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April 4, 2008

John Spain: The trials of a first-time exhibitor

How many times has a writer or performer looked at a criticism of their work and thought: “Well if you think you know so much about it, why not do it yourself?”

As far as exhibitions are concerned, I can now join the ranks of those observers who have indeed done it themselves. After writing about the industry for several years, I have recently set up a new company, Just Think Marketing, which provides a whole range of marketing and PR services. My business partner and I unveiled it at the Exhibiting Show at Earls Court in June.

There is no doubt now in my mind that you can talk about a thing as much as you want, it is only when you ‘get down and dirty’ that you talk with authority. Here are a few unashamed observations about exhibiting.

Pre-show, use your organiser
A good organiser will provide their exhibitors with plenty of tools, both practical and theoretical, that can greatly assist the show experience. We were lucky to have the inspiration of the exhibitor day in which the Exhibiting Show team almost overdosed us with great ideas about how we could make the most of our investment. We came away eager to get on with it.

One crucial aspect of the pre-show activity, in my opinion, is to take advantage of the publicity machine that the organiser should have in place. This means getting your company details on the website, sending out invitations that they supply and following these up with generic emails.

We told a good number of contacts about what we were going to be doing at the show and were pleased that a reasonable number of them actually came along to the stand to see us. To this can be added the large number of people that didn’t actually make it to the show, but who, since then, have been in touch to say that they saw our invitations and could they have some more information – the show provided a communication platform that didn’t just work during the two days it ran.

At the show, be confident
The one piece of advice that most of us will remember our mothers giving is: “Don’t talk to strangers,” and yet, at an exhibition this is the very thing you’re supposed to do. I’m not shy, but for the first hour of the event I felt strangely uncomfortable with approaching total strangers.

There is nothing you can do except get on with it. Like anything in life it gets easier and after a couple of hours I was working the aisles like a veteran.

Interestingly enough we were helped by a slight miscalculation that we had made in our preparation for the show.

We had a 9m2 stand which we decided to decorate with laminates that bore the company logo. Now, those A3 laminates looked huge on the dining room table, but on the white walls of our stand they looked tiny and alone. How could we possibly compete for attention with all these marvellous design and build stands that surrounded us?

Amazingly enough, the clarity of our message was a huge draw. We had countless people over the two days coming up to us saying: “I like your stand, it tells me exactly what you do so what could you do for my company?” So, rather than feel uncomfortable about going up to complete strangers and starting a dialogue, our stand brought complete strangers to us, and it was they who initiated the conversation.

The auditing debate
Auditing of exhibitions is a subject that I have written about and discussed ad infinitum over the last few years. Having listened to all the arguments for and against and, most importantly, having now exhibited, I have finally decided where I stand on the matter.

I can understand why there is a perceived need for an audit, it provides organisers with more ammunition when trying to market and sell the show to potential sponsors and exhibitors.

However, we thought carefully about what we wanted to achieve at the show and set ourselves reasonably rigorous targets regarding the number of people we wanted to talk to and how many leads and prospects we wanted to take away with us. All these targets were handsomely met, indeed we took away 50% more leads than we targeted.

I, therefore, don’t care if the show had 500, 5,000 or 50,000 visitors. The organiser delivered the right audience for our product and this is surely the point of an exhibition – the act of bringing together people who are keen to communicate.

All we have to do now is continue following up the enquiries…

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