There are four great resources for any organization to utilize when searching for the perfect show to participate in as an exhibitor. The first is available on the Web at TSNN.com. This site has a search engine listing trade shows and seminars, with background and other pertinent show information. Best of all, it's free. Three other great resources are local Convention and Visitor's Bureaus, the local Chambers of Commerce, and the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE). Each of these organizations come into contact with show planners of all types and may even have comprehensive show calendars that you can use in your planning.
There’s no shortage of opportunities either. In past surveys, ASAE indicated their member societies plan 375,980 meetings, expositions and seminars involving more than 272 million attendees. And some of these associations are planning huge trade shows with attendance for the top seven ranging from 65,000 to 148,000 attendees. This doesn’t include the opportunities available via hundreds of millions of dollars spent in “sponsorships” that elicit equal to even greater exposure than a trade show.
It is estimated that 82% of all trade show attendees come to see new products. So, for the relatively unknown association, trade shows are powerful mediums for increasing awareness, allowing it to compete right alongside bigger, more established organizations. And, for those associations already established in the marketplace, a trade show is an excellent venue to “make the sale” on membership or other services. Since most attendees at a trade show arrive predisposed to buy, it isn't uncommon for them to sign up for memberships on the floor, or in follow-up sales calls after the event.
It is best to do some research and make a list of all the shows that will put you in front of the right audience. Just because a show has to do with your industry, does not mean it will attract the right type of attendee. Figuring out who usually attends the show is just as important as figuring out at which show your association should exhibit. You want to ensure that the average attendee is someone who can make a decision on the show floor about your valuable offers. Once you have the ideal shows identified, then it's time to see which ones are affordable for your association.
Before you invest any time in planning or money in developing materials, it is critically important to determine your return on investment (ROI) and how you plan to measure the show’s success or failure. Too many exhibitors cannot demonstrate a return on their investment because they don't start out with a plan. What is the purpose of even attending the show? What do you need in terms of results? Is this show to create awareness, leads or sales? How many leads are needed? How many sales? Are the objectives for the show realistic for your abilities and resources?
Once you have a solid set of objectives, you can identify if a show is the right one to help you, and the clear objectives also help focus your efforts and control your expenses. Many corporate companies can link 60% of their annual sales to trade shows. But they can only do this because they have a solid plan. Trade shows will typically produce results proportionate to the amount of effort put into them. It is not uncommon to attend shows where a booth is understaffed (not enough people), poorly staffed (the wrong people), or not staffed at all. Just letting a show happen to you is a sure-fire route to expensive failure. To get the most out of a trade show you need to put energy, time and effort into planning, promotion, staffing and following up.
Success can be measured, but again, you have to know in advance what you're trying to measure. Figuring this out after the fact is nearly impossible. If you're trying to generate member prospects, then you're going to need some type of promotion beforehand inviting qualified prospects to your booth. Once they arrive you can qualify them further by asking questions and collecting their contact information. (Just having the fishbowl for business cards is a waste of time. You have no idea who is dropping in their cards.)
If you're trying to generate awareness, create pre-show promotion that gets people to your booth. There you'll have demonstrations, free samples, and other literature which is coded so you know where it came from. Then, do some post-show measurement by calling and surveying attendees to see if they remember you, and what they thought of your product or service. Again, you've got to know what you want to measure and create a plan to measure it before you can actually measure it.
Why do all this planning? One simple answer: Trade shows are not cheap. While they can produce significant results for your association, they can also be a black hole of critical resources if not carefully considered and planned for.
If you plan to do a lot of them, then it might make sense to invest in a custom-made display. If however, you are just going to do one a year, then renting a display has some advantages—especially if you're on a tight budget.
Here are the common expenses involved in exhibiting at a trade show. These will vary greatly by the type of booth you expect to have. Obviously larger booth spaces and more complex displays will significantly raise costs.
- Travel and lodging for whomever will be staffing the booth if the show is out of town
- Employee time for those who are staffing the exhibit (if you don’t have volunteers)
- Shipping of materials, display, etc.
- Booth rental with supplies (tables, carpet, electricity, chairs, plants, etc.)
- Display rental or purchase
- Promotional materials
- Pre-show promotion or advertising
- Post-show promotion or advertising
Depending on the show and its popularity, renting booth space can cost a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands of dollars. It is important to note that not all the "popular" shows are necessarily the best for every business. Many exhibiters show up at these because they have to, not because they get a lot of business from them. Sometimes the smaller shows can produce great sales results.
Because the booth rental fee usually only covers the space itself, you’ll also need to budget for curtains, chairs, tables, plants, carpet, electricity, video or sound equipment, extra lighting, trashcans, and more. Basically, plan to pay for absolutely anything and everything you don't bring yourself. And if you wait until the set-up day prior to the show to order an item from the exhibition management company, expect to pay a sizeable markup for the last-minute order.
The display itself does not have to be a major exhibit expense. Yes, you can likely rent one, but for a few hundred dollars you can get a really nice, lightweight, and portable display. One of my favorite places to get displays is from the good people at Earnest Images and ask for Rick (I receive no benefit from making this recommendation -- I am just a very happy customer). Larger displays with attachments and gadgets will dramatically raise the price. If you want to purchase your own 10'x10' floor display with custom photos, plan on spending a few thousand dollars. Today's displays are flexible enough that if you need to change out the images a year later, you should be able to do that for a modest cost.
But it's not just the display that makes your exhibit a success or not. Successful exhibitors at shows also plan pre- and post-show promotions. They send invitation-style announcements to their existing database of customers or prospects, or they may buy a targeted list from a list broker, or rent the show's attendee list from the prior year. These promotions can be direct mail, advertising, telemarketing, e-marketing or other formats. Your goal is to let people know you'll be at the show and to get them to your booth. A game or promotion where they have to visit your booth for the prize or a free gift often helps. These promotions can elaborate or simple, but plan to spend at least $1000 on postage, lists, and materials.
In determining your costs you’ll also need to account for whatever promotional materials you bring with you to the show such as samples of your product or company literature. Make sure you have enough to do the show and some left over for business afterwards. Creating specialized materials just for a show is a good idea because it can help you track leads or sales afterward. With the advent of quick digital printing, these materials can be simple and expensive to produce, yet professional looking and attractive. Some quick print chains may even be able to print your order in the city in which you are attending the show and deliver the materials to your booth saving you shipping costs.
Participating as an exhibitor can make a huge contribution to your association’s member acquisition and marketing campaigns. But before you register for any event, make sure you have a solid, measurable plan developed beforehand. This plan will help to preclude any unexpected and unwanted outcomes making your trade show experience a positive one.
-- David Kinard, PCM