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booth staff
Ronald Marien is the director of marketing communications at Agfa Graphics N.V., where he oversees more than 25 trade shows annually and is responsible for online marketing, advertising, customer-relationship management, press relations, and more. Marien believes that engaging, one-off strategies are the best way to develop innovative attendee experiences and effective staffing strategies.

nce every four years, Drupa, one of the largest printing exhibitions in the world, opens its doors. For my company, Agfa Graphics N.V. of Mortsel, Belgium, the show offers the perfect confluence of ample time with customers (a whopping 14 days, with an average of almost eight hours of daily exhibition time) and a roving sea of qualified attendees, including roughly 400,000 printing-industry professionals from more than 135 countries. For printing-industry manufacturers and suppliers like us, if you miss this show (or screw up your company's presence at it) you will feel the effects for the next four years - if you survive them, that is.

So as Agfa Graphics' director of marketing communications, I knew that Drupa 2008 in Düsseldorf, Germany, was critical to my company's success. But based on our exhibits in years past, I also knew that this perfect confluence of time and attendees would create the perfect storm of exhibit-staffing problems for me.

At many of our previous international shows, my staffers were a category-five disaster. They wouldn't attend mandatory morning meetings, and even when they finally dragged themselves into the booth, they either weren't where they were supposed to be when customers came calling, or they stood around swapping stories with other staffers rather than attending to prospects. Plus, many of our female information-desk hostesses and catering-service personnel complained that male staffers were flirting with them, and that unwanted attention was preventing them from doing their jobs.

And while not every staffer was an immediate thorn in my side, by the middle of the show, a handful of bad apples had managed to sour the entire bunch. They wore their negative attitudes like a badge of honor, and demonstrated a "do-the-least-necessary" work ethic, acting as if the show was a paid vacation and not an extension of their job. Before long, their pessimistic attitudes spread like root rot to the entire exhibit staff, eventually turning the collective group into a giant, whining ball of ineffectiveness.

With a massive 300-by-1,000-foot booth planned for the 2008 show, and a list of 2,000 attendees we hoped to sweet talk into at-show sales, success hinged on my staffers' ability to be where they needed to be, when they needed to be there - and to treat every staff/attendee interaction like it was the most important exchange of the show. Based on my initial estimates, I figured I'd need a minimum of 330 staffers on hand each day to deliver the kind of "at your service" experience I hoped to shower upon our 2,000 VIPs.

To maintain staffers' effectiveness throughout the show, I'd need some way to motivate them on a daily basis, a system to track their whereabouts, various tactics to reprimand slackers, and some kind of process to avoid bringing any bad apples to the show. With 300,000 square feet of booth space, hundreds of staffers, and 14 days of exhibiting ahead, I was facing a tsunami of staffing troubles.

Luckily, my years of experience had given me a mental warehouse chock full of staffing tactics, seven of which came in handy for this flash flood of problems. While most exhibit managers will never have to battle all of these same challenges at once, surely everyone can adapt at least some of these tactics to help weather the next staffing storm that threatens their programs.

1. Select the Right Staff

Before I could begin to manage my booth staff, I needed to make sure I had selected the right people. So working with internal stakeholders, I started compiling a list of potential staffers based on their show-related skills, technical product knowledge, and overall experience with and knowledge of the company. Then, we narrowed down the list to include only those people we felt had a positive attitude and an unconditional enthusiasm to work the booth. Based on past performance and what we knew about each person, we developed a wish list of staffers and invited each of them to staff the booth.

If anyone had even the slightest degree of disinterest, however, I immediately removed his or her name from my staffing roster. I figured that I could provide all of the training necessary to turn a motivated but unskilled person into an effective booth staffer. But if the staffer was unmotivated or uninterested from the start, there was little I could do to alter his or her mental state.

Our final list featured a wonderful crew hailing from several countries. Of course, I provided them with oodles of pre-show training via face-to-face meetings and Webinars. So once the show opened, our carefully selected staff arrived well trained - and perhaps more importantly, highly motivated and happy to be there.

 Takeaway Tactic: When selecting staff, assign as much value to each person's attitude, personality, and motivational level as you do to his or her skills and product knowledge. It's easier to teach rookie staffers the skills and information necessary to effectively work the booth than it is to change an apathetic attitude.

2. Divide and Conquer

Few people want to work seven days straight, much less 14, which means maintaining a motivated 330-person staff for the entire show was unlikely. So I split the workload into smaller, manageable chunks, rotating staffers into and out of the schedule throughout the show.

Rather than selecting 330 staffers, in the end I assembled a list of more than 700 people that would rotate into and out of the booth schedule during the show. For example, one staffer might start working the show on day four, but be replaced by another staffer arriving on day nine. So each of the 700 staffers spent an average of six days working the show, but no more than 330 staffers were scheduled for booth duty on the same day. In addition to pre-show training for the group, daily morning briefings during the show ensured on-site staff and those that had just arrived were prepared for each day's activities.

I also massaged the schedule so hundreds of staffers didn't depart en masse. Rather, they rotated in and out sporadically. That way, there wasn't a mass exodus - and a giant drop in effectiveness - at any one time.

With some staffing positions, such as my own role and that of some sales and hospitality-related people, we needed a specific person on hand almost every day of the show. However, I worked in some daily down time for these people, and if they lived within 200 miles of the show site, I let them drive home for a day or two of mental refueling sometime during the show.

 Takeaway Tactic: Even if booth staffers are only working a three-day show, plan some down time into their schedules - a generous lunch break is a nice gesture. Whether you actually rotate staff into and out of the show like I did, or you simply rotate booth-duty schedules so every staffer gets ample time to recharge at the show, humane scheduling will do wonders for your staffers' attitudes and your booth's effectiveness.

3. Implement a Staff-Tracking System

While our info-desk hostesses were carefully trained to transfer qualified attendees to the appropriate staffers in the booth, they first had to be able to find specific staffers in the booth. To that end, I purchased a custom electronic staff-tracking system from KomDat GmbH, an e-commerce company in Munich, Germany.

Using monitors throughout the booth, staffers continually updated their whereabouts and status, choosing options such as "meeting with a customer," "out for lunch," "hosting an external meeting," etc. When staffers were unavailable, they indicated the expected length of their absence.

The information was relayed to hostesses via a monitor at the information desk. When hostesses checked the system for a specific booth staffer, it provided the requested staffer's current availability and, if he or she was unavailable, suggested other staffers with similar skills or titles as backups. After identifying an available staffer, the hostess sent a text to that person's cell phone indicating where and when to meet the attendee.

This relatively simple and inexpensive piece of software allowed me to determine the location of more than 300 people at any given time during the show, and kept attendee wait time to a bare minimum.

 Takeaway Tactic: To effectively serve booth visitors, you need to know where your staffers are every minute of the show. While you may not need a software program to track their whereabouts (especially if you're exhibiting in a smaller sized booth), make sure there's some kind of system in place - be it a notation on a white board or even a central location for handwritten notes regarding staffers' activities - to track each person's location and relay pertinent information to waiting attendees.

4. Don't Just Instruct, Motivate

Most pre-show staff briefings are about as exciting as post-Tiger televised golf. It's no surprise, then, that at Drupa 2004, I had a hard time luring people to my required 45-minute briefings held every day at 9 a.m., an hour before the show opened. The one time each day that all staffers were in the same place at the same time, these meetings allowed me to relay critical information about upcoming activities and the previous day's successes and failures - and to motivate them for the day ahead. So going into the 2008 show, I decided that the best way to increase attendance was to up each meeting's entertainment value.

First, I set the tone with a sort of pep rally the day before the show opened. The 30-minute activity featured an energizing drum session hosted by a team of three staffers from an event-related company I hired. The company provided my staffers with their own drums and led the group in a unique percussion-based song that had everyone drumming their way to a good mood.

Next, I moved the location of our morning meetings out of the booth. As luck would have it, our 2008 exhibit strategy included an antique Belgian dancing tent positioned in the parking lot directly behind the show hall in which our booth was located. Used for our VIP breakfasts and dinners - and as a staff break room during certain parts of the day - the 3,000-square-foot, 30-foot tall tent featured a gorgeous wooden floor, stylish wooden support structures, elegant mirrors, stained-glass windows, the works. Moving our briefings into this stunning, atypical structure removed the boring-as-usual tone from our meetings. Since you probably don't have an antique tent at your disposal, consider moving your pre-show training meetings to a unique locale, such as a nearby park, a sculpture garden, or even just an open outdoor area near the convention center. A simple change of scenery and break from the same-old routine just might energize staffers.

Each meeting was also peppered with entertainment, from YouTube videos we ran on various monitors inside the tent (typically 30-second to one-minute clips loosely tied to the sales process or the importance of knowing different languages), to funny PowerPoint presentations that featured photos of staffers in action from the day before. We even had a song - "Four Minutes" from Madonna - that we played every morning as a sort of rallying cry before we hit the show floor.

Finally, to make sure staffers were relaxed and refreshed as they started their days, we offered yoga sessions led by Agfa employee and Taiwanese yoga instructor, Terence Hsu, immediately following the morning staff briefings in the tent.

Believe it or not, everyone was dancing and singing in the tent every day at 9 a.m., and almost all staffers arrived on time and with a smile on their face. By breaking the same-old meeting routine and adding some humor and a little yoga to the mix, I changed staffers' attitudes about the meetings. Compared to 2004, attendance at these meetings increased from 70 percent to 100 percent in 2008.

 Takeaway Tactic: No successful team hits the field without a motivational speech from the coach. While you certainly need to discuss your game plan during training meetings, don't forget to motivate and perhaps entertain your staff as well. You'll take the drudgery out of your meetings, increase attendance at them, and help your team hit the field with the information and the attitude they need to be successful.

5. Foster Team Spirit

Often hailing from various company branches, the only time many staffers see each other is when they're working a show. Since this situation doesn't breed an engrained sense of community and a "together we can" attitude, it's my job to create it. So I developed several inexpensive ways to help our international staff get acquainted, and to create a sense of community that carried over into our exhibit.

To play off the pride they each had in their countries, I created a friendly petanque tournament on a court just outside the mirror tent. Before and after show hours, sales reps organized themselves into teams based on their countries of origin and competed against one another. The winning team walked away with a trophy.

Along these same lines, Europeans love their soccer matches, and there happened to be four evening matches going on during Drupa. So I organized a betting pool on the game scores. For one Euro, staffers could try to predict the final score of each game, with the bet closest to the actual score taking home the entire pot of money. Since the bets involved only the final scores, staffers didn't have to actually watch the games to participate. But their team spirit and wagers got them talking before and after show hours, which generated a sense of camaraderie and friendly competition among this otherwise disparate bunch.

We also hosted two after-hours parties for booth staff, suppliers, hostesses, and catering staff. The first event, featuring a live band comprising Agfa employees, was held in the mirror tent one evening after the show. The other event was a sort of volleyball tournament/Texas barbecue hybrid, held at a recreation area near our hotel.

None of these tactics took much of my time or energy to plan or execute (nor were they much more expensive than a run-of-the-mill employee-appreciation dinner), but they delivered a huge return in the form of a cohesive staff and improved teamwork. Plus, by planning in these "talk time" activities after show hours, staffers didn't feel as much of a need to converse during show hours.

 Takeaway Tactic: If you want a successful booth, your staff has to work like a team. Problem is, that means team members need time and off-floor activities to get to know each other. So create team-building and conversation-generating activities before the show or during non-exhibiting hours each day. You'll increase your team's effectiveness, decrease the frequency of in-booth chat sessions, and foster a sense of community that will ultimately maximize your results and minimize personnel-based headaches.

6. Establish Rewards and Punishment

While my friendly at-show competitions and careful staff selection kept my crew mostly free of rotten apples, I still needed a series of rewards and punishments to continue to motivate successful staffers, and to ridicule the rule breakers into compliance.

Based on a combination of sales, service, and attitude expectations during the show, I handed out three staff awards each day - best salesperson, best non-salesperson, and the person with the most remarkable achievement. The recipient of each award received an iPod and recognition at the daily morning briefing.

During this same morning meeting, I also doled out my form of corporal punishment, i.e., public humiliation. In years past, Agfa staffers - particularly of the male persuasion - had a bad habit of flirting with the hostesses and caterers. So I implemented a penalty system featuring the same yellow and red penalty cards used in soccer. Any time service personnel were bothered by a staffer's inappropriate comments or unwanted attention, he or she wrote down the staffer's name and added a checkmark. After three checkmarks, the staffer received a yellow card, and after six checkmarks, he or she received a red card.

When a staffer received a red card, I announced that staffer's name during the next morning briefing, which prompted relentless ribbing from co-workers. The staffer was also sentenced to four hours of post-show dishwashing in the mirror tent, typically following the evening event. And if the offending staffer was a married man, I sent an e-mail to his wife, poking gentle fun at her husband's behavior. Plus, in the rare event that a staffer got more than one red card, he or she was assigned to toilet-cleaning duty for the mirror tent's facilities.

Granted, all of my punishments were more tongue-in-cheek jabs than corporate whistle-blowing, but they nearly eradicated the offensive behavior that booth staffers had demonstrated in years past.

 Takeaway Tactic: If you want to discourage unwanted behavior, nothing beats a good public flogging. But even if this type of wrist slapping goes against corporate policies, make sure to establish a system of rewards and punishments. And if possible, include a plan B to replace any serious offenders mid-show if necessary. At the very least, create a policy whereby stellar employees are rewarded with notes to their bosses following the show, and poor performers are reprimanded with chastising notes sent to their bosses as well. You'll quickly identify the bad apples and squeeze more effectiveness out of the good ones.

7. Involve Everyone

Due to some lingering financial issues, our employees had begun to mistrust the company, and they had started to believe rumors about it being sold. Thus, many couldn't understand what Agfa would gain from spending literally millions of dollars on a trade show exhibit. So I established several strategies to keep employees at our Belgian headquarters as well as our manufacturing plants throughout Europe "in the loop" with our exhibiting efforts and results.

Before setup began, I installed several Web cams throughout the show hall and linked them to special monitors in all of our offices. That way, employees could watch the fascinating process that turned 36 truckloads of exhibit materials into a 1,000-by-300-foot booth during 14 days of setup - a tactic that also demonstrated the amount of planning and work that goes into a show.

I also set up an employee Web site that featured daily news, stats, photos, and video clips to keep home-office employees informed of each day's events and the sales made as a direct result of our presence at the show. Every day, two at-show company staffers updated the site with the previous day's information.

Since some employees wanted to see for themselves just what we were up to, Agfa also purchased one-day show passes for any employee that wanted to attend. Over the course of two days, four motorcoaches transported roughly 150 Agfa employees to and from the show.

Finally, I allowed employees to take home a souvenir from the show - and to score a serious deal on furniture. Rather than renting furniture for our exhibit, I purchased it from a local Ikea, selecting pieces I thought people might also use in their homes. After the show, I auctioned it off to employees via our Intranet site for a fraction of its retail cost and donated the proceeds to a public water-well project in Burkina Faso. Employees loved the furniture, enjoyed having a souvenir from Drupa, and felt good about the charitable donation.

 Takeaway Tactic: If possible, involve all company employees in your show efforts. You'll dispell the myth that trade shows are paid vacations, and instill a greater sense of responsibility among booth staffers. And those staffers will be less likely to drop the ball if they know the rest of the company is watching the game.  E

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