Picture this: you approach the trade show booth of a company you’ve never heard of. The design is amazing, the color combinations are fabulous and the collection is unique. You’re intrigued and can’t wait to learn about this newcomer. Just as you step onto their carpeting, you’re stopped dead in your tracks – a stack of half empty pizza boxes, a pile of napkins and sweating drink cups are occupying a table situated smack dab in the middle of the booth. What’s your first impression?
No, this is not a made-up scenario. This is an actual experience I had at a recent trade show.
Now, I’m sure someone out there is responding with, “Well, the staff needs to eat.” I agree. But, your booth is not the place for chowing down!
As a former corporate event manager and owner of an event management company I might be just a bit more critical than most attendees, but I can assure you the scene I encountered shouted, “Unprofessional!” to most everyone who visited that booth. And, it was enough to turn me away, without having learned about the company or its products.
As a result of my experience, and because I prefer to give the benefit of the doubt to those who might be new to exhibiting, I want to share my “rules of engagement” when exhibiting at trade shows, conferences and other events where you are competing for attendees’ valuable dollars.
You’ve made the decision to exhibit at your industry’s biggest trade event. If I asked you why you’ve chosen to participate, how would you answer? Most likely you’d respond with the most common reason: to write orders. What I would be listening for, however, is a longer list of reasons, reasons that include gaining exposure for your product line and company, meeting and wooing new buyers, networking with industry players and pitching members of the press. And, I would hope to hear you rattle off your event goals as succinctly as possible. What kinds of goals am I referring to? Well, let’s start with an easy one: sales goals. Have you solidified your financial goals, beyond just covering your exhibition costs? What dollar amount do you hope to reach while at the show? What about your goals around lead management? How many new customers do you hope to attract? How much do you hope to sell to each customer? How many partnerships do you intend to pursue? Lastly, how many members of the media do you plan to meet, and how many article mentions are you pursuing?
Prior to exhibiting, do you make sure to optimize your presence by contacting current and potential customers and incentivizing them to come to your booth and place an order? Do you offer “show specials” and extras available only to those who stop by and place orders during the run of the show? How about offering appointments to your best customers? Or, sending out samples of one of the products you’re most proud of prior to the show? Do you reach out to other manufacturers that you believe might be good partners for your company and set up times to meet at the event? Do you have a list of your competitors and their booth numbers so you can scope out what they’re up to? Have you considered cross-selling with a company whose products compliment yours and visa versa? How about reaching out to members of the media to entice them to come to your booth for an interview? These are all simple tactics that can be employed to drive traffic to your booth, a primary goal when exhibiting at any event. Buyers can place orders with you by phone or on your site – why should they stop by your booth and do so? What’s their incentive?
Your Brand on Display
O.K., you’ve solidified your show goals and are well on your way to ensuring your booth is all abuzz with new and existing customers, You’ve scheduled meetings with potential partners and the media is lining up to meet with you. Now what? It’s time to revisit branding – your brand.
Just as when merchandising a retail environment, it’s critical to apply serious thought to how you will stage your offering at the show. Consider the amount of merchandise you want to display, an attendee’s ability to easily peruse your collections, where you will have meetings with visitors, and the flow of traffic to and through your booth when the show floor becomes packed. Most importantly, consider your brand and how your booth can most effectively communicate who you are and what you have to offer. For example, if your company is one of several companies offering lines of paper, what sets you apart? Use your booth to highlight what differentiates your lines. Stand out!
Who Represents You?
When planning participation at an event, do you give serious consideration to the staffing of your booth, classroom, suite, etc.? You might be surprised at how many people worry only about filling these venues with warm bodies, with nary a thought given to how their brand will be represented by those warm bodies. Do you provide training so everyone in the booth is well versed on your product line and your value propositions? Do you create a briefing packet for the staff to make their travel easier and their duties clear? How about PR – who answers questions from the press? This last one is perhaps the most important and the least addressed. Members of the press are busy people. Enticing the press to your booth requires effort. When you get them there, you need to wow them if you expect them to include you in their articles. They need to get the answers they seek quickly and with enthusiasm on the part of your PR representative. It’s amazing to me how many companies simply don’t have a clue how to manage their PR efforts. And, how many don’t seem to know how much value there is in establishing and managing a PR program. If you are not focused on PR for your brand, you need to establish it as a top priority.
Staff Goals and Success Measurements
Everyone on your staff should be made aware of your event goals. Each person should also understand how their participation impacts your achievement of those goals. If your sales goals are $15,000 and you have five salespeople in the booth, are they each equally responsible for the whole team making the overall goal, or is each judged individually? People are motivated by many things, and demotivated if they feel their contribution has little or no value. It’s important to ensure success by being clear about expectations up front, before anyone gets on a plane. How will you measure success? Sales success is relatively easy to measure – either you make the numbers or you don’t. But, what if your goals are less tangible? How will you measure success or failure of those?
Know What Business You Are In
I recently attended a large, well-known event during which a trade show took place. Each afternoon the vendors providing products and services to the industry and its players would staff their booths and share their stories with potential customers. I stopped by one such booth and was conversing with the founder of the company about their offering, a service I was in the market for at that time. In the middle of our conversation, the founder stopped mid-sentence to hand out branded t-shirts to two passersby, remarking, “I don’t want to have to ship these back to our office. It would cost more to ship them than they’re worth. Want one?” I was dumbfounded! He stopped our conversation, a conversation with a “hot” prospect, to hand out t-shirts (t-shirts which he obviously considered worthless) to two people who had shown no interest in his offering? Needless to say, I said my goodbyes and moved on to another provider. Know why you’re there and make sure that’s the number-one priority for everyone representing you.
Everyone representing you should have strong product and company knowledge. Everyone should know the prices of what you offer, or at least know where to find the information. Answers should NEVER be made up. Staff should be taught that it’s ok to respond with “I don’t know,” when asked a question they can’t answer, as long as it’s followed by “But, I’ll find out for you.” Assign at least one person (preferably two who alternate availability) to handle press inquiries – this person should be extremely knowledgeable about your company and its products/services and be intimately familiar with your overall PR goals. Lastly, industry terminology is key to speaking the language of your customers and prospects, and perhaps even the press. But, remember that you’re not there to prove you’re smarter than they are. Spewing acronym after acronym does not portray an image of caring about your audience, educating them in a respectful manner does. It can add to your credibility and endear a newcomer to you and your brand..
Whatever you do, be sure to honor the commitments you make. If you schedule a meeting with someone, be there AND arrive on time. If you commit to providing a sample, provide it by the time you committed to. If you commit to a delivery date on an order, honor it. If you promise to follow up, then do so by the time promised. If you can’t keep any of these commitments, communicate…early! You’d be surprised at how forgiving people are if you simply communicate with them. That said, do keep your commitments.
It’s important to have enough staff that you can handle all inquiries in a timely manner, but not so many staffers that visitors feel overwhelmed or like there’s no place for them in your space. Be sure to schedule staff so there are always enough people to answer questions, take orders, etc. The worst thing you can tell a visitor is “I’m sorry, the person/people who know/can help you are not here. Can you come back later?” It is unlikely visitors will return when it’s convenient for you. If the visitor must speak with a specific person and that person is unavailable, at least offer to contact that person for the visitor and to arrange a time for them to speak.
All staff should be appropriately attired. This could mean everyone in a suit or in matching shirts and pants, or everyone in crazy wigs and circus pants. The choice really depends on the image you want to portray, the story you are telling and how easily you want visitors to be able to identify your staff. Don’t make it hard for visitors to locate the people who are there to assist them.
Gum chewing, eating, drinking, talking on the phone or texting are all O-U-T, OUT! Enough said.
Perfume, no matter how expensive, can be a real turn-off to those who are sensitive – it’s better left for after-hours use.
Alcohol has no place in a booth, and alcoholic consumption should be reserved for off hours.
And please, no foul language or gossiping in or around the booth. I have dealt with unprofessional and arrogant union labor too, but visitors don’t need to know what a (insert expletive here) the electrician was! Remember that these rules apply not just to the show floor, but to any location at which anyone attending the event might hang out. You would be amazed at the things I have overheard at events (especially in ladies rooms)!
Every visitor should be approached within 15 seconds of crossing an entry point into your space. Staff should be smiling and approachable and ask not IF they can assist, but HOW. Open-ended questions garner many more positive responses and often lead to interesting conversations or discoveries. If a visitor expresses that they are “just looking,” invite them to browse and offer your assistance should they need it, then give them space.
First and foremost, your booth should tell your story. What’s special about your brand – why do I want to invest valuable time in visiting your booth and hearing your schpiel? As a visitor, I should know what you’re all about before I ever step foot in your space, AND I should be motivated to visit without a circus-style “step right in” pitch. Your booth should be large enough to easily encompass your products without a visitor feeling overwhelmed – too much stuff in a small space can make it difficult for visitors to appreciate all that’s offered. Booths or displays should be set up well in advance of visitors seeing them. This means no boxes on the floor, no signs left to hang, etc. once the event opens. Signage should be at eye-level, not on tablecloths where branding will be obscured the minute someone stands in front of the table. Your brand and company name should be on every sign so that it’s always top-of-mind and included in any photos taken by your visitors – if a customer asks “What booth am I in again?,” you are not making a strong enough impression. Focus on displaying things vertically, and at a slant if possible, and not too low to the ground. Be sure traffic can easily flow through your booth, unless you want people to mill in certain areas. And please, for everyone’s sake, no loud or obnoxious music. We get enough of that in today’s restaurant and retail environments and it can have a negative affect on traffic.
Press kits (incl. biz cards and images, as well as product samples) should be placed in the press room early and stock should be replenished throughout the event. It’s wise to also leave a place for media to leave their business cards – collect them at the end of the show and be sure to follow up to make sure they have all the information they need in order to include your company in future stories. You should also have a small stash of press kits at the booth for press who prefer picking up materials directly. If your company produces catalogs and/or brochures, be sure you have more than enough for all visitors – there’s nothing worse for a buyer wanting to buy, or a press person wanting to see your offering, than requesting a catalog and being told there are no more.
Chairs should only be placed at tables where meetings will take place or orders will be written. No one should be sitting while staffing a booth. Tables should be kept to a minimum and always covered if items will be stored underneath.
Supplies should be kept in designated areas so everyone can easily locate them when needed. These include: pens and pencils, scratch paper, staplers and extra staples, tape dispensers and extra tape, paper clips, binder clips, scissors, rubber bands, a tape measure, Post-It notes and extra business cards. Sit and think through everything that will take place in your booth and you’re likely to come up with more items to add to the list.
Bottles of water can be stored behind a booth or under tables, but water should be consumed discretely, if at all, while visitors are present.
Breath mints are, well, a breath of fresh air! Place a few small tins in various locations within the booth so staff can freshen up periodically. Remember, no gum allowed!
So, feel like you’ve got it? Great!
Now, because I really want to help you succeed, here are a few more tips:
Ask visitors for feedback. And, really listen! Everyone loves to give their opinion and you might just glean some very valuable information from what respondents offer.
Keep a list of what works and what doesn’t at every event. Document those things that didn’t work and make changes prior to your next event. These changes should be added to all documents pertaining to event management, including briefing packets.
Find innovative ways to help your customers be more successful. If you sell a line of adhesives to a retailer, offer them tear sheets that explain the different types so customers can choose wisely if and when a salesperson is unavailable or the customer is shy about asking for help. This helps the customer which benefits the retailer which benefits you. Better yet, train your buyers/customers on your products and assist them in making samples for customers to see. This builds excitement in the retailer and enables them to better promote your products in their stores. And you know what that means – more sales!