Running a stand at a trade show or exhibition is hard work and often exhausting. But all over the world, this is how commerce has to be conducted by many business sectors, so do make the best of it! Jeremy Thorn has managed exhibition-stands all over the world and offers some helpful tips.

There are probably not many people who actually ‘enjoy’ running an exhibition stand, at least not after the first half-day or so! Whether your event is a large, professionally-organised show, or just a local table-top exhibition at a village gala, you need to stay bright and alert for long hours. It is also usually thought to be quite helpful if you can be reasonably pleasant to everyone you meet for the whole duration – and when you get back to the office, there will be all that painstaking follow-up to do. (Well, there should be, anyway. See Tip 10.)

Assuming you have done all your preparation and advance planning, here are some ideas to help make your investment in trade shows and exhibitions more productive, more profitable, and even more rewarding.

1. Never go alone!

You will probably already know very well that running a stand is a full-time job while an exhibition is on, and it should never be left unattended. Every 5 minutes that your stand is unattended, your investment in the event will not be making you money. But you must get some breaks in, over what will probably be a long day or more.

So even if you are a sole-trader, take a partner with you, a family member, a pal or even a student from the local college looking for some work experience. (I especially recommend foreign-language students and people who can actually speak a few foreign languages, particularly if you don’t.) But check them out first for their ability to engage warmly with strangers, and make sure they read this article first and know your product range!

2. Dress appropriately

Exhibition venues can vary all the way from being perishingly cold to far too hot (especially when the venue is busy and brightly lit — as you hope it will be); they can even suffer leaks not to mention rain and wind if outside! So dress comfortably, in the vernacular of your trade by all means but, may I suggest, at least ‘one notch up’ from the majority of your likely visitors? A fabulous product display can so easily be ruined by scruffy stand-staff.

3. Get there in good time

This may seem obvious, not just in terms of getting a good parking space, setting up properly without panic, and ensuring packing materials, cables and any personal items are all out of sight before your event opens.

But if you are wise, you will also want to find out where the loos are and where you can get refreshments, and check your pitch is to your liking and properly signed and supplied. Then, be sure to make friends with the organisers, check-out who else is exhibiting, and maybe catch-up with old friends briefly who are also exhibiting (you may not have time later), if only out of courtesy.

4. Check your checklist

What checklist? The one you have carefully prepared in advance for all such events! This should include a record-book or enquiry-sheets of whom you are going to meet, their contact details, their interest in your wares and action to follow; maybe invoices if you are selling goods from your stand; notepads, pens, sticky tape, cabling and power-point adapters; possibly a fist-aid kit for minor emergencies?; product literature, point-of-sale material and price lists; a vast stack of visiting cards – and anything else you might need.

It will be far too late to start looking for these once the event has opened and you get busy.

5. Stand display

You will have your own ideas about what works best for you and what doesn’t. You can also learn much from other exhibitors, good and bad.

But here are some thoughts that you may think apply universally as the minimum of good professional practice:

– NO clutter! (That includes NO half-drunk cups of coffee, a newspaper or half-eaten sandwich left on display! Or bored support-staff with nothing to do — send them round the exhibition to report back to you with highlights, or to stand at the entrance with an engaging leaflet and direct interested visitors to your stand!)

– *focus* — on what you specialise in and what you offer.(This also means in passing, no other distractions for you or anyone of your team, such as an amusing conversation with a colleague, neighbour or fanciable next-door exhibitor, the Times crossword or a great book!)

– not too much on display — it can all become ‘meaningless noise’ if you aren’t careful;

– not too little either — it may look as if you aren’t really in business for real;

– eye-friendly and exceptionally well lit displays — don’t forget, you are after your visitors’ ‘eye-share’ first!;

– something to taste, smell, listen to, watch or feel?

You need to appeal to all your visitors’ senses, as relevantly as you can;

– well-labelled displays — don’t let visitors guess what your business is all about;

– themed product displays, grouped intelligently so they might relate to each other — not just a mish-mash of odd assortments thrown together;

– something for good prospects and general enquirers to take away to remember you by?

6. Make friends with your neighbours.

They are going to be as busy as you are — but they may be your very best accomplices. This is not entirely a selfless act of friendship. You may well have a spare power cable to lend or a spare bit of adhesive tape, and so may they! See 3 above.

But let them know also about what you do and find out what their business is. You will want other non-competing exhibitors to refer visitors to your stand when appropriate, just as you will want to refer others to theirs.

7. Don’t pounce!

Some visitors will know exactly what they are looking for, and if you don’t frighten them away, they will tell you in their own good time. Many more may not know what they were looking for, at least, not until you have told them what you have to offer! But even so, please don’t pounce on them?

Perhaps the worst thing you can do, as any shop-keeper ought to know (but often doesn’t!), is to ask: “Can I help you?” The simple answer for many passers-by is to say “No” and to go away. You can do so much better than that!

Unless you and your trusty colleagues are all very busy, far more helpful to bring passing visitors in to your stand may be:

– first, just engage in eye-contact with all you can and smile;

– then, for those who return your eye-contact, ask something general and neutral such as: “What’s the weather like out there?”; “Have you come far?”; “That’s a fabulous scarf/tie/shirt you are wearing!“; or even “How are you?” or “What do you make of the exhibition so far?”. Remember, most people prefer to buy from people they like, and will run a mile from those they don’t, so the first task may well be only a gentle relationship-building exercise;

– after that, try a more specific question (but NOT “Can help you?”!), such as: “What drew you to this event today?”; “Are you in search of anything in particular?”; “I saw you looking at XYZ — can I ask what caught your attention?”; “Have you seen ABC? — it is a DEF, what do you make of it?”.

– where you have a very clear product range, at this stage you can then (and must!) also ask: “Do you buy LMN?”; “Do tell me what interests you most about LMN?”; “Did you know we also supply OPQ?”; “Have you seen this…?”; and even: “Would you like me to tell you more about it?”.

8. Qualify your visitors

Some visitors may only be time-wasters, although you can never be too sure. You can’t know this until you engage with them and you most certainly can’t always judge by first appearances! Moreover, even if they may not be buying for themselves, they may still be buying for someone else. So however tired you are, however unengaged they may appear to be, let good manners and common courtesy always be your watchword.

But in the end, you need to focus your time on those who may be the most productive. The best way to do this is to ‘qualify’ them. You can do this by gentle but very direct questioning. In a business-to-business transaction, this can be much easier. Just ask: “Can I just note which company you represent?”; “Would you mind telling me your job title?“; “Can I ask what that involves?“; “Does your organisation use our type of products/services?”; “May I ask whom your organisation uses at the moment to supply these?”; “How does that all work for you at the moment?”; “Is there anything you know of that could be even better?” and then: “Could I have your card?”, “Is there anyone else you suggest I should contact in your organisation about this?”.

Selling to the general public is often much more difficult because ‘needs’ and ‘wants’ can be so much more ambiguous, but we may all still be consumers! So consider asking: “Have you ever bought GHI before?” “Could you see yourself ever buying XYZ? What would you be looking for if so?”; “Could you see anyone in your family circle wanting XYZ? — what would they be looking for?”.

As the secret of a successful show is to meet as many good prospects and clients as possible in the time available, however you might rate each visitor, you will need to develop an exit strategy for each one so you can move on politely to meet others as soon as it is appropriate. So consider grading your visitors into a) “Thank you for your interest; I do hope you enjoy the rest of your visit here” (Time waster? – goodbye); b) “Do take a leaflet/card/sample” (Weak prospect? — polite closure for the moment); c) “Let’s make a date to meet again to talk in more detail when things are less busy” (Good prospect? — agree a next action before they go, such as a future appointment or call); d) “Let’s go and have a cup of coffee/bite to eat so we won’t be disturbed by others” (Red hot prospect, not to be let go of, or near your competitors!) – which is another reason why you need at least two people on your stand.)

9. Keep a note

For most professional businesses, exhibitions and trade shows are far more about finding well-qualified prospects rather then necessarily finding buyers there and then. Your prime goal may then be to win repeat business – not just one-off sales. So capturing the details of those you meet, who show an interest of any sort, must be a prime goal to support your future marketing and promotion.

This requires real discipline when your stand is busy, and you can help yourself by designing a pro-forma enquiry sheet to record every live enquirer, even if you then do no more than say you will be back in touch. But do note what you have promised to do, before you turn to meet and greet your next visitor! (And if you are really busy, introduce your moderately warm prospects to your assistant, to take their details for you as you turn to your next visitors.)

10. Prepare for the follow-up…

After all the hard work of attending your trade show or exhibition, it is so tempting to pack up and go home, take a hot bath and rest your weary feet, and then deal with all the emails and post you have missed while you have been away!

But this is sheer folly. For most exhibitors, this is when the ‘real work’ starts, converting all those precious qualified leads into sales. So do prepare your standard follow-up contact-messages and literature in advance, set yourself a deadline to get these out — within the next week?, and do make time for all those invaluable, top-priority follow-up calls?

(Do you want a horror-story? — from a small company I know who invested a fortune in exhibiting overseas for the first-time. The team came back, exhausted but exhilarated, with several hundreds of valuable leads. But they were completely unprepared to deal with them. They had nothing to send their enquirers, even to keep the pot warm, and never followed-up most of them. What a waste!)

11. A little more!

It can often be a good idea to offering your serious stand-visitors ‘a little something’, if it is a) memorable, b) relevant and c) worth keeping, however small and inexpensive. So in that spirit, to thank you for reading this article, here is not just one ‘free’ extra tip for you – but two!

First, ALWAYS calculate the cost of your attendance at an exhibition or trade show, and keep a track on its pay-back for you. Don’t go ‘because you always go’, don’t go because you were told there was a spare place at the last minute — go because it was worth your investment!

Second, learn from others! Ask your existing customers what they liked and what they didn’t from the event they first ever saw you at, and ask why they bought from you that first time. Ask similar suppliers who will tell you, what works best for them? Also, ask your exhibition organiser for their thoughts too? Their interests will be in winning your business back again, so the least they can do is to tell you who attended and what their wider feedback was.

I wish you all good fortune!

And if you ever meet me at an Exhibition or Trade Show, please don’t ask me: “Can I help you?”, and do ask me: “What are you interested in?”!

Jeremy is the author of the tips booklet ‘115 Essential Tips on Pricing’ and a frequent public speaker and workshop presenter on business topics to a wide range of organisations internationally.

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