Small Business Builder: Trade Show Tips II

When you host a trade show or conference display, you're in full public view. From start to finish, from floor to ceiling, everything about your trade-show participation must support the company's other marketing efforts and project a consistent image.

Does the public perceive your business as "creative"? Then your presence should ooze creativity. Are you viewed as "stuffy" and you'd rather not be? By all means get hip as part of a concerted company-wide strategy. If your theme is "rodeo chic" and the rest of the company is strutting uptown, the clash of panache can be fatal to your image.

Preparation for these events can be daunting, but it is essential. And once you create an all-purpose master plan, you can adapt and personalize it for each event.

Strategies for each step in the 12-part trade-show success cycle — planning, preparing, making advance contact, staffing, setting up, attracting people to your display, making a good impression, entertaining waiting prospects, making friends, making sales, cleaning up, and following up — could fill a book.

Below are suggestions for arranging your display and entertaining visitors, two of the steps, though the word "steps" is a bit misleading. "Ingredients" better describes how preparations and activities mingle and overlap. Thus, "arranging" and "entertaining" can attract visitors, make friends, and even lead to making sales.

As you decide how to arrange your space and entertain your guests, consider the three Es:

Equilibrium. Everything — colors, activities, mood, style — should harmonize with your image.

Execution. It might be clever, but can you actually have a live elephant in your booth? Who will sit next to it on the plane? Will there be suitable washrooms — Men, Women, Pachyderms? Consult the host facility regarding logistics such as electrical outlets, ceiling clearance, setup assistance, noise limitations, and so forth.

Exposure. Are you covered if Jumbo steps on someone's Rolex or pet ferret? Read the fine print in your contract, consult a lawyer, do what you must to protect yourself if a visitor falls off a chair or trips on an electrical cord.

Fill and Arrange Your Space

Whether it's a 2-by-3-foot folding table or a 20-by-30-foot room, your space should look busy and prosperous — maybe even a little cluttered, if it's artistic clutter — but not messy and disorganized. Your area's colors, props, and overall look should be consistent with your business and its image.

If you have a lot of space to fill on a teeny budget, use your imagination. Consider bright-hued balloons or flowers, piñatas hung from a portable garment rod, inexpensively framed or mounted poster art (often found at college bookstores), and discount store drapes.

Whatever you choose should be economical enough for you to buy in quantity: Lots of flowers, lots of balloons, lots of posters, lots of eye-catching color.

Here are a few off-the-wall suggestions for budget display items to fill your space, raffle off, or both (disallow large items if most attendees are out-of-towners, unless you're prepared to pay for shipping):

A $50 room-size rug and an over-the-hill car, truck, or steel shed visitors can decorate or autograph.

Giant stuffed animals.

"Treasure chests" — inexpensive trunks stacked high, each concealing a prize — product samples, disposable cameras, pens and notebooks, mouse pads, whatever is appropriate for your company. High-quality low-dollar prizes (Swiss chocolates) are better than more expensive but bottom-of-the-line items (vinyl attaché cases instead of leather).

If it looks like you're having a garage sale, you might as well go home. Get help from someone with an eye for arrangement as well as utility. That person should understand that flowers and balloons look more abundant grouped than scattered around, should notice if your display looks half-baked and needs a few finishing touches, and should be able to determine how item placement will affect traffic flow.

Entertain the Troops

Rarely will people stand in line to hear a sales pitch. Ideally you'll be able to keep them entertained for a time with people, games, or gadgets, whatever supports your objectives. I know of one business that spent a few hundred dollars on an interactive globe to occupy waiting prospects and to serve as the grand prize in the company's drawing.

The ideal form of entertainment:

Is unusual enough to attract attention and create a buzz by word of mouth.

Can be enjoyed by more than one person at a time.

Is fun but not so enthralling that you can't tear people away.

Is sturdy and dependable (but take a backup anyway).

Is valuable but not widely coveted (chaining it to the floor or surrounding it with armed guards is not a hospitable way to greet prospective customers).

It goes without saying, but I'll say it anyway: Be gracious with everyone you meet, not only prospective customers. It's just as important to be pleasant to competitors, event staff, pizza delivery people, and of course your colleagues. A single rude or dismissive comment could cancel out everything you've done right.

And remember to let the company's marketing strategy and intended image be your guide when you select colors, furnishings, decorations, prizes and giveaways, activities, name tags and especially personnel to represent your business.

Anything that may leave any kind of impression — however insignificant it may seem — should reinforce your brand.

An editor since the age of 6, when she returned a love letter with corrections marked in red, Mary Campbell founded Zero Gravity in 1984 to provide writing, editing and marketing services. Small Business Builder is published on Wednesdays.

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