By Beth Borrego / Published September 2015
If you are reading this article, you have either exhibited in a show of some kind before, or you are considering the investment, and wondering what you’ll need to do and how much you’ll need to invest. Trade shows and home shows are not for everyone, but when they’re properly planned and executed, many businesses see a positive return on their investment. The key, of course, lies in knowing which shows to exhibit in and how to structure your booth to gain the most focused exposure for your intended audience.
What kind of show is best for your business? There are all kinds of show venues out there, and they are not all created equal. Shows with annual schedules and repeat vendors are your best bets. There are shows dedicated to manufacturers, distributors and resellers, and contractors. The intended audience may be other businesses or individual, residential consumers. Successful shows are well planned, have floor layouts that make sense, and are well-advertised to attract attendees. If you plan to invest in booth space and know others who have exhibited at a particular show before, ask them how they felt about the attendance and if they would exhibit again. Don’t be afraid to ask the promoter how he/she plans to advertise the show. Ask how he/she plans to get the word out there. Beware of shopping mall shows that do no advertising and rely on foot traffic. Mall traffic is not looking specifically for you, and your afternoon appearance is coincidental to the mall traffic.
Some of the questions you should be asking yourself prior to committing to a show are important in guiding you to make a sound decision.
• Why should our company exhibit at this show?
• What is the focus of this show?
• What kinds of products and services will be exhibited at the show?
• What is the target audience the show promoter is aiming for?
• What is the size of that target audience, and how will it be reached?
• How does exhibiting at this show fit in with our company’s marketing strategy?
• How does exhibiting at this show fit in with our targeted sales goal specifically?
• What period of time will it take to realize a return on investment; is the sales cycle longer or shorter for what I have to offer?
See Table 1. So you’ve decided on the venue. How do you select the booth? If this is your first show, you’ll probably want to start small. A 10 ft. x 10 ft. booth is probably all you’ll need. When selecting your booth space, don’t just look at the price, but also look at the location. People who attend shows typically enter and walk the show in what’s called the grocery store pattern, meaning that they enter the hall through the registration area, turn right following the wall, and then come back down the other aisles. Some of the popular places to be on a show floor are by the concession stand, the restrooms, and the demonstration or speaker areas. Before selecting your space, be sure to study the floor layout. At some shows, the least expensive booths are the ones that are farther back and less traveled. Beware of being placed next to booths such as cooking and food demo booths, since those purveyors typically wear microphones and tend to be loud, drowning out customer conversation in your booth. Many attendees avoid those areas altogether.
To put together a proper booth, you’ll need to be aware of the guidelines that exist regarding trade show booths. Factors such as ceiling or canopy height, adjoining side and rear wall height, signage, lighting, and any food distribution all come into play. Typically, trade shows set up standard pipe and drape framing at the standard, allowed height for the booth size and style you purchase. Pipe and drape are not set up for island booths. Usually chalk or tape marks on the floor will indicate the booth corners, depending on if the floor is concrete or carpet. If a standard cardboard sign is hanging in the rear of the booth, the booth number, company name, or both are often displayed on it. There is a term to be aware of when you design a booth, and that is what’s known as line of sight. If you’re in a row of 10 ft. x 10 ft. booths for example, you cannot erect a solid wall between you and your neighbor to the left or right of you, because attendees can’t view all of the booths in the row properly and equally when walking in either direction down the aisle because their line of sight has been obscured. If you have a three foot pipe and drape between you and another booth, don’t build higher than that pipe and drape. It’s also important to maintain all of your booth items within your booth space. Booths that encroach onto the aisle are not allowed.
There are also guidelines for cloth and lighting. You must have the manufacturer’s tags on any cloth canopies or table cloths indicating that they are flame retardant. Likewise, any lights used in your booth must be rated for trade show use. Certain halogen lights, flashing or pulsing lights, and laser lights should be avoided. No open flame candles may ever be used. Typically, a halogen light may not exceed 75 watts, and the bulb front must be sealed with glass. The light fixtures you select must meet the requirements for your venue, due to fire regulations. If you’re building your first booth, plan for future events by selecting items that will meet the strictest guidelines. The Las Vegas show standards are very stringent and tend to be used in most places, but checking with your local venue first is a good idea.
Also, remember that no gas- or diesel-powered engines may be run on the show floor. The fumes are hazardous and the equipment is combustible. No food may be cooked in your booth without permission. Vendors selling cookware are typically exempt from this but must disclose the nature of their exhibit and their intent to cook. Some shows will not accept cookware exhibitors as vendors at all. An exhibitor who wishes for example to pop popcorn to give away in their booth to attract attendees may be denied permission because it may be viewed as competition for the concessions stand that is typically found at the show. Stick to a candy dish with individually wrapped candies; it’s easier, and no one minds that you have it there. Many companies put out a candy dish in their booth at some point.
Now let’s take a look at the different types of booths. There are four types of booth configurations: standard linear, perimeter wall, peninsula, and island. The following booth display rules are typical, but regulations may vary by convention center, so it’s best to check with show management for specific regulations.
A standard linear booth (10 ft. x 10 ft.) is a booth that shares a common back wall with an exhibit directly behind it while connecting to other exhibits on either one or two sides. The maximum height is typically 8 ft. In some cases the 8 ft. height may be maintained on the sidewall of your booth up to a distance of 5 ft. from the front aisle. However, this is not always the case. Some venues will not allow the 8 ft. height on the sides at all, restricting it to the back wall. The remaining length of the sidewall may be no higher than 4 ft, but again, in some places, a side height may not exceed 3 ft. high. Check with show management, and let your pipe and drape enclosure be your guide.
A corner booth is a linear booth exposed to an aisle on two sides. All other guidelines for linear booths apply to a corner booth. A corner booth is nice because it allows for better traffic flow in and out of the booth, meaning that you’ll have two aisles for traffic to flow from. It is important to note that hanging signs aren’t permitted over standard linear booths. All signs are typically displayed at the back of the booth.
A perimeter wall booth is typically 10 ft. x10 ft. and is basically a standard linear booth found on the perimeter walls of the exhibit floor and backed up against the wall of the showroom, meaning you will only have neighbors next to you. This placement can be ideal if you are on the right hand wall because of the grocery store pattern most people follow. In some cases, the maximum height is higher for these booths, and, depending on the show, you may be allowed to have a display as high up as 12 ft. The rules governing the side walls remain the same, and so do the rules regarding hanging signs over the booth.
A peninsula booth may be 20 ft. x 20 ft. or 20 ft. x 10 ft. It will have an aisle on three sides, and a booth or booths connected to the back wall. There are a couple of ways the peninsula booth might be configured. It could back up to a group of standard linear booths, or it may back up to another peninsula booth. When two peninsula booths back up to one another, it’s also known as a split island booth. Hanging signs are usually allowed over these booths. If a peninsula booth backs up to a row of standard linear booths, the back wall will most likely be subject to line of sight height restrictions. Check with the show promoter to see what the specifics are for the venue you are considering if these restrictions would not work for you. It’s better to be placed in another location than to upset other vendors and the show management by erecting an improperly sized booth.
An island booth is any exhibit measuring 20 ft. x 20 ft. or larger and surrounded by aisles on all four sides. The regulations for these booths vary from one exhibit hall to another, but typically the maximum height is between 20 ft. and 30 ft. It is best to check to see what the regulations are for this type of booth before investing in one. Depending on the vendor and the booth contents, these booths can be very elaborate. Because they take longer to construct, they’re often the first booths built on move in day, with the next size down moving in next and so on.
Once you have determined where you want to be on the showroom floor, then you’ll want to request to not be placed next to your competitors. Most shows have a space on the form for you to list any companies you do not want to be near. The promoter will also be able to tell you which competitors are exhibiting, where their booths are located, and what size they are. For this reason, it is important to reserve your booth space early when the floor space first becomes available. Waiting too long may mean you won’t be able to get the space you like best.
Union labor is more expensive and can drive your show cost up considerably. If you can handle your own set up and tear down, and empty your own booth trash, you’ll save on extra fees. When possible, avoid renting tables and chairs and having the staff set your booth up. You will need electrical power in the booth for lights and any computer devices. Don’t spend money on the Internet if you can generate your own hot spot.
Offer a show special to entice people to step into your booth. Have sign-up sheets or an electronic input device to take information. In addition to the typical contact information, you will want to collect information about which services they’re interested in. Make sure you have certain items in the booth to provide them with, such as business cards, brochures, and perhaps a keepsake like a pen or plastic bag to carry show items in.
Don’t fill your booth with clutter. There are certain items you need in your booth, but too many items can become information overload. Well-placed literature and business cards and a few key brochures are the main ingredients. Your booth should be well lit, with the lighting aimed at the signage or banner for your company, or onto key parts of the display.
Photos depicting your work or products should be included. In some cases, a monitor displaying photos or video in a loop might be important to include.
Both your professional demeanor and appearance in the booth are important, and your company image is reflected in them. Try not to sit and let people walk by. Get up on your feet, smile, and say hi to people as they mill about. Don’t be like a used car salesman trying to drag them into the booth, but don’t ignore them either. Put a small bowl of candy in the booth for those folks who stop. A little candy often attracts the kids and the parents follow. Whatever you do, don’t make the mistake of setting up the booth and leaving it unattended.
Sometimes sponsorship opportunities are available at shows, for an extra fee. If this is your first show, stick to the basics, and leave the sponsorship for another year. Don’t wear dirty clothes or unprofessional attire. In general, nice khaki slacks or new jeans, with an embroidered polo shirt or button down dress shirt sporting your company logo are the way to go. If you are wearing embroidered apparel, make sure that all of the staff in your booth has company branded attire to wear. Wear comfortable shoes. Showroom floors are hard on your feet, and in turn, your back. Make sure you are well rested and have a good breakfast or lunch before going into the show. Keep a small, travel-sized container of hand sanitizer in your pocket. You’ll be shaking hands quite a bit. Stay healthy.
Remember that making a good impression with the other vendors takes professionalism and time. Try networking with other companies who are exhibiting to see if you can generate some referral business. Many vendors who participate in shows frequently become used to seeing certain vendors year after year. Don’t be surprised if you are not referred business immediately. Business relationships can take a while to form, since those referring the business to you put their own company reputation on the line when referring to a company they don’t yet know well. Take some time and cultivate vendor relationships throughout the show. Cultivating relationships is a great thing to do if the show floor is slow as well. A successful show is about more than just the walk-in booth leads.
Suitcasing is frowned upon by promoters and vendors as well. From time to time, a company representative will come into the show with the sole purpose of soliciting business from other vendors and promoting their business, or walking up to other show attendees, without having purchased booth space. Typically, when event staff is made aware of their presence, suitcasers will be asked to leave the show out of respect to those who have paid to do business on the floor for the duration of the event.
Be respectful of the show hours. The showroom will open and close at certain times. It is frowned upon by both the promoters and other vendors when booths are unattended or dismantled during show hours. The same holds true for not completing set up before the show opens. Most shows have a schedule for set up and tear down based upon booth size, floor location, or the like. Again, it is important to be flexible and to work with the promoter. Disregarding the schedule will only upset fellow vendors and the event staff. Be courteous, and everyone will get in, and out, and have a good show. The one exception to the normal set up and tear down schedule is that some companies will tear down on Saturday at the end of the day for religious reasons if the event runs through Sunday and will not exhibit on Sundays. If a booth is dismantled late on a Saturday, the promoters do not refill that space. Occasionally, the booth will remain and simply be vacant on Sunday to be dismantled on Monday provided another event is not scheduled in the venue. If you do not want your booth to be near a vacant space on a Sunday, make sure to note on your form that you wish to be placed next to companies who will remain for the entire show. This is simply a business decision. The show attendees, your potential new customers, enjoy exploring full aisles on the showroom floor.
If you own a truck that has signage on it, see about parking in front of the entrance in the main parking lot if one is available, instead of in the rear of the building. A lettered truck is a billboard and another way to let people know you are at the event. Not all shows allow it, however, so make sure to read all of the show information provided to vendors before doing so. It’s always best to be on good terms with the show promoter.
As you answer questions in the booth, set the expectations with your potential new customers regarding lead time for shipping a product or performing a service. Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Sometimes, you’ll get tire kickers in your booth. These are the folks who come to the show, look around, ask lots of questions, and have no intention at all of buying now or in the future. Sometimes attending a show is simply a way to spend an afternoon. By inquiring about their interest and asking a few specific questions, you’ll be able to discover this and turn toward someone else who enters your booth without feeling guilty about missing an opportunity. When this happens, just politely excuse yourself from the conversation and move on to the next prospect. Don’t worry. They’ll understand and move along to another tire.
Not all attendees will make immediate purchases. Depending on what you have to sell, meeting the attendee and collecting their contact information may simply be the first step toward cultivating a relationship culminating in a business transaction. In fact, following up on show leads and converting them to sales is where many vendors fall short. Each attendee whose information you gather should become a part of your database and should be specifically followed up on shortly after the show to address their specific interests in your products or services. Waiting for the attendee to contact you simply because they have a business card or brochure is not proactive and is the least effective way to secure new business. If you have an e-mail program that you use, consider creating a thank you note to send specifically to those attendees who visited your booth thanking them for stopping by and let them know you’ll be in touch to provide them with the information they need. Of course, then you need to follow up with all of them. Prepare yourself ahead of time for this task. Where possible, assign office staff to take care of some of the follow up. Any personal calls or estimates that need to be done should be attended to as quickly as possible. Make sure you have cleared your schedule and blocked off some time so that you’re able to respond in a timely fashion.