February usually marks the start of Spring exhibition season across many sectors and industries. Early signs include bulk orders being placed for branded mugs, business cards, quirky highlighter pens and tins of mints which never seem to get consumed.
But, in this age of virtual business visits and digital discussions is it still commercially viable to travel overseas to exhibit? Can you afford to board that flight and spend a week smiling overeagerly at passing strangers from an exhibition stand in an overheated, artificially lit, temporarily carpeted hangar for 9 hours a day? And if the answer is yes, how do you ensure that you maximise the return on investing in such a venture?
There are certainly many good reasons why UK companies continue to ship staff members overseas to the likes of Milan, Paris, Frankfurt and more recently to Dubai and Doha. I have listed just a few of them here:
- If done in a targeted way, exhibiting is an economical way to meet with many customers and prospective customers/ partners from several locations in one place.
- New products and services can be launched making full use of exhibition press and PR services as well as face to face engagement with a captive and relevant, industry audience walking by.
- Exhibitions can be a great way to undertake market research to review latest market trends and innovations, gather market intelligence on established as well as new competitor offers and be highly visible whilst doing it.
- For the new exporter exhibiting can be a daunting task, but if done well it can be an effective platform from which to launch into a brand new overseas market.
It can’t be denied that exhibiting can be an expensive business. In Western Europe the average cost of a 9 square meter stand offered from the likes of Hannover Messe starts at around €4500 for a basic package. To that you need to add travel, accommodation, catering and shipping of marketing materials. On that basis staffing a basic stand might cost nearer €15000 for a team of four staff members.
A more economical way to exhibit overseas, especially for the novice exporter, can be to participate as a member of a British Pavilion. Costs are not prohibitive, in the region of £2000 depending on destinations. This includes travel, marketing and accommodation. A local Department of International Trade (DIT) adviser will talk you through the process and support you before you go. Whilst there, British Embassy staff are normally on hand too for extra support. There are usually evening networking events included in the package as well. Just make sure you don’t over-indulge at the networking events, as I learnt to my cost in Moscow many years ago, the following day at the show can seem interminable with a British Embassy gin and tonic hangover!
For more information on DIT support go to http://www.greatbusiness.gov.uk/
Before the show
Get in early! – Exhibition stands, flights, hotel accommodation and local restaurants and venues get booked up well in advance of the show so as soon as you know how many staff members are going get everything booked. This can save a lot of money. It is often worthwhile booking accommodation about 15km outside of the city centre. Hotels / serviced apartments will be cheaper, public transport is usually direct to the show and local taxis into town for evening functions will be easier to book. You just need to allow yourself more time to get where you are going.
For major European shows, it helps to have translated versions of marketing materials – usually French, German, Italian and Spanish and increasingly Russian. So, if all members of staff on the stand are busy, passers-by can still refer to printed or onscreen materials in their own language and decide whether your offer is interesting. These materials can be used over and over so the translations will not be a costly indulgence.
Whilst still in the UK, get the team together who will be attending the exhibition for a pre-event briefing. It is important that each person knows the objectives of the show, their role during the event and the process for making appointments and processing enquiries. Given the chaos at show build-up it is important that everyone knows how all the stand elements function and crucially which boxes have the scissors in and the British extension leads and adaptors. Yes, we have all been there!
Ideally have a foreign language speaker amongst the team, but in the absence of that everyone should at least learn how to say hello, thank you and goodbye in the local language. This is a small gesture but always raises a smile from the local business community and can induce a “conversation” that otherwise may not have happened.
Ensure that as many customers and prospects know in advance that you will be at the show. Make full use of twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, blogs, company newsletters and any website news pages. You may want to send out e-shot invites to priority customers for discounted tickets to maximise the likelihood of quality visitors coming to your stand.
Make sure that you subscribe to the show directory and prepare a translated press pack for the press office as part of your stand package to build up as much exposure as possible. If you can secure interviews in advance with any trade press editors that’s a bonus. Get your team linguist to be involved in this to accommodate any language barriers.
Back home before you travel, programme your “out of office” messages on email and mobiles confirming your attendance at the show as an additional reminder to customers who are attending. Ideally, you should pre-arrange as many appointments/meetings on your and customer stands before the show to guarantee availability.
During the show
During the week of the show, especially on opening day, the local transport network and the entrance gates can get completely gridlocked. To avoid the risk of getting to the show late, potentially missing early visitors, give yourself loads of extra time so that you can arrive on your stand with spare time to prepare for the long day ahead looking your absolute, professional best.
My golden rules of working on an exhibition stand include; smile, look smart, don’t eat on the stand, keep the stand tidy, avoid obsessing with your phone during quieter times, keep visitor business cards and enquiry forms safe and secure (ideally nominate a team member for the duration of the show to be responsible for keeping leads and bringing them back to the UK in hand luggage). Never arrive late or leave early as many key decision-makers like to walk the floor during quieter times so be sure to have the stand staffed just in case.
Coping with the artificial hall conditions: stay hydrated, have a big breakfast at your hotel as lunch is likely to be a non- event, wear comfortable shoes, take turns to walk the floor during quieter times to stay energised as well as gather market intelligence (and freebies from other stands!). Have a sense of humour – it is tiring but chat with team members and neighbouring exhibitors to stay positive and engaged. Visitors are more likely to approach your stand if you look friendly and upbeat.
To further raise profile and maximise return on your investment take advantage of any speaker/presentation slots, conference discussion panels, daily exhibition newspaper editions, mobile film crews and on-stand parties. You may want to consider running a competition or hosting a very British event like a tea party to get footfall to your stand. We did this at the Met Office when we exhibited in Germany and it secured several column inches in the exhibition daily newspaper.
Don’t forget to use social media during the show to keep your customers up to date on how things are going as well as to share any product or conference feedback. The show will usually have its own hashtags and twitter account, so you can engage with delegates and other exhibitors that way too.
After the Show
Once your bunions and blisters have subsided, schedule a debriefing not only for those who attended the show but also invite support staff such as marketing, sales, product development, operations, graphics and perhaps any administrators who were also involved.
This is an opportunity to firstly check that all items have been returned to HQ in good working order as well as discuss what went well or not so well during the show. It is an objective platform to look at any necessary changes for future exhibitions to improve efficiency and ROI. It is also the chance to share with the wider team what leads have been generated and discuss how to process and follow up the leads. By doing this, you will maximise the sales pipeline of new prospects as well as strengthen relationships with established clients and stakeholders.
Inputting leads onto your CRM can take time, however it is a necessary step to ensure that leads are captured and analysed. Once they are in CRM you can prioritise and schedule follow up emails, phone calls and visits. Translated emails or multilingual follow up calls will help to accommodate new export prospects and reinforce their perception of your organisation as a professional, international business.
Don’t leave it too long to follow up or the leads will go cold, the competition will have stepped in and your investment will be wasted. After investing so much time and resource in the exhibition it is imperative that you make the most out of the leads and ultimately convert them into future clients.
Alongside the immediate focus on leads there needs to be an additional discussion about the market intelligence gathered during the show and whether any product / service modifications may be appropriate in the future to remain relevant and innovative.
And lastly, whilst we are still an EU member, don’t forget to reclaim any VAT charges from European hotels, restaurants etc where VAT was levied in situ. There are minimum claim amount rules, usually ca. €500 but this varies from EU country to country so contact HMRC or your financial adviser to find out more. You usually need to claim within 6 months of the expense being incurred.
And finally, when you are out there enjoy the experience, but above all be successful!
Good luck, bonne chance, viel Glück, удачи, powodzenia, buena suerte, in bocca al lupo.
Hayley Wallbank BSc ACIM MIEx, Principal Consultant HW Language Services