Last month, I took the plunge and exhibited at the Excel London’s Business Show for the first time. Here is a personal account of this experience, which might help other small businesses out there decide whether the should give trade shows a go.
Deciding to exhibit
I have been running Training Made Visual for a year now. We focus on teaching charities, start-ups and SMEs how to create their own design material and run their own marketing or digital PR campaigns. For the past two years I attended the Business Show twice as a visitor, looking to pick up some business tips and strike up connections with potential service providers and clients.
A few months after my last visit, someone connected with the show attended one of my workshops and liked my speaking style, so he offered to introduce me to the show organisers to get a speaking slot. To me, that was the push I needed to go for it. Just having a stand wasn’t interesting to me, but as a trainer the opportunity to run a few seminars seemed to make it worthwhile.
After booking the stand
Organising a trade show is a massive undertaking and the people in charge of this one, the Prysm Group, run it like a well oiled machine. The sales team were friendly and on the ball, advising how to choose the right position for my stand and time slots for my two seminars. Once you sign a contract you become part of the machinery. Every day there are emails reminding you to fill out forms, supply certain information and pay invoices. You are given access to an on-line portal talking you through your to-do list and also suggesting ways to make the most out of the show. You need to allocate time to this. I have to admit that I didn’t and almost missed some important reminders.
I was most impressed with the fact that I always got responses to my questions and emails. As a first time exhibitor, I didn’t even know how to get my badge or unload my car on the day. I never had to wait for more than a day to get a response, and even had a long phone chat with one of the team where she talked me through different free ways they can help promote my stand before the show. I took advantage of their offer to post blogs on their website, but I could also have given them a list of people for them to contact on my behalf and invite to the show.
The cost involved
The expense can be extremely daunting for a small business, even if you go for the smallest stand like I did (3×2). And beware, when you book a stand, absolutely nothing is included. I couldn’t believe it when I found out that I don’t even get a plug socket without having to pay for it. Ad even though you can rent everything you need for your stand, a bunch of bar stools and a tiny table can set you back £250. I’m not even going to talk to you about display screens and water coolers. I circumvented all that by bringing along my own kitchen chairs and buying a bistro table for £20. (My 10 year old son stopped me from taking along his bean bag exclaiming “Mum, I don’t want hundreds of strangers to sit on my cozy chair.” Yup, fair point.)
Setting up the stand
Exhibitors are given the opportunity to set up the day before the show. I went with my colleague Rachel and my little Honda Jazz stuffed to the rim with banners, leaflets, sweets (minus my son’s bean bag I had planned to kidnap). I also took some big bottles of water and Perrier which turned out to be a good thing as many stand visitors appreciated the offer of a drink.
As we got to the loading area we had to report to a traffic office where they checked my stand number and gave me a paper slip allowing us to park and unload at the nearest entrance. Extremely friendly staff waved us to the right spot and literally everyone smiled and wanted to help. There were some massive lorries unloading fancy bespoke stands and a few of the workers smiled knowingly at the two eager ladies with their little car and their kitchen chairs. “Clearly newbies, so naive and clueless — still excited at the prospect of standing in an airless hall for the next two days”.
When we entered the building at 2pm we were struck by a pure wasteland. Only the basic stand shells had been erected. There was no signage and no carpet anywhere in sight. We only saw a handful of people setting up and were told most people come after 5pm or early morning the next day. It didn’t take us more than 45 minutes to set up but we still felt better having done it the day before. Next time I’ll probably also just show up on the morning of he show.
Making your stand look great on a low budget
There’s loads of cost effective ways to make a stand look good without spending loads. Apart from above mentioned kitchen chairs, I went for two roller banners and a display desk with my logo on it. Obviously as a designer I didn’t have to worry about the design cost but I still shopped around for the most cost effective printing. And even though I love printing my promotional material on gorgeous thick paper stock, I went for an on-line bulk order of leaflets, simply because I knew I would hand out hundreds if not thousands of them at the show. To top it all off we added some cups of sweets to match the colour of the logo and a pretty vase to collect people’s business cards.
As a visitor, the show can be extremely overwhelming. Hundreds of stands and seminars to choose from, people approaching you every minute with offers and sales pitches… But let me tell you, it’s even worse as an exhibitor. With 20,000+ attendees at this show, there was very little downtime. We were on our feet all day chatting to people and answering questions. The atmosphere was great. There is something electric about the energy of that many people under one roof wanting to exchange information and do business.
Even if you are a one-man (or a one-woman) business, I strongly advise that you bring someone along to help. Firstly because of the sheer number of people wanting to talk to you and secondly so you can take the occasional break or even simply go to the bathroom. Not to mention that it’s good to have someone there to brainstorm with. In my case I was fortunate that copywriting expert Rachel was at hand on the first day and Howard, digital marketing guru, on the second.
Exhibit visitors will come to you from all walks of life. Be prepared to explain what you do in a way that’s easy to understand to someone not from your industry. I also realised early on that it’s important to ask questions and have a conversation, rather than a monologue or overwhelming sales pitch that will drive people away.
I strongly advise to plan a system for what to do with the business cards and names you collect, so you can properly follow up after the show. Put them in different boxes for those who offer you a service, those who are interested in what you can do, those wishing to collaborate etc. Take notes on the more interesting ones, because you won’t remember every conversation the week after. Some people won’t have cards on them, so a sign-up sheet is useful, too. And even though I didn’t even want to pay for a plug socket, I think investing in a scanner — which is provided by the organisers — really helps. With it, you can simply scan peoples’ badges to get their contact info. The only negative thing about the scanner is the fact you can’t take notes, which you can on the back of good old-fashioned business cards.
At the end of the exhibit, everybody leaves and takes down their stand at the same time. This is very different from set-up day, where it all happens in stages. By midnight, the hall is empty again, as if the whole thing never happened. As an exhibitor, it’s quite stressful: From 2pm on the last day of the exhibit, you have to return to the back of the building to get another permission slip for parking and loading your car. Oddly, this can not be done in advance, which means you have to leave your stand to do so. We realised quickly that we would be queuing for hours if we went that route, so we simply parked the car in the nearest official car park and carried stuff there. It took 3 rounds and was exhausting, but worked out much better than joining the hundreds of lorries in the queue.
What happens after the show, when and how to follow up with people and how to make the most out of the leads is the topic for another article. As for success rate: One month later, I can say that we are in touch with some fabulous people, set up many meetings and are about to start on some exciting creative projects and workshops. It is too early to tell whether the investment has paid off yet, but my inkling is that it will. I have however declined the offer to exhibit again in November, because I think I will still be recovering then…