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Business Exhibitions: A Comprehensive Guide To Exhibiting

For some businesses, there is no better way to meet prospective customers than at exhibitions. As with all marketing activities however, there are the right ways and the wrong ways to go about exhibiting. So, here are the right ways to make your next exhibition a success.

Pre-exhibition preparation

Your exhibition might be weeks or months away, but the sooner you start your pre-exhibition preparation, the better. An exhibition is one marketing activity with a deadline date that will not move if you find you’re not ready come the big day.

I will discuss each of the below items in more detail later, but in summary form, here’s what you need to consider if you want to run a successful stand at an exhibition:

  • Your stand position
  • The key offering/s you will promote at the exhibition
  • Promoting your attendance
  • Your stand and materials
  • Your stand staff
  • Driving traffic to your stand
  • Other exhibitors as allies and customers
  • How attendees will be followed up after the event
  • Any other obvious logistical items that need to be considered (e.g. hotels/travel etc which I haven’t discussed in more detail here).

So, let’s tackle each of these in order…

Your stand position

Whilst your stand’s position within the exhibition is not everything when it comes to successful exhibiting, a good stand location can certainly help increase footfall. When you are making your stand booking with the exhibition organiser, negotiate over your stand position.

Try to avoid positions that are too far from ‘core’ areas. Book a place that will be in the centre of activity or in a place where people will obviously congregate or walk past. Avoid being tucked away somewhere or in a position that feels a little ‘out on your own’. It almost goes without saying, but the earlier you book with an exhibition organiser the better the choice of stand positions you will have.

Extra Tip: If you are attending a larger exhibition that is using a typical shell scheme system, try to also position yourself on a stand corner. Being on a corner spot means you will see the walk-by traffic from two sides of the walkway rather than just one – potentially doubling your footfall.  The other benefit is that a corner stand of a shell scheme usually has two walls (rather than three) so your costs to cover the stand walls can be reduced.

The key offering/s you will promote at the exhibition

It is worth taking some time to consider the products or services you think you could ultimately sell to the attendees of the exhibition. Make sure that:

Your offering is wholly appropriate (if not actually tailored) for the attendees.

For example, if the exhibition attendees have something in common (e.g. they are start-up businesses, or they are all solicitors, or they are getting married, etc) try to make sure that your offering feels tailored to them. If your attendees are in a specialist market, be a specialist provider.

The attendees can understand what you are offering in a few seconds flat.

If your core offering is actually quite complex but has huge benefits, you will probably want to distil those benefits into catchy one-liners that you can use so attendees instantly understand what your business is about. In many cases, people walking past your stand will actually make a judgement about your business whilst they are walking – if they stop to hear more, that means your offering has got through to them. Don’t try to sell the whole elephant upfront, engage people first.

Promoting your attendance

It is always worth promoting your attendance prior to the exhibition. Telling new and existing customers that you are attending an exhibition can actually help build your credibility. Those customers might not attend the exhibition, but the fact that they know you are engaging in these types of activities helps to show you are a serious provider in your market.

It is also worth raising your online profile with regard to the exhibition. If for instance, you have a blog, write blog posts about the exhibition in the run up and make sure they are optimised for keywords that relate to the exhibition’s name. Remember, if the exhibition is attended by thousands of people, that means there will be lots of pre-exhibition web searches for the exhibition’s name. Your website might then pick up some website search traffic before the exhibition takes place.

If your business is also a keen user of social media, obviously it is worth updating your followers about the exhibition prior to it starting. However, the value of social media is its real-time nature, so tweeting and updating whilst at the event; posting images, updates on competitions, thanking attendees etc, is a great way to start the dialogue early.

Your stand

When it comes to the design and layout of your stand, remember these two words: light, and, clear.

As people walk past your stand they should see it as being light, bright, and fresh. If it’s dark, drab or just a bit empty, they are more likely to keep walking – having a stand that is light and fresh at least keeps you on a level playing field with the other exhibitors. Supermarkets have adopted the same approach for years by putting flowers and fruit at their entrances to create a light and fresh feel.

Secondly, you need to be clear in your messaging. As people walk past your stand they will be skim-reading your company name and a few pieces of information on your posters and banners. Try to make that information as clear as possible so they instantly ‘get’ what your business is about and its main benefits. Being cryptic doesn’t work – people will keep walking rather than take the time to understand any clever messaging. Be really, really, obvious.

Extra Tip: If your company name does not describe the type of business you are in, then for the purposes of the exhibition, consider adding a business description to your company name. For example, if you were an web design agency called ‘XYZ Limited’, the exhibition attendees would not know the nature of your business when they only see your company name in the exhibition guide or printed at the top of your stand shell. Changing your name to ‘XYZ Limited – Website Design’ for the exhibition, includes a description, and negates that issue.

Your stand materials

There is no shortage of stand materials you can use to decorate your stand area. Often it is cost that limits the choice, so here are some of the core items you might want to consider as priorities:

  • Roll-up banners (along with either posters or shell scheme panels)
  • Table (doesn’t have to be big, but something to write on)
  • Chairs (optional, but they help keep attendees on your stand if you are likely to have longer conversions)
  • Brochures or sales pack (either a relevant company/product brochure or a folder made up with relevant inserts)
  • Small hand-out leaflets
  • Business cards
  • Promotional items (optional, but branded pens/sweets/drinks etc can help draw attendees in)
  • A data capture tool/method: a method for recording attendee information (e.g. simple contact sheets, or pay the exhibition organiser for a badge scanner).
  • Your marketing ‘hooks’…

The last on this list are your ‘hooks’. These are worthy of explaining in more detail…

Your hooks are the marketing materials that help hook passing traffic at the exhibition. For instance, asking attendees to put their business card in a bowl to win a magnum of champagne is a ‘hook’. Or asking people to ‘guess the weight of …’ or ‘play a game of …’ are hooks. Hooks draw people in, they require attendees to provide their contact information in order to take part and finally, they allow you to engage in a conversation. Make sure you have at least one hook you can use to attract attendees and create some buzz.

Your stand staff

One of the most important considerations for your upcoming exhibition is your stand staff. Who will you have on the stand?

From experience, the types of people who suit working on a stand best are confident, motivated and disciplined. Don’t choose someone who is brash or loud but who actually might not have the discipline to give 100% until the exhibition ends.

Remember, your stand staff’s job is to speak to everyone, all day and for however many days the exhibition runs for. That takes someone who has the confidence and the discipline to keep going even if they are hitting brick walls with the people they speak to. And don’t assume the stand staff should only be your sales staff or company directors. Some people are great at selling in a normal business environment, but an exhibition will require them to repeat the same conversation with potentially hundreds of attendees – some staff will find it too monotonous and all will find it hard graft.

Obviously, you also don’t want staff to be gathering in groups, playing with phones, wandering off too frequently, loitering at the back of the stand or generally lacking the open and friendly nature that invites attendees in.

Finally, your stand staff should also know how to conclude a conversation with an attendee who is interested in your offering. If the staff member is working to an ‘ideal outcome’ that you have given them (e.g. to book a meeting, or take contact details, etc) they know where the conversation should lead and how it should be concluded.

Driving traffic to your stand

Question: where is it written that at an exhibition, you can only speak to the attendees who walk past your stand?  Answer: it’s not written anywhere!

The truth is that a percentage of the exhibition attendees will not properly see your stand. They might simply never walk past your stand, or they might be distracted when they do walk by. To help address this problem, it is always worth having one, two or more people ‘roaming’ the exhibition, encouraging attendees to visit your stand.

That does not mean hassling people in the walkways. But do try the following:

  • Make sure your roaming staff are branded – put them in bright T shirts displaying your company name, your main message/offering and your stand number in big letters.
  • Give them a ‘hook’ to use (refer to what ‘hooks’ are above) such as a small leaflet to hand out with a specific offer or incentive, or…
  • Get creative – some exhibitors use mobile banners, staff dressed in costumes, or are carrying a whole range of objects that grab attention. They then use their hook to encourage people to visit their stand. (NB. If you have plans for anything creative, it’s worth running them by the exhibition organisers just to be sure you aren’t breaching any specific health and safety rules or similar restrictions).

Other exhibitors

Your fellow exhibitors have the potential to be exhibition allies and possibly, customers.  Don’t overlook them.

Exhibitors as allies

It is always worth taking the time to befriend your neighbouring exhibitors. If you hit it off, there is no reason why you can’t come to some agreement to refer attendees to each other. So, when a neighbouring exhibitor has finished speaking with an attendee, they can suggest the attendee pops next door to speak to you. You then return the favour with the attendees you speak to.

The purpose of doing this is obvious, but it also helps address a specific problem: attendees who spend some time on a stand will then often leave that stand and skip the next few. It’s an unconscious behaviour caused by the attendee a) still thinking about the conversation they have just had as they walk away, and b) them wanting to see the whole exhibition, so are more reluctant to stop at the very next stand.

Exhibitors as customers

If your fellow exhibitors also fit the profile of your potential customers, don’t waste the opportunity to make yourself known to them. The fact that you are at the same exhibition gives you some common ground and mutual respect, so carefully consider them as a potential target audience.

However, there is certainly a right and a wrong way to sell to your fellow exhibitors. Please take note of the following:

  • Only approach other exhibitors when they aren’t trying to speak with attendees. The end of an exhibition day can be a good time (as long as aren’t trying to pack up their stand).
  • Make it quick. You still risk overstepping the mark if you are trying to oversell to another exhibitor. Just a quick summary of who you are, what you do and how you think you can help them should be enough.
  • Give them something that is tailored. There is also no harm in offering the other exhibitors an ‘exhibitor only offer’. If the exhibitor sees that they are benefitting from a special offer simply because they are an exhibitor, they are more likely to hear you out.
  • Take their details. Your sales pitch at the exhibition will be short, so you will want to follow that up with more information when they have more time after the exhibition is over.

Post exhibition follow-up

Straight after the exhibition (if not during), your follow-up process should kick-in. All attendee details will need to be recorded and the ownership of their follow-up assigned to relevant staff.  Speed is obviously important, so all the attendees who you wanted to follow-up should be contacted within a few days of the exhibition taking place.

It is also worth having a communications plan for the attendees who aren’t yet in a position to do business with. Adding them to your regular communication plan will make sure they are frequently reminded of your business until they are in a position to buy.

The very best of luck with your next exhibition and if you need further marketing advice, don’t hesitate to get in touch.

About the Author: Andrew Huggett is a professional marketer who helps businesses gain greater results from their marketing.

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