Pitches at an Exhibition

Howard Frost, Spurgo

If “all the world’s a stage” and your company is considering exhibiting your products and services to the world then your stand or booth is pretty much your stage to impress and convert customers. As a colleague once told me, visitors to an exhibition are yours to lose!

Exhibition visitors are an unusual breed: they’re the sort of people that make the effort to actively seek out new things, new ideas and new people to help them with their work or improving their lifestyle. Passive they are not.

This is why those of us that present our wares at an exhibition need to be on top form with a encyclopedic knowledge of our products and services and moreover, a convincing argument to help those visitors decide between many competing offerings.

Over the course of the next six articles, I hope to relay some of my experience, good and bad when offering goods or services at exhibitions in the hope that some of the good ideas will be adopted by you and some of the pitfalls, blunders and downright cock-ups that I’ve made will serve as salutary lessons to avoid.

I’ve spent many years researching exhibitions, usually from an organisers standpoint and even longer being one of those people manning a stand, trying to sell the idea that we might be just the thing you’re looking for. I’ve spoken to hundreds of exhibitors about their experience at various shows across B2B and consumer shows and hope to compile this learning into something that may just help you. Some reading this will be considering their first potential exhibition, some will have many years of exhibition experience. I’m going to start from the basics, assuming you have never exhibited before. This may be old hat to those experienced readers but I am constantly surprised by experienced exhibitors who tell me that, “We’ve never calculated how much we earn from this exhibition!”

There are many reasons why you might choose to exhibit; to raise brand/company awareness, ensure that they’re recognised among their peers, develop new contacts, highlight a new product or process or even just to sell what’s on the stand, be it burgers or brain scanners. Each of these companies should go through a process to identify the return on investment for their efforts but this is not such an easy calculation as it first seems. On the face of it, the standard calculations of stand cost, marketing collateral costs, personnel, travel, hotels and lost opportunities from being out of the office is a fairly easy spreadsheet to construct. It’s the flip side that starts to look worrying when you realise what has to be achieved to justify the expense.

Remember, this cost is pretty much all off your bottom line (unless you are lucky enough to get supporting grants to develop your business) and it’s not unusual for these costs to add up swiftly to the £20-30k mark for a national exhibition. The largest stand I did research on cost a whopping £11m and that’s before they factored in the personnel cost!

Let’s say that you spend £20k on going to an exhibition and that your net margin for your products or services is 20% (lucky you!). This means that this one exhibition is going to have to return revenue of at least £100k in the next year to justify its part in your marketing mix (assuming you attend the exhibition annually). Some will look at this and say, “that’s great - that’s just one order!” Smaller companies, though who, let’s say, make £1000 profit per day either need to use the show to increase their sales by a factor of ten at the show (for a 2 day show) or ensure that the benefits of the show will spread across the year to allow them increase their sales by at least the equivalent of 20 days pre-show trading. OK, these are extreme examples but either way, if it’s going to bring in that kind of return there are some key things to really do the homework on to give yourself the best chance of success.

Firstly, unless you’re completely swayed by the glitzy (and factual) marketing, research the pips out of the exhibition. You really need to know so many things about the exhibition but the most important is, who comes to it? Thankfully, many of the larger exhibition organisers undertake research of visitors and many B2B exhibitions require you to complete a registration card that enables them, and you, to identify the target visitors and their decision-making and buying power. If they’re not there or you can’t prove that they are definitely going to be there, neither should you be. The three “R’s” that I use are; Relevance, Return and Resources.

Secondly, if it’s an annual event, do go to the exhibition before you decide to exhibit. Ask yourself, “is this the sort of place that my customers or prospects would come to?”, “What’s in it for them?”, “Are they going to be able to find me, see me, notice me, buy from me in all this?”. Talk to the organisers and other exhibitors, whether they are your competition or not and talk to the visitors - the coffee bar chats elicit enormous benefits. Keep your eyes peeled for companies that look out of place as well - they have made the decision that even though their product is not core to the show, the visitors are their potential customers. Well worth talking to them, too. They may well save you lots of trawling through the organiser’s research.

Thirdly, try to assess how big your stand needs to be, what needs to be on it and what personnel need to be attending. Are you likely to be deluged with lots of customers buying your products? How do you create an attractive space that people want to interact with? Do you need somewhere to sit down with a visitor to discuss a detailed offering? Are you performing live demonstrations of your products? Can you replenish stand stock during the exhibition? How can you rise above your competition and be remembered? What are your ultimate aims and objective for attending? How will you measure them?

In the next few articles I will provide thoughts on five key areas relating to exhibitions:

What Pre-Planning you need to do
What features your stand should and shouldn’t have
What to do at an exhibition to make yourself more visible
What people to have on your stand and how to brief them
What to do after the exhibition

Exhibiting as part of your marketing/promotional mix can be incredibly rewarding in both the financial sense and to give you real customer closeness as well as keeping an eye on the competition and providing insight as to where the market is going. I’ve been lucky enough to work with some great organisers and exhibitors whose input has helped me compile these articles. I’ve yet to see anyone with the perfect exhibition experience from either side of the fence but between us I hope that we can learn from mistakes and get it better, faster and more cost-effective.

5 Do’s:

DO do the maths
DO research exhibitions in your own field and elsewhere
DO talk to and understand who visits
DO try to picture yourself at the event
DO measure your efforts and success

5 Don’t’s:

DON’T dismiss exhibitions because of pre-conceived notions
DON’T exhibit unless you can prove a clear ROI
DON’T think that you can just turn up
DON’T rely on anecdotes
DON’T forget: all exhibitors are in the same boat: learn from them.

Howard Frost runs Spurgo, a research company dedicated to help businesses improve their public perception and sales. Over the last twenty years he has worked for clients in the UK, America, Holland, Germany, Italy and France, helping retailers, exhibitors and organisers be the best they can.

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