A well-prepared exhibit staff can mean the difference between a trade show program that flourishes and one that flops. Learn how to prep your staffers for success with booth training. By Candy Adams
hen exhibit managers ask me to share what I believe is the most important element of pre-show planning, my unequivocal answer is always booth-staff training. Only 26 percent of exhibitors conduct training for all or most events, and more than 50 percent rarely train or never hold exhibit-staff training sessions, according to a 2012 report by the Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR) called "The Role and Value of Face-to-Face Interaction."
We all know there are hundreds of details to worry about at every trade show, but what activity positively or negatively influences attendees' perceptions of our companies more than the professionalism of the exhibit staff? Ignoring the significant role that a professionally trained staff plays in the success of your exhibit program can be detrimental, if not deadly, to meeting your show goals and enhancing your overall brand. That's the bad news. The good news is that it's relatively easy to put together onsite booth-staff training that works.
The information you present during training is dependent upon many factors, including the experience level of the team staffing the exhibit, the size of the staff and their knowledge of the rest of the team's areas of expertise, the staff's availability for extended training before the show, the scope of products being shown and the staff's familiarity with them, the size and complexity of the exhibit, and the promotional program planned for each show.
I break the pre-show training and review into four parts: 1) review of marketing strategy, exhibiting goals, and products (typically presented by management); 2) exhibit-staff boothmanship training; 3) in-booth exhibit orientation; and 4) housekeeping details. Due to the confidential nature of the marketing strategy and boothmanship training, these sessions should be held in a private meeting room away from the exhibit, such as a conference room at the convention center or hotel. The exhibit orientation is held at the booth, generally the last afternoon before show opening or the morning before the show opens when the exhibit build is complete. With that in mind, use the following information to craft your very own staff-training regimen.
This section of training highlights management's commitment to and support of the trade show program, including the time and money the company is devoting to exhibiting. First, cover measurable corporate objectives and individual staff goals, as well as key messages. In addition to show goals, remind staffers they are ambassadors representing the entire company, so professional behavior is expected at all times.
I also encourage you to recognize staffers' efforts, long hours, sore feet, and absences from their homes, families, and offices.
Next, allot time for each person to answer a few questions about themselves (e.g., name, office location, length of time with company or division, and product specialties). This is also a good time to dole out show roles, such as booth captain, press/media liaison, technical staff for demos, competitive-intelligence gatherer, conference-session attendee, etc.
After introductions are taken care of, review show information including the attendee profile and anticipated total number of attendees. Also share the names of VIP customers and/or prospects that might visit the exhibit during the show, as well as the appropriate action for staffers to take. For example, should booth staffers direct VIP clients to a specific sales rep or company contact? Other items to review include any exhibit/show themes, pre-, at-, and post-show promotions, key corporate messages (takeaways) to deliver to all visitors, and frequently asked attendee questions from previous shows along with their preferred answers.
Finally, review the products being shown in the exhibit and share printed product overviews including laminated cheat sheets that offer benefits for each target audience, features, applications, specifications, availability, pricing and show specials, and competitive product reviews (models, features, benefits, and costs).
Your exhibit is the first impression many attendees will have of your company, so it's important to reinforce these basic behavior guidelines.
Review the differences between selling on the show floor (where staffers must compete with other exhibitors for the attention of prospects and clients) and selling in the field (where staffers generally have the undivided attention of clients and prospects).
Relay successful nonverbal and verbal communication techniques when it comes to interacting with attendees in the exhibit, including engaging, qualifying, presenting, gaining commitment for follow-up, recording info, and disengaging at the end of a conversation.
Incorporate role-playing to help your staffers become more comfortable with the interaction that takes place with prospects and clients on the trade show floor.
Discuss positive and negative body language. I can't tell you how many times I've seen attendees zoom past an exhibit filled with booth staffers that have their arms crossed and their backs turned toward the aisle. So instruct staffers to smile, make eye contact, and look like they want to hear what attendees have to say. Don't stand in a rigid "police" or "military" posture or talk in closed circles with other staffers. That's not to say they can't talk among themselves while they're in the exhibit – just make sure they are turned toward the aisle so they can keep an eye on the passing foot traffic and engage at a moment's notice.
Present three to four qualifying questions as well as a three- to four-sentence elevator speech. That way, any attendee can approach any staffer in your exhibit and receive a consistent, on-point message about who you are and what you do.
Reinforce booth-behavior don'ts, e.g., no eating, drinking, chewing gum, talking on cellphones, checking email, reading, etc. Not only are these behaviors off-putting to attendees, but they're also just plain tacky.
This training allows booth staffers to become acquainted with the exhibit layout, demonstrations, and tools (such as badge scanners, promotional items, and collateral). Review the location of the exhibit in relation to registration, hall entrances/exits, business partners, competitors, sit-down restaurants and fast food, coffee vendors, the exhibitor lounge, fire and emergency apparatus, the coat check, restrooms, shuttles and taxis, the show office, the press room, etc.
An exhibit tour should include an overview of the product and demo areas, theaters, meeting rooms, storage areas, etc. Notify staffers of the items kept at the information desk, including the staff schedule, employee cellphone numbers, product literature, press kits, business cards, office supplies, fire extinguisher, first aid kit, lead-retrieval equipment, and whatever else you plan to store there. Go over available collateral literature such as data sheets, brochures, and white papers, along with their format (e.g., thumb drive, URL, or hard copy).
While in the booth, review product demonstrations and live presentations – this is the perfect opportunity to gather feedback and work out any last-minute kinks. Practice using the badge scanner/lead-retrieval system or lead forms, and review lead-grading criteria, the importance of completeness and accuracy, recording pertinent notes, and so on.
Since booth staffers at any given show typically have varying levels of trade show experience, I like to cover all the bases when it comes to basics like schedules, transportation, registration, etc. The following information might seem rudimentary, but you're responsible for the success of the show. Falling flat because your booth staff didn't know how to get from the hotel to the convention center isn't a risk worth taking.
Instruct staffers where and when to pick up badges at exhibitor registration (if you're not distributing badges to staff before the show). While veteran staffers will likely be able to find the registration desk on their own, newbies might get overwhelmed.
Go over show dates and hours and when staffers need to be at the booth. Discuss what staffers should do if they are running late for their assigned time or fall ill and are unable to make it to the show floor. That way, you'll be better able to course correct and make sure their shifts are covered. I always schedule a few floaters for every shift in case of no-shows and last-minute schedule changes.
Review the staff schedule, special-events schedule, and where they will be posted in the exhibit.
Present ground-transportation options, directions to the trade show venue (if walking or driving), and an estimate of how long it might take to travel from the hotel to the convention center on show days. This is especially helpful if booth staffers will be relying on show shuttles to and from the exhibit hall, since they generally take longer and often make multiple stops en route.
Reinforce your company's dress code and distribute booth uniforms (such as branded shirts) if you're using them. Distributing uniforms during the training session is a good way to encourage staffers to attend – if they don't have the uniform, they'll stick out like a sore thumb in the exhibit during the show.
Point out that exhibit storage for personal items is limited. You don't want purses, laptops, and other personal belongings sitting out in the open. Not only does it make your exhibit appear messy and unkempt, but also it's not secure.
Discuss the schedule (and location) of end-of-day debrief meetings to review what worked and what didn't work in the exhibit that day. These debriefs are a great time to get feedback from your team and brainstorm any necessary mid-course corrections to be implemented for the remainder of the trade show.
Review the schedule and responsibilities for exhibit teardown. Booth staffers have a way of disappearing toward the end of the show, so assigning tasks ahead of time ensures your crew is there when you need them.
As an exhibit manager, adding staff training to your to-do list is probably the last thing you want to do. But don't underestimate the power of an expertly trained staff. The people working your exhibit during a show are the face – and voice – of your company, and the way they interact with attendees can make or break your program. So teach them the booth-staffing basics before setting them loose on the show floor.