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Let's Talk Tabletops
Despite their stature, tabletop exhibits can crank out just as much marketing horsepower as titans 10 times their size. But to make the most of these agile little exhibits, you must properly design and manage them. Here, then, are eight techniques to make your potent little powerhouse a top performer. By Linda Armstrong
Often overlooked and undervalued as effective marketing mediums, tabletop exhibits are the silent workhorses of the exhibition industry. While they might be miniature, and they typically can't offer mind-blowing technological wizardry like their behemoth brethren, they're nimble, lightweight, and small enough for you to trot out practically anywhere, thereby extending their usefulness far beyond the trade show floor.

However, planning these tiny tots is no easy matter. If you don't give them the time and attention they deserve, their effectiveness can shrink faster than a bank account during the holiday-spending season. That's why EXHIBITOR tapped a host of exhibit-marketing professionals for their down-and-dirty tips to create an effective tabletop program. Based on their advice, you can ensure that your miniature marketing workhorse will yield results, and maybe even surpass your thoroughbred exhibits in the process.

1. Select one large graphic image.
In effect, a tabletop exhibit is a single or multipaneled graphic. So designing your graphics is the most important step in the creation of your display. Across the board, sources assert that selecting one big, bold image to anchor your graphics is paramount. For it's this one element that captures the eye, attracts the feet, and tempts attendees to learn more. On the other hand, too many images – or a bland, blurry, or outdated one – can avert rather than attract.

"Just like billboards along the highway, tabletop exhibits have one to two seconds to capture the attention of passersby," says Joshua Leonard, lead designer at The Exhibit Company Inc. "And a single, engaging image is the best way to garner that attention. In fact, if that one main image doesn't demand notice, you shouldn't even bother exhibiting."

Sofia Troutman, customer engagement and industry relations manager at Skyline Exhibits, expands on the billboard analogy. "First impressions count, and graphics are your company's first touch with passing attendees," she says. "Great graphics compel them to stop and interact; bad graphics are ignored, or worse yet offensive enough to repel potential prospects." But how big should that big graphic be? Sources suggest that you simply consider your tabletop's position in relation to that of attendees and then craft an image large enough to be clearly understood from the aisle. In addition, your main image must be the highest quality that your budget will allow, according to Robin Clinton, senior account executive at 2020 Exhibits Inc.

"The old saying is true: garbage in, garbage out," Clinton says. "Many marketers don't truly understand the value of purchasing or crafting quality images or graphic files. Low-quality imagery can obliterate all chances of success. You want an image that's properly lit, cropped, focused, and framed, and one with a high-enough resolution that it'll never appear fuzzy or pixilated. Granted, we're talking about tabletop exhibits, not 20-foot-long graphic walls. But anytime you purchase an image or take a photograph that has any possibility of being used as a graphic, obtain the largest size and resolution possible. That way, you can downsize it for your tabletop, but you can also use it in larger exhibits.

2. Restrict text to the bare minimum.
"Tabletops typically fall into two categories," says Mel White, vice president of marketing and business development at Classic Exhibits Inc. "They're either professional billboard-like displays with one image, a company name or logo, and a single, short, benefit-related message, or they're elementary-school bulletin boards with cluttered graphics and a mishmash of text. And few people read bulletin boards."

Along these same lines, Troutman suggests that you're pretty much golden if you can stick to five words or fewer. "The role of your tabletop exhibit is to capture attention, tell people who you are, and suggest what's in it for them," she says. "You don't need more than about five words to do that, and anything else is just extra clutter."

"And remember, this is still face-to-face marketing," says Kaylin Jamnicki, marketing manager at Orbus Exhibit & Display Group. "Your exhibit should communicate just enough to make attendees pause. Then your staffer should open a conversation and provide additional information specifically tailored to the needs of each attendee."

Sources also suggest that you stick to one font, avoid images overlaid with text, and minimize chaotic backgrounds. "Readability is paramount," Troutman says. "So avoid busy backgrounds and patterns, opt for a common font (such as a san serif option like Helvetica, Arial, or Futura), and keep your text and images separate to promote maximum readability."

While minimal and readable is the way to go, Sarah LaFrance, systems exhibits manager at Access TCA Inc., suggests that a tailored message is also important. "Especially since tabletop graphics are so small, you can usually afford to create multiple highly customized versions of your graphics and swap them out in your display depending on each show's specific audience," she says. "Also consider using double-sided graphic panels, which require little more than the flick of a wrist to change imaging. You could have one image and message on the front, and a different pair on the back, allowing you to change focus on the fly."

3. Design for maximum impact.
So you have a bold graphic and minimal text. What else can you do to stand out? Sources propose that you add a few carefully chosen accessories and opt for unusual shapes to make your minimal presence appear a bit more mighty.

"Many exhibitors purchase a generic table throw to accompany their tabletop exhibits," says Janet Aguhob, senior convention planner with Allergan Inc. "With a minimal added investment, they could purchase a customized throw that can create the illusion of a bigger environment. If you buy a throw whose hue matches or at least closely coordinates with that of your exhibit, it makes the entire display seem much larger. Although anyone standing in front of your exhibit will block text on the front of the throw, it's always nice to customize it with your logo or a short, clear message, as it can inform and attract people to an unoccupied space."

With regard to a throw, Clinton advises exhibitors to always purchase the 8-foot option as opposed to the 6-foot version. "If you put the larger throw on a smaller table, you can always tuck under the edges," she says. "But if you buy the 6-foot throw and end up displaying it on an 8-foot table, it's going to look less than professional."

Also consider repeating the color of your exhibit in ancillary items such as staff clothing, giveaways, candies, brochures, etc. "If you blanket the area in a single color, it creates a visual illusion that will turn your tabletop display into a 10-by-10-foot exhibit," Troutman says.

"Biggie-sizing" your visual impact can also be accomplished by building up and out. While White advocates for tabletops with header panels that extend over the top of the traditional structure, Jamnicki recommends the use of oversized elements. "Tabletops aren't one size fits all," she says. "Various heights and widths are available, and some collapsible versions can stand as much as 4 feet tall. The added height creates a commanding presence."

To develop a unique yet powerful presence, Aguhob and Troutman turn to inventive shapes. They suggest that custom-designed displays featuring unexpected curves, asymmetrical shapes, or angles can capture attention; plus, advances in today's fabric exhibitry mean you can easily craft one-of-a-kind, lightweight structures that completely break the traditional tabletop mold.

4. Let your light shine.
Tabletop shows are often a black hole. That's because few exhibitors employ the power of lighting to differentiate their stands. Sources, however, purport that lighting is a must. "Too many tabletop exhibitors pooh-pooh lights because the fixtures are somehow perceived as causing too much hassle," White says. "But lighting is the difference between an exhibit that's seen versus one that's practically invisible – and between a booth that's perceived as highly professional and one that seems thrown together. And given how inexpensive LEDs have become, there's no excuse for a dark booth. Plus, if you've gone through the hassle to attend the show in the first place, how much more trouble is it to add some lights and ensure that your investment delivers a return rather than disappears into the void?"

Troutman concurs and also points out that lighting is absolutely critical given the venues in which most tabletop shows are held. "Often, tabletops are displayed within smaller venues, hotels, etc., and these spaces are notorious for minimal or inconsistent lighting," she says. Aside from adding fixtures, however, you can also incorporate light via the tabletop structures themselves. "Some exhibitors have used lightbox displays as tabletop exhibits," Jamnicki says. "That way you're not lighting the booth; the booth is the light, which makes the messaging pop."

5. Harness tech tools.
If you've put the first four bits of advice to use, you've created a simple, effective, and uncluttered display. But how do you deliver additional offerings associated with larger exhibits, such as presentations, product info, etc.? Sources urge you to add a touch of technology.

By incorporating a tablet or two in your display, you can double or triple its deliverables. Tablets allow you to scan business cards or badges, offer product information, display case studies, show videos of your product in action, and on and on. So sources advise integrating tablets via freestanding tablet holders, kiosks adjacent to the display, or purchasing a tabletop with a built-in tablet-display function.

"And if you use a tablet, always make sure it's displaying moving content," Leonard says. "Despite the size of your booth, motion is a key attention-grabbing tool. So something as simple as text moving across a screen or a repeating video clip can force attendees to give you a second glance."

Judy Volker, marketing director at Iatric Systems Inc., uses a computer as a presentation and attraction tool. "We display an iMac loaded with a special screen saver featuring our value proposition messages," she says. "We also use the computer to offer attendees in-booth presentations and product info, but when it's not in use, it's constantly catching the eye and relaying messages."

If you're already offering presentations and videos, several sources also suggest supplementing your experience with modestly sized Bluetooth speakers. Given the ancillary show-floor noise, it's often difficult to hear audio content. So boost your volume with a speaker or two positioned close to the aisle.

While all sources agree on the importance of tablets, there's dissent in the ranks when it comes to monitors. Jamnicki and others purport that tabletops with integrated monitor mounts are ideal for presentations, short videos, etc. However, Troutman and Leonard shy away from monitors because of their propensity to detract from face-to-face interactions.

"If you put a large monitor on the table, it often ends up looking like an afterthought, or it swallows attendees' attention and puts your true exhibit on the back burner," Troutman says. "If you integrate a monitor, just be certain that its size and positioning contribute to and integrate within the overall presence – and that staff aren't using it as a crutch to refrain from actively engaging passing attendees."

Baby-Booth Basics
Tabletops are available in countless forms, shapes, sizes, and cost ranges. Sources indicate that you can expect to pay anywhere from $35 for a tabletop-style banner stand up to $6,000 for a highly customized creation with all the bells and whistles. Production time ranges from a mere five days to six months, based on the amount of customization. But no matter what type of structure you choose, it will likely fall into one of these seven broad categories.
Panel Systems/Modular Displays
A plethora of portable, modular, and system suppliers offer tabletop options. These systems typically feature an easy-to-install framework covered in fabric graphics or hard panels that break down for easy transport.

Pop-up Systems
Pop-up tabletop frames are usually made of flexible tubes and connecting joints. Graphics are applied directly to the frame using magnetic strips or plastic connectors, or a fabric cover goes on first and graphics are then attached to the fabric.

Resembling a briefcase, this type of exhibit features graphics housed within the "case," which is then opened and simply set atop a table for display. Briefcases are often used at small regional or local shows and/or to augment sales calls.

Banner Stands
Several retractable banner stands feature variable height options that allow them to be easily repurposed from a floor-based display to tabletop use. With a bit of foresight, you can configure almost any option to fit a tabletop size.

Custom Exhibits
Exhibit houses offer a variety of custom options. If you can envision it, they can probably build it. Plus, some firms now provide 10-by-10-foot or larger exhibits that can be downsized for tabletop use without losing their eye-catching elements.

Inflatable Displays
A handful of exhibitry suppliers are now selling inflatable structures. Some can pack up small enough to fit inside a backpack (even with their lights and inflation motor included), which makes worrying about shipping costs a nonissue.

Some exhibitors opt out of a traditional tabletop structure and rent a sizeable monitor (perhaps 40 inches or more) upon which to display messaging. Paired with a PC, a monitor can draw people into your space via videos, photo loops, and more.
6. Position it properly.
A final note about designing and accessorizing your presence: Sources insist that you carefully consider where the exhibit is positioned within the space. "There's no tried and true answer for where to position your booth, as there are multiple variables that can affect each situation," LaFrance says. "You need to keep the purpose of a trade show exhibit in mind. That is, the structure needs to attract attention, communicate a quick message about who you are and what you offer, and then support a face-to-face interaction between staff and visitors. To me, this means your booth should be clearly visible from the aisle, and you should have enough space around it for visitors to literally step out of the aisle and into your environment."

Granted, at small shows, stepping out of the aisle might mean simply taking one step closer to your staffer. But if possible, leave enough space between your booth and the aisle for people to make a symbolic yet physical commitment to enter your space and engage.

White suggests that you also reflect on what's happening around you. "At some shows, you have to imitate your neighbors," he says. "If they all have their booths right up on the edge of their space, yours will disappear if you position it 5 feet back from the aisle. Plus, if attendees aren't used to stepping into a space at a particular show, they'll be far less inclined to enter yours if your booth is a considerable distance from the aisle."

Finally, Leonard suggests that positioning also has a great deal to do with staffers' effectiveness. "Inexperience or unskilled staffers often stand behind the tabletop, waiting for it to do the work of engaging attendees," he says. "Avoid this by positioning the booth in such a way that the staffer is forced toward the aisle where he or she can initiate conversations."

7. Train the troops.
As Leonard just alluded to, staff effectiveness can often make or break your tabletop presence. So a critical – yet often overlooked – part of any effective tabletop program is staff selection and training. "It doesn't matter if you design the best exhibit and select a primo location; it's the people that tip the balance from 'meh' to marvelous," Volker says. "Staff is a huge differentiator."

Troutman agrees and stresses that staff selection is paramount, especially for small exhibits. "In a large booth you can often have a wide selection of staffing experts," she says. "Some people might know a product line in and out, others may better understand the direction of the company and upcoming products, while still others might be good at providing press interviews. When your staff roster comprises one or two people, these folks need to be able to perform all of those key roles and then some. They have to be prepared for any question that comes their way – or they need to have a firm understanding of who will follow up on the tricky questions after the show."

White also purports that staff should be not only skilled but also emotionally and professionally invested in the experience. "You need staffers that want to be there and that can effectively engage people," he says. "Sure, this requirement is paramount for all exhibits, but when you only have one or two staffers, there's nobody to take up the slack. A single missed lead due to a lack of engagement could mean a loss of thousands of dollars in potential revenue."

Once you have the right people in the booth, your next task is to ensure they're trained to tackle the task at hand. According to Volker, that means teaching them to be approachable, to seek out attendees' needs and pain points first, and to offer ways in which your company's products or services can meet them. "But perhaps equally as important, staff need to be able to manage their time and use engagement and disengagement practices wisely," she says. "When there's only one person, you need to be friendly and to truly connect with attendees, but you also must know how to disengage when your products and services don't match attendees' needs. That way, you won't miss interacting with others headed your way."

As a final word of advice, Clinton suggests that you completely eliminate chairs in tabletop exhibits. "A sitting staffer talking to a standing attendee is simply off-putting," she says. "And if the traffic is so slow that staffers demand a place to sit down, it's time to question your show selection."

8. Promote your presence.
"An exhibit is an exhibit all over the world, and no matter its size, you'll always increase its effectiveness if you conduct a bit of pre-show marketing," White says. "At the very least, send attendees an email to tell them what they can expect to learn when they visit your space."

Leonard suggests that offering a small promotional item is also really helpful, given the intimate size of the space and the amount of one-on-one interactions. "If your staffers aren't used to up-close and personal interactions with strangers, a small but memorable promotional item can help them break the ice or disengage smoothly."

Troutman, however, proposes that you go all out with targeted promotional tactics at tabletop shows. "Especially since tabletop events are usually small and highly targeted, you probably have the time to personally call and talk to critical prospects, or at the very least to send them a customized card or small gift and invite them to talk with you at your space."

As you can see then, tabletops are a little tricky to design and sometimes a challenge to staff. But with your careful planning and forethought, they can also deliver the same benefits of booths twice their size. Armed with these tips and techniques, you can ensure that your tiny exhibit is a primo performer. E

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