Exhibition Planning 101
Everything you ever wanted to know about exhibition planning, but were afraid to ask! In this guide, we will cover all the things you need to research, plan, design, print, make, order and organize as an exhibitor.
Like many people, I’ve attended a lot of exhibitions and always had grand visions of a mighty exhibit with outlandish structures, bold brand colors, flashing lights and bright TV screens. But unless you have tens of thousands to spare, your first exhibit will be considerably more modest – but that doesn’t mean it can’t be massively more successful.
You’ll be amazed at how successful a smart table, pop up banner, back wall design, some marketing materials and a couple of friendly staff can be!
But before we talk about getting creative with costs, let’s talk about the most important factor of all – Time.
Recently, I received a phone call from a sales guy desperately trying to fill the last few booths at a huge B2B exhibition. He was offering me an amazing opportunity with a prime location and enormous event exposure for very little money. What was the catch? The show was just 7 days away.
While our team at Mixam could certainly get everything researched, planned and designed within that time, getting all of the materials manufactured, printed and delivered would be dangerously tight. And should anything not go 100% to plan, we would experience serious problems.
The point I wanted to make is that you mustn’t rush these things. While good exhibits can be planned in weeks, great exhibits take months!
Before you throw thousands at an exhibition booth, attend the event first. In fact, attend events which may be just within the boundaries of your industry or target audience. You may be pleasantly surprised!
By taking the time to see what other exhibitors are doing at these shows, you’ll know how much budget to allocate to your exhibit, what works, what really doesn’t and where you’d want your booth to ideally be located.
Sometimes this means researching a particular show a whole year in advance of exhibiting there. Some shows run more frequently. But make sure you attend early, so you can speed round, take photos and get the measure of other exhibitors and their booths before the event becomes too crowded.
Most importantly, talk to the exhibitors, ask them how the show is going. Do they exhibit often? Get all the insider knowledge that you can. People are usually very forthcoming with this information. But obviously, don’t reveal yourself as one of their competitors, if you are one.
Don’t forget to research the audiences at your chosen event. Will you be marketing to other exhibitors or to the attendees? Think about how you’ll go about doing this. Look at how other exhibitors are already doing this successfully, or unsuccessfully.
Exhibition companies can be challenging to communicate with. Which is why an exhibitor pack will help you to make many of your decisions.
Although, you often have to speak to the sales team regarding booth and location prices. Thankfully, they’ll be more than happy to take your money! But anything beyond the booth booking requires you to fill out forms and chase random departments for information.
Once again, if you’re able to speak with someone who has already exhibited at this event, it will save you a lot of time and money.
For example, when my company exhibited at a trade show in Chicago, we discovered that a power cable with numerous plug points ran along the back of the booths. Everyone who had exhibited before seemed to know about this.
Meanwhile, we had paid a considerable sum to get power to our booth – which hadn’t even been set up correctly. So we purchased a 4-way extension cable from a hardware store close to our hotel and plugged our PC and presentation screen into the cable running along the back of the booths on our row.
In some instances, you can’t get an exhibitor pack for love nor money. One may not even exist. In this instance, plan your booth, list all the questions you need answer, get a sales person on the phone and badger them for all the information you need in 1 phone call. Take their name, their contact details and make them promise to get back to you with all the answers if they’re not able to get them for you. You will need to chase them! Even if you’ve purchased a booth to try to ‘seal the deal’.
Now you have all the information at your disposal, you need to plan your exhibit. How much budget do you have? How big will the booth be? What are you selling? How are you selling it? What is your messaging? What will it look like?
Start with the exhibition booth space that you can afford. Because this will quickly dictate the rest of your exhibit, as it is usually the biggest cost.
PRINT 18, Chicago, US
We purchased a 3ft x 3ft booth to launch our new mixam.com website and online ordering platform to a US B2B audience at huge print trade show.
Due to restrictions, we purchased a specific booth type with fabric back wall, downlights and carpet from the exhibition organizers. This meant we had 1 large back wall to design and a small space to fill. But rather than barricade ourselves in, we wanted the space to be open and welcoming for a discussion.
First, we designed our back wall and the clear message we wanted everyone to see.
Then we designed our space with a rounded pop up table at the front right, to place our display monitor and marketing materials on.
We designed our pop up table, video presentation, booklets, business cards, postcards and other marketing materials, by drawing inspiration from our back wall design. An upright booklet holder was placed front left, allowing prospects to take a booklet as they walked past.
Meanwhile, a pop up banner provided more information to passersby, without blocking our main message on the back wall. This was designed with the key messages from our booklet. And all of this was boldly designed with big text and big blocks of eye catching color!
The space worked very well, allowing some prospects to watch the live website demonstration to the right of the booth (with the demonstrator standing with them outside the booth), while other prospects were able to step into the open space to the left for a discussion with our team, while still being able to reach a booklet to their left or be given other, smaller, marketing materials to their right.
I felt this was a good example of how we started with one big piece and after thinking about the space, designed each item to tie in with the previous item, to create a unified design and consistent message.
Location, location, location
Some locations come at a premium. Others can be negotiated with the organizer based on your niche and target audience.
Always make sure that your booth is in a good location. Otherwise your team can find themselves disheartened, while you worry about getting a good return on investment for the cost of exhibiting. The secret to success is researching your chosen event ahead of time.
While we had been placed by the organizers at PRINT 18 in Chicago, we were able to specify where we wanted to be, having booked 6 months in advance, at our next event.
MCM Comic Con, London, UK
We took a slightly different approach when launching our new comic printing services at the UK’s biggest Comic Con event in London.
However, we had requested for our booth to be on the edge of the Comic Village, which consisted of rows of tables, purchased by independent comic book creators. They were our primary target audience for this event, while convention attendees were our secondary target audience. Being right next to the Comic Village as well as our target audience helped us in so many ways.
Once again, we purchased a 3ft x 3ft booth, but this time with 2 back walls on the corner of a row. We enjoyed a good flow of foot traffic from convention attendees, but being in close proximity to the Comic Village allowed us to quickly reach out to each exhibitor, providing them with marketing materials while allowing them to easily visit our booth and take part in our exclusive Comic Village exhibitor competition.
Remember how I spoke about time at the beginning of this article? You don’t just need time to research and plan your exhibit. You also need time to manufacture, quality check, possibly replace and transport all of your materials to your exhibition.
Don’t get me wrong, Mixam is an amazing print company with incredible quality and very short turnaround times. But even we make mistakes. And sometimes our courier service delivers a day later than expected. This is why it’s important to factor in extra time for any errors or issues.
For example, we had to reprint 1,000 flyers for our Comic Con exhibit. The costs were minimal, but it took a few days to print, dry, pack and ship. This is why we ensure that all of our materials from printed flyers to pop up banners are ordered and delivered 2 weeks before an event. Because should any issues arise, we have 2 weeks to get it right. Or make any small changes if need be.
So whatever you do, always give yourself that extra time. It’s certainly less stressful too!
Your Exhibition Team
Just like your designs and materials, you need your exhibition team to be bright, vibrant and welcoming, with the knowledge to sell your offering successfully. And like your research and planning, you need to choose and inform your team well in advance of any exhibitions. Otherwise they may not be available on the days you need.
Providing annual leave in lieu is mandatory. Extra pay is optional. Expenses are a great incentive, while presenting excellent ‘team bonding’ sessions post exhibition. And don’t forget to consider their travel and/or accommodation if the exhibition is particularly far from home.
How many people do you need in your team? That depends on the size of your booth. For a 3ft x 3ft, a team of 3 is a safe bet. 2 to hold down the fort, 1 to reach out and network. Roles and responsibilities can be fluid as your team take comfort breaks, speak to important prospects and research other exhibits for future shows.
Perfect Planning Prevents Poor Performance
The best laid plans can often go astray, but this is why you take plenty of time to plan in advance. And if in doubt, take extra materials with you. Because it’s always better to have something and not need it, than really need it and regret not bringing it.
Despite all your preparation and planning, you will find that exhibiting is a learning experience. Sometimes you need to adapt your stand mid-show. Sometimes your materials will be so popular, you’ll wish you’d made more. Sometimes one element you didn’t expect much from will perform spectacularly well, while your big show stopper fails to impress.
But, if you do plan properly and give yourself plenty of time, then you’re planning for success. And success is making back the cost of your exhibition stand – and more!
So long as you do this, you can easily build on your success next time.
Adam Smith lives a life of swashbuckling adventure at Mixam – a little print company with big ambitions. Having successfully launched in the US, the UK based company is rapidly expanding by disrupting the online market with fresh ideas, new innovations and a real passion for printing.