|ood news: Your company is
finally going to sell its widgets - and widget-related services - internationally. So as the trade show manager, you and your exhibit program are headed overseas.
This is a dream come true. You have visions of exotic locales, interesting people with foreign accents, and - finally - living the jet-set life. Then it hits you: Not only will you need to get an exhibit erected in a foreign country, but you'll have to deal with people who don't speak English. You'll have to fill out customs and immigration forms, and calculate time-zone changes and compute
currency conversions in your head.
If you thought shipping your booth
to Toronto was tricky, shipping a structure overseas is likely to induce panic attacks of epic proportion.
And that's just the very tip of the international-exhibiting iceberg.
Fortunately, you already have the basic skills and know-how to do this job successfully. From working with vendors to arranging shipments to booking flight and hotel reservations to setting and managing deadlines
- it's all in your wheelhouse.
But converting those domestic trade show skills to the international arena can be a minefield of hazards. The trick is to understand that as you set your sights on distant shores, there are four basic tasks to the logistical side of any overseas endeavor: Set appropriate timelines, determine a realistic budget, arrange for an exhibit, and assemble an international booth staff. If you can execute those four tasks, your global venture will be off on the right foot.
To help you take care of these four basics, EXHIBITOR talked with five globetrotting industry veterans to get their advice on handling the logistics of international exhibiting.
|Line Up Your Time
The first priority when heading to a different country is to, well, prioritize. That means setting up a timeline or calendar to help you manage important dates including everything from getting your travel paperwork in order to determining the dates on which you'll need to ship items overseas.
"You're probably not going to get a lot of advance notice the first time your company exhibits overseas," says Holly Seese, global marketing communication manager for Celanese Corp. in Dallas. "The decision to dip one's toes into international waters is often made without a lot of time to spare, mostly because companies are often nervous about the prospect of exhibiting overseas, so they delay their final decision to the last possible moment. That means you will likely have to learn by doing. So a realistic timeline, which also functions as a detailed to-do list, is essential to staying sane and getting things done."
Any trade show manager who has handled the logistics for a stateside show has experience setting up a trade show timeline. But don't let those past examples trick you into thinking this foreign affair will be the same, and that things like shipping, graphics production, and installation take roughly the same amount of time in Chicago as they do in Shanghai, China.
"Time-zone changes alone will wreak havoc on your timeline if you don't plan for related delays," Seese says. "It automatically builds time into approval processes, for example, because if you send an e-mail in the afternoon, you'll probably have to wait until the next day for a response."
Traveling Abroad: The first things that should go on your timeline are a series of travel-related items, according to Kelli Steckbauer, director of global business at Pleasant Prairie, WI-based MG Design Associates Corp. Depending on the season, passports can take as long as eight to 10 weeks to process,
though if you're in a hurry, there are companies that can expedite the process for a fee. And remember that passports are required for all international travel, even if you're only headed north of the border to Canada.
Jeffrey Hannah, VP Int'l Services & Commercial Interiors for Exhibit Concepts, adds that if you already have a passport, you may need to update it if the document is about to expire. "Almost anywhere you go, you need to make sure you have six months of validity left on the passport before it expires," Hannah says. "Foreign governments want to make sure your passport is valid when it's time for you to leave their country too, not just when you arrive."
Once your passport is in process, the next step is to apply for a visa. And Jeannine K. Swan, president of Global Exhibit Management in Fort Worth, TX, says the visa process makes getting a passport look easy by comparison.
Swan suggests starting with the U.S. State Department website (http://travel.state.gov/travel). Information on the site can help you determine whether you need a visa for your trip, and the site provides links to websites where you can get the ball rolling on your visa application.
Many countries require a letter of invitation, which you can usually get from show organizers or through any exhibit house with which you may be working. Depending on the country, getting a visa can be simple (the European Union) or difficult (China). Start by checking with the State Department online to see how long it suggests to allow for a visa application to the country on your travel itinerary, though a good rule of thumb, Steckbauer says, would be two months even for a visa to a country with a straightforward visa process. And make sure you have your passport first, since a visa application will likely require your passport number.
The last - but certainly not least important - travel task to add to your itinerary is booking hotel and air travel. Since international shows draw bigger crowds than most U.S. shows, any designated show hotels tend to fill up quickly, and the prices can rise as a show draws nearer. Most seasoned trade show travelers book their international hotel rooms a year in advance, but if you can't do that, book them as soon as you've decided to exhibit at the show.
Many trade show venues overseas are not located in the heart of a city or right next to a plethora of hotels. For example, there are two problems with booking hotels in Paris. First, the French capitol sees so much tourism that hotels located in the city center are often near capacity with tourists and vacationers. Second, major exhibiting venues, such as the Paris Nord Villipont, do not have enough nearby hotel rooms to accommodate all the visitors to a large trade show.
The same book-early advice applies to flights as well as hotel rooms. While airlines servicing your home airport may offer five flights a day to Orlando, FL, or Las Vegas, there's probably only one or two flights a day that you can take from the nearest airport to get to Paris or Beijing, Steckbauer says. "The sooner you book your flight, the more likely you are to get a good seat at a reasonable price."
Shipping: One of the biggest decisions you'll make about your international show, i.e.,whether to use your domestic exhibit or build or rent a booth in the show's host country, will have a huge effect on your timeline. If you have a booth property in the United States that you plan to use overseas, you'll need to ship it to the show.
Obviously, shipping a booth to a different country takes time. Swan estimates that, when shipping to Europe, a container might be at sea for only a week. But then it needs to get unloaded, clear customs, be loaded onto a train, moved to whatever city, unloaded from the train, placed on a truck, and driven to the venue. The whole process, Swan says, can easily take 30 days or more. And then it's 30 days back before you can use that same property again in the states.
This is why shipping anything - from a booth to a piece of machinery - needs to be considered carefully when exhibiting abroad. If you can live without your item in the states for two months or more, then feel free to send it overseas. But most companies with aggressive enough exhibit-marketing efforts to be dabbling in international shows are likely to need that new prototype or custom exhibit back in the states, not drifting back and forth across an ocean. And if that's the case, our experts unanimously suggest a custom rental or a build-and-burn booth for your overseas shows.
Of course you can ship items more quickly via air, but don't expect it to arrive overnight. "Airfreight typically takes three to five working days to Europe and a few more to Asia," says Angela Delatore, director of international services for Milwaukee-based Derse Inc. "It's not as precise as overnight or expedited services are domestically, so you need to build that extra time into your schedule."
Part of that extra delay can be attributed to having your items move through customs, something that is still required of "overnight" packages. The rest of that added time comes from the sheer distance items are being shipped. After all, a flight to Sydney takes 16 hours whether you're in a business-class seat or your banner stand is in the cargo hold.
Time Zones: Difficulties created by time zones can arise no matter whether you ship you booth or have a custom exhibit built. But the logistical implications of working on a project with someone who is several hours ahead of or behind you can be maddening.
Swan explains a scenario where a trade show manager is trying to approve a rendering for a booth. Domestically, the vendor would e-mail you the rendering in the morning, you could look at it over lunch and ask for a couple of small corrections, and then get the final revised version in your inbox before quitting time. You give it a quick scan, then zip it back to the designer right before 5 p.m.
When the same process happens internationally, say with an exhibit house in the Netherlands, it can be far more time consuming. What took one day domestically can take three because you and the designer may never be in the office at the same time. This causes each step of the process to take a day or more.
So adjust your calendar accordingly,
or you'll never have enough time to get everything done. "You should plan for about 30-percent more time," Delatore says. "Days will be lost due to the time differences, delayed responses, and possibly some miscommunication. So if something takes you three weeks in the states, you should allocate about four weeks for that same thing when you're planning an overseas show."
Show Deadlines: Finally, your timeline needs to include all the deadlines for ordering booth space and services from the show organizers. Like a domestic show, meeting deadlines can save money and ensure that vital services - such as electricity or food and beverage - are provided in the manner that you need them. But getting those deadlines spelled out as clearly as you are used to at American trade shows is a bit of a crapshoot, depending on the venue.
Most international shows will have an exhibitor manual with all the relevant dates and contact information for ordering services. Beware, however, of
shows that drag their feet on providing
this information. "I did a show in India where I was never sent a manual or schedule of due dates," Seese says. "As soon as you buy booth space, you need to be asking for timelines and deadlines. Stay on your show contact until you get what you need."
Watch for show services that have deadlines, because in many countries you cannot simply add that service at a later date or when you arrive on site for the show. German venues can be notorious for saying "Nein" if you've forgotten something as simple as booth cleaning on your order forms and attempt to sign up for that service when you arrive at the show.
Once you've got all your travel-, shipping-, and show services-related deadlines on your timeline - and you've built in a buffer to account for time-zone differences - you're ready to move on to step two.
|Consider Your Currency
With your deadlines all marked on a calendar, the next priority is to make sure this overseas excursion doesn't require a bailout from the International Monetary Fund. To keep your budget from sinking your trade show ship, develop an estimate of the costs and then learn how the currency markets can affect those costs.
All this may sound like rough waters
for your foreign cruise, but there's good news on the global horizons. Most international vendors will quote you one-stop, one-price deals that let you avoid hidden labor or materials
charges, which can quickly turn simple conversion calculations into something that resembles a final exam in advanced calculus.
While it would be nice to take a country, add a set percentage premium, and have a budget for your international show, that's not how the world works. Hannah says setting a ballpark budget comes with experience because there are simply too many factors. "In places like Brazil and India, the exhibit hall won't have air conditioning," he says. "This means you'll need your own in-booth cooling
system (either fans or some kind of air conditioner) to keep computer systems from overheating." Bottom line, until you've actually exhibited in a particular city and at the venue in question, you're likely to incur at least a few unforeseen costs.
Floor Models: One major international line item that trips up many budgets is raised flooring. Because a thick carpet and some bright warning tape aren't considered safe in most parts of the world, many overseas venues require exhibitors to build their booths on a raised platform. This is especially true if the exhibit will have any wiring running underneath the floor. Depending on the cost of the labor and materials, a raised floor can run as much as $10,000.
But even if your exhibit has drop-down electrical hookups, you may need to build a platform just so your booth doesn't look out of place among all the raised exhibits around you. "Especially in Asia," Hannah says, "not having a raised floor can make you look cheap, which is about the last thing you want to do when you're trying to impress people."
All-Inclusive Pricing: One big aid in getting a handle on your budget is that most foreign vendors quote a price for a complete booth rather than bill you for each line item of the project. For example, your overseas exhibit house, whether it is a firm you find in that city or simply the local arm of your U.S. exhibit house, will likely quote you an all-inclusive rate for your 20-by-30-foot stand that covers the total cost for design, materials, labor, and disposal of the booth.
If the design takes a few extra iterations to get it right, you aren't billed for additional hours. If the crew needs to work overtime or bring on a couple of extra hands, you still pay the quoted price. "In the United States, if you get a bad electrician who takes forever, you get billed for each hour he's working on your booth," Swan says. "Overseas, it is usually 'X' amount of euros for a job no matter how long it takes."
Drowning in the Currency: One thing you can estimate is the cost of currency fluctuation. Delatore recommends estimating a 5-percent swing on the exchange rate of the currency you're working with, then building that difference into your budget. That said, a quick review of exchange rates for your vendors' preferred currency versus the dollar might show swings even larger than 5 cents on the dollar.
So another option is to prepay for services. By prepaying you won't get any nasty surprises if the dollar suddenly drops against the euro, yuan, yen, or whatever currency you're dealing with. You also won't have to keep checking the currency markets to determine the most advantageous moment to pay. "You can limit some of the risk by pre-paying services, but this could also work against you if the dollar climbs against your foreign currency," Delatore says.
A third method of taming turbulent currencies is to purchase a set amount of that foreign currency when the exchange rate is favorable and keep it in an account. Then use those foreign funds you already own to pay off your bills when they come due.
And always make sure you and your vendors are speaking the same monetary language. For example, if a vendor in Australia quotes you a price in dollars, ask if he or she means U.S. dollars or Australian dollars, which have different values. Then make sure to remit your payments in the agreed-upon currency and by the stipulated method, which usually means a wire transfer for large sums and a credit card for smaller charges. If you're using a credit card, proactively check with your credit-card company to find out if (and how much) you'll be charged for using the card to process an overseas payment.
|Build Your Booth
The next big step can make your international exhibiting experience a rousing success - or make you feel like you've lost a difficult battle to a foreign power. That's right; it's time to build your booth.
When you made your timeline, you needed to decide if you were going to ship your domestic booth or have a custom-built stand constructed overseas. Both choices have their pros and cons, but for the first-timer, leaving your U.S. booth at home is probably the right choice. Hannah points out that without sometimes significant alterations, some U.S.-made booths don't meet foreign code requirements regarding height restrictions or fire safety. Also, the labor crew, whether you hire workers from an exhibit house or through show services, might have trouble with instructions setting up that booth you've shipped from America.
That said, if your custom exhibit has been designed to represent your brand in a way that a foreign exhibit house is unlikely to reproduce, or if your domestic booth is significantly cheaper to ship than it would be to get a custom rental property, you might want to consider eating the expense of shipping it overseas.
Regardless of whether you choose to ship your exhibit or buy a build-and-burn booth, it's time to turn that decision into a reality.
Foreign Properties: Most first-timers will probably want to have an exhibit house build a customized rental booth for the show. That means finding a reliable booth builder in a foreign country.
Steckbauer recommends checking with organizations such as the Exhibit Designers and Producers Association
International, the International Federation of Exhibition and Event Services, and Octanorm Service Partners International, which can each provide lists of companies that have been vetted at some level.
Hannah suggests finding a partner
with whom you have some sort of relationship. For example, if your U.S. exhibit house does not have offices in the country in which you're exhibiting,
ask if it can recommend a booth builder nearby. You're more likely to be treated right by a friend of a friend than a well-meaning company you've selected at random.
One time in Brazil, Hannah recalls, an exhibit house told him he'd be just one of a handful of projects it was working on for a show, so he signed a contract for a booth. That exhibit builder then picked up a dozen more projects. But because he had worked with the company before, the people at the Brazilian company made him a priority, meaning his booth was finished with time to spare, while some of those extra projects looked like they'd been thrown together at the last minute. "It all boils down to relationships," Hannah says. "If that relationship is strong, things will get done."
If you don't have any prior relationships with potential international exhibit houses and need to select a vendor sight unseen, the smart move is to look over the company's portfolio to make sure it has booths that match your design needs. Ask for some references. See how quickly the people respond to requests for information while you're vetting their company. Then, when you select a builder, set down ground rules for communication and deadlines. Any resistance demonstrated by the company could spell trouble at crunch time and should be a major red flag during your selection process.
Don't say Mañana: Once you've picked your international partner, you need to ensure you get exactly what you want when you want it, because communicating across the globe and across language barriers can easily leave you lost in translation.
"If you have a conversation on the phone, make sure you follow up with a recap e-mail that is precise and has straightforward verbiage," Steckbauer says. "Even if the person you're working with speaks English, it may not be his or her primary language, and things can easily be misinterpreted."
Seese suggests getting graphic when you need to explain a point, because when you're talking to foreign folks in their second or third language, a picture can be worth a thousand words.
"Trying to explain
in words can be difficult," she says.
"If I'm trying to explain that I want a poster on a wall, that can be difficult. But to show it on a schematic can be much clearer and easier for the other person to understand."
In addition to language barriers, you may need to overcome some cultural hurdles as well. Latin America, for example, can be famous for its broad meaning of "mañana" (a word that literally means "tomorrow," but in practice can mean, "when I get to it"). You are the client, and your timeline needs to be respected.
"Make the vendor responsible for providing updated renderings, photographs, and progress reports," Hannah says. "And make them stick to your established timeline."
Ship Shape: Even if you plan to build your exhibit overseas, chances are you'll be shipping some items from the states. But whether it is your booth, demonstration equipment, product
samples, or collateral literature, packing up your goods and sending them out into the world is a perilous endeavor. Fortunately, this is one area where help is readily available. "I always use an international freight forwarder for anything other than an overnight package," Hannah
says. "They manage the shipping process for you."
Freight forwarders are companies that arrange for your shipment to travel from one place to another with all the modes of transportation and paperwork you'll need. So, if you are shipping an exhibit or a device you plan to demonstrate at the show, your freight forwarder will take care of booking its ocean passage and its rail ticket, and hiring a truck to get that crate to the exhibit hall. The forwarder will fill out your customs paperwork, too. A good forwarder will also track that shipment and update you on any problems that arise.
Hannah recommends using a freight forwarder that has a track record in the trade show industry, because forwarding freight that is headed overseas permanently is vastly different than doing so on an in-and-out basis due to issues related to value-added tax (VAT). Freight forwarders with extensive experience in the trade show industry include companies such as EA Logistics, Lynden Inc., and PEI Logistics Inc., among many others.
Bumps in the Road: As your timeline will show, shipping overseas can be a long process. And while a freight forwarder can help you avoid pitfalls, you need to be aware of some delays that are likely to occur. For example, most Europeans take long vacations in the summer months, especially in August. So your booth's month-long trip to Milan, Italy, could quickly turn into a two-month sojourn.
In China, there are three weeklong holidays each year: New Years (usually in February), May Day (May 1), and National Day (Oct. 1). Don't expect anything to move other than Chinese customs officials heading to their parents' house for a vacation.
And as Swan points out, "The French like to go on strike." While you can't predict if or when rail workers in Gaul might hit the picket lines, keep an eye on the news of the country and city where your international show will be held. If nothing else, it'll give you some small talk for that foreign water cooler. But it might also help you plan extra time into your schedule if you read about trouble brewing.
Booth on Tour: If you have decided to bring your own booth, you'll need to worry about more than just shipping, customs paperwork, and VAT. Someone will need to erect your booth. While the union regulations we face here in the states generally don't apply in many foreign countries, your booth will need an installation-and-dismantle crew and someone to move it around the trade show floor.
Your exhibit's design will probably need to be approved ahead of time by a local safety official who will sign off on the structure's safety and the materials it uses. And you'll probably need to get some local furnishings so attendees have a place to sit.
"You can contract with an exhibit house to set up your U.S. booth," Hannah says. "Other items or services such as plants, cleaning, and catering
can generally be secured through show services."
Again, Hannah touts the benefits of a one-price deal. Most reps for overseas shows have never heard the word "drayage," he notes. Getting your materials moved across the show floor, like many of the other services you'll need, can all be part of the quoted price you're given. So be sure you understand what you will and will
not get through whatever agreement you choose, and contract other services separately if needed.
|Staff Your Space
With your booth built, all that's left to pull off your company's first international trade show is staffing
the booth. Since you've booked air travel and hotels early to save money, and your visas were approved a week after you and your staffers all took your passport photos, the only thing left to do is to get on the plane. Right? Well, that'd be nice, but there are still several hurdles for your booth staffers to clear.
Boots on the Ground: Steckbauer warns that U.S. staffers shouldn't expect to have a shuttle from the hotel to the venue, and a leisurely walk is a rarity. "If you don't book a hotel early enough, you may end up staying at a hotel in a neighboring city," she says.
If that's the case, your staffers might have to catch a lot of cabs or use public transportation. The good news there is that most big cities overseas have excellent public-transportation systems. But if that city is Shanghai, people unfamiliar with Chinese
writing (just about all Americans) might have trouble reading the signs on the train.
The alternative is to take a taxi from the hotel to the venue. "Ask for a business card or something with the hotel name, address, and directions to it written in the local language. That will be invaluable if you're trying to tell the cab driver where to take you and neither of you speak the other one's language," Hannah says. "Then have a card from the venue to the hotel, and include the phone number of the hotel if you can. Even if they speak a little English, your accent and theirs may keep you from communicating."
What did you Say?: Once you are at the show hall, you'll need to communicate with attendees. Even if you have a U.S. staffer who speaks the local language, it can be helpful to hire a translator. "Having someone from the United States who speaks the language is nice, but having a local who understands technical language is much more important," Seese says. Best of all, if that translator is local, he or she can probably clue you in on some cultural faux pas, because often it's not the words you use, but your actions that will say a lot about you.
"What is customary dress? Do you shake hands? Will I be expected to serve food or beverages? You need to know all this," Swan says. "And while you should be doing your homework ahead of time, a local translator will be able to help get you up to speed."
When it comes to clothing, Swan recommends erring on the side of being conservative. You've flown all this way, so bring a suit. For women, jewelry should generally be kept to a minimum. Tattoos should be covered for men and women. And unless it is in your earlobe, any piercing should be removed if it can be seen.
Most importantly, know how to handle a business card. To many, including the Chinese, a business card is like a small gift, and it should be treated respectfully. Instead of scribbling notes on it or shoving it in your pocket, accept it with two hands, read the card, and gently put it away. Those embossed pieces of thick paper can be handled roughly stateside, but overseas people see a business card as the start of a relationship, and in most countries, building the relationship is how business deals get made.
"The relationship is key. Encourage your staff to take time with attendees," Delatore says. "It's not about scanning
a badge and moving on to the next attendee. It's about developing a relationship, spending time with that person, and getting to know them. That really does go a long way toward generating trust and eventually business."
Managing multiple timelines, keeping your budget under control, and getting a booth built and well staffed are major accomplishments for a trade show manager handling that first international show. If you can
follow these steps, you too can add that foreign feather to your capabilities
cap - or fez if you happen to be exhibiting in Morocco.
Know before you go
Follow this checklist to cover the basics of exhibiting abroad.
1. Create a timeline.
Obtain a passport and/or visa.
Book airline and hotel reservations.
Transport your exhibit and/or
Add a 30-percent buffer to
domestic timelines to account for time-zone delays.
Contract for any necessary show services at your destination.
2. Develop a budget.
Estimate hidden costs such as value-added tax (VAT) and raised flooring, if necessary.
Ask potential vendors about
Estimate the cost of currency fluctuation and consider prepaying.
3. Erect an exhibit.
Determine whether you will ship your exhibit overseas, rent locally, or buy a build-and-burn booth.
Find international vendors with whom you have some sort of
relationship, if possible.
Establish a strict vendor contract with ground rules and deadlines.
Select an international freight forwarder with extensive trade show experience.
Familiarize yourself with foreign requirements for structures as well as international holidays that might impact your timelines.
Hire an I&D crew if one is not
included in your booth price.
4. Train your staff.
Plan transportation routes for
staffers traveling between your hotel and the show venue.
Determine common languages and hire the appropriate interpreter(s).
Learn local customs for greetings and business attire.
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