Are you stuck in a long-distance relationship with your exhibit-marketing program? If so, you know that whether you're talking lovers or logistics, these types of affairs are never easy. Countless circumstances, such as overlapping shows, personal emergencies, budget cuts, and a trade show calendar with more dates than Leo DiCaprio, can keep you home while your staff and your booth hit the road. Even though you're hundreds or thousands of miles away from all of the action, you have to develop a strategy, organize every detail, manage your on-site staff, and periodically conjure Plan B's out of thin air. Bottom line: You are still accountable for every show-floor success and failure.
So how do you keep your long-distance program alive and strong? That's exactly what EXHIBITOR asked four exhibit-marketing experts. On average they only attend 15 percent of the shows at which their companies exhibit – and one lonely soul is separated from her beloved booth 93 percent of the time. Having been there and survived that, our panel of experts offers the following strategies to ensure your long-distance program is a long-term success.
Locate a Leader
Whenever you and your booth share the same zip code, you're no doubt running the show. But when you're apart, you need someone on the show floor to run things for you. Often referred to as a booth supervisor, a team lead, a show-floor quarterback, or maybe just your "mini-me" stand-in, this person must do far more than just fog a mirror. So careful selection is key.
"You need a 'follow-me' leader rather than just a 'hold-my-hand' hanger-on," says Dana Tilghman, CTSM, CMP, senior events planner for Minitab Inc. "Your in-the-field manager should be able to take charge without being a bully, maintain a positive attitude, and present a calm demeanor to the rest of your team. You can't have anyone that panics at the slightest hint of trouble." So sources suggest that you continually scour your company's ranks for someone you can trust and train to step into your shoes as needed.
For some exhibit managers, this leader will be the same person at several or all shows. But for Noelle Feist, director of experiential and event marketing at Mindbody Inc., the team leader role is a revolving position.
Your in-the-field manager should be able to take charge without being a bully, maintain a positive attitude, and present a calm demeanor to the rest of your team.
"Our company sends different sales reps to almost every show, so I rarely have the same team lead twice," she says. "So for each show we hold a pre-show meeting for all staff attending. As I go over the plans in detail and monitor the participation levels in the group, I identify the most committed and responsible folks in the room. I then select one of them as my stand-in and ensure that everyone sees this selection as a sort of honor bestowed upon a worthy recipient. Then I provide this person with some additional training and information."
While most exhibit managers select their on-site leader from within the ranks, sometimes nobody at the firm fits the bill. In that case, you will have to look elsewhere. "Exhibit-house
vendors are an obvious resource when it comes to anything related to shipping as well as installation and dismantle," says Jeannine Swan, president of Global Exhibit Management, an
exhibit- and event-management company. "You'll likely have to pay extra for their 'over-and-above' services, but you can also enlist the resource rep to set out literature and products, explain exhibit intricacies to your staff, and maybe even monitor booth effectiveness throughout the show."
Vanessa Schultz, manager of global marketing events for Illumina Inc., sometimes hires freelancers for this paramount position. "If you arm them with the proper information, freelance exhibit managers can be an amazing asset at numerous shows throughout the year. Sure, they are going to cost a lot more than traditional 'booth babes,' but they're usually armed with years of experience and education, factors that are crucial to program effectiveness."
Finally, if you're really in a pinch – perhaps it's a small show and your main field-sales rep has landed himself in the hospital – you could even recruit a valued and longtime customer as a product-expert replacement. According to Tilghman, if you have a customer with an in-depth knowledge of your product, you could pair him or her with someone that understands trade show logistics and has a general knowledge of your firm, ultimately creating a sort of hybrid exhibit-marketing team.
"We've used customers to staff our booth a few times, and it's always worked out well," Tilghman says. "We paid any travel-related expenses and gave them a full conference registration so they got something out of it, too. Plus, we made them sign an agreement that specified the scope of work, expectations, legalities of representation, etc. But the customers always felt like valued VIPs who had been called upon for an important task. In exchange, we had someone in the booth with a deeper understanding of our product than that of a random temporary staffer."
Train the Troops
Once you've established your on-site leader, it's time to arm him or her with the tools and information necessary to carry out your plans. Most often our experts either provide a written, comprehensive guide to all things exhibit marketing, or they have their stand-ins shadow them at a few shows to learn the ropes firsthand.
"I create a massive playbook for my show-floor team leads that includes anything and everything they need to know about our logistics, exhibitry, setup, teardown, post-show shipping, goals, VIPs, contacts, past performance, and more," Tilghman says. "I then sit down with my leaders and this playbook and verbally walk through every item, encouraging them to take notes along the way."
When it comes to setup, however, Tilghman offers a more hands-on experience. "If we're using a small booth at the show in question, we pull it out of storage a few weeks beforehand, and I have the team lead set it up with my guidance," she says. "If we're using one of our large exhibits, I schedule a Skype call between my team lead, my exhibit-house rep, and myself. The exhibit house then either performs a live setup for us, or the rep discusses the various components and I&D steps and goes over any tricky parts. You can talk about setup until you're blue in the face, but you'll never truly understand it until you do it yourself or at least see the required parts and pieces."
Stay the Distance
Like any good quarterback, most exhibit managers take the field with their teams. But if you're sidelined, you need a playbook of sorts to ensure that the show goes on – successfully – sans you. Here are your playbook's most critical chapters.
➤ Identify a backup quarterback.
Carefully select your stand-in – or a series of stand-ins for the full season – who can carry out your plans, lead your team, and report feedback.
➤ Train your team.
Arm your backup as well as your entire staff with the necessary information to execute a successful show. Delivery mediums include a full-on written guide and/or a series of shadowing opportunities to train via live interactions.
➤ Manage the equipment.
Employ everything from photos and videos to written instructions to make sure staff can inventory, set up, and crate your exhibitry for return shipment.
➤ Keep an eye on the game.
Once the show begins, monitor its progress by checking lead and traffic stats, securing staff feedback, requesting end-of-day reports and photos, etc.
Swan also produces a comprehensive playbook, but then creates a sort of quick-reference guide. "This document contains the bare-bones information such as setup drawings, on-site and emergency contacts, time-sensitive deadlines, and critical show-closing activities," she says. "While the full playbook is paramount, my team lead can store it in his or her briefcase or on a laptop to reference as needed. The down-and-dirty guide, however, should be constantly in hand – or on a phone or tablet – throughout the show."
When it comes to training her on-site replacement, Schultz takes an even more experiential approach. "My booth supervisor mirrors me at a few key shows before taking on the full responsibility alone," she says. Sources suggest that during this job-shadowing process you not only talk about what's supposed to happen but also what do to when Plan A implodes. In addition, they propose you make time to introduce your new supervisor to important vendors, show management, or any other on-site personnel that he or she may need to partner with in the future.
Along these same lines, sources recommend paying careful attention to overall staff training. Sometimes when a new leader is assigned, staffers become a bit confused as to their individual roles and responsibilities. To provide crystal-clear clarity, then, Tilghman develops detailed individual staff schedules including personal responsibilities for every employee attending the show.
Meanwhile, Feist provides more of a broad group overview. "We hold a large staff-training session twice a year that goes over key responsibilities, expected behaviors, etc.," she says. "The meeting covers the booth captain's responsibilities and what roles the rest of the team should perform. We stress the importance of communication across the entire team and go over specific what-if scenarios to help everyone get a feel for what's going to happen in my absence. I find these scenarios critical because people remember specific examples far better than general insight. Before each show, then, I meet with its respective staffers to discuss details specific to that event. But thanks to the biannual training sessions, staffers already have a basic understanding of what's expected and how it's all going to work. My expectations of them aren't a surprise."
Manage Exhibitry and I&D
More likely than not, the exhibit manager ensures that the right exhibit parts and pieces arrive at each show. But assuming that happens, it's then up to on-site staff to check that all
exhibit inventory has arrived, erect the structure, and ship everything back to your office or warehouse after the show. While that task might sound like a cakewalk to seasoned veterans, for newbie stand-ins it's a daunting tippy-toe trek through a minefield.
Arm your on-site leader with the information and tools necessary to carry out your plans by providing a written, comprehensive guide to all things exhibit marketing or having him or her shadow you at a few shows to learn firsthand.
To ensure her on-site staff isn't blown to smithereens, Tilghman sends a full-on exhibit-inventory binder to the show. It includes a list of all the components that should be in the crates, photos of each piece, assembly instructions and schematics, written tips for tricky components, exhibit-house contact info, and information as to whether exhibit hardware is custom or if replacements might be obtained at a local hardware store.
Other sources such as Feist use a simple Excel spreadsheet with a detailed listing of all the elements that should arrive at the booth. On-site staff can then quickly check this sheet against crate contents and notify her of any discrepancies.
But almost all sources use some type of photographic system to help their on-site exhibit staffers and leads identify parts and pieces, get them back into their proper crates, and
organize the booth appropriately. "The almost foolproof option I use most often is to put photos inside every crate," Swan says. "The images should include not only a picture of a properly packed crate but also individual shots of all components that go into each respective crate."
Tilghman also sends photos to the show, but asks for some in return. "I instruct my lead to photograph each crate immediately after it's opened, and to take quick snapshots of its components," she says. "This provides proof that nothing is missing from the start, and it shows me how the previous on-site lead or the exhibit house packed our shipment at the last show. Plus, if the images don't match the inventory list, we can all start hunting for parts or formulating a Plan B."
Once your on-site team has unpacked the components and started setup, sources recommend that you periodically check in to ensure things are progressing as planned. "One of my biggest concerns regarding I&D is whether the booth is orientated properly," Feist says. "That is, at almost all shows, it should be facing in a specific direction, as opposed to just randomly plopped down in our footprint. So not long after setup starts, I FaceTime with my on-site crew so I can see the entire environment around the booth and ensure it's oriented properly. Then I FaceTime with them again at the end of setup to make sure each piece is in its optimum position. I don't nitpick, but sometimes I have them move a poster that's blocking a product display or maybe fix a trip hazard caused by a wrinkled piece of carpet. By having them visually walk me around the space via FaceTime, I can often point out little things that make a sizable difference in the end."
Some sources also advocate for labeling the inside of your storage compartments and drawers with their typical contents. For example, indicate where excess products, office supplies, emergency contacts, first-aid kits, paper, pens, and more should be stored. That way you'll ensure that your exhibit remains clutter free; plus, if items are always stored in the same location, staff won't spend valuable show-floor time trying to locate what they need.
Finally, sources stress the importance of photography at the end of the show as well. Several require their staff to send them a photo of each properly packed crate – both inside and out – so they can verify that the contents are present and that shipping labels have been attached. Others ask for photos of the bill of lading to ensure that the forms were completely properly and punctually.
Schedule Regular Checkups
Once the show begins, some long-distance exhibit managers sit back and breathe a heavy sigh of relief, thinking that the bulk of the work is over. But according to our expert sources, this is actually the point at which you should crank up your efforts. Most, in fact, make random calls to their on-site reps to check on everything from the number of leads generated and theater-attendance stats to reports concerning the local competition and the performance of individual booth staffers.
When you haven't personally attended a show – and thus haven't witnessed your staff's performance nor assessed the quality of the show firsthand – it is critical that you obtain their feedback.
Along these same lines, Schultz employs her electronic lead-capture system to closely monitor incoming leads remotely. "I can go online to see how our staff is performing," she says. "We can then discuss overall traffic, adjustments in messaging or activities that might improve results, or even any scorching-hot leads that need immediate follow-up from our sales team." Other sources take this one step further and use the time stamp from the lead-collection system to track individual staff performance. For example, if all but one staffer is recording eight or more leads per hour, at best that one underperformer needs additional training; at worst, he or she needs to be removed from the next booth-staff roster.
All sources also recommend some sort of end-of-day report from the on-site crew. This could be something as simple as a text saying "All is well" to something as elaborate as a comprehensive report including a video of the booth staff in action, a summary of leads gathered compared to goals, social-media figures, the number of giveaways distributed, and specific suggestions for how to improve the team's performance the following day.
In addition to staff-generated feedback, sources propose you seek input from outside sources as well. While some urge you to enlist on-site exhibit-house staff to report back on staff behavior, overall attitudes, and general show traffic, at least one source advocates for involving show management. "I'm not above asking show management to inform me if my booth is ever unattended," Tilghman says. "This is rarely the case, and when it is, it's usually due to travel snafus as opposed to gross misconduct. But still, I like to keep some eyes and ears on the field, so to speak."
Perform Post-Show Procedures
Once a show is over, most staffers like to scurry back to their cubicles and attend to their "normal" daily tasks. But particularly when you haven't personally attended the show – and thus haven't witnessed your staff's performance nor assessed the quality of the show firsthand – it's critical that you obtain their feedback.
Judy Volker, marketing director at Iatric Systems Inc., sends all her staff members a templatized post-show staffing survey. "This gives them the opportunity to comment on everything from setup and exhibit elements to speaker opportunities and overall show traffic," she says. "The survey provides a brief overview of our results compared to our goals and requests general feedback from staff about future attendance. I can then use this information not only to plan our trade show calendar but also to fine-tune our program."
Feist also surveys her staff; plus, she holds a debrief meeting after each event. "During the meeting staffers can provide public input and suggestions for program improvement," she says. "I then follow that up with a survey, which allows respondents to provide confidential information about either their own challenges or those of their peers. Via these surveys I often gain valuable insight into which reps aren't pulling their weight, and then I can step up my training with these folks or simply remove them from the schedule for an upcoming show."
With regard to future show selection, Tilghman takes staffer input one step further. "If I'm not at a show, it's very difficult for me to ascertain whether or not we should keep participating in it," she says. "So I periodically educate my staff on how I select trade shows. I want them to fully understand the process I use and the information I consider, such as demographics, dedicated exhibiting time, event history, educational offerings, speaker and overall awareness opportunities, etc. That way, when I ask our staff whether or not we should continue to exhibit at a particular show, they have valuable insight to contribute – as opposed to merely telling me 'The booth seemed slow.'"
From selecting shows and managing inventory to making sure booth setup and teardown goes off without a hitch, long-distance exhibit marketing can be a challenge at best. But if you employ the aforementioned strategies, you'll no doubt keep the romance – and the returns – alive. E
A Touch o' Technology
While sources argue that nothing beats a face-to-face – or Skype-to-Skype – conversation, they all use some form of technology to lube their long-distance challenges. Here's a list of their favorite tools.
Dropbox is a cloud-storage service used for file sharing, collaboration, and backup. It allows multiple users to view, modify, save, and access a multitude of file types. While you can't create files in Dropbox, the size and variety of file types is much greater than those associated with Google Docs.
This free web-based application allows you to create, edit, and store documents and spreadsheets that can later be accessed by specified users online. By creating and sharing in the cloud, your staff and on-site lead can save a few trees and ensure that key documents are always a few clicks away.
While MiFi is actually a brand of mobile hot spots, the name is often assigned to any device capable of creating a personal hot spot. A MiFi unit allows multiple users to share a mobile broadband internet connection via cellular signal and create an ad-hoc network.
This storytelling platform is typically used to connect companies with their customers, but long-distance exhibit mangers can also use its Content Cloud function to create customized "playlists" (including show info, setup instructions, etc.) to serve as a guide for at-show staff.
Frequently used by exhibitors in international locales, WhatsApp is a free smartphone app that uses the internet to send messages, images, audio, and video. Wherever Wi-Fi is available, it can eliminate roaming-related charges and provide communication capabilities when phone service is either unaccessible or unreliable.