Show business

Exhibitors, organisers and venue owners are capitalising on the unusual face-to-face opportunities that exhibitions provide, by ensuring their stands offer visitors a hands-on experience. By Steve Hemsley

At the Labour Party conference in October, delegates came face to face with a violent burglar threatening a child and had to decide whether to shoot him, tackle and handcuff him or try to talk to him.

This hypothetical dilemma was part of a police interactive exhibition stand, designed to emphasise to party members the difficulties officers face at a time when law and order is top of the political agenda.

Finding innovative ways to attract people to a stand is a challenge for exhibitors at any event. Inviting people to shoot someone is not usually necessary, but there is pressure on companies at trade and consumer shows to maximise what is arguably a unique face-to-face opportunity to exploit the senses of visitors.

Increasingly, exhibitors are providing visitors with an interactive brand experience rather than simply filling their stands with suited sales staff handing out brochures. The argument goes that if a client or a consumer can feel and touch a product, and see its features and benefits demonstrated, they will make a more informed purchasing decision, which may mean they are less likely to buy purely on price.

One brand experience company busier than ever at exhibitions is RPM. “We tell clients to ask themselves whether people would pay even 5p to visit their stand. They also have to remember an exhibition is a time to promote the company’s products, rather than its brand, and staff must be trained accordingly,” says director Ross Urquhart.

Care for a cocktail?

RPM organised an Italian Piazza experience for Martini at the Good Homes Show, the Wedding Show and the BBC Good Food Show. Three Martini mixes were served and cocktail booklets handed out as visitors enjoyed a “Martini Moment”.

Heinz was also at the Good Food Show promoting its Special Soups range. It wanted visitors to taste both its new flavours and the old favourites that are now made with less salt. Its agency, Theatre, tried to maximise the time people spent on the stand by arranging for a nutritionist to talk about the products and distribute samples.

Rather than depending wholly on their own staff, many companies choose to hire an actor, who can write his or her own script based on a client’s brief. Creative agency FPP, for instance, has recruited West End performer and shopping-channel presenter John Danbury to demonstrate Carrs Blends’ yoghurt-maker at consumer shows.

“A client’s staff rarely have the skill and ability to talk in public with the right amount of passion and enthusiasm. The script was written by Danbury but vetted by Carrs, to ensure he focused on key sales messages such as how the product is fresh and good for you and that he encouraged people to try the yoghurt,” says FPP exhibitions manager Derry Green.

Check out checkmate

On-stand sampling is growing in popularity as exhibitors seek a greater return from their exhibiting budget without having to increase the size of their stand. Aquascutum Corporate Gifts, which worries that businesspeople do not always fully appreciate the value and quality of its products, has even arranged for pairs of fully wrapped silver cufflinks to be sent to a potential client before an event, and it organises competitions on its stands where clients can compete against each other using silver chess or backgammon sets.

“We create a relaxed, fun atmosphere, which has a more positive effect than some aggressive sales techniques, such as cold calling. The potential buyer then feels in control and this state of mind can make all the difference,” explains marketing manager Nicky Groenendijk.

Show organisers welcome any attempt by exhibitors to make their stands more interesting – if a company is busier and a visitor has an entertaining experience, both are more likely to return to an event the next year.

The Association of Exhibition Organisers (aeo) has funded a training video called Make a Stand, featuring Jack Dee, John Thomson and Roy Barraclough, to help companies think more creatively about how they interact with visitors. “Some stand-holders think it is difficult to be interactive, but with a bit of creative thinking they can get their product into visitors’ hands and see the number of people coming onto their stand increase significantly,” says aeo commercial director Austen Hawkins.

CMP Information’s International Confex show is launching a “live” new product showcase at its February event at Earls Court. Among the exhibitors demonstrating their wares will be children’s and corporate party company Crafty Arty. Confex visitors will be able to stuff and fluff their own character toy, record a voice for it and dress it up.

“Exhibitions are very important to us and although they cost quite a lot of money they are worthwhile if we really work the show before, during and after,” says director Kitty Ebdon. “Our stand for Confex 2005 is designed to be fun and totally interactive. The hands-on approach starts before the show, with personalised bespoke samples produced for key clients who finish off the toys when they come on to the stand and start stuffing.”

Reed Exhibitions’ Incentive World also has a “live” area. Marketing manager Syreeta Tranfield wants exhibitors to adopt a “market stall” mentality and not be afraid to shout about and demonstrate their products.

“This is essential for a show like ours which people attend to get ideas. We actively encourage exhibitors to do something that will draw a crowd and add to the buzz and excitement of the whole event,” says Tranfield.

This idea’s got wheels

Venue owners are also keen to see exhibitions become more hands-on. The MPH motor show at Earls Court contained a Cirque des Voitures, a live motoring theatre featuring cars as the stars, while for the Baby Show, held at Olympia, retailer Mothercare created a buggy assault course on its stand, allowing visitors to try different pushchairs on various surfaces such as gravel, sand, concrete and grass.

“We offer guidance to organisers and exhibitors on how to maximise the value of face-to-face interaction, which is unique to the exhibition medium,” says Earls Court & Olympia commercial director Nigel Nathan. “We understand that a good working relationship between all sides is vital, particularly as the content of shows becomes more exciting to satisfy visitors demanding the ‘wow’ factor.”

Although exhibitors, show organisers and venue owners are aware of the benefits of allowing visitors to experience products first hand, it can go wrong. Offering free samples of food or the chance to sit in a brand new car can dilute the quality of visitors to a stand, and the serious buyers may stay away if a stand appears too gimmicky.

And there are a few dissenters, who disagree that product demonstrations are the best way to achieve tangible results from attending shows. John Blaskey, managing director of The Exhibiting Agency, which specialises in what he calls “intelligent exhibiting”, says companies showing at business-to-business events should instead be making one-on-one appointments for after the exhibition. This, he says, is when clients can be shown exactly how a product’s benefits can match their needs.

Blaskey adds: “If the objective is to get a one-on-one meeting with a prospective client, you have pulled the rug from under your own feet by showing everything on the stand. The more you say at the exhibition, the less information there is for an in-depth meeting later.”

Press finesse

Blaskey cites the example of a printing client, which wanted to transport a large printing machine to a show and install it. This would have been a costly exercise, so instead Blaskey advised the company to have a video link from the show to its factory. Appointments were made with clients to come and see the machine in more detail in the following weeks.

Blaskey also worked with a financial services company, which had a &£20,000 budget to hand out free Palm Pilots to existing and potential clients who visited its stand. He advised the company it would get a better return on its investment if it told clients they would receive their free gift when they attended an appointment made at the show. “You can sell meetings in an imaginative way. We have used magicians in the past who magic appointment cards out of thin air,” says Blaskey.

Although it may not fit every exhibitor, allowing existing and potential clients to touch and feel products is proving an effective way for many companies to conjure up new business at exhibitions. The real trick is to ensure a stand can still attract those visitors most likely to do business with you, as well as those tempted by the thought of a fun day out and the chance to shoot a bad guy.

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