According to Irving Berlin, there's no business like show business. That might indeed be true, but I think the TRADE show business embodies a few parallels, and recognizing these can help you evaluate and improve your own programs to help you "steal that extra bow."
Every successful Broadway production can be broken down into three basic elements that play a major role in the show's success.
1. The story or script:
The dramatic message the author or playwright is trying to get across.
2. The setting:
The environment where the story takes place. Sometimes this is highly detailed, other times merely conceptual.
3. The cast:
The actors, technicians, and artists who are tasked with effectively building and using the set to effectively tell the story and convey the ideas conceived and written in the script.
Now of course, there's a lot more that goes into producing a successful play, but for my purposes today, we'll stop there. When planning a trade show exhibit, there's a striking similarity. Let's look at the parallels.
First, the story or script. On Broadway, this is clearly written by the hand of the playwright (and maybe lyricist) to convey the overall message. At a trade show, this is the main story or message you're trying to convey through your exhibit efforts. What are you trying to say? What changes do you expect your audience to experience? For example, your story might be the introduction of a brand new product or business concept. Or, it might be the retention of existing customers following an acquisition or merger. Perhaps it's a new branding, logo, or corporate image. You might want to teach people how to use your product or service. Maybe you're recruiting new employees. Or you might simply want to close deals and record sales. Whatever it is, every exhibit – just like a Broadway play – has an important story to tell that will affect the audience in some way, moving them toward the attitudes and behaviors you want to see.
Next, the set is designed and engineered to create the environment where the story is told. On Broadway, it helps the audience understand what's going on, where the story takes place, and the conditions that affect the outcome of the performance. The set also provides a vehicle for the cast to access the props they need during their performance. Sets can range from elaborate (like The Lion King or Cirque De Soleil sets) to very simple or even non-existent and imaginary (like those used in improv comedy). Just like Broadway, your exhibit sets the stage on which your exhibit staff performs… in order to tell the important story you've come to convey. And, just like a Broadway set, your exhibit must send all the right visual cues and messages (and eliminate all the wrong and distracting ones) to create powerful and memorable changes in your audience as your story unfolds.
Finally, the cast. This is where Broadway spends the preponderance of its time and resources. First, roles are defined in the script, then the call is sent out to cast the actors in their roles. Once cast, the actors rehearse the script, their movements on stage, their gestures, their entrances and exits, their costumes, make-up, grooming, and lighting until they "know every part by heart." Smart producers know that the success of their show primarily hinges on how well the cast performs, so a lot of time and energy goes into this phase of show preparation.
Why do they spend so much time here? Because they know that if the audience walks out during the performance, it's not usually because the script was poorly written or the set was bad ‚?¶ it's almost always because the ACTING was bad.
This is the great lesson we can learn from the Great White Way. As exhibit managers, how much time and energy do we spend on our "set?" How much on our "script?" And how much on our "cast?" When exhibits fail, it's usually for the same reason a Broadway play closes early: bad acting.
In fact, you'll notice many examples of beautifully designed exhibits that completely and utterly fail because they are inadvertently undermined by poor cast performances. Eating, drinking, texting, looking bored, avoiding eye contact, showing up hungover, engaging in the wrong ways, ignoring visitors, being too aggressive with guests, and even sleeping in the exhibit are all too common things I've seen that are symptoms of problems with cast performance.
I've even come across instances where no staffers at all were present, occasionally accompanied by a hand scribbled note, taped to a part of the exhibit, reading something like …
"Meetings by appointment only. Call Steve at 1-800-555-1234"
Fortunately, if you're reading this column, it's unlikely that you've ever done that, but it happens all the time. Take a look at your next trade show.
And there's even better news. For companies who crave success and want their trade show performances to earn standing ovations, just a little more emphasis during production and planning along the lines of the way Broadway does it, will yield big results with little added investment. Now, you might not win any Tony awards, but if you want to command the stage with the presence of Ethel Merman, then you have to prepare the same way ‚?" and maybe tomorrow somebody will hang a star on your dressing room.
, independent industry consultant, is a former EXHIBITOR Editorial Advisory Board member and a past All-Star Award winner, and a current EXHIBITOR Conference faculty member. firstname.lastname@example.org