Business events can be a great way to meet prospects and raise your profile - but they can be hard to get right. Small business owners tell Rachel Miller how they get value out of attending business exhibitions
Exhibitions offer great opportunities to meet prospective customers and market your products and services. But they are hard work, and may not lead to instant results. As a result, some small firms go to 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 up."
Getting value from exhibitions - lead generation
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 another time, 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 all your leads. "You have to show people you want their business," says Fiona. "An exhibition is just a starting point."
Keeping exhibition costs down
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.
When Fiona was planning a stand at the National Wedding Show with wedding photographer Matt Pereira, 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."
Maximising stand visibility
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 - 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 it's far better to maximise 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.
Putting in the hard work
"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, they'll be multi-millionaires by the time it's over.
"The truth is, the exhibition is just the start. You have to do PR, marketing and advertising [as well]. 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."
Boosting your profile long-term
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 through sponsorship and speaking at events."
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."