Writing and Implementation of a Trade Show Campaign

You might have heard the phrase, “Before you criticize me, walk a mile in my shoes.” Have you actually tried that? I had the opportunity nearly three years ago when my co-worker and friend Chad succumbed to a rare and juvenile form of liver cancer.

He was 36 years old and left behind two-year-old twins and a wife. The greatest lesson he taught me was to never criticize during adverse situations, but rather find a solution and move forward.

Although Chad was my good friend and colleague, I always thought I could do his job better. I knew he worked hard and I saw the time he put in. But I thought: How hard can it be to manage the company’s trade show and sponsorship program? I was ushered into his role – it was baptism by fire.

After the first couple of months of walking in Chad’s shoes as an exhibit coordinator, I felt as though I should have taken a page from the Saturday Night Live series “Deep Thoughts by Jack Handey” when Handey wrote, “Before you criticize someone you should walk a mile in their shoes. That way when you criticize them, you are a mile away from them and you have their shoes.”

This position opened my eyes and stretched me professionally contrary to my prior belief of the simplicities regarding trade show management. I now find myself working many late nights and hours just like Chad. However, instead of wondering why he was working late, I diligently try to catch up and tread the waters of the exhibition oceans.

Writing a campaign and especially one involving trade shows as a focus determines in large part the success or failures of a project.

Tip: Get to know your company on a deeper level

As is the case with business development, SEO, sales and marketing, the first step to gaining market share is to know yourself, as in your company. Who are the founders and who are you working for now? Knowing the answers to these questions can position yourself to begin understanding the culture and beliefs of your company.

The personalities you work with are vital in understanding where to begin an exhibit plan. In the exhibit industry you will answer to the marketing and sales departments for the most part. However, you will also coordinate with all groups that can touch the trade show in any way.

Authors Tom Stovall and Dustin Grainger said in their book “Building Competitive Immunity,” “Knowing the attributes, strengths and weaknesses of your products is fairly straightforward. To know your company, you need to be familiar with its financial resources, science, technology and any other unique capabilities it brings to the table.”

For example, at an upcoming expo, ARUP Laboratories will bring nearly 30 people from the business development arena alone. Within the laboratory and technical sides of our business, another 50 or so will attend.

Each group has its own style and its own vernacular. Knowing how to effectively communicate with departments can set your program and plans up for success.

Technique: Who said what?

With email, instant messaging and texting, there seems to be a need to write quickly and break some rules. Capitalization takes a back seat, punctuation is hung out to dry and grammar plays second fiddle. The use of industry jargon is often difficult to understand. The correct choice of words establishes credibility.

Talk with the lead representatives from your company who will influence your efforts, including outside vendors too. Listen to the key words they use and ask “What do they expect me to know as their public relations and trade show coordinator?” Vendors and clients will open up with insights into their field using the keywords from their industry.

Never let people continue with their thoughts without first understanding what they are saying. If they are speaking over your head on a subject or term what makes you think that by smiling and nodding you increase your ability to strengthen the campaign.

The same bodes true with writing an exhibit plan. As an exhibit planner you must ensure that nothing is difficult for the reader to grasp. Although the CEO may have a Ph.D. after his or her name, you should still use simple terms and quick explanations when discussing your specific industry.

Nate King, VP of Sales with Insight Exhibits, hones in on the simplicity and importance of the written word in communication. He said, “As someone that has touched nearly every aspect of the trade show industry I want to make it clear that you have three to five seconds to capture someone’s attention. If it’s not written plain and simple what you do and what you can offer; it’s not worth creating.”

I echo that sentiment in writing your exhibit plan. You’ll definitely have your audience’s attention when they read a trade show plan, but if you make it too noisy and cumbersome you will lose any power in point that you try to convey.

Tip: Understand your audience

When you dive into the exhibit industry, the most important question you can ask is which exhibitions your company should attend. Expos and conferences happen every day in numerous industries.

There are expos for knitting, weddings, paintball, history, gaming, mathematics, cancer, housing and pastries to name a few. It’s similar to the phrase “There’s an app for that.” In the exhibit industry, you’d say “There is an expo for that.”

In my field of laboratory medicine I manage a handsome budget and coordinate approximately 75 trade shows and sponsorships annually. It seems like many, but we don’t attend numbers of expos in our field because they do not target our intended and immediate audience.

You’ll spend liberal amounts of money when exhibiting at conferences. As a rule of thumb you should triple the cost of the floor space you purchase. This will give you a close estimate on what you will spend on extras. I’ll speak more to budgeting later, but the reason I say this now is that when spending so much money and effort on a conference, you better know that you are targeting the right audience.

Technique: Align your collateral to the level of the audience

Take time to research forums and websites of your target audience at an upcoming conference. For example, make a list of three areas of interest and application in your life. For the first one pick something you love to do. Second, choose an activity or place that you’ve wanted to learn more about. Third, note what you do at work.

Research all three online and find forums and groups for each one. This is a great activity to understand how writing for three different topics reflects changes in style and technique. The exercise will give you the keywords and understanding necessary to speak with and write to your target audiences.

When writing your exhibit plan for the target audience for your product and services use the terms and phrases that you latched on to throughout your research. This will impress management and prove that you have an understanding of the industry.

Knowing how to write to your audience can close or break a deal. When we create a piece of literature or a brochure to be handed out at a conference, which is done numerous times per year, we must always write to and attempt to communicate best with the intended reader.

An audience has an agenda. People know where they want to be and have mapped out their stops at the trade show to maximize their time and efforts. What attendees want to get from you is the language they understand, put simply enough to comprehend and sophisticated enough to not be offended.

Tip: Will this cost money? Yes, budget for it!

My family purchased a car recently and I didn’t sleep for two nights as I constantly played over in my mind the “what if” game. The cost we had planned for was not what we paid for. We found a car under our budget and when we sat down to talk with the dealer we found ourselves going back and forth on what it would cost with taxes, licenses and fees. We left paying more than expected.

Trade shows are the same way. When you are filling out your exhibitor application to purchase the real estate of where your display will reside during the duration of the conference you see only a portion of the price it costs to rent that space.

You also need to take into account the other components of the exhibit – shipping your materials, labor, installation and dismantle, material handling at the conference center or hotel, electricity, audio and visual, floral, porter service, cleaning, lead retrieval, housing, transportation, etc.

Earlier this year our company exhibited at a conference in Hawaii. As a domestic company we seldom cross large bodies of water. I understood the cost of shipping our crates throughout the continental states, but evidently didn’t understand the cost of shipping over water.

Our booth space was costly for a 400-square-foot section of concrete over three days. It sounds steep, but when I opened our invoice from our carrier I felt my heart sink as I realized that they charged us nearly the cost of the floor space for a one-way shipment from Salt Lake City to Honolulu.

I called the carrier’s office and questioned the invoice, asking if it was a typo. Their response was that it wasn’t a typo and that we received a good deal on this shipment.  I panicked and started formulating a plan to tell my superior that I just sent our booth to Hawaii for what would end up being four times what I budgeted round trip in shipping cost alone. I found the gumption to tell my boss about my oversight during the budget process, not realizing the drastic increase in cost over water.

When my boss heard what I had done, she jovially told me not to worry. She said we were fine and confirmed what our carrier mentioned minutes earlier that she thought we got a great deal. I stood there with my mouth open wondering if she heard what I told her and restated the fact that I hadn’t budgeted this into our conference costs.

She explained that she padded the cost for shipping and wondered why I had budgeted so low. She understood the industry and realized that I had missed something. She forgot to tell me about that though and later explained that when shipping over water to plan for up to four times the cost as continental shipping.

Lesson learned is to double check on expenses and when in doubt, ask. I am now religious about receiving shipping quotes and quotes in general from vendors as to avoid these less-than-savory surprises.

Technique: Communicate the expenses up front with decision makers

When writing the budget into your trade show plan you will need to specify to the marketing and sales teams the estimated costs associated with the effort. To do this you will need to write the specifics and plan for the conference. Chronologically specify the happenings of the conference so management has an understanding of what to expect.

Next you should create a spreadsheet of the costs associated with the conference and be explicit in the numbers you show. This is the tricky part. Not all projections can be estimated accurately. Expect the unexpected at a trade show, not because you aren’t diligent in your planning efforts, but because you will undoubtedly come across barriers and hiccups that need addressing – at the expense of your company budget.

Lastly in the planning stage of budgeting be sure to educate the decision makers of the company of the jargon used. Let them know why you’ll be spending $5,000 on material handling and why the labor costs upwards to $100 per hour. Explain what a lead retrieval unit is and how it will increase the overall return on investment.

These terms may be confusing now, but once you’ve learned them in the next sections you will be able to communicate and understand the process much easier.

Tip: Know industry vernacular

Electrical – The electrical is generally run by the convention center. Every now and then there will be an outside agency that will lead the electrical services, but for the most part understand that you will deal with the hotel or convention center when ordering electrical services.

Get to know your equipment and how much voltage, amperage and watts are needed to safely run your display. When you order electrical services you will be asked to specify the amount of electricity your booth needs as well as where to set it on the floor or position it overhead.

Porter Service – This is the cleaning service offered by the general contractor at a conference. Is it nice to have, sure, but not worth the cost. A few years ago I purchased a Shark® rechargeable vacuum from a local store for under $70. This travels to all of my larger conferences now and has seen more of the United States than most of us. But it saves us a lot of money. To rent the vacuuming and garbage service you will likely pay close to $100 per show.

Take some time to roll up your sleeves and clean the booth, empty the trash bins and tidy up. If you run into a snag you can wrap duct tape around your shoe – sticky side out – and walk your carpet or flooring to pick up garbage, dirt and dust.

Material Handling – This is often called drayage. The general contractors at a conference make a financial killing on this service. It’s extortion, if you ask me, but we all have to play by those rules. How it works is that the exhibiting company pays per 200 pounds on crates, carpets, display materials and skids to be moved off your carrier’s truck and hauled to your exhibit space.

To give you an example of the cost let’s take the Hawaii show again. We shipped six large wooden crates, full of display materials, to the convention center. It cost us just less than $9,000 for a worker to pull up to our truck with a forklift, unload my crates off the truck and drive them 100 yards to my booth space and drop them off.

This service I must note also includes storing the crates in a corner of the convention hall, returning them at the end of the show so that I can pack them up again and then loading them back on the truck. If all goes to plan for the forklift driver, I estimate that this task would take no more than an hour tops to complete each of the four steps. That means that the contractor is making nearly $9,000 per hour. Of that money the forklift driver might see $30.

If that doesn’t boil your blood, I don’t know what will. Is there anything we can do about it? Nope. If you want to be where your customers are then you must play by the expo rules. Is it worth it in that case? Unfortunately, yes.

Lead Retrieval – This is a scanning device that you can capture the attendees’ information and be able to customize their status on your sales chain by scanning a bar code on the attendee’s badge or by entering in a number. Nearly every exhibitor will have this at their booth. Exhibitors will capture your information on that device and it will allow them to follow up in the future on products or services.

Unfortunately, this is an area of trade show marketing that goes neglected. Companies will capture leads and then watch them lie dormant in their data clouds without any sales follow-up. Unfortunately, many leads are forgotten about.

This is especially disheartening because the Center for Exhibition Industry Research reported in 2011 that “77 percent of the audience at any given trade show is a qualified lead.” A qualified lead is someone who has buying power, an agenda or a buying plan that can influence your bottom line.

Technique: Don’t be afraid to ask

When writing your marketing plan, you should use the most appropriate terms at the correct times. This will show your superiors that you understand the industry and its intricacies.

When you get into the trade show industry, you will quickly have vendors vying for your business. Use them as networking allies to assist you in your education as you write your exhibit plans.

Tip: Timeliness and the six Ps

As is the case with most aspects of life, procrastination is a nasty habit. In the exhibit industry it is also an expensive habit. As a general rule, begin writing your exhibit marketing plan for a specific expo no less than six months before the conference if possible.

This gives an opportunity to work with the components necessary for the show, whether that is booth staff or exhibition design. Most general contractors and convention centers will offer 10- to 20-percent discounts if the order is placed before a set date. Most look at a month to a month and a half before the show to end the discount pricing.

The six Ps referenced above stand for a phrase I learned during my junior high days: “Proper prior planning prevents poor performances.” That being said, there is only so much prior planning that can occur on your own timetable. Show management will often send out the exhibitor service manual, which includes all time-sensitive information and forms to purchase services, about two months before the show begins.

Once you receive the service manual, you should go through the approximately 70 pages and make notes and take care of business so that you are not playing with a ticking timeline that could cost your company money. When writing your plan it is extremely important to include dates and deadlines to the decision makers.

Technique: Write it, assign it and disseminate

An all-too-often trade show sin I see and am guilty of myself is not putting the plan in writing and sharing it with others. Six months before the show begins, you should have your first meeting with a small group within marketing and the sales lead regarding the show.

For example, if we have a genetics conference coming up, I will sit down with a Web editor, graphic designer, public relations specialist, marketing specialist and our genetics sales representative. We will create a timeline and ensure we are all on the same page.

This is the time that we run through a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats). Once this meeting is finished I strongly recommend writing down all notes and sending out a confirmatory email to the team addressing goals and tasks with due dates. Include this in your exhibit plan.

Tip: Use the right bait to lure in your customers

An industry staple is that of swag or more properly known as giveaways. Swag is the bait that brings people into your booth. It is amazing to see physicians and executives making a fine salary, stand in a long line at a trade show, just to get the free stress ball or rubber ducky that someone is giving away.

Utilizing social media to announce your giveaways and communicate your message has become an industry-wide eruption. According to Exhibitor Magazine, “The use of social media as a marketing tool has exploded over the past two years. For one, the percentage of marketers using social media as part of their exhibiting programs has increased by nearly 90 percent.”

The first trade show I attended exposed me quickly to all the “junk” that is offered as an incentive to visit a booth. The problem with this technique is that you get a lot of traffic through your booth that may not have buying or decision power for their company. They just want the fluffy toy to bring back to their kids or dogs.

Lately we began giving away an iPad at the end of each of our in-booth presentations. We found that by doing this we spark a giant interest for people to attend the presentations. It is the bait that gets them in the booth. After they are forced to sit through 10 minutes of educational material we raffle off the iPad by using the fill-out surveys we’ve created.

If you feel the iPad is an expensive giveaway, I will argue that when there is an estimated $30,000-plus budget, what is another thousand dollars to attract many more people to the booth?

Obviously one out of the nearly 50 attendees at these presentations walks away with the iPad and the other 49 walk off empty-handed. But not before they have sat through our presentation, soaked in the information, rich with pertinent industry updates, and had the opportunity to get answers from our speaker or in-booth experts.

These opportunities for attendees to speak with our in-booth experts after being lured into the booth can pay off handsomely. According to an article from exhibitoronline.com, Travis Stanton and Ian Sequeira show that “81 percent of trade show attendees have the power to recommend or make final purchasing decisions. Statistics regarding net buying influence have remained almost constant averaging roughly 82 percent since 1998.”

Technique: What are you willing to stand in line for?

While writing your marketing plan for an upcoming trade show you should definitely ask yourself if there is anything that you would stand in line for or go out of your way to find. If there is, and I know there is, find out how to make it realistically work in your booth. Don’t invest effort and money in items that won’t reflect your brand well.

If you hand out cheap pens it says that you are a cheap company. If you have nice pens it leaves a better taste with the attendees and they will remember your booth in future meetings. Create a list with your team during the planning stages and write down the top three items you would want to see in your booth.

Next, get with your vendor and explain what you’d like to do and get an estimate on costs. Do this with plenty of time to allow for graphic prints and production of the pieces. Also note that at most meetings you will need to get written approval from show management to give away certain items.

I have registered my company at meetings that won’t even allow pens or chocolates to be given away because of the perception that follows. There are rules created to prohibit the influencing of physicians based on giveaways. Maybe a pen won’t sway a physician’s preference on a certain drug, but a handsome gift card or vacation for the physician’s family can certainly influence decisions. This is why the rules are in place.

Note your decision on your exhibit plan and write the importance and purpose for the giveaway.

An exhibitor at heart: Interview with Nate King, VP of Sales at Insight Exhibits

When speaking with Nate King in his cozy, back-room office you can tell that he loves his job, his Mac laptop, diesel trucks and the exhibit industry.

Q: What is it about trade shows that excite you?

A: “It’s more than just a job that keeps me doing this. It’s the excitement and variability of the industry. The stress, the change and the people are all factors that allow me to stay connected and excited for the next project.”

Q: What do you wish people understood of the exhibit build process.

A: “What people don’t understand is that we have a team of players here that are working tirelessly trying to keep up with last-second demands and needs. When customers are prepared and realistic with their expectations it makes for a great collaboration. There is recognized professionalism and appreciation we have for those that can write and deliver a timely game plan for us to assist them.”

Q: What are some components of an ideal exhibit plan?

A: “It would include an understanding of realistic objectives and goals. Know your strengths and limitations and include such important information as budgets and deadlines. Also one has to be clear with themselves on what they are willing to pay for and understanding the line between worth paying someone that knows what they are doing and creating a headache trying to solve an issue yourself. Understand your limits and concerns.”

Q: What are some trends that you see within the industry and how can clients prepare?

A: “Weight is a big deal. It costs a lot to ship heavy pieces and many people are looking at modular designs and light-weight structures and tension fabrics to save their bottom lines while continuing to make a splash with a flexible display. Lighting is another big component to your design. Proper lighting in a booth makes everything pop and acts as a beacon across the exhibit hall for others to see you,” says King. “The L.E.D. lighting is getting more and more attractive, adding a ‘green’ element to your booth by saving electricity and at the same time emitting a bright and clean white color that conveys a message of sophistication.”


Exhibitor Magazine

Building Competitive Immunity by Tom Stovall and Dustin Grainger

CEIR – Center for Exhibition and Industry Research

Nate King, Insight Exhibits

Deep Thoughts by Jack Handey


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