I can recall two recent ones at a marketing conference that really stand out.
The first was a full on lounge with free coffee and breakfast, ample seating, and newspapers. It was a genius idea because it flowed so naturally from the event floor. I sat down and didn’t want to leave after a long day. I remember that.
The other one was an AWS exhibit by Amazon. Amazon not only dominated the floor with their main exhibit, but they had a second one with a full on classroom. Yes, this counts as an exhibit, and it was packed the brim the whole show.
Which exhibits do I not remember? Practically everything else.
The truth is, if you’re not one of the top displays at a show, you’re not going to be remembered months later.
Of course more goes into it than just the cosmetic design, but that’s where it begins. You can’t make your awesome connection with attendees, you can’t do the demos, and you can’t collect leads if you can’t even get people to pay attention.
This is especially true for up and coming businesses that don’t have the name to draw a crowd on it’s own.
Between scheduling staff, arranging flights, planning material for the show, and everything else, the trade show exhibit usually ends up being just good enough.
Let’s break out of that together. Starting now.
Joe is the marketing director of Coastal Creative – a San Diego-based design and printing company. He’s always on the look out for the next great marketing strategy – both online and offline. His favorite trade show tip is to make connections with celebrities in your industry that are hard to get ahold of online. Check out the original graphic here.
TradeshowGuy Tim Patterson and Jim Shelman, General Manager of Classic Rental Solutions, tackle the topic of #tradeshow #exhibit rentals: how they’ve changed, how to customize and much more on this week’s edition of the TradeshowGuy Monday Morning Coffee.
One of my favorite newsletters comes from Bill Lampton, Ph. D., otherwise known as the BizComunication Guy. When I invited him on to the TradeshowGuy Monday Morning Coffee several weeks ago, he offered to interview me for his weekly show as well. It was a pleasure to reciprocate. Bill is great interviewer and as you might imagine a professional communicator.
When I first got into the exhibit industry in the early ‘00s, the company I was hired by, Interpretive Exhibits in Salem, was heavily involved in an exhibit for the Army Corps of Engineers. It was a permanent installation (still there) at The Dalles Dam in The Dalles, Oregon. The theme of the exhibit was “Tradeoffs” and it addresses the various parties involved in the needs and desires of the Columbia River. For every group that had in interest in utilizing the Columbia River as a resource, there was a tradeoff
of sorts. Sports fishermen, Native Americans and their fishing rights, shipping and transportation, recreation and so on – there were all sorts of groups that wanted something out of the river. The exhibit went into detail to explain each group’s interests and how they had to compromise, in a sense, to get a lot (but not all) of what they wanted.
That concept – the tradeoff – comes up in my mind frequently, and it can be applied to virtually anything that you are involved in.
Apply it to the tradeshow world: if you are willing to spend the money on a larger exhibit, the tradeoff is often that you must also be willing to hire a crew to setup and dismantle the exhibit, and you must be willing to pay more for shipping.
If you want an exhibit that can quickly be setup by one or two people, the tradeoff is that you must be willing to settle for a very simple design with limited bells and whistles and perhaps a lesser impact than something more complex.
If you want to have a professional presenter in your booth space pitching attendees several times an hour, the tradeoff is that not only do you need to invest in hiring that presenter, but you’ll need to make sure you have enough staff on hand to engage as many of those attendees as possible before they slip away.
It seems like we’re always giving up one thing to get another. We don’t live in a world where we have it all. Or a world where we have nothing at all.
We live in a world where we’re always calculating a tradeoff that works best for us.
Who says you can’t order a tradeshow exhibit online? I’ve seen a ton of sites that claim it’s easy. Just find the exhibit you want, upload the graphics, submit your credit card and voila’ – you have an exhibit coming your way!
The challenge with that plan is that if it works, it only works for smaller “off-the-shelf” items, such as banner stands and pop-up back walls.
When you order online, your choices are limited. You don’t know the quality of the products you’re getting. You don’t (usually) know where they were made. You don’t often know if you’re getting setup instructions in a language you can understand.
Instead, what is more likely – and a better result for both buyers and sellers – is when you find something online that you are interested in purchasing, that interest spurs a conversation. At TradeshowGuy Exhibits, we’ve sold a lot of exhibits to people that we haven’t met in person until finally meeting at a show. And we’ve sold to companies without ever meeting them. In a sense, they are buying, and we are selling, online.
But a true sale is only started online. For a buyer to get exactly what they want for a custom tradeshow exhibit, a number of questions have to be answered (see our 7 Questions You’ll Never Ask Your Exhibit House). Often there are conversations with a 3D exhibit designer. Maybe you’ll talk with a project manager. You’ll cover items such as how is it packed? how is it shipped? do you need to hire someone to setup the exhibit? and many more.
If you browse our Exhibit Design Search, you’ll see a BUY button. Go ahead, take a look. When you click the BUY button, you’re taken to a page that, once you fill out and click “send” starts a conversation. It takes more than a click to buy an exhibit.
So, yes, you can buy something online that is somewhat of an exhibit. But if you want a true exhibit, a custom exhibit, talk to your exhibit house.
At TradeshowGuy Exhibits, we’ve had the pleasure of working with Classic Exhibits, one of the premier exhibit manufacturers in the country. Over the years, e’ve collaborated with them for a number of great custom builds, including the terrific 30×40 Bob’s Red Mill exhibit that still wows ’em at Natural Products Expo East and Expo West.
But just because they can build great custom designs doesn’t mean that they are not dedicating their creative energies to coming up with new things, like the Gravitee Modular System that doesn’t need any tools. None. Zip. Nada.
Their newest Gravitee creation is the One-Step Lightbox. the Gravitee lightbox attaches to other panels using no tools and no loose part connection. It’ll be available in both curved and flat options. There will be standard sizes, but yes, it’s something that you can customize to various sizes. Let’s take a look at Classic Exhibits’ video introduction, hosted by Kevin Carty:
For more information on Gravitee, click here. To find out more specifically about the Gravitee light box, and it’s soon-to-be announced release dates and pricing, fill out the forms on our contact page and we’ll get back to you!
When it comes to judging the time, effort and money involved in big tradeshow projects vs. small tradeshow projects, it may come as no surprise that small projects are often more involving than big projects.
Let’s take a look: let’s say a big project is either an island exhibit such as 20×30, or a longer inline exhibit such as a 10×30. A client has decided to move ahead with something that, to them at least, is large. If not large, then a very significant project and investment. The steps involved, once the decision to move forward, typically cover these areas:
Create and finalize the design
Create and finalize the graphics
Fabrication and walk-through of the exhibit
Crate and ship
Coordinate I&D (Installation and Dismantle)
Show off the new exhibit!
These are all certainly important and can be somewhat time-consuming. But from my experience, companies doing larger exhibits are often quite experienced at this process. They know the steps and know what to anticipate and when. There are questions that come up along the way, but they know what they want. They have a solid idea for the design, or if not, know what functional aspects of their new exhibit are critical to a successful show. There is a certain amount of nitpicking along the way, as there should be, to get everything right. But most questions are answered quickly, and the process moves on.
In smaller projects such as a 10×10, or a handful of banner stands, or graphic back walls, or even renting an exhibit, you’d the process would be quicker, easier. In many cases, yes. But not always. Sometimes the client is focused more on the budget because they are working with fewer dollars, and the amount of examining each step in minute detail becomes all-important. Or there may be someone involved that isn’t as experienced that has been tasked with the project. Which means that more questions often come up. Nothing wrong with that – it’s a good opportunity for a learning experience.
So which is more work – a big tradeshow project or a small tradeshow project? There’s no straightforward answer. Some big projects are much more work (for both the exhibit house and the client) than a small project. And some small projects eat up a lot of time and energy that is surprising for something that is so small. While big projects are, frankly, preferred, simply because one big project can be worth five or ten small projects, the small ones are very worthwhile, even the ones that consume more than their fair share of time and energy. Small projects handled with care and attention to detail shows the client that you care about them, not just the money. And these are often the clients that end up staying with you for the bigger projects that come up as their company grows. But from our perspective, small projects are worth it because it’s the glue that holds everything together. It shows you why you’re in business. It communicates to the customer that they’re not just a number – they’re a real, living, breathing company with real humans that want – and need – assistance in a world they’re struggling a bit with.
I couldn’t sleep last night, so I sat up and jotted down a few thoughts and observations from what I’ve seen in the past 17+ years in the tradeshow industry. I got to thinking about the exhibition industry, as it is often called, from both the exhibit-production side and the exhibitor side. What things do I observe in seeing how other exhibit companies work? By reading industry periodicals and staying in touch with industry colleagues?
There are thousands of exhibit companies competing for your business. They all want a fair share of business available from companies that are looking to upgrade or replace old exhibits. The industry supports a lot of very big companies, as well as a lot of companies that work with just a handful of loyal clients.
Profit margin for exhibit companies is substantial but there’s a very good reason. Things cost a lot. There is a lot of labor cost. Without substantial markup companies couldn’t survive for long. I don’t have enough information on other industries, but I’m told that the margin in groceries, for example, is razor thin. Same for gas stations. What they don’t make on the margin still makes them a good amount of profit due to the sheer volume of products they sell.
Yes, you can find lower cost items and companies willing to provide lower cost service but at what cost in quality and service? If you shop around to find the lowest price, are you giving up a warranty or guarantee, or are you trading a few dollars for an inferior product?
Some exhibit companies have large spaces and large staffs. Massive overhead means they need to keep developing new business and selling more things to current clients. I’ve seen those up close and understand that the pressure to produce can be immense.
Smaller companies such as TradeshowGuy Exhibits still need to generate profit to survive and thrive but are not driven to the levels as the bigger companies.
From a “making more sales” standpoint, there’s no one single thing that is the magic button to generate sales for exhibit companies working to drum up more business. I’ve talked to numerous sales account executives at different sized companies and they all say about the same thing: sales are hard to make, there is a lot of competition, no one thing works, so they all do a combination of what you might expect: phone and email prospecting, advertising (print and online), meet and greets at tradeshows, and networking groups. Some are more creative than others, some more persistent than others, some more organized, and so on. But they all love it, because they like making their clients look good when the exhibit is finally set up.
Lightboxes (aluminum extrusion silicon-edge fabric graphics) can be a bit tedious to set up, but damn, they look sharp.
From the Exhibitor side
Many companies seem to be somewhat naïve about how the industry works. Shipping, logistics et al are almost like a black hole mystery box. There is a world of moving stuff around from the warehouse to the show site that many people rarely get involved with. Those that are involved are always looking at ways to shave dollars. And to a person, I hear them say, “tradeshow stuff just costs a lot.”
Most companies don’t have a sense of how much things cost and how much extra cost will be added along the way. Think drayage, Installation & Dismantle, shipping, graphic design and printing.
Many companies fail to take advantage of all of the various steps: preshow, postshow, staff training, in booth activities, social media, etc.
More and more companies I work with are hiring labor to setup and dismantle their exhibits. I find that of exhibit crews, about one out of three is a real pro and knows exactly how things work. One out of three know pretty well what they’re doing. And the third hired hand is usually there just for his willingness to schlep heavy things around – and you hope they do what they’re told. I also find that many crews assume that with a simple glance or two at the setup instructions, they know how it works. Often it does. But I’ve seen a number of occasions where a lot of time could have been saved if they’d only read the instructions in greater detail. Time wasted on a tradeshow floor is expensive.
Growth can happen quickly with tradeshow marketing. Many companies I’ve worked with over the past few years have seen substantial growth and are regularly increasing the size of their exhibits. As Bob Moore of Bob’s Red Mill famously once said, “Tradeshows have opened doors to markets that we would not have otherwise been able to open.” Or something like that – but you get the idea.
Opportunity abounds in today’s tradeshow marketing world, but it’s easy to lose $$$ if you make a misstep. Larger companies with deeper pockets have a natural advantage, but that doesn’t mean they are always doing the best they can. Smaller companies with few dollars can still use tradeshow marketing to attract people to their booth with creative marketing, great interactivity, attractive exhibits and more – and still crack open doors to new markets. Which leads to more growth (see the previous paragraph!).
For those companies that do get involved in tradeshow marketing – and certainly not every company does – they spend roughly a third of their marketing budget on tradeshows.
From the Personal Side
I’ve been in the industry since April 2002. It took years for me to get used to the industry and a few more to like and then love the industry and thrive in it. I came from the radio industry, which from a sales standpoint, moved very quickly. Yes, there are deadlines which don’t move and keep you on your toes in the tradeshow world, but it’s not like the radio world where a sales person could come in and need something to be written, voiced and produced and on the air within the hour. Which happened frequently. My first impression of the exhibit world was that things moved at a glacial pace. Boy did that take some adjusting!
Ever since I was a kid I wanted to work for myself. That radio thing was great for 25+ years, but in the back of my mind I was trying to figure out how to be my own boss. When I entered the tradeshow exhibit industry on a fluke when the radio industry changed, I was still working for someone else. It wasn’t until the owner of that company retired and I was thrust into the unknown (ever try to find a good-paying job in your mid 50’s?), I figured it was now or never. I’m still surprised by how well it worked out. There’s no guarantee, of course, but for now it’s good.
I can do marketing, blogging, podcasting, prospecting, phone calling, meeting people at shows and following up regularly – and yet when it comes time for a company to purchase a new exhibit, it seems no matter how much I try to stay in front of people, it’s easy for them to go elsewhere. Again, back to that magic button: how do you manage to stay in front of a decision-maker so that you’re there at the exact time they need you? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?
One way to differentiate myself was to write. Starting as a blogger in November 2008, producing ebooks and more, and finally writing a pair of books (Tradeshow Success in 2015 and Tradeshow Superheroes and Exhibiting Zombies in 2018) was my way of doing that. I couldn’t tell you how much it’s contributed to my success or helped make sales, but I like giving the book away to potential clients – and hey, a few even sell on Amazon now and then!
Another way to differentiate myself was to go back to using my radio skills. First as a guy who knew how to record digital audio and post it on our company website (anyone remember Real Audio?), and then as a podcaster on this blog. And of course, video is a gas, as well. My viewpoint is that the more real you are, the better chance you have of making a personal connection with someone who wants to do business with you. That’s always been my philosophy. Share who you are, what you like, and how you do things. In today’s world, making a personal connection is a way to get ahead.
I’ve been in the tradeshow industry for almost 20 years, and it seems like we’re moving into what may be the Golden Age of Tradeshow Marketing. Usually when you think of the “Golden Age,” you’re thinking of that long-forgotten past. A time of fun, peace and prosperity and good times. Us older folks might think of the Golden Age of Rock and Roll, for example, as the time when Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Buddy Holly were making music and leading the music charts. Or maybe we think of the Sixties as the Golden Age of Rock and Roll, when the Beatles led the British Invasion and with the help of bands such as the Rolling Stones, the Dave Clark Five, the Yardbirds and The Searchers dominated the music charts for years.
What about movies? Was the Golden Age the days of great movie stars such as Clark Gable, Dorothy Lamour, Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne, Greta Garbo and others lit up the big screen?
Or is the Golden Age something that might be happening today, and we won’t realize it for decades to come?
Tradeshow marketing may, in fact, be moving into something of a Golden Age. Look at what’s happened in the past decade or so: an influx of a variety of new products and technologies that is impacting the bottom line and exhibiting capabilities and impact in unforeseen ways.
Fabric graphics, for example, have pretty much taken over the tradeshow floor. Sure, you could see fabric graphics ten years ago, but they weren’t much to look at. The printing quality was suspect, and the fabrics were not all that great. But technology has improved fabric printing by leaps and bounds, and the same has happened to the fabric that is used for printing.
And what about light boxes or back lit fabrics? Just a decade ago salesmen would come through our door pitching the next generation of LED lights, which were definitely impressive. But the past ten years have seen a drastic drop in the cost of LED lights, and a sharp uptick in the quality of the lights.
And what about social media? Fifteen years ago, social media frankly didn’t exist. Online promotions were barebones at best. Email marketing was fairly well established, but preshow marketing stuck mainly to traditional channels such as direct mail and advertising. But now, any company that doesn’t engage in using Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and add on some elements of their outreach via YouTube and LinkedIn is increasingly rare. All of those social media channels have matured greatly and can be used to drive traffic and move people around a tradeshow floor.
Video is also part of the renaissance of tradeshow marketing which contributes to the idea that we’re experiencing a Golden Age. More and more exhibits show off one or more video monitors, and you’ll increasingly see video walls, which grabs visitors’ eyeballs with a visual impact that was previously unobtainable, or only at an ungodly price. Video production has also come down drastically in price and obtaining great footage to go with your video messaging at a lower cost means more exhibitors can show off a lot more of their brand for less. Drones, for one example, have given anyone the ability to drop in aerial footage into their brand videos for a few dollars, instead of the thousands of dollars it used to cost. Most brand videos I see at tradeshows have at least some drone footage, and I suspect that most people don’t even give it a second thought (I do – drone footage is freaking cool, man!).
Add to all of that the coming-of-age of Virtual Reality, which will open doors to creative people getting involved to do more fantastic VR for tradeshows. The VR I’ve seen so far has been disappointing, as were the first few VR games and programs I’ve seen. But lately the bar has been raised, and the quality and creativity will come up.
What about data tracking and electronic product showcases, such as ShowcaseXD? This and similar programs will not only allow exhibitors to show off products in an easy format, the data that comes out of these systems proves to be extremely useful to companies. Didn’t have anything as sophisticated as that only a decade ago.
Automated email has been around for perhaps a couple of decades, but that also gets more and more sophisticated, and combined with a data entry, product catalog or context on a tablet, marketers can send out detailed, personalized responses based on visitors’ interests.
All of these – and more technologies that I’ve either missed or are in their infancy – are having a great impact on tradeshows and giving exhibitors the ability to maximize their dollars, create a bigger splash, take home more data and find an edge in a very competitive marketplace.
If not a new Golden Age of Tradeshow Marketing, at least a Renaissance or resurgence.
As a wanna-be 70s hippie I follow the evolution of the legal cannabis industry with great interest. Not because I don’t use it so much anymore, but I’ve always felt that the use of marijuana – or as its getting to be known – cannabis – should be a personal choice, and government shouldn’t be locking people up for simply using it. I figure if the state allows alcohol as a social drug, it has no valid argument to disallow cannabis. But politics aside, it’s a fascinating industry.
Now that cannabis is legal across much of the country, with more states (and countries – Hello, Canada!) to follow, the first thing you’ll be seeing is much more data coming out. For instance, I ran across an article which shows that the method of cannabis consumption is changing. In the old days, you’d roll a joint. Maybe you’d bake some bud into a batch of brownies, and hope you ate the right amount. But now there is data showing that people are smoking it less and eating it more or finding other ways to consume cannabis without smoking.
So why is this topic showing up on a blog dedicated to tradeshows and the event industry? Because there happen to be a BUNCH of tradeshows dedicated solely to cannabis. For instance, there’s a big show in San Jose this summer, the Cannabis Business Summit, put on by the National Cannabis Industry Association, that will attract hundreds of exhibitors and thousands of attendees. And a listing at the Cannabis Business Times shows quite a few cannabis related events.
I’ve attended at least a half-dozen cannabis events in Oregon over the past few years and chatted with dozens of exhibitors about the industry and how they’re finding their way through an industry that, until just a few years ago, didn’t legally exist. Now that it’s out in the open, it wants to shine. Hence, the explosion of tradeshows and conferences dedicated to the industry.
Another twist: in the old days, it was never called cannabis. It was called marijuana, and the scourge of the devil weed, or reefer, spawned panicky movies (Reefer Madness), conspiracy theories and so on. Here’s a quick take on the reason it’s called cannabis these days and is rarely referred to as marijuana.
And what about the exhibitors? How are they faring in a new legal industry? I’ve spoken to many of them over the past couple of years, and as you might imagine, it’s a mixed bag. Some exhibitors are well-prepared with sharp-looking, functional exhibits. Others have barely managed to put up a cheesy vinyl banner hanging from the back of the drape behind an organizer-supplied table. In other words, it’s like a lot of industries.
I heard talk from some exhibitors that when legal cannabis happened here in Oregon, a lot of money rushed into the industry. Businesses were snapping up storefronts, staking out their ground and doing what they could to promote their new businesses. But since that beginning rush (no pun intended), reality is a bit of a come down. Some businesses have closed, others are trying to sell. It’s a marketplace where a glut of product is keeping prices down. And this comes all with an industry that is heavily taxed by the state so that it can be regulated properly. I recently saw that Oregon suspended applications for new cannabis outlets due to the backlog. For a deeper dive into the Oregon Economic Forecast that looks closer at recreational and medical marijuana, check this out (direct PDF link).
All of which brings me back to the statewide event industry and how its working with cannabis producers, retailers and supporting businesses. Coming in January, TradeshowGuy Exhibits will take part in its first cannabis-related event as an exhibitor. We’ll be at the Cannabis Collaborative Conference in Portland on January 23-24, 2019.