Tony Compton, Managing Partner
For those of you leading your company’s trade show and exhibit hall efforts, you can count on me for experienced event perspectives and an understanding ear. I’ve been involved in shows both big and small, from every angle, and I know the challenges you’re facing as you gear up for your next event. Every event, conference, and trade show requires significant planning, execution, and measurement. Here’s a short list of front-line, personal lessons learned from my industry experience. For seasoned pros, I’m sure you’ll smile at some of the items on the list. Please share this list with others. For event rookies, watch out, and don’t step into any of these situations!
You know it’s coming. That must-do industry event is on the horizon, but you’re waiting to decide to exhibit or sponsor. And even though you expect to get the green light go-ahead soon, it may already be too late. That’s because when you’re ready to sign-up, the exhibit hall and event sponsorships may be sold out. Even if there’s room, you may get stuck with a bad booth location and lackluster sponsorship opportunities. It’s understandable that an occasional last-minute decision has to be made, but chronic decision delays are costly. The longer you wait, the more you’ll pay for everything from expedited show services, equipment rentals, and staff travel. Procrastination is a budget-buster, and results in a fire-drill scramble before an event.
2. Believing You Automatically Must Sponsor or Exhibit at a Particular Show
You may recall overhearing: “We have to do this show. Everybody will be there!”
I understand the argument, and the emotion behind it, but it’s not the way to make a sales and marketing business decision to participate in an event. Once you decide to exhibit or sponsor, you’re on the hook for a substantial investment. If you can’t show positive returns from a show, that’s tough to explain back in the office. Consider sending a rep to scout a new event, asking a partner company for its perspective, and scrutinizing the results from similar or prior events. Don’t worry, just because you choose not to exhibit at a particular show, your customers won’t automatically think you’ve gone out of business. And you may get the same results (or better) if you simply send people to attend or visit the event city and schedule meetings with your customers and prospects while they’re in town.
3. Expecting Miracles
You’ve made the decision to exhibit at your industry’s next event. Great! Now what? Just because you have a kiosk, tabletop, stand, or booth doesn’t mean attendees are going to come running to your door. Many won’t. You could just show up and take your chances, or you can take an active role in the event by sizing up available speaking spots, sponsorships, on-site meetings, and guerrilla marketing opportunities. When investment in an event stalls with just filling rented booth space, the likely result will be slow foot traffic, wasted resources, meager returns, finger-pointing, and disappointment. Don’t just exhibit, get involved with your event.
4. Forgetting Your Primary Show Audience
In the rush of getting through the routine process of a show, it’s easy to overlook those who can play a vital part in your event success. Ask event producers for a show’s pre-registration list, and be sure that you’re talking with your partners, customers, prospects, the media, and analysts ahead of time. Extend registration discounts and free passes when available, especially to those local to a show. Get your social media game plan together. Many don’t understand the power and full potential of real-time, on-site engagements with core audiences across social channels. Tweet continual updates from an event, and always include your primary show audience. Others will pick up on your activity, and messages will replicate. Knowing who will be attending a show, and working with them in advance and on-site is very cost-effective and will yield superior results.
5. No Logistics, No Communication
Whether you have two or 20 staff members attending your next trade show, it’s a grown-up version of a class field trip. Your colleagues require registrations, directions, timetables, air travel, ground transportation, hotel accommodations, company attire, booth assignments, instructions, schedules, and a to-do list before, during, and after an event. They may also need a supervisor’s permission to attend. Without all of the above, your staff will be lost. Lay out a plan well ahead of the event, and coordinate activities and schedules. Update the relevant sections of your website, and continuously interact with your team leading up to an event. Enforce all of the plans you put in place.
6. (Too Much) DIY
With a tabletop exhibit or a 10 x 10 booth, many enjoy the benefits of a Do-it-Yourself approach to a display. Flight cases double as checked luggage, supporting materials can be packed and shipped from the office, and exhibit set up can be easy. At least that’s the idea. But it’s a general misconception that exhibiting is truly that easy, and that show activities will always go according to plan. The DIY approach can work for smaller exhibits, but the event to-do list is still extensive: on-site booth set-up, round-trip shipping of components, rental, install and dismantling of components such as technical hardware, monitors, and furniture, and renting and returning lead retrieval devices are just some of the items on the checklist. Lots of room for error in that list.
The DIY approach can also have unintended consequences. For example, sales people, consultants, and executives are terrific when they help event staff with show logistics. Some even help with booth set-up and take down. But while hearts are in the right place, the material which travels from show to show frequently suffers. In a rush to catch the last flight after a show ends, booth materials and equipment can get left behind, lost, thrown together, improperly packed, and sustain damage in transit. Missing return shipments may also have to be hunted down. Any extra time spent on problems stemming from a DIY approach is consuming and very costly. Consider how internal staff should really be spending their time, and consult an event services provider to handle your booth design, creation, construction, transportation and logistics. It’ll free up staff to concentrate on core competencies.
7. Crowding Booth Space
Somewhere hidden in your booth is a magnet. It invisibly draws your coworkers and their belongings at inopportune times. During booth construction, staff feel compelled to drop by, say hello, and see the under-construction booth. On getaway day, your booth doubles as luggage storage and a hangout before the airport run. Ask any booth manager about their pet peeves, and these two issues will likely enter the conversation.
Manage your exhibit space. 100 square feet is tight. 2500 square feet may be roomier than some big city apartments, but you still have to design a functional, working environment for your booth. On paper, even 200 square feet may look big, but every inch of space is at a premium. Don’t clutter space with unnecessary signage, oversized furniture, empty boxes, and disproportionately large monitors. Don’t allow staff to loiter. Unless they’re working on setup or dismantling the booth, the rule is simple.
If you’re not scheduled to be in the booth, don’t be in the booth. And don’t leave your stuff behind for somebody else to watch it.
The list of employees attending an event is becoming a mile long. You’re told that everybody has a solid business reason to attend, and the more from the company, the merrier. Be skeptical. The registrations, paperwork, housekeeping, travel, and logistics behind overstaffing can quickly become a headache, and the overblown expenses will likely be tagged against the event budget. Reread Number 7. Send only those who are truly needed to an event, and don’t be shy in asking colleagues to roll up their sleeves and go to work while on-site.
Anybody who has performed extended solo booth duty will tell you that’s it no way to go. Sure, somebody may go it alone to wrap up an exhibit at the tail end of a show, but even a small display reasonably needs at least two people at all times. Of course having adequate staff to interact with attendees matters, but my greater concern is security. Think about what you may have in your exhibit: monitors, laptops, briefcases, purses, collateral, giveaways, and a gift card to two. You should also have captured audience data, business cards, leads, and follow-up notations. A lone booth staffer will inevitably need a bathroom break, get something to eat, or jump on a call. Distractions will occur. Business cards can get stolen, and leaving a purse under a draped table is a terrible idea. Hotel and convention entrances are hardly secure, thieves lurk, and once something goes missing, it’s too late. Trust me on this one.
10. Passive and Poor Communicators
A company exhibits and sends personnel to a show to engage the audience, not to sit on conference calls in the booth, play on iPhones, people watch or get caught up in drawn-out conversations with unqualified attendees. Coach booth staffers in techniques to initiate and guide meaningful business conversations. Be sure everybody stays on message, and uses appropriate body language skills to create a comfortable and welcoming environment.
I mainly think about tabletop exhibits and 10 x 10s when this topic comes to mind. When you have a tabletop or a 100 square foot booth, so will many of your show neighbors. Why look like everybody else? Your checklist undoubtedly is similar: a table or counter, possibly draped, backdrop, monitor, a pop-up banner or two… but there are numerous ways to be creative in order to stand out, even if you’re fourth in a cell block row of 20 booths. Examine your messaging and graphics to start, but review your lighting, booth fabrics, material design, and display architecture. There’s no rule stating that you have to display a boxy counter and an unlit square backdrop. So don’t.
12. Overprinting and Dumping Collateral
There’s a security blanket in having an abundance of collateral in a booth. It looks good to have a literature rack brimming with content, and it feels even better to hand over a four-pager when asked “Do you have a brochure…?” Problem is that most of that collateral ends up in the garbage can. Think about it. When you’re packing for the airport and have a stuffed suitcase and a jammed briefcase, what’s the first thing to end up in the trash? My recommendation is to only have a small amount of printed material on hand. The shelf-life expires quickly on that stuff. Make it part of your post-show follow-up plan to email attendees, and link back to downloadable content. You’ll save on printing, and can add customized messaging to your post-show follow-up.
13. Catering to Exhibit Hall Scavengers
This is a nod to all those free exhibit hall pass/trade show goers who comb through booths looking for anything and everything free. Their big plastic bags are wide open, and it seems as if those bags never close. Not only do these event wanderers want whatever exhibitors have to giveaway, but they’re not shy about asking for more than one. If you’re not watching, you may see one hand holding open a bag while another sweeps across your counter, dumping displayed freebies into a to-go sack. Treat all guests with respect, but keep in mind giveaways cost money. I’ve yet to see an exhibit hall scavenger turn into a lead or business opportunity.
14. Forgetting Competitive Intelligence and Reconnaissance
There’s a wealth of information to be gathered at all industry events, and you and your team won’t get it by hanging out in your booth. Attend sessions, visit partner exhibits, sit in on demos, introduce yourself to attendees at a lunch table, and pick up on themes, problems, and actionable intelligence. Note who is attending certain sessions, their companies, job titles, and any questions asked during sessions and workshops.
If your colleague or partner is giving a talk, sending support staff to that session is mandatory. Gather intel, and be prepared to report back during the event debrief. Surveying booth visitors is also another excellent way of gathering information. (Remember, you’re competitors are also spying on you at events!)
15. Measuring Nothing
The marketing team is seated around the conference table. The conference room door closes. An executive asks: “What did we get for the six figures we spent on last month’s trade show?”
You better have an answer. Measuring raw event contacts, qualified and accepted leads, the size and number of revenue opportunities, and protected and net-new customer counts is a great place to start. Have your spend, pipeline analysis, and your quantitative and qualitative reports ready. It’s a five minute answer, not an hour-long response. But it’s a full five minutes.
Bonus Lesson Learned: Breathing Easy
The event is over. Boxes and crates are labeled, ready to be shipped, your bags are packed, and you’re headed home. As you watch another Broadway promo on the monitor in the back of a NYC taxi, you take a deep breath, relax, and think about getting to the airport and flying home. The weekend may be approaching, the next event is looming and your mental notes from the last three days start to fade.
Forget about how nice it would be to see The Lion King and remember that you have to properly follow-up and close out the event. Now is not the time to relax. The real sales and marketing work of making an event pay off is now only just beginning.
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