Taking a few extra steps and precautions with regard to trade shows and exhibitions will give your company a leg up over others

Everybody exhibits at trade shows - it’s the thing to do. In 2006, in the United States alone, 25,000 trade shows were held. They attracted millions of attendees generating revenues in excess of $2.6 billion dollars. The gaming industry is no different. In the first three months of 2008, over 50 conferences and trade shows were presented worldwide.

Why are they so popular? The answer, at first glance, appears to be a simple one. Trade shows attract a large amount of people in a short period of time to a central location, resulting in greater exposure at a lower cost.

Because the concept and the answers are simple and easy to grasp, many companies attend and exhibit in the same way, with the same results, year after year. These exhibitors have come to believe that if they show up and the attendees show up, they have been successful. But they are wrong.

The reality is that successfully exhibiting at a trade show is a complex, demanding and expensive challenge. It begins with a simple question, “Why does your company exhibit?” If your answer is based on any of these rationalizations, your company and your marketing strategy may be in serious trouble:

• We automatically exhibit every year.

• We must be visible in the industry.

• Our competitors exhibit in this show.

• It’s a paid vacation for staff.

• It’s budgeted and must be spent.

Massive shows like the Global Gaming Expo(above) can be good for exposure,  but smaller, regional shows offer more intimate business connections.

Recipes for success

Success is never guaranteed at a trade show. Your efforts, or lack of them, will determine that. Analysis of past shows, planning and implementation are the tools at your disposal. This type of article does not lend itself to detailed examination. Each of the subjects that follow can easily be full chapters in a book:

-Company goals: The crucial first step. It is from the determination of these overall goals that specific show goals will be agreed upon. It is important, however, to realize that goals can change from show to show and will change from year to year. These goals could include: the introduction of new products and services; the strengthening of customer relations; the development of sales leads; the recruitment of personnel; or the search for acquisitions and mergers.

-Show selection: Which shows are best for your goals and your company? Decisions should not be based only on show size, prestige and attendance. They should be based on who the attendees are. Are they decision makers? Are they the contacts you want? They should also relate to dates and geography. Do they fit into your marketing, budgeting and staffing schedules? Some of the smaller regional shows may better fit your current goals rather than the large national events.

-Annual show budget: The cost per show is important, but the overall annual costs of all the shows in which you will be exhibiting is even more important to your company’s budget. The cost per square foot for a booth will vary greatly from show to show. A handy rule of thumb for show calculations is that the booth cost will be 30 percent of your total show expenses, which will include staff, exhibit, travel, shipping, advertising and promotions. Smarter budgeting and spending controls will allow your show dollars to do much more.

-Booth design: The booth is your office, your display room, your home and your face to the world. It presents a two-fold challenge. First, you want it to stand out from that of your competitors. Secondly, you want it to catch the attention of the public in the three to four seconds that it takes them to pass your booth. Like every aspect of trade shows, booth design offers endless choices. Should it be custom designed or a stock model? Should it be open or closed? Should it be of fixed size or flexible for expansion or reduction, based on the show?

-Staff selection and training: Once again, it is the goals which should determine the staff. This is neither the place nor the time to favor seniority, popularity or relatives. Show staff must know the goals. They must be trained. They need a written schedule and fact-sheet to memorize: what is expected of them (in the booth as well as what to look for as they walk the show); what clothing is required; what is and is not allowed in the booth; what product/services are being emphasized; and what records they are expected to keep (illegible comments on a stained coffee receipt will not cut it).

-Preshow marketing: This is a three-month period of time prior to the opening of a trade show. If you can’t be bothered to inform your customers and prospects that you will be showing, take my advice: Save your money, protect your reputation and withdraw from the show. If you’re serious, brainstorm with your staff. Use direct mail, telephone, fax, e-mail and your Web site. Distribute guest passes with a map of the show indicating your exact position. Offer show specials, give away promotional items, contests and social events. The limit should be your budget - not your imagination.

-Show marketing: Take advantage of the fact that you are part of the trade show. Offer to speak at a seminar. Sponsor an event. Advertise in the show guide and dailies. Advertise in trade magazines that will be distributed at the show. Advertise in any and all signage possibilities offered by the show. Inform the show of your promotions, noteworthy guests and special events. Ask the show if you qualify for the extra exposure offered by the introduction of a new product or service. Consider wearing clothing with your logos. Make sure that free, promotional items relate to your company and that they are printed with correct contact information - not last year’s address and telephone number.

-Post-show marketing: Studies have found that leads not followed-up within 10 days will never be used. The same studies also have found that an amazing 92 percent of all leads are never followed up. Leads have to be compiled and reviewed. The best scenario is to combine the basic information from the show scanners with the specific information from your own lead forms. Leads then have to be assigned. A word of caution: show staff may not be the best for this job. Assignments should be structured through normal sales channels with specific reporting deadlines.

-Show evaluation: To be most effective and useful, it should be done at the immediate conclusion of the trade show. The evaluation forms should ask questions on every aspect of the show from pre-planning to post-planning, requiring subjective answers from the staff. A follow-up meeting, summarizing staff responses, is also highly recom-mended to ensure that the final conclusions and recommendations are both accurate and factual. They should be placed in a public company file, available to all, with one exception: any management assessments of staff performances. The show evaluation is the handbook and manual for successful shows.

If you’ve read this far, thank you. If you’ve learned anything, thank you again. If you have questions, I would be pleased to hear from you.

With planning, you can guarantee the success of your trade shows. Your watch and calendar should be telling you to start planning now. CJ

Lou Hilford is president and CEO of Loudon Consultants Inc., a gaming, business and fund-raising consultancy. Hilford can be contact via Web site, www.loudonconsultants.com, e-mail, info@loudonconsultants.com or telephone/fax, (604) 327-6659.