If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there. Famous words, no doubt, and they certainly apply to any marketing endeavor you’re undertaking. If your goal is to simply appear at a tradeshow, you don’t have much of a roadmap. It might look something like this: rent a booth space, get an exhibit (doesn’t really matter what size or what it looks like); bring a few people from the office and talk to people that stumble across your booth.
Success! Of course, since you didn’t really have much of a plan, how could you fail?
On the other hand…
If you want to talk to bring home 300 leads, that requires a longer plan and a better road map. Setting a goal – any goal – immediately puts restrictions on your map. It forces you to go in a certain direction. And the good thing is that it makes you ask questions, such as:
How do we get enough people to our booth to collect 300 leads?
What kinds of leads do we want?
How do we qualify the leads?
What information do we want?
Do we need to do pre-show marketing to bring people to our booth? If so, what will that take?
How many people should we have in our booth?
How big of a booth do we need to support those people?
What will it cost to create that exhibit?
And so you. You get the idea. Sure, you can simply set up a booth, hand out a few brochures and samples and cross your fingers, but if you really want to bring home the bacon with a bagload of new prospects, it takes more than that.
It takes a roadmap that only you can put together, based only on what’s important to you.
If you want a little help, you could do worse than picking up my book Tradeshow Success. It’s got a pretty good roadmap planning guide, chapter by chapter.
But whatever you use, if you want to get somewhere, you need a map.
Do you set up the exact same booth every year with no changes? Or do you find that you have to make minor or even significant changes from year to year because your needs change or some piece of your exhibit doesn’t function the way you thought it would?
Many exhibitors stay the same, but many change. Frequently.
Let’s say at one show – a big one that you set up an exhibit at every single year – you have had nearly the same configuration for five or six years. That’s not unusual. Although, in my experience, most clients we work with at TradeshowGuy Exhibits do at least modest changes nearly every year. Sometimes they do rather wholesale changes, like increasing their footprint by 50% or more. Or realizing at this year’s show they don’t have enough meeting space. Or product display space. Or that some element of the exhibit just didn’t work as anticipated.
There are always reasons for making changes. But if you purchased the exhibit, you’re kind of stuck with it.
Except. Not always. There are always a lot of ways to skin the cat, as it were. Let’s say – like a client of ours recently – you have a custom booth. You spent a lot of dough on it, so the idea of building another piece just to satisfy your functional needs is going to challenge your budget. When this happened to the client, who was looking for more counter space, we suggested that instead of having some custom counters built, why not rent some counters? That way, you’re only committed to one show with the revised configuration, and the cost will be lower than if you had them custom-built and bought them. And if for some reason you really like the configuration, you can either purchase them or choose to rent them again the following year. I see it happen frequently.
Same thing with furniture. It used to be that clients would ship furniture to shows in their crates. Chairs, small loveseats, tables. In some cases, that’s a good thing, especially if the table is branded or is custom in some other way like LED highlights.
But the furniture is unused the rest of the year. It can get scuffed and damaged during setup and dismantle. Renting the right pieces, such as a nice brand-new comfortable couch might make more sense. Do the math, take a look at the options, and make the decision.
It’s all fluid. Especially when it comes to the various smaller elements of your tradeshow exhibit: counters, furniture, product display units and more. Talk with your exhibit house rep or coordinator and see what options you might have that can both save you money and give you an upgrade on looks and function. It’s doable. Because it’s fluid.
Not every custom tradeshow exhibit project needs an RFP (Request For Proposal). But there are times when it’s an appropriate way to communicate what you need to a handful of carefully selected exhibit design and fabrication firms. Here’s a brief look at a number of things you should consider including in the RFP:
What happens when you, as a company, take a stand on an issue important to you on the tradeshow floor?
As with pretty much everything, the answer is: it depends.
I don’t see it all the time, but there are a few examples where supporting a cause is a big part of a company’s tradeshow exhibit. A part of their public-facing stance.
The first one that came to mind was a recent update to an exhibit we did for Dave’s Killer Bread. Dave Dahl, the famous Dave of the namesake brand, had a, shall we say, interesting history. As a result, in 2019’s updating of the exhibit for Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim, DKB focused a large part of their messaging on an issue important to them: making sure felons have a second chance. Their main counter and backdrop behind it were graced with statistics and images offering their take on the issue.
Another recent project seen at Expo West was Kashi’s spare booth warning of the lack of organic farmland in the U.S. There was no product to taste or see, just a simple 20×20 exhibit that displayed their concerns.
Another client, Bob’s Red Mill, made a change to their overhead banner touting that the company was an employee-owned company.
Once you start looking, it’s not hard to see the causes that companies support in their tradeshow booths. World’s largest B Corp. Zero waste to landfill. 100% organic. Save the Bees. The free-from market. And on and on.
Sure, you could say that especially in the natural products world, showing off your bona fides is just good marketing. And that’s true. But many companies go beyond that and plainly support causes as part of their tradeshow exhibit that a few years ago would be rare.
It’ll be interesting to see how this continues to unfold, and if it’s as obvious in other industries.
With the pandemic slowly winding down (fingers crossed), what does the future hold? I’m no prognosticator and I’m definitely not an economist, although I pay attention to a lot of what’s going on in the economy. Last summer, in a conversation with a colleague, we wondered aloud what it would mean for the tradeshow and exhibit industry when “normal” returned. At that time, we were only looking ahead a few months, but here it is at least two seasons later, and we’re still waiting for the new normal to return.
The country and much of the world are still slogging through high unemployment, many stores closing, restaurants on life support and little to no job growth. In monthly calls with tradeshow exhibit producers, sellers, and project managers, it’s clear that most vendors in the tradeshow world are still operating at a fraction of their full capabilities. And most still think that they won’t reach their full capabilities until sometime in 2022. Yes, Q3 and Q4 in 2021 should show some improvement, but it’ll be a slow go for months to come.
But, once things return, people are comfortable traveling and setting up exhibits and attending shows, what does that mean?
A recent article in the New York Times tagged a few economic markers they’re following, including a prediction by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia that US output will increase 4.5% this year, which if it happened, would be the best since 1999.
Optimism is growing because of a number of things: coronavirus cases are dropping, vaccine rates are increasing, and oh, yeah, there are a few trillion dollars sloshing around in the economy and if the current administration wrangles their bill through Congress, another couple of trillion dollars will follow. Consumers are also sitting on trillions of dollars thanks to lockdown spending dips and more stimulus payments.
But what does that mean for the business world or, more specifically, the tradeshow world? It’s hard to get a handle on exact outcomes, no surprise, but experts point to the fact that in many industries – tradeshow world likely included – a number of companies simply haven’t survived, or they’ve been gobbled up by stronger competitors. Which means that there may not be as much competition.
The world of shows, events and conferences is also changing. Floor plans may change, especially if social distancing remains in effect in at least parts of the country, meaning different shapes and size availabilities for booth placement. Does that mean revised exhibits? New exhibits? Downsizing or upsizing? Who can say? Any change will likely mean exhibitors be willing to spend money for either revisions or brand-new properties. Fingers crossed for all of us in the supply side of the industry.
One final note: Marly Arnold of Image Specialist does a biweekly live 30-minute show that appears on her YouTube channel, and a recent conversation with Jim Wurm of Exhibit Designers and Producers Association talked about this very topic. On the YouTube page here, she lists a number of links that are worth looking at. Let me share just a couple:
Now that most companies haven’t exhibited at a major show in the US for nine months or so, where does that leave their marketing efforts? I’ve heard some companies badly miss shows because that’s where a large portion of their lead generation came from and without that they’re struggling to generate as many solid leads. Some companies have shifted to other marketing outlets and been at least moderately successful, and I suppose some companies have even determined that they don’t really need tradeshows.
It’s my impression that there’s always been a bit of perception from many management and sales staff that tradeshows are a grind, a big waste of money and time. That they only attend because their competition is there but if they could they’d bail on exhibiting or even attending shows.
Meanwhile, tradeshow managers are buried in details of exhibiting and logistics and new product launches and are-there-enough-samples and so on.
By the time bigger shows return, it’s likely that at least a year will have passed for many exhibitors since their last appearance at a national or international show, and the question is undoubtedly being asked: are tradeshows still even that important?
That question can only be answered by each company individually based on their own goals, budget and personnel.
One result might be that companies will exhibit at fewer shows. If that’s the case, the focus on the shows should be to make sure that exhibiting is worth their time. Maybe you’ll have the same budget but with fewer shows, you can concentrate on those select handful of shows and make sure you carefully and completely execute all of the tradeshow marketing steps from A to Z to ensure great results.
Another consequence of the coming post-COVID world may mean smaller budgets, which means downsizing your exhibit, or renting an exhibit save a few dollars. Or taking fewer people to shows.
One other change that I believe will be a result of no tradeshows for a year or so: the psychological effect on both exhibitors and attendees. How will we feel, for instance, about shaking hands with people we meet, or hugging old friends that we haven’t seen for a year or two or three? How will food companies hand out samples so that everyone who is picking up a tasty sample is comfortable with it? Will we really feel okay flying across the country to attend a show, stuck in an airplane for hours with strangers? Some will be okay; others may have high levels of anxiety. It’s likely that aisles will be wider, giving more separation between booths and giving attendees more space to keep people at a distant.
When I first speak with a new client about what they want in a new tradeshow exhibit, it usually comes down to one of two approaches. Either they want to start from scratch, in a sense, and have a good idea of the potential layout and scope of the exhibit, and they have a budget number in mind. Or, and this is the other extreme, they want to pick out a kit from our catalog and make do, mainly to save budget dollars.
There’s nothing wrong with either approach. Every company has a different agenda when it comes to a new exhibit.
The former approach means everything is custom from the git-go. A designer is brought in, conversations are had about brand attributes and guidelines, and the designer is basically turned loose. These are typically the bigger budget projects where, from the start, the designer is encouraged to cut loose, to try several approaches and show a number of structures with different traffic flow patterns, demo areas, meeting areas and so on. From that, the client decides on one (or two) that work best for them, and the design is refined until it’s ready.
The other approach, where the client is typically working with a more limited budget, starts with a kit from our Exhibit Design Search at TradeshowBuy.com. More often than not, the client believes that the kit as shown in the renderings is the final design.
That rarely happens. Once the conversation starts, the questions begin. Can we add a counter? What about shelves? We need shelves. And something to sit at. And that panel isn’t big enough, what if we made it bigger.
The answers are yes, yes, and yes. Kits get customized, almost all the time. With new clients, there is a bit of a learning curve, but once they realize that even if they start with a kit, that doesn’t mean they’re stuck with everything that’s show. Kits are good starting points to get what clients really want, which is most often a customized version.
A good thing to keep in mind when starting from scratch, especially if your budget is pointing you in the direction of a kit. That kit can be revised, reduced or enlarged in size, configured to fit in more than one final setup (10×10, 10×20, 10×30 for example). Accessories can be added, freestanding graphics or tables can become a part. And those additions don’t have to be out of the catalog, either. Often a client will have custom-built tables that include their logo and additional lighting effects to make them stand out.
If you’re shopping for a new exhibit in 2021 and your budget is pointing you towards something out of a catalog, starting with a kit makes sense. But you don’t have to (and probably won’t) stay there.