How we use exhibitions to sell our products and services

How SMEs use exhibitions to market their products{{}}Small business owners - from a wedding photographer to a Dragons' Den winner - tell Rachel Miller how they use exhibitions successfully

Exhibitions offer great opportunities to meet prospective customers and market your products and services. But they are hard work and can be tricky to get right. As a result, some small firms try one event and then give up on exhibitions altogether.

“Lots of SMEs think exhibitions don’t work for them and they often have quite unrealistic expectations,” says Fiona Humberstone, author of Exhibit! The SME guide to using exhibitions to grow. “Many people don’t plan their exhibition strategy and they don’t think about why people are coming. They don’t capture data or follow it up.”

There’s no doubt that the cost of exhibitions can be off-putting. “Exhibitions are expensive but they can give really great returns if you do them properly,” says Fiona. “Face-to-face is one of the best ways to connect with people, especially when you get access to a highly-targeted group of people who have come to the event actively looking for your type of product or service.”

Exhibitions are primarily a place to gather sales leads. “You have to get as many leads as possible,” says Fiona. “Save the hour-long chat for when you next meet them because you could be missing out on talking to lots of other prospects.”

Once the event is over, you need to make sure you follow up on all your leads. "You have to show people you want their business," says Fiona. "An exhibition is just a starting point.”

Getting results from exhibitions

Exhibitions don’t have to cost a fortune. “You need to be creative when it comes to your stand but you don’t necessarily have to spend a fortune,” says Fiona Humberstone. Fiona has worked with wedding photographer Matt Pereira. When they were planning a stand at the National Wedding Show at London’s Olympia, they wallpapered MDF boards, borrowed furniture and toured antique markets to find interesting props. The end result was a sumptuous country house hotel look. “It’s all about the styling and staging,” says Fiona. “It was low budget but highly creative.”

Drawing a crowd is something Neil Westwood knows all about. Neil and his wife Laura run Magic Whiteboard, a fast-growing company that took off following a successful pitch on Dragons' Den.

Magic Whiteboard products including whiteboards, blackboards and blackout blinds on a roll. “Our products have the wow factor so as soon as people see them, they are sold then and there. So demonstrating and exhibitions are very important,” says Neil.

Neil and Laura’s experience of exhibiting has taught them a lot. “When we first started out we took a stand that was about nine square metres,” says Neil. “But we learned that visitors don’t always come onto the stand, they often prefer to stand in the aisles. It’s far better to improve visibility and position. So now we get a long stand which is five metres wide but only one metre deep. That has halved our costs but increased our visibility.”

Demonstrations and samples are a big draw, as Neil has discovered. Now he also shows his products on the stands of his retail suppliers at some events to get exposure without booking a stand.

“Exhibitions do cost a lot of money,” says Neil. “They cost £5,000 minimum and you can easily spend £10,000. But people have high expectations. They think if you go to the right event you’ll be multi-millionaires by the time it’s over. But that’s just the start. You have to do PR, marketing and advertising. And it is hard work, especially for a small business. You have to do everything yourself and at the event you work solidly. I see exhibitors not talking to people and I think they are mad.”

Talking to people is, after all, the name of the game. Zoe Brown, managing director of b:web, takes stands at local business events in Woking, Bracknell and Guildford. “We all work remotely - we don’t have offices - so it’s important for us to get out there and meet people. We do a lot of local exhibitions and always make sure we have a high profile by sponsoring receptions and bags and trying to get speaker slots.”

It’s not a hard sell, it’s more about brand awareness, says Zoe. “Often a client will come to us up to 18 months after we first met them at an event.”