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.
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