How to get results from exhibitions

Some business chiefs swear by the benefits reaped from exhibitions, while others say it's all a waste of money.

All tend to agree, however, that making the most of the opportunity comes down to sound preparation, identifying what you want to achieve by attending and making sure you have methods to evaluate whether that has happened.

John French, chairman of Croma Group, uses business exhibitions extensively, both to raise brand profile and to attract potential backers. ‘At investment shows, the most important thing is to have people on the stand from the most senior level. Investors want to feel they have spoken to the top brass, so they can get a feel for the company and its management,’ he says.

In addition to attracting new people to your company, existing clients, customers or investors may want to visit your stand to check on company progress, in which case you can use the exhibition as a public relations opportunity and to drum up additional custom or investment.

Making an impact

‘Exhibitions, particularly investor shows, are a really good way for us to get the brand noticed,’ says marketing manager Debbie Sharples of vocational training provider ILX Group. ‘We hope people will watch us in the market after the show and take an interest. At trade shows the idea is that people will either buy on the day or allow us to meet them soon afterwards so that we can demonstrate the products.’

‘Having a vast range of products on show is difficult at these exhibitions,’ agrees French, ‘so you would be wise to take some information along that people can take away with them. We also produce a shareholders’ newsletter for existing investors. But it’s important to remember that whatever the type of show, people will be walking around with carrier bags full of information, most of which will be thrown away, so quality of information is important. Hand out useful details, not bumf, and don’t just turn up and stand there – have something to be remembered by, such as a new product to launch.’

Exhibition stands can be expensive, but the benefits should outweigh the costs. ‘At major trade shows we usually expect to pay anything from £2,000 to £10,000 for a large shell stand, plus staff costs, depending on the size and notoriety of the exhibition,’ says French.

‘We generally go all out on our stand,’ says Sharples. ‘We bring a full pop-up banner, brochures and give-away bags, business cards and sweets. A stand that looks presentable and professional draws a lot more attention than a simple pull-up banner and a table.’

Related: How to attract visitors to your exhibition stand

After the show, you can measure the success by the amount of follow-on sales. ‘We always ask where people have heard of us when we make a sale. With investor shows we watch the share price over the subsequent weeks,’ she concludes.

‘To make the most of the meetings you have at the exhibition, take details from the people who visit your stand,’ advises French. Alternatively, you could provide somewhere for people to leave their business cards, but make sure you follow up on the contacts, preferably within 24 hours to show that you’re interested in them and the business they might bring to your company’.

Case study: Getting the most out of exhibitions

Display and merchandising company Ripple Developments hadn’t exhibited for 15 years after experiencing some disappointing results. Now, however, the company has decided to think again.

‘Based on the experience of our last exhibition I was somewhat cynical,’ says David Wolfenden, managing director. But Ripple decided to have another try and exhibited at the In-store Design & Marketing Show at Earls Court.

The target set was to achieve 30 new customers bringing in sales of £500,000 and to establish Ripple’s profile as a leading player in its industry. Wolfenden called on the expertise of The Exhibiting Agency (TEA), which focuses on providing training and outsourcing services for exhibitions.

‘It comes as no surprise to me that attendance at exhibitions is falling off by up to 40 per cent,’ says John Blaskey, TEA’s founder. ‘It’s not enough to produce a smart exhibition stand and expect the orders to come flooding in. Like every marketing discipline, careful planning, preparation and follow-up is essential to ensure success.

Four key areas must be addressed, according to Blaskey. Customers must be attracted to the stand, time-wasters must be rejected, prospective customers should be informed about the credentials of the company and, finally, attempts must be made to arrange an appointment after the exhibition.

Unusually, Blaskey cautions that use of the company’s sales team on the stand might hinder results. ‘Sales people can spend too long talking up the company. The point is to be concise and to get a commitment,’ he argues.

He also doesn’t advocate the use of promotional materials. ‘No literature or freebies, it draws attention away from your message and most of it will end up in the dustbin anyway.’

In addition, companies should consider exhibiting, not only at the shows that target their own industries, but also at their potential clients’ exhibitions, as their competitors are less likely to be there.

After following TEA’s advice, Ripple gained 190 qualified new business leads from the show and plans to exhibit again soon. ‘Ripple’s profile was raised to something that not only made us the envy of the show, it altered the perspective of virtually all the prospects, customers, competitors and very importantly our own employees,’ comments Wolfenden.

Marc Barber

Marc Barber

Marc was editor of GrowthBusiness from 2006 to 2010. He specialised in writing about entrepreneurs, private equity and venture capital, mid-market M&A, small caps and high-growth businesses.

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