Essential guide to exhibitions

Exhibition stand employees demonstrate products to potential customers

Exhibitions provide a unique opportunity to display your product or service to large numbers of potential customers.

Success starts with choosing the right business events, and making sure you are thoroughly prepared. A good exhibition stand at the right show with the right approach will help you generate quality sales leads on the day.

Your event aims

Choosing the right exhibition

Booking exhibition space

Exhibition stand design

Exhibition promotion

Running your stand

Selling techniques

The cost of exhibiting

1. Your event aims

Specify your objectives.

To make direct sales at the exhibition

To collect leads to follow up

  • To compile a mailing list for future marketing activities.
  • To create a list of prospects for direct selling.

To launch and promote a new product

  • Trade shows provide an ideal opportunity to meet specialists in your field and generate press coverage for a new product or service.

To meet new and existing customers

  • An exhibition may give you the best opportunity of the year to talk to the people who use your products.

Find agents, distributors or other businesses to work with

2. Choosing the right exhibition

The most important consideration is identifying which exhibitions your target customers will attend.

What is the exhibition's track record?

  • Ask for last year's list of attendees. How many decision-makers from your target market were present?
  • Look at the previous year's exhibition handbook and check the website. Which companies were exhibiting?
  • Ask customers, suppliers and competitors if they attend and how useful the event is to them.
  • Be wary of first-year shows. Consider attending as a customer first and then exhibiting the following year.

When is the exhibition?

  • Does the timing work for your business? Will you be disrupted by the extra work? Will you cope with the extra business the exhibition will generate?
  • How far in advance will you need to plan?

Where is the exhibition?

  • Is the location convenient for you and your target customers?

What size is the exhibition?

  • Smaller and more specialised exhibitions may represent better value for money.

How much publicity does the exhibition receive?

  • How and where will the organisers advertise the event?

What else will the exhibition offer?

  • What services will the organisers provide?
  • What networking opportunities, speakers and special events will there be?
  • Will your trade association have a stand for members there?

How much does it cost?

  • Exhibition organisers charge rent on the floor space. Expect to pay £300-£500 per square metre.
  • You will have several other costs.

3. Booking exhibition space

Make sure you book a space suitable for your proposed display

  • Check the layout of the hall.
  • Stands with more frontage are likely to attract more attention but will be more expensive.
  • Try to get near a main aisle, and think about footfall. Check how the crowd moves by attending an exhibition at the venue.
  • A spot near a café or other meeting point could be a good place to have a stand.

Book early

  • Ensure your name, logo and company messaging is included in promotional materials and mailings (see Exhibition promotion).
  • The organisers usually require a deposit, when you book and full payment before the exhibition starts.

Arrange electricity, lighting and any other supplies you require

  • Make sure you have reliable internet access and that presentation and display equipment is working.
  • If you're selling direct to the public, make sure you have a reliable means of taking payments.
  • Many organisers require you to use their own contractors to install services. Plan your requirements carefully - an electrical socket can cost in excess of £100.

4. Exhibition stand design

Exhibition organisers usually offer a shell scheme

  • This normally includes the back and side walls of your stand, a fascia, carpet, nameboard and an electrical socket.
  • Check whether any extras are included. For example, electrical supplies and lighting, wifi, furniture and shelving.

Use a stand designer or agency

  • A designer is essential for a space-only site.
  • Use a reputable company that is familiar with the rules, particularly around health and safety and fire risks.
  • Brief the designer on what you hope to achieve. If you plan to exhibit regularly, a modular stand that can be taken apart and re-used may be best.
  • Confirm the schedule and costs in writing.
  • Initial costs can be upwards of £10,000 for the design and build - but costs drop drastically when you re-use the stand for subsequent events (you only have to pay for the installation and removal).
  • Modular, tension fabric stands offer a cheaper alternative and can be purchased for less than £3,000.

Make sure your stand design is effective

  • You will have only a few seconds to attract the attention of people passing the stand.
  • Make sure your stand is well lit.
  • Use creative ways to grab attention, such as multimedia displays.
  • Keep it simple. Have one central theme rather than trying to crowd everything onto the stand.
  • Allow space for visitors. Keep the front clear, and provide a focal point at the back to encourage them onto the stand.
  • Avoid building a "corporate fortress" that scares away visitors.

5. Exhibition promotion

Let target customers know about your stand

  • Ask the organisers for complimentary tickets to send to selected VIP customers.
  • A press release is a must. Tell the media about your presence at the show and give details about your stand, your products and any news you want to announce. Include pictures. Give details of how journalists can contact you for further information.
  • Use your website, social media, advertising or direct mail to announce your presence at the exhibition.

Make the most of the organisers? PR and promotional materials

  • Ensure that your name appears in the promotional materials and on the website. You should be offered a free listing, and you may want to advertise as well.
  • Ask the organisers what their PR plans are and whether there is a press office you can use. Tell them if something about you is particularly newsworthy.
  • Offer to take part in special events to gain extra exposure, such as by giving a speech.

6. Running your stand

Plan the details in advance

  • When will you set up the stand? Where will your materials be stored?
  • When will electricity supplies, lighting and any other special requirements be installed?
  • Have you got an adequate supply of brochures, leaflets, business cards and product samples?
  • How will the stand be kept clean and tidy?
  • What are the security arrangements? Will your existing insurance cover the exhibition?
  • Will there be refreshments for your team and visitors?

Plan your message

  • Prepare briefing notes for all employees.
  • How will you respond to different types of visitor?
  • What information will you give out to visitors who are unlikely to be customers in the near future?
  • What will you say to journalists or VIPs who visit the stand? Who will look after them?
  • How will you handle competitors who are looking for information?

The right employees are essential to create a good impression

  • Appoint a stand manager. Make this person responsible for timetabling, and for briefing everybody involved.
  • Choose personable and knowledgeable employees. Ideally, your stand should always have one salesperson and one product expert.
  • Allow for breaks. If the same people are on the stand all day, they will become tired and jaded.
  • Employees should be smart and punctual.
  • A good selling technique is vital.

Attract attention to the stand

  • Displays and demonstrations will help generate interest. Activities that visitors can participate in are likely to be more effective.
  • Prize draws can be a good way of collecting the names and addresses of potential customers.
  • Refreshments perk up tired visitors and encourage them to spend more time on your stand.

7. Selling techniques

Most exhibitors aim to make introductory contacts, rather than closing sales on the spot.

Respond to visitors

  • A visitor should be left to browse for a short while before they are approached.
  • Employees must not hide at the back of the stand chatting among themselves.

Start by finding out about your visitors

  • Ask whether they use your product and what their interest is in your stand.
  • Ask what their role in their organisation is and what their businesses do. Find out whether the visitor has purchasing power or influence.
  • Don't ask closed questions such as "Can I help you?" The answer will often be no.

Stress the benefits of your product or service

  • If a visitor is a potential customer, you must create enough interest to pave the way for a follow-up meeting or call.
  • Find out what the visitor's needs are. Explain how your product can satisfy those needs.

Make arrangements to follow up

  • Try to agree next steps before a visitor leaves your stand.
  • Make sure you capture the name, job title, contact details and area of interest of each prospect.
  • Record any information you need for follow-up. Who should you contact, when and how?
  • Rate your leads to ensure you chase up the hottest leads first.
  • Find out if you can access the organisers' mailing lists, and whether attendees have opted in to receive marketing mailings from exhibitors.

Aim to deal with as many visitors as possible

  • Five minutes should be long enough to interest the visitor, provide them with relevant information and make follow-up arrangements.

8. The cost of exhibiting

Floor space rental costs typically start at a £300 a square metre

  • Services (electrical outlets, furniture or plants) can add up to 20% extra to the cost.
  • Costs will generally be higher for national exhibitions with high visitor numbers and for some specialist exhibitions.

Total costs will include several other elements

For example:

  • stand design, delivery and installation;
  • furniture hire;
  • staff costs;
  • publicity and marketing costs;
  • product samples and give aways;
  • miscellaneous costs (eg insurance).

Calculate how cost-effective an exhibition is likely to be in achieving your aims

  • If you aim to get leads (and sales), what is the expected cost per lead, and how does that compare with the anticipated profits you will ultimately make?
  • If you want to get exposure, how much coverage do you expect? How much coverage could you get by spending the same amount of time and effort on another marketing channel?
  • Be realistic about how many visitors you will be able to see, and what percentage of leads will result in a sale.

Measure the results of the exhibition once it is over

  • Did you achieve your aims?
  • How much media coverage did you get?
  • How many leads did you generate?
  • How many sales did you make as a result?
  • What was the total cost? How does this compare with the cost-effectiveness of alternative methods, such as direct mail?


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