainly do, believes Paul Hutton, managing director of audio-visual supplier Blitz.

Made to feel small?

“All too often well-established audio-visual companies have either ignored the demand from small to medium enterprises or have supplied low-quality equipment and support staff with little or no experience of handling smaller events,” he says. “They feel that providing audio-visual equipment for a small company may not be as prestigious or challenging as providing services for a multinational organisation. They may also hesitate to service small events because they are reluctant to commit equipment that might be needed for larger events.

“To avoid situations like this, audio-visual companies must continue to invest in new equipment and technology, and ensure that their employees are able to advise customers about the most suitable products for smaller events.”

It may make sense for smaller exhibitors to source production services from smaller suppliers, which will be willing to put their all into making the presentation dazzling. This was the experience of Niall Cluley, programme director of training firm the Together Group. The firm had booked a stand at the Human Resource Development Show at Olympia, run by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. “We know we have cutting-edge products,” says Cluley, “but communicating that message to everyone who visited or passed by the stand was what we needed to do to justify the considerable costs of attending the show.”

Pulling out all the stops

Cluley called in multimedia specialists Outlook Audio Visual, which created a showreel to be shown on plasma screens on a stand that was open and uncluttered, so in keeping with Together’s modern brand values. “It took us so long to decide that we needed outside help, we left it all rather late,” says Cluley. “It’s to Outlook’s credit that they managed to put together the presentation in the two weeks available before the start of the show.”

Most production companies say they do not differentiate between big and small exhibitors. After all, says Pippa Harris, marketing executive at stand designer Clip Displays, you never know when a client with a small budget may turn into a big spender.

“Suppliers that favour the big spenders over the smaller ones are not only short-sighted, but are laying themselves open to criticism,” explains Harris. “The exhibition industry is transparent. If two clients attending the same show have sourced their stands from the same supplier, with one receiving extra services that the smaller client was not offered, it would be bad press for the supplier.

“All our clients receive the same service,” she adds, “from designing and producing the graphics and exhibition stands in house, to transporting the equipment to the venue and building the stand for the client.”

Clip also gives clients a CD guide to successful exhibiting, which is designed to maximise their exhibition and marketing budgets. This covers everything from setting objectives, designing the stand, choosing and training staff, and crafting pre-event publicity through to follow-up evaluation, with tips on attracting visitors to the stand and collecting leads.

Size doesn’t matter

Venues are also at pains to point out that they give the same level of service to big and small alike. Wembley Conference & Exhibition Centre, for example, claims that all organisers, whether of small trade shows or large consumer fairs, have access to the same resources.

“Our marketing support package offers a number of free services,” says Wembley senior commercial and marketing manager Julie Warren. “These include listings and information on our consumer and business websites.

“We offer full public relations support and liaison with national, local and trade press; competitions run through; listings in our monthly ladder ads and in local newspapers; leaflet listings distributed to 20,000 bars, restaurants, cinemas and tourist information stands across London and the South-east; and flyers and radio advertisements via Wembley Arena sponsors Magic and Kiss FM.”

Warren adds that organisers at Wembley are assigned an operations manager who offers advice and planning skills on everything from technical requirements and catering through to logistics. They are also given access to a dedicated security co-ordinator, uniformed security personnel, cleaning services, traffic marshals, reception staff and a catering package for the organisers’ office.

Little ideas

And organisers, too, say they treat all-comers equally, with some offering special services for smaller clients. Sarah Coles-Porter is event director on Reed Exhibitions’ marketing and incentive shows. She points out that the incentives industry is packed with small start-ups, so shows such as Incentive World offer a package for companies that have been operating for less than a year. Rather than having to take a large stand, start-ups are offered a purpose-built pod in a pavilion designated for green-shoot companies.

But, without doubt, the bigger and longer-established exhibitors will have more clout, from choosing a prime site to commanding headlines on the press releases announcing the show.

Nappy manufacturer Bambino Mio has been exhibiting at trade and consumer shows, both in the UK and abroad, for several years, taking larger stands as the company has grown. Last month, the company was at the trade show Baby and Child International Fair at the NEC as well as at the consumer Baby Show at Olympia.

Big is beautiful

“The biggest issue is the position that you’re put in,” says managing director Guy Schanschieff. “In the early days, when we had a 10 sq m stand, we were put right at the back, right in the corner. Now we take a 70 sq m stand and we are at the front. It’s the economic reality: the big accounts will get the first choice on space.”

The size of stand reflects the size of company, he points out, adding that it is always worthwhile to invest as much as possible in the stand: “How visitors view the stand is how they view the company. If you look bigger, they can assume you will provide better advertising, supply and support for the product.”

But the small exhibitors make for a better and more eclectic show, he says. “Potential buyers at trade shows are looking for new and interesting products and you get those from the smaller stands. The same is true of consumer shows; you get products that people don’t see in the high street.”

Chris Needham, sales and marketing director of booking agency Hotelscene, exhibited on a moderate stand at the Business Travel Show at the NEC last month. He points out that show publicity tends to focus on the bigger names, so smaller companies have to work harder to get themselves noticed.

“You can’t rely on anything [from the organisers] going out with your name on it,” says Needham, “so you have to put your own effort in. We do our homework and make sure we invite our target market and raise awareness of our appearance at the show.”

Malcolm Cowing, director of events at communications agency and events specialist Brahm, agrees: “You have to make sure that people know you’re going to be there. Sometimes the big boys assume that people will go to their stand anyway, so you can pull a fast one on their complacency.”

Wine and dine them

There are various ways to do this, he suggests. It is vital to tell clients beforehand and perhaps invite them to dinner or a post-show party and pay for a hotel for them, so that you can have more in-depth contact with them. PR and other marketing activity should also be stepped up around the show to remind prospects of your existence. A well-designed, newsworthy media pack helps greatly.

Launching a new product or service at the show will also draw attention to you, while competitions and giveaways will generate further traffic for your stand. Train your stand staff in presentation skills so they can talk knowledgeably and engagingly about your products or services.

Finally, says Cowing, if there is a conference attached to the show, try to make sure you have a speaker from your company on the podium or sign up to sponsor one of the sessions.

There are many ways to draw attention to yourself at shows without having to go over budget by booking the prime spots. Good planning and publicity along with a striking stand staffed by friendly, helpful people will pull in plenty of visitors and ensure that you get your message across to your key customers.

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