BIZTIPS - June 22, 2008

by Art Hill

Biz Tips: Make the Most of Trade Show Set-Up

June 22, 2008

A couple of weeks ago we looked at trade shows as a proven route to market for a wide variety of businesses.  Centuries of experience with millions of customers leave little doubt about the effectiveness of trade shows for reaching sales targets.

But that success isn’t automatic. Trade shows work best if they’re one element of your overall marketing strategy.  They are not a “hail mary pass” to save the game if you’re not already playing well.  Plan them carefully.  Know the profile of attendees, know all the costs, and arrive prepared.

After years of booth duty, veterans will tell you that unexpected things will happen before and during shows.  At a recent Portland show, a neighboring exhibitor’s lights kept slipping on their hanger bar.  Despite his frequent adjustments, they lighted the aisle more often than his products. 

So let’s say you’ve picked the show, talked with previous exhibitors, prepared your booth, products, and staff, and made travel arrangements.  Let’s look at the “pinch points” where what you do and how you do it will make the most difference.

The first pinch point is setup.  This step is pretty tightly managed by most show organizers.  Pay attention to specific unloading areas assigned to exhibitors who need a truck-height loading dock and those unloading at floor level from minivans or rental trailers.  It’s not fun to negotiate city traffic after a long day of driving, then show up at the wrong door or wing of the exhibit hall.  Worse, you could get caught in traffic packing out from a previous show.

Every show has regulations about whether you’re required to have contract labor unload booth sections, props, and products.  In most cases, items that require more than a hand truck will need a forklift and contract labor.  Even if you didn’t contract for it in advance, show management usually has cell phone numbers and an “office” on the floor to get you the help you need.

Bring your own kit of hand tools, glue, tape, clamps, and other light hardware to use during setup and throughout the show.  Imagine the worst and bring what you need to patch it up for the show.  If the laptop that drives the flat-panel TV goes down, do you have another?  If a display stand arrives with a snapped leg, do you have duct tape and a can of spray paint?  There are hardware stores in every convention city, but the distance from the booth to a hardware store could be two hours by the time you get the truck, fight the traffic…you get the picture.

Let’s say you’ve managed to get the booth up and everything working.  Unless you had a different crew do the setup, you are your staff are probably exhausted.  Take some photos for the record, check on the time exhibitors are allowed into the hall next morning, and take off.  This is the second pinch-point – time spent “off the floor.”

Shows are grueling, on-your-feet, 9-hour “boom or bust” marathons.  When you’re not answering questions or closing deals, you’re greeting passer-by’s or re-arranging displays.  Use every minute of your time off booth duty to relax.  But remember that whether you’re in a convention center coffee shop or downtown restaurant, you and every one of your staff still represent your company.  You may be wearing shirts with your company logo, a badge with your company name, or simply talking about company business.  What you say and do off the floor are as important as what you say and do in the booth.

I wish I had a dollar for every time I overheard a negative comment about customers or a slam on company management in trade show coffee shops and restaurants.  Doesn’t it occur to folks that what they say as a company representative off the floor can undo every smile and greeting at the booth?  Want to throw away your whole show investment?  Say dumb things about your best customer at the hotel bar.  I guarantee they’re sitting at the next table.

Next time we’ll cover the final pinch-point: booth behavior.  Unlike a boardroom presentation or a sales call, you get only a few seconds to attract a booth visitor and only a few minutes to cue up a sale.  What you do in those seconds and minutes will make the show either profitable or an expensive “learning experience.”


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