Thursday, 27 January 2011

How To Exhibit Successfully At Trade Shows - Part Four

All Present & Correct

In Parts One, Two and Three I talked about the various stages of preparation for exhibiting at trade shows. Today I'm going to spend a few minutes thinking about what you do on the day(s) of the show to give yourself the best chance of winning new contacts and hopefully new business.

Now in a nutshell, it's all about being professional, and of course we all are, aren't we? So today, I expect it will all be teaching grandmothers to suck eggs, but just in case...

What to wear?
Frankly, as long as you wear something clean, I don't think this is a major issue. Obviously eggy drips down the tie, or stains on the shirt are a 'no-no', but most people would expect you to wear the type of clothes you'd wear to work when you're meeting a client. These days that can cover a wide range, so choose something you feel comfortable in and make sure it's clean.

Some businesses ask employees to wear a corporate shirt, this can work well, particularly on big stands, where visitors will want to be able to easily identify a person to talk to. If you don't have a uniform of any sort, then make sure you have a name badge and wear it where a visitor will be able to see it - the current trend for wearing lanyards doesn't help - nobody wants people to be peering at their nether regions when they make conversation.

Do your visitors a favour and type your name clearly and in a big enough font to be easily readable.

On a point of comfort, ladies, my advice is, take two pairs of shoes to the show, and alternate them every couple of hours. Try and have them with a small heel, not flat. If you're not used to standing all day, it really takes it out of your feet, and if your feet are crippling you, it's not going to make you the happiest person to do business with, so put vanity to one side and think comfort.

I also always use those little gel pads you can buy which give added comfort for the balls of your feet. I've made a few friends at shows when I've give a spare pair to fellow exhibitors who've started to hurt.

Exhibition halls vary in ambient temperature, but if you've a lot of lights on your stand, it will probably get quite warm, so don't go too thickly clad.

Body Language.
Don't underestimate the power of the messages your body language is giving to visitors. What you want,  is for people to feel happy to approach you, to be willing for you to speak to them and to walk onto your stand to see/hear more. So there are some basic things you should avoid.

Standing with folded arms - it looks aggressive and says 'don't mess with me'
Standing on the edge of the stand with other colleagues  - it creates a barrier that only brave visitors will dare to breach.
Being deep in conversation with colleagues when visitors are passing - they'll be too polite to interrupt you and go to your competitors stand instead.
Sitting down - I know some people will disagree with this, but I've seen it in action so many times, and people are much happier to talk to someone face to face at eye-level. Sitting down looks like you can't be bothered to interact with the visitor and it puts all the onus of action on to them rather than the exhibitor, so it's a bit arrogant, like saying 'Well here I am, it's up to you, take it or leave it' - most will leave it.
Eating - there's nothing quite like watching a stranger negotiating an egg and mayonnaise sandwich to convince me I don't want to talk to them - just don't put yourself in that position. When you're hungry, go to the cafe, or suck a small sweet to keep you going. Visitors don't appreciate the smell, sounds or sights of watching exhibitors eating on the stand. If you're on your own and have to stay at the stand all day, have a few discreet biscuits to nibble if things slow down for a while.
Drinking - OK water won't upset anyone (as long as you remove used plastic cups immediately after use), but banish all thoughts of alcohol. You can guarantee that the least desirable visitors will take advantage, while the ones you really should be talking to, will be revolted and keep well away away. On just a couple of occasions, I've seen exhibitors a bit the worse for wear, and believe you me, they weren't  writing any orders.

Now of course I know you'd never do any of the above, but I'll bet you any money, the next trade fair you go to, you'll spot some of it going on.

So knowing what to avoid, what can you do to increase the welcome you present to visitors?

The simplest thing to do, is to smile and look interested. Look eager and you'd be surprised how many people will be drawn to you.

Have a few open questions you can start conversations with, such as 'Where are you based?', or 'What sort of thing are you looking for today?' It's important not to ask questions that can be answered 'yes' or 'no', because they're the conversation stoppers. Instead try and gain their attention in a gentle but open way. But please avoid the hard sell at this point, that's a real turn-off.

One of the easiest ways to start a conversation with total strangers is to have something to give them. Think carefully about what would work for you - avoid bags and pens - they're both useful and people will take them from you, but they won't expect to talk to you in return. No, instead think of something small but interesting that takes you a moment to explain - that way they'll be intrigued by what it is, and have to listen to you while you talk about it. You should then quickly be able to turn the conversation with an open question and away you go.

If you have a small low cost product that you could afford to give-away, that's a good idea, but if you really can't find anything to hand out, then have a prize draw and hand out entry slips. You could say something like 'enter our prize draw, it's easy, just give us your name and number', then offer to staple their business card to the entry form or fill in their name and phone number. Of course this then gives you the chance to start a conversation.

Trade shows can be exhausting, so if you have the opportunity to take turns on the stand and grab a break from time to time, then do so. But even if you're tired, it's essential that you try not to show it - you're on show the whole time, and it's a horrible truth that the really attractive potential buyers so often turn up at the end of the day. Just remember, they don't last forever and you can build excellent contacts at trade fairs, so it's worth putting a brave face on it.

In Part Five, 'Tell Them You're There', I'll be looking at things you can do to increase the number of people who come to your stand. 

If you haven't read the previous posts, have a browse around.
Part One - To Exhibit Or Not To Exhibit, That Is The Question...
Part Two - Getting Started
Part Three - Creating A Brilliant Exhibition Stand
Part Six - Home & Dry

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

How To Exhibit Successfully At Trade Shows - Part Three

Creating A Brilliant Exhibition Stand.

Welcome back to my blog mini-series looking at how to make trade shows work for you. This is part three, where I'm going to give you my tips for creating stands that stop visitors in their tracks and get you noticed.

(If you haven't seen Part One or Part Two, click here for tips on whether exhibiting is right for you and how to get started).

Most trade exhibitions are very busy places (if they're not, why would you want to exhibit there?), so the biggest challenge is how to get yourself noticed. Now if you're rich enough to be using contractors and booking a large stand, you'll probably have people all over you with ideas for how your stand should look, but if you're on your own, or part of a small team, you'll have to be your own creative genius. This post is for you, I hope it helps. Feel free to get in touch if there's anything specific I might be able to help you with.

So off we go...

Designing the stand.
Over the years I've seen a huge number of exhibition stands, form the massive to the minute, and I have to tell you, whatever they say, size isn't everything. If you've booked a 2m x 2m cupboard, there are still things you can do to stand out.

A 2 x 4m stand making good use of graphics to sell three different product groups.

The number one tip is to get your whole stand planned in detail way in advance, this way you have time to source everything you'll need and come up with alternatives or improvements as they suggest themselves.

I always sit down with some blank sheets of paper and draw roughly to scale the space I've got and mark the direction of travel visitors will be coming from (you can make a good guess at this by looking closely at the hall plan if you're not already sure about it).

Now list all the products you'll want to show - and I mean all - it's no good trying to add a load more stuff on after you've come up with your plans. If you're selling a service, or a product too big to have on the stand, think about how you will demonstrate visually what you do. My advice here is not to get too creative. You'd be amazed at how many companies, often the very big ones, assume that visitors know them already and what they do. But the whole point for most exhibitors is to be found by new customers, people who just might not know you yet. So I beg you, don't over-estimate your fame and make it obvious what you do and who you are.

Try and find a simple graphic way to show what you're selling. Don't believe me? One of the most common conversations I hear, starts with a visitor saying to an exhibitor " so what it it you do?" The danger is, that for every visitor brave enough to ask you, you can guarantee there will be more who just walked straight past, too embarrassed or too uninspired to speak to you.

Once you know what you want to show, decide how you're going to do it. If it's product small enough to put on shelves, think about the type of shelves that would look good. If it's got to be graphics, think about the wall space or free-standing graphic displays.
This company supplies garden centres, so the display echoed garden centre merchandising, with lots of plants too.
If you're using shelves, keep them shallow - it's hard for visitors to see into deep shelves, and don't put anything too low down that might be obscured by higher shelves. Put yourself in the mindset of someone walking past  - they're not going to bend down to see the things you're hiding lower down.

If you've got a special message to get across, e.g. We're special because..., be confident and have graphics that say so. Exhibitions are all about getting your message over very quickly and you can't guarantee to stop and speak to everyone - have graphics to say the main messages for you.

A word of warning - work out roughly the eye-line for passers by and don't put your graphics too high or too low. I've seen too many stands where the punch line or key point was hidden behind a table or display unit - the solution to this, is to plan it carefully in advance.

Furniture & Props
Many organisers will supply you with lists of furniture and display equipment you can hire for the event. On the whole, if budgets are tight, I'd advise you not to use these for small stands. The rental costs tend to be astronomic and too often the stuff only arrives on your stand an hour before the hall closes on build up day - not much use if you're planning a hefty stand dressing.

Instead, get creative at your local IKEA, Argos or Homebase. These - and others - sell all kinds of shelving, tables, chairs and all kinds of items that you can use to give your stand structure. Always try and use the height of the stand to give you maximum impact. This isn't a market stall, people will be looking up, not down as they wander past, so build in height, for instance, if you're selling plates - stand them up, don't display them flat.

I've used fold up chairs from IKEA which are brilliant. They're cheap, easy to transport, take up very little space, and can be folded away if not needed. IKEA is also a great place to source pot plants. Not for every stand I know, but they're a great way to soften the look of some displays. Oh and while we're on the subject of chairs - don't use them unless you absolutely have to. I'll talk about this more in the next post, but for most small businesses, you don't need to seat visitors, or at least not for long. That's why fold up chairs can help.

If you're using tables, make sure you've got table cloths that reach the floor - it not only looks better, it gives you somewhere to stash the inevitable bits and pieces that you don't want 'on show'.

Stand Dressing
Once you've worked out the essential structure of your stand, i.e. what's going to go where and how it will be accommodated, it's time to think about how to make it look wonderful.

Now again, I have to reiterate, plan this well in advance and if you're doing it yourself for the first time, have a dummy run. If you need inspiration, have a walk round some big retail department stores or large garden centres. They are experts at window dressing and this is the art you have to master.

Have a critical look at their window displays. You'll see that in addition to the products, there will be props. Now props can be absolutely anything, and you'll need to think creatively here, but this will make all the difference. It doesn't have to cost the earth. Create background colour with crepe paper, use trails of ivy, scour your local junk shops.
Giant ants walk across this stand!

Fabric is very useful for stand dressing, especially if you want to add depth. One small tip; if you want to display items on shelves at various heights, put different sized cardboard boxes on the shelf, then cover it with a large piece of fabric - voilĂ , instant variable height display.

Stock up with sticky tape, glue, sticky pads, blue tack, a glue gun (for the more adventurous), velcro and any other tools of the trade. You'll need lots to put things just where you want them - take them with you because you won't want to be popping out once you get started. If you want to hang things, try fishing line - it's very strong and practically invisible. Oh and a staple gun and scissors are pretty useful to have too!

Seeing the light.
Lighting is important, so plan out what you'll need and make sure you order them from the organisers - lights aren't something you can normally take in yourself. Dull stands don't make a good impression, so go for more rather than less lighting.

Hiding the mess and keeping everything secure.
However well you prepare, you'll have some things you'll need on the stand that you don't want to display e.g. your handbag or briefcase. Sometimes clients will cheekily ask to leave theirs with you too, so try and have a space where you can hide a few things. With small stands, it's better not to leave valuables on the stand - certainly not overnight - keep them with you.

When you've built your masterpiece, take photos. You'll be glad you did.

In the next post, 'All Present And Correct', I'll talk about the things to do and not to do while you're at the show. It's all about being professional and approachable.
See Part Five - 'Tell Them You're There' for ideas for getting people to see you
Part Six - Home & Dry evaluation & follow-up

Monday, 24 January 2011

How To Exhibit Successfully At Trade Shows - Part Two

Getting Started...

Once you've decided that it makes good business sense to participate in a trade show, it's time to get started on the planning. (If you're not sure whether to exhibit or not, please read Part One for a couple of helpful tips).

Booking Space...Location, Location, Location.
Of course the amount of space you book will depend on the size of your business and your available budget, but the size is often less important than the position. Position is very important because if your stand is on a high traffic aisle, you'll see far more people than if you're tucked away at the back of a hall. Of course for many exhibitions, you'll pay extra for the best positions, so the trick is to find the best you can afford.

Always get a copy of the hall layout with the stands clearly marked. A chat with the organisers should help you find out who else of note is exhibiting and where. Be careful if the hall has 'obstacles' - things like large pillars or steps - stands next to these are more difficult to work. Don't let the organisers fob you off with a stand that's not suitable. If at all possible, refuse to book until or unless you can get good space - you'd be amazed how often they can suddenly come up with something better if you make a little bit of fuss.

It's worth thinking about which direction most people will be walking - visitors tend to walk up and down the middle aisles first - it helps when you decide how to lay out your stand. Deep stands are not as useful as wide ones, because visitors are reluctant to walk on to a stand they don't know, whereas they're more likely to stand and look at a wide/shallow stand.

If you can, get a space near to big industry companies, it can help to bring important traffic past you without you having to try so hard. Although if you're worried about competitors seeing or hearing things you'd rather they didn't, be careful when you book.

Oh and another tip, is to check that the stands on either side of you aren't extra tall - it's not nice having the Berlin Wall casting a shadow over your space.

If you know any other companies who've been to the exhibition before, it's worth having a chat with them to get any feedback about layout that could help you make the best choice.

Stand Builders (for bigger space only stands)
If you're building a large stand (having booked space only), you'll need to use a contractor. There are numerous companies around the country to choose from. It is absolutely vital to choose a contractor that you're happy with, because you're going to get to know them very well and rely on them to keep you sane, so be ultra careful with your selection process.

Start by writing a brief of what you want to achieve with the stand. Give this lots of thought, make it your starting blueprint, because however good the stand designers and builders are, they'll only be able to help you achieve your objectives if you tell them up front what they are. All stand designers can come up with gorgeous looking stands, but what you need is one that works for you - so hold on to that thought when you brief them.

Put your stand build budget in the brief. It's a waste of everyone's time if you don't.

Think about how much product you have to display and how you want to show it. If you're having real product on your stand, make sure your contractors know what it looks like and whether it has special needs e.g. extra strong shelving.

Think about whether you need a private area, so it can be built in to the design.

Think about how you'll interact with visitors, will you want to seat them? (Just beware that it's always the people you want to spend least time with who insist on taking up residence on your stand given a comfy chair and a glass of wine). 

If you can, try and give an idea of the personality you want to communicate through the stand, this will help designers coming up with something ultra modern if your image is more retro (or the opposite).

It's this type of fine detail thinking at this early stage that will help you get the most from the pitching process.

Once you've put your brief together, call a few companies and make a short list of the ones you want to pitch to you - don't let anyone charge you for this stage.

By the way, always make some early contact by phone -if any of them have less than helpful receptionists, or if you call at five minutes to five in the afternoon and they're not there, or if they don't return a call within the same day, strike them off your pitch list. Exhibiting can be stressful and a good builder will help you avoid last minute problems and deal calmly with the ones that do come up - and there's nearly always at least one - you'll always want someone to talk to when spinning plates start wobbling so make sure there's always someone dedicated to your project on the end of a phone.

When you're close to deciding on a contractor, ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS go and visit their premises and see some current work in progress. You get a much better feel for the people and the care they'll take, if you go to see them on home territory. Always ask for contacts at other companies they've done recent work for and follow them up too.

DIY Stands
Most of us micro-business people aren't in to the mega stand territory with stand builders and project managers, instead we go to trade shows under our own steam.

If you're in the same boat, take heart, some of the best and certainly some of the most cost effective exhibition stands I've ever seen have been in shell spaces of 2 x 4 s.m. So how do you do it? I'm going to devote a whole post to the topic of stand design on a small budget, but rest assured, it really is possible to do a very good job without re-mortaging.

Doing The Paperwork
There's no getting around it, exhibitions happen on given dates, so there's no room for error, it's no good having everything ready two days after the trade show ended, so right from the start, determine to be organised and keep on top of the admin.

Years ago, once you'd booked, the organisers would send you a tome only slightly smaller than War and Peace, which was the Event Manual. It was a Bible of key dates and essential admin forms. Today much is done online, but it's a very sensible manager who takes the time at the beginning to go through the manual in whatever format and list out in a diary what has to be done by when. These actions and their deadlines are rarely negotiable, so it's worth getting your mind around this straight away.

My way of doing this is to start at the end and work my way backwards thinking about how long everything takes to do and what can't start until something else has been completed. I then put notes in my diary, so I get a reminder if I've been sidetracked.

If all this is going to send you over the top, if you know you're just not going to be able to manage it all and keep on top of the day job at the same time, then get help sooner rather than later. Try and find someone either within your business or contracted in to manage the show for you.

Once the space is booked, a contractor is on the way and you've started the planning, you're on your way, and like pregnancy, there's no going back, so it's time to move into the nitty-gritty. See Part Three - 'Creating A Brilliant Exhibition Stand' for tips about how to create a wonderful stand.

Part Four - All Present And Correct - what to do and what not to do at the show.
Part Five - Tell Them You're There
Part Six - Home & Dry - evaluation & follow-up

Friday, 21 January 2011

How To Exhibit Successfully At Trade Shows - Part One

To Exhibit Or Not To Exhibit, That Is The Question...

Trade exhibitions (sometimes called fairs, expo's or shows) are a feature of most industries. You'll know which one(s) relate to your line of business. They're the events when suppliers spend loads of money showing off their products or services to the people who are, or who they hope will become, their customers. Sometimes they're fairly small events staged in venues such as hotels, race courses or small exhibition halls, others, the real monster events, use enormous venues such as the NEC, Birmingham or similar sized purpose built exhibition arenas throughout the world.

A client trade stand at GLEE 2006
If you've reached the stage where you're considering taking space to exhibit your products or services at a trade show, there are a few important questions it's worth asking yourself before you part with any money or sign on any dotted lines.

Question 1: What do I want to achieve by exhibiting at the show?
Now that might sound pretty banal, but you'd be amazed how much money gets spent without anyone having a good answer to this question. In some industries where there are long established shows, they become something of a fixture, an annual event that everyone just 'does'. It's a bit like the old idea of doing 'the season', you're expected to be there to see and be seen.

But one thing is for sure, exhibiting doesn't come cheap, so before you commit to anything, it's vitally important to be clear about why you're going and above all, what it is that you want to achieve as a result. Now call me old fashioned, but I like to be able to measure the effectiveness of spending corporate money (I'm not so finicky when it comes to my personal spending, as my DH will tell you), but in business, it's not a good idea to wave goodbye to hard won income without knowing what you expect to get in return.

So for a few moments forget the glamour, the glitz and the smooth talking sales rep from the exhibition organiser, and think calmly about your objectives. Common answers I hear are 'to be seen by potential customers and competitors so they'll think we're important', 'to make new contacts', 'to sell xy and z' and often 'because if we're not there, people will wonder why not, and assume there's something wrong with our business'.

There can be value in all these objectives, but hold on to your biro a bit longer. The thing is, how will you decide after the event if it has been a success - how well has your objective been achieved? To do this, you need to make your objectives quantifiable, in short, convert your objectives into measurable targets.

So, for example, if you want to be seen by potential customers, how many do you want to see you? The organisers will beguile you with the numbers of hot buyers they promise will be hungrily prowling the halls looking for you. But let's return to the real world and accept that of the total visitor numbers, only a small percentage are actually going to come to you, talk to you and give you their contact details - so decide right now, how many contact details do you want to get in order to know it's been a successful exhibition.

If your objective is to sell a product, then how many do you need to sell to feel that it's been a success?

If your objective isn't quantifiable, for instance 'to look important', have another VERY hard think about whether you should be there. I'd always caution against exhibiting unless you can attach some measurable targets.

Question 2: How much is it going to cost?
It's easy to underestimate the total cost of exhibiting. It's not just the space you'll be paying for, in addition you should be prepared to budget for; stand dressing, fittings & props, pre, during and post event marketing, hotel rooms, subsistence and travel for people working on your stand, and additional personnel if required. If you're taking a salesforce off the road to man the exhibition, you should also consider what sales will be lost from their normal schedule during the exhibition period.

If you're having a stand built for you, then you'll need to have a very clear idea of your budget for the build and storage too.

Once you have a ballpark idea of the cost, you can look at your quantifiable objectives and decide if it still stacks up. If you can expect to generate 100 new leads, and the cost is going to be £5,000, then you can see that each contact has cost you £50. You'll know what proportion of leads will turn into billable business and what profit you can expect, so you're then in a good position to say if it's worth exhibiting. Of course you will also have some unmeasurable benefits, but I really do urge you to be clinical about your estimates at this stage, Ask yourself if it was your money (and for those of us running small companies, it is!), would you still do it.

Don't lose sight of the fact that there are other ways to achieve the same objective - they may be cheaper, so don't get too attached to the trade show idea until you can firmly put your hand on your heart and say it's worth the effort and the cost.

If you've made the decision to go ahead and exhibit, my next post 'Trade Exhibitions, Getting Started' will have tips for keeping you sane in the preparation period. 

Part Three, Creating A Brilliant Exhibition Stand, is for people doing it themselves on a small budget.

Part Four, All Present And Correct - what to do and what not to do at the show.
Part Five, Tell Them You're There - publicising your stand
Part Six - Home & Dry - evaluate and follow-up

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Still Getting Into The Swing...

Well it's really taking me some time to get back into the swing of things again - is it me or is this year starting off a bit sluggishly? Anyway, the planning meeting with number one client is now happening tomorrow, so after that I should have a good idea about the amount and nature of the work they'll need in the next couple of months.

I've worked in a couple of industries where the post-Christmas period was chaotic because of trade exhibitions happening in January and February. I used to put together seasonal products for exhibition at the International Spring Fair at the NEC in early February, which meant coming up with Christmas designs in early January. It did odd things to your brain. Sometimes I'd wake up and not be able to remember if we'd had the real Christmas or not yet.

My current clients tend to be busier in spring and early summer, so it's less of a madhouse at the moment, but I know that come March the pace of things will step up.

I have a soft spot for trade exhibitions. I know a lot of people really don't like them, and it's true they do put a lot of additional strain on sales and marketing departments, but when they're done for the right reasons and well organised, they are an excellent way to meet new customers and strengthen relationships with existing clients.

In the next couple of weeks I'm going to post some tips and tricks for organising successful and enjoyable trade stands. If you've got any additional tips to add, please let me know or if you're trying to get your stand organised at the moment, maybe there will be some ideas to help you get more from the event - or at least survive it with a smile on your face.

Come by again soon.

Meanwhile, I'm off to sharpen my pencil...

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Back into the fray.

Hello World, Happy New Year.

What a lovely Christmas and New Year period I've been having! I think it all started with the early heavy snow which flung us into seasonal celebrations much sooner than we'd have managed otherwise. For some reason having snow on the ground concentrated our efforts to have a 'proper Christmas'. So it has been a time of rest, play, warmth and friendship.

We were so lucky to have an extended holiday period, it made me think of the medieval twelve days of Christmas, where normal life was suspended whilst festivities were played out. I think it's a tradition we should reintroduce. There's so much to do in the weeks leading up to Christmas and Christmas Day itself can be fraught with stress, so it makes sense to me to have a period of rest and relaxation after Christmas when you have the chance to simply have fun.

This year I've come pretty close to having that type of extended holiday and I can thoroughly recommend it. It's a great way to recharge your batteries. People these days feel so pressured into having to work and be seen to be working, that the need to rest is practically regarded as a professional weakness. It shouldn't be. We'd all be much happier if we achieved a balance in our lives, where we gave our mental health the same priority as our physical well-being.

So it's time now to start cranking up again and getting back into the swing of things and at least this year I feel ready for the fray. I hope you had a good Christmas and that 2011 is a wonderful year for you.