ALF NUCIFORA Most businesses will eventually exhibit at a trade show, whether they use an 8-by-10-foot booth with a simple table and backdrop or a 1,000-square-foot, two-story colossus with all the fanfare of a Barnum & Bailey circus. Companies have different motivations for exhibiting at trade shows. New companies and those entering a new market use them to create awareness and name recognition and to get attention. Companies with substantial market share and an existing client base use trade shows primarily to reinforce market position with existing clients, and secondarily to attract new clients. Finally, established companies with new product introductions, or those that want to create a new image rely upon trade shows to attract new clients while still maintaining communication with the existing client base. Yet trade-show costs continue to skyrocket, and most companies are led like lambs to the slaughter because of their ignorance of what constitutes proper planning and execution of a trade-show program. Here are some ways to get the most out of your exhibit. First, establish objectives. “This is where people fall behind,” said Gary Stewart, president of Design South, Atlanta’s leading trade-show marketing firm. “First, you should set overall objectives for the entire program. These might include creating a corporate image or generating X dollars in sales. Also, set objectives for specific shows, since each one has its own market niche.” Second, trade show attendees are looking for solutions. It’s not enough to just communicate information. Create a display and an environment that “seduces” the attendee to step into the booth and seek some answers. It’s also not enough just to feature your company’s name as the main element of the signage. Display a benefit as well… “Now, for the first time, a powerful laptop for under $1,000!” The design of your exhibit is also key. “Features such as color, materials, shape, mass, lighting, display and traffic flow, as well as codes and standards, are vital elements in developing an effective display,” said Stewart. “Use leading-edge colors. Red is exciting, but people aren’t comfortable standing on a red carpet.” Choose design elements that match the product type, e.g., high-tech booths for computer products and computer shows; mahogany and brass for professional services such as accounting and banking. And don’t forget lighting. Exhibitors can create movement, color and excitement with a carefully designed lighting arrangement. To ensure that your booth is optimally lit, bring your own lighting system. Meanwhile, it’s important to make sure to keep within your budget. Don’t forget that the cost of trade-show participation involves more than just designing and building a booth. It includes hiring booth personnel, reserving display product for the site, set-up costs and travel expenses including hotel, airfare and per-diem costs. In the majority of cases, so-called ancillary costs can take a significant bite out of your overall budget, costs that are quite often ignored until it’s time to ship the booth and book the airfares. Next, make sure to train your exhibit personnel. Many an attractive booth suffers because it’s staffed by personnel who don’t know how to man it. Train your staff to know how to approach attendees and involve them in a buying conversation. “Don’t overwhelm the visitor. And don’t look too hungry and aggressive as the visitor approaches,” said Allen Konopacki, president of Incomm International, a Chicago-based sales training center for trade-show exhibitors. “People will make a judgment as to whether or not they are going to go into an exhibit from as far away as 50 yards.” Learn how to locate the serious buyers. Some visitors to your booth will have already bought from another company and simply want to “kick your tires” (compare products). Your concern is to locate the serious customer who is ready, willing and able to buy. Konopacki says these “solution seekers” constitute only 5 percent to 13 percent of total show attendees. How do you know who’s serious and who’s not? Ask the right questions. Why are you here? What’s your particular need? What attracted you to our booth? How did you hear about us? Have a point of view. Build your exhibit around a theme and carry that theme through the pre- and post-show promotion. Send out pre-show direct mail incorporating the theme to last year’s attendees. Offer them an incentive to visit your booth (e.g., a relevant gift, sweepstakes or an offer to sample the product). Let them know where you’ll be situated (e.g., booth 109 in the Southeast corner of the West Wing). Remember that the majority of exhibitors do not engage in any pre-show promotion, a wasted opportunity if ever there was one. Beware of celebrities. It’s quite often a mistake to bring in a celebrity who is not associated with your company. “People will remember that they saw actor Don Johnson, but they probably won’t remember what exhibit he was in,” Stewart said. “The celebrity sometimes outweighs the message you are trying to convey.” And beware of premiums and giveaways. They’re valuable if they can attract an audience and create some buzz, but most times they’re expensive and superfluous. Finally, don’t forget the follow up. Sixty-plus percent of primary leads end up in filing cabinets and in-trays and never get followed up. The waste is staggering. Do something with the leads call them, write to them, send them material, pursue them until you force a buy or a no-buy decision. Trade-show exhibiting is an inevitability, even for the small business. Don’t waste the opportunity. If you must be at the show, put your best foot forward. Have clear objectives. Plan carefully. And think through the consequences of every decision you make, from training to merchandising to follow-up. Follow the disciplines and trade-show expense will provide a return on the investment every time. Alf Nucifora is an Atlanta-based marketing consultant. He can be contacted via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by fax at (770) 952-7834.