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Simplifying the Search
for International Suppliers
Growing globalization means an increasing number of U.S. companies are heading overseas. But finding the best international exhibit partners is akin to panning for gold. To aid your quest, industry veterans share their advice for sorting gold nuggets from the chunks of iron pyrite. By Cynthya Porter
nce barricaded by political rifts and inaccessible regions, the world's economic drawbridge has been lowered and the globe homogenized to the extent that you can buy a Camero in Croatia and speak on a cellphone from a fishing pirogue in Madagascar. Hand in hand with that burgeoning globalization are trade shows, some 30,000 of them by Global Association of the Exhibition Industry (UFI) estimates, where companies from all corners of the planet hawk their wares to an ever-growing audience of buyers.

The growing accessibility of the international marketplace has created nothing short of a gold rush for U.S. companies that want to get their products on that global dais. Given that there are tens of thousands of exhibit-support providers working with the 4.4 million or so companies currently exhibiting, finding the right partners to take your program abroad can feel like looking for a needle in a haystack. What you need is sage advice from people who have been there and done that, but even that guidance can sound a bit dizzying.

Ask a group of seasoned exhibit managers for the best way to select international vendors and you might not hear the same answer twice. While there's a lack of consensus on which method of selecting international vendors is the easiest or most successful, veterans are also quick to point out that no one avenue is the best all of the time. Rather, each has a unique set of caveats that, if ignored, can make what would otherwise have been the right path the wrong one. So to help you navigate the international vendor-selection process, here are seven of their recommended approaches for finding quality international suppliers, along with some wisdom from the trenches on why each technique is good – and when it can be bad.

Use a U.S. Partner With International Divisions
The Benefits
Domestic partners speak your language, use your currency, are in a similar time zone, and, if you've worked with them before, they understand your brand. "Always check with your stateside vendors first," says Sharon Werner, marketing manager for Poretta and Orr Inc., a Philadelphia-based marketing agency. "It's great to keep a consistent look by having someone providing the same services in both countries."

A foreign exhibit-design firm will often outsource booth fabrication to specialty builders, says Jessica Dugast, account executive at exhibit house Astound Group. "Many U.S. companies can function in the same manner and are quite savvy in doing so. With a domestic designer, you can cut out the time difference and potential culture/language barrier."

"Plus, to promote future business, a domestic vendor might be more inclined to ensure an exhibitor's satisfaction compared to a foreign vendor doing a one-off project," says Tim Sullivan, CEO of ExhibitMatch, a vendor-referral service "They might be interested in nurturing that relationship."

The Challenges
While you can likely expect a higher level of service with a vendor from the United States, says Jeff Hannah, VP Int'l Services & Commercial Interiors for Exhibit Concepts, you can also probably expect a higher price tag, especially if the U.S. staff will be traveling to execute the show for you. If not, do they have the quality and depth of communication needed to hand over your program to an international staff you've never met?

More importantly, it's misguided to assume that an industry supplier with international divisions or capabilities will automatically have expertise with your location, and the company getting your business should have direct experience in your destination city. Ask for references from the vendor's international clients and check them.

Ask Your U.S. Partner for International Suggestions
The Benefits

Even if your supplier doesn't work overseas, if it has been in the business for a while, your contacts there will likely know the credibility of many companies in the industry. "It doesn't take long to develop a reputation in this industry, good and ill," says Leslie Hopkins from display manufacturer Skyline Exhibits. Asking for referrals can lead you to some great resources that you may not have found on your own."I know some people in the industry who don't work for big, well-known companies, but they are hard workers that deliver good quality," says Alex Millar, global marketing manager for Masshow Expo, a Shanghai-based exhibit-design firm.

Some U.S. businesses are forming partnerships of sorts with international firms, and your supplier may be able to help facilitate global exhibiting needs by acting as an intermediary. Smaller companies without international divisions are increasingly offering this arrangement to their domestic clients.

The Challenges
There are a variety of reasons someone might refer work to a company, and your particular needs might not be among them. Some referrals are born of friendships formed over long years in the business, and sometimes they are the product of a symbiotic relationship. That's not to say the company you are referred to will give you bad results under these scenarios, but your supplier's suggestion alone should never be the basis for choosing a vendor.

When it's an official partnership, it likely includes a financial arrangement between the referred company and your supplier, and what you get in convenience, you may pay for on your invoice. Also, your supplier may have no direct experience working alongside this partner, suggests John Hill, CEO of John A. Hill & Associates Inc. The bottom line is that your vendor's business partners are not your vendor, and they may not be the best choice for your program.

Use Official Show Providers
The Benefits
Opting to use the show's preselected vendors can be a wise move says Roland Buecheler, a marketing specialist with the Switzerland-based marketing agency Jet Aviation Management AG. Show providers, from freight forwarders to decorators, are familiar with the rules for the venue, they understand the local culture, and they can be nimble when responding to your last-minute needs because their operations are often located in that city. Economies of scale for things like freight forwarding can generate savings for you when using the official forwarder versus going it alone, and show providers may have more influence with customs agents or local regulators should issues arise for you. Plus, show providers can anticipate what you need to exhibit there better than you or an outside company can.

Ultimately, the show's official providers have a vested interest in serving exhibitors well because maintaining their status as a preferred vendor means big business for them in the future. So your happiness is their happiness, and this can work to your advantage.

The Challenges
Show management chooses official providers not only for their adroitness in providing service, but also for what they can contribute to the show's bottom line through incentives or concessions to trade show organizers, Sullivan says. To recoup revenue after making these concessions, preferred vendors may charge higher rates than their nonpreferred competitors, and they may not provide a high level of service to a mass of exhibitors. "Personal attention, quality, and price may be more important to an exhibitor than whether a vendor can deliver 1,000 chairs in an hour," Sullivan says. Language barriers may be more problematic as well, says Global Exhibit Management president Jeannine Swan. "It may take a lot of extra effort to ensure you get English-speaking on-site supervisors."

In some regions, a listing as a preferred vendor is purchased just as an ad or sponsorship would be, and the providers aren't necessarily vetted for the quality of their service. Asking about the selection process and the capacities of providers is imperative.

Select a Vendor in the Show City
The Benefits
According to Horst Tondasch, a consultant with Coral Enterprises Inc., an exhibit and event services company, a local supplier can be the most efficient and economical choice for an international show. By working directly with a local firm, you cut out the expense and lag time of having intermediaries communicate on your behalf, and many companies have English speakers on staff who can effectively bridge the language gap.

The costs for services from a local supplier are likely lower than using a U.S. provider or large international firm, Hannah says, and the value local contacts can add to your program through their familiarity with the culture and language can be enormous.

The Challenges
Do not underestimate the degree to which language barriers and time-zone disparities can impact successful planning. "There is definitely a large difference between only being able to operate through emails using Google Translate and having a shop that is capable of discerning the needs you present to it," says Piotr Frackowiak, director of marketing at Wexpol, an exhibit house located in Warsaw, Poland. Chris Dorn, president of Japan-based exhibit services firm Idea International Inc., notes that currency and payment methods can be problematic as well. In some regions, he says, cash payment is expected onsite, and he's seen exhibitors unaware of this policy faced with the uncomfortable situation of needing to come up with $30,000 in cash on the spot.

Labor customs in a foreign place can come as a shock to an exhibitor not familiar with them, and the degree of service you receive on installation and dismantle can fall well short of your expectations if not specified in minute detail in an agreement, veteran exhibitors say. "The exhibitor behind me at a show in Spain used a local supplier for design, fabrication, and build," recalls John Gerrits, principal at JGerrits Group, a marketing firm headquarted in Texas. "The crew he had working on it determined that they were finished and left the site without completing the job."

Also, sometimes local firms are constrained by the quality and availability of local materials, Sullivan says, and understanding those limitations is important.

Source Suppliers Through an Association
The Benefits
There are an array of exhibiting-related associations around the world where companies serving the exhibition industry congregate. Some, such as convention and visitor bureaus, are destination specific, while others can cover multiple continents. Members often have access to training resources, best-practices roundtables, and collaborations that enhance their offerings. Contacting an association serving a region can connect you to a roster of potential vendors. "I have found that I am much more comfortable using members of associations when I am sourcing overseas," says John Rose, owner of exhibit house JC Rose and Associates.

Some associations vet members, requiring certain standards for membership and scrutinizing companies to judge their ongoing eligibility. For example, according to Annedi Wessels, exhibitions and events director at Marketing Merchants in South Africa, belonging to the Exhibition Association of South Africa (EXSA) is conditional. "If a member is reported due to wrongdoing, the company can lose its membership, and if this happens, it is made known nationally," Wessels says. Chris Skeith, a director with the Event Supplier and Services Association (ESSA) in the United Kingdom, says ESSA vets through a similar process, requiring financial, insurer, peer, and client references for membership.

In addition, many of these associations and their memberships overlap each other, creating an international circle of vendors who are familiar with one another.

The Challenges
Using association membership as a barometer for quality is only as good as the organization's vetting procedures. "Unless the association has reasonably difficult entry requirements, most any vendor can pay to be listed," Sullivan says.

While scrutiny of businesses can boost the quality of the membership, associations that enforce minimum standards may not be aware of all of the complaints against their members. "I have to wonder if instead of reporting wrongdoing or bad service to an association, a disgruntled customer just moves on," says Paul Swift, principle at U.K.-based creative and fulfillment firm Worth Events Ltd.

So while contacting associations may be a good starting point for a vendor search, it is not process enough alone. "My advice," Sullivan says, "is to not allow a vendor's membership in any organization to comprise the whole of your due diligence."

Visit the Show Prior to Exhibiting
The Benefits
For exhibitors with the luxuries of time and a travel budget, there is perhaps no better way to screen potential vendors than to attend the show and get firsthand referrals. "Before exhibiting in Asia, our first step in the process was to go to the shows a year before participating, find booths and companies we liked, and ask who the contractors were," says Larry Broome, director of business development for Odyssey Technical Solutions, a technology-repair company.

According to Matthew Tamney, manager of international business development for Thetw Co. Ltd., an exhibition services firm, visiting during setup is ideal. "Actually talk to some of the contractors, get their business cards, and take a few pictures for reference."

The Challenges
Convincing C-level decision makers that a reconnaissance trip to a show is necessary can be a tough sell, especially at companies where the purse strings are still cinched up from the days of the Recession. Also, making exploratory visits to shows will require an exhibit manager to have a show calendar set well over a year in advance.

Those who do undertake these fact-finding missions should take care that they are asking the right questions, not just snapping photos of pretty booths. The budget, the elements that were subcontracted, and the existence of any challenges are all things that can provide a baseline for comparison to other vendors. And it's important to seek references from exhibitors who occupy a similarly sized space to the one that you would be contracted for, as suppliers for much smaller exhibits may not have the capability for a project your size, and vendors creating exhibits much larger may not give a smaller client the same degree of attention.

Ask People You Trust for Recommendations
The Benefits
When asked how to best go about finding an international vendor, exhibit managers agree that there is no substitute for strong personal recommendations. Obviously, such an endorsement does not make an exhibit program bulletproof, but it can provide reassurance that you are doing business with a reputable and competent supplier. "The world is big, but our industry isn't," says Didier Grupposo, director commercial at Servis Complet S.L., a marketing firm located in Spain. "Trust does matter."

Independent trade show consultant Debbie Becker says she will even consult her competitors in the search for quality referrals, and consultant Candy Adams says conferring with colleagues via industry groups like those found on LinkedIn have netted her some successful results. This dialog between buyers can be enormously beneficial to an exhibit manager trying to dig through the haystack in search of that needle.

"It doesn't matter what industry you are in," Dorn says. "Word of mouth is one of the strongest forms of marketing."

The Challenges

Referrals, however well intended, can be the undoing of an exhibit program if not weighed properly. It is human nature to want to send business to people we like, but those referrals should be sifted out of consideration unless they also include firsthand experience on a project similar to yours. When approaching word-of-mouth referrals, know that a colleague's good experience with a supplier does not necessarily ensure one for you, particularly if the scope of your needs is different. Budget, size, and location are distinctions that can have a huge impact n a supplier's ability to effectively serve one client compared to another, and referrals that align to your program's specifications are the ones that you should heed.

Veteran exhibit managers say companies more than ever are over-stating their international capabilities via the Internet, and buyers should beware, says Hans Mecker, president of International Convention and Consulting Services.

In an industry where a lot of people know a lot of people, a referral may be made based on reputation alone without consideration for the specifications of your program, and while a solid fan base is a good start, the fact that a firm constructed a nice-looking display in Cairo doesn't mean it has any expertise in creating an exhibit in New Delhi. "Look at a company's portfolio, and look at its website to see what kind of clients it has and where it has worked," says Sam Kohn, CEO of Kubik-Maltbie Inc. "Call staffers. Talk with them. Gauge whether or not you think you can communicate with them easily. Does it seem like a person you'd feel comfortable doing business with? Then ask for references and check them out."

Indeed, fastidiously checking the references of potential vendors is the one thing all exhibit managers agree is the most assured way to hire quality partners, regardless of what method you used to find potential suppliers. But be certain you are getting references with appropriate comparability, and ask them to talk in detail about their experience with a partner."It's always the details," Gerrits says. "They will make you shine, or they will kill you. All you have to do is pay attention to every detail, no matter how small, and you should be OK."

It's a daunting thought, to be sure, but one that should not sway you from your quest. Caveats and cautions aside, there is gold in those global hills, and the industry has thousands of quality suppliers who can help you unearth it. Just know that choosing the right one can make the difference between whether you end up digging for it with a pickax or flailing for it with a spoon.

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