Exhibitions - Selecting, Planning & Participating

“Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half”. John Wanamaker (1838-1922)

You are probably familiar with the above quotation from the famous American retailer. It’s an apposite warning for anyone planning advertising and promotional activity. And when it comes to exhibitions, it’s a vital lesson to consider and meditate.

Exhibitions, trade fairs and conferences are an invaluable opportunity for many suppliers to make contacts, renew and strengthen existing contacts, understand the market better, and perhaps even secure some sales. But the costs of participating in such events, particularly in other countries, can be punitively high in time and money, and the truth of Wanamaker’s warning can sometimes be understood only after the event.

We should never be swayed by a slick sales representative. Many exhibitions and trade shows employ aggressive sales teams to sell space. These events are like advertising space in magazines and journals, the sales opportunity is time sensitive, hence the temptation to use high pressure sales tactics.

Every exporter should only consider participating in these events as part of their overall strategy, which should have very clear objectives and methods. Such a strategy should have a budget and anticipated return on investment (ROI). The exporter should only be considering events that are expected to contribute to the set objectives.

Evaluating the expected benefits of exhibitions requires care. Most major exhibitions will be happy to provide statistics on past events, such as number of exhibitors, number of visitors, their professions and place of location. But much of this information is not independently audited, so needs to be treated sceptically. Try to find out what the trends of the exhibition have been in recent years. Some exhibitions are seeing a slow decline in numbers, as more business is being concluded online. Talk to companies who participated in past events and seek their opinions. Identify your competitors and see if they are taking part.

It’s often a good idea to visit an exhibition first, without going to the expense of exhibiting. Obviously the costs are much lower and the opportunity to experience the event at first hand before committing can be time well spent. Of course there are limits to what a visitor can achieve. It may be possible to identify potential customers who are exhibiting at the event, and approach them, but the reception may not always be a warm one. That company has spent a lot of money to be there and probably wants to talk to buyers not sellers, and in any case the person who makes buying decisions may not be there. But if handled sensitively, the opportunity can be utilised.

Once we have selected an event, we need to consider what we expect to achieve from it, and use that to guide our decisions about our budget, the amount of space we take, the nature of the stand and above all the message we want to communicate.

Decide in advance what you want to achieve by participating. Some exhibitors only consider an event to be a success if the value of sales exceeds the total cost of participating. This very much depends on the nature of the business we are in, and what our long term objectives are. We may go to an exhibition with the objective of finding potential distributors or re-sellers, in which case we won’t be expecting to secure any sales.

Decide who is going to participate in the event. Having the right level of representation on the stand is crucial. Don’t try to do too much with too few people. Staff will need rest breaks and may also wish to combine the event with planned meetings, so ensure that you have enough bodies to operate the stand at all times. On the other hand, avoid over-representation and don’t involve people in the event whop aren’t strictly needed. This might require some assertiveness to explain to senior colleagues who expect to come along for the ride that they aren’t actually needed. A stand that is crowded with the exhibitor’s own representatives can be just as off-putting for a visitor as an empty stand.

Determine the roles of everyone who is going to be present, and ensure they are understood.

Carefully assess the resources you are going to need, particularly in terms of samples, literature etc. But also remember the mundane things like enquiry forms, business cards, stapler, and staples. Consider things that might get damaged or need replacing during the event, and remember to bring back up. Think about how you are going to keep the stand looking clean and tidy and what you will need to do that.

Plan your travel and logistics well ahead. In respect of the larger events, hotel prices and flights can get very expensive if not booked well in advance. Arrange the delivery of all equipment and allow for possible delays. Consider how you are going to travel from the hotel to the event, this is not always as straightforward as it may seem.

Ensure that everyone involved is properly prepared and briefed. Hold a de-brief at the end of each day, review progress and determine the objectives and any last minute changes for the coming day.

If the event has been successful, there will be considerable amounts of follow-up work to do. That’s the subject for next time.

Article written by Tim Hiscock - Associate of Strong & Herd LLP

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