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exhibiting 101

Candy Adams,
is an independent exhibit-management
consultant, trainer, speaker, writer, and an Exhibitor conference
faculty member.

he clock starts ticking as soon as you commit to exhibit at a show. You have a booth space to select, contracts to complete and submit, show goals and objectives to set, a show team to assemble, exhibit staff to select and train, an exhibit to design, and deadlines for ordering various show services.

With all of these responsibilities and deadlines, creating your own personalized, detailed planning timeline is the key to your sanity - and your budget. With careful planning, you can meet the show contractors' early bird deadlines, which if missed can cost you dearly in lost vendor discounts of up to 50 percent, last-minute rush charges that can easily double the price of products and services, and lost opportunities.

Since every exhibit program is different, there is no single right way to compile a timeline. Some exhibit managers use specialized event-management software; others use customizable project-management or spreadsheet software. Some create one detailed master timeline including each individual step; others list only major "critical-path" deadlines.

Regardless of the system you use to track the thousands of details for each show, there are commonalities to most exhibits, and you can compile a list of these as a master timeline template and customize it as needed. That way, you do not have to wait for the exhibitor-services manual, which arrives anywhere from four months to six weeks before the show, to start compiling your timeline.

I divide my pre-show deadlines into the following eight categories: strategy and tactics, exhibit design and production, trade show promotions, lead management, booth staffing, installation and dismantle (I&D), shipping and transportation, and on-site services. For each task on my timeline, I note the person(s) responsible for completing the task and its expected completion date, and I check off each task when it's finished. The basic timeline template (available at www.ExhibitorWebLinks.com) will start you down the path toward effective, organized pre-show planning, while the information below offers tips to help you plan for success.

Strategy and Tactics

I begin my pre-show planning by recording the deadlines for selecting and signing the space contract. Some shows start their space sign-ups before the previous year's show even opens. If you're a first-time exhibitor, you'll probably select your space after many past exhibitors and have a limited selection to choose from, but don't let this get you down. On your exhibit-space contract or on a form provided by show management, you can request to get on a waiting list for better booth space that becomes available between the time you sign your contract and when the show opens.

Your next step is to put together a trade show team, comprising internal and external stakeholders, to determine your exhibit strategy and plan logistic implementation. Your internal team usually comprises marketing and sales management and any other stakeholders such as technical support, engineering (especially if you're launching a new product), facilities, and shipping. External team members can include account executives from your exhibit house, marketing firm, advertising agency, public-relations firm, transportation carrier, I&D provider, and other subcontractors such as audiovisual (AV) and computer rentals. Invite stakeholders to your exhibit meetings from the start of your planning process to assure their buy-in to your objectives and adherence to the show deadlines.

Set a strategy meeting with your team to determine the key messages you want your clients and prospects to take away from the exhibit. Determine whether or not your exhibit will feature in-booth presentations and/or product demos, and set measurable goals and objectives for the four major areas that will likely result in positive ROI/ROO: lead generation and follow-up, audience interaction and education, branding and awareness, and public relations and media. Discuss the budget available to meet your goals and objectives, and prioritize your spending plan accordingly.

As soon as your exhibitor-services manual arrives, read the entire thing, including rules and regulations. Then create a detailed checklist of all internal and external deadlines. Use Post-It Notes or flags to mark the forms in the manual that need to be completed, and note either the date you want to start working on the form or the deadline date for each form on the accompanying flag or note.

When planning your pre-show timeline, build extra time into your schedule to add some buffer for your deadlines - especially if the person responsible for a task tends to procrastinate, or if the deadline is critical and will cause a domino effect if missed. I fudge my deadlines by a week, especially if a discount is offered.

Exhibit Design and Production

The timing of your exhibit's design and production is critical to the success of your show. If you are planning to build a new exhibit or rent one, you'll need to start planning a minimum of three months before your ship date. Remember that form follows function, so you'll need to review all activities in your exhibit (traffic flow, demonstrations, product displays, theater, meeting rooms, storage, etc.) before determining the layout of your exhibit and the properties required.

If you are using an existing exhibit property that will need only minor changes and updated graphics, such modifications can generally be accomplished in a matter of weeks.

After you determine what you need, request a list of all internal deadlines from your exhibit house. Be sure to ask when rush charges, which can double your bill, will go into effect, and add these dates to your pre-show timeline.

Trade Show Promotions

You will probably be working with two separate sets of promotion deadlines: one for your internal corporate promotions and another one for promotional opportunities offered by show management.

Determine what types of internal promotions will best relay your key message to your prospects. Consider social-networking, direct-mail and e-mail campaigns, Web advertising, telemarketing to your customers and prospects, in-booth contests, promotional giveaways, and educational information such as white papers.

Show management generally offers numerous promotional opportunities, including list rentals for pre-registered and previous-show attendees, advertising in the show daily or industry publications, and event or promotional-item sponsorships. Some shows also offer complimentary exhibit-hall passes (usually about 100 or so) that you can pass out to customers and prospects as a promotion. These opportunities, along with their associated costs and deadlines, will be spelled out in the exhibitor-services manual, in a separate marketing manual, or on the show's Web site. You'll need to submit an exhibitor profile for the conference program and Web site, and any new-product announcements for show-management promotions.

Finally, if you're planning any media-related promotions (e.g., press releases, press meetings, media receptions, etc.), you'll need to request the press list from show management to contact your targeted press, finalize your press release, and plan your press briefing.

Lead Management

One of the most overlooked exhibit-related processes is lead gathering and follow-up. You'll need to work with your sales-management team to determine what qualifying information they want from your exhibit visitors, whether you will use an electronic or manual system for lead retrieval, and how you will "grade" or "score" the quality of leads to prioritize lead follow-up.

Develop a post-show lead follow-up plan before the show, including how and when you will contact prospects after the show is over. Also allot budget for, and assign personnel to manage, your various post-show lead-fulfillment activities in a timely manner.

Booth Staffing

Select your on-site exhibit staff as soon as you've determined your show strategy. Long before the show, communicate with your staff to solicit their input on your strategy, goals, and objectives. Also share information on the pre-show staff training, show dates and hours, booth attire, and work schedules. Check the show manual to find out when you can order badges for your staff, partners, and vendors, and include this date on your timeline.

Early communication with your staffers will help them to plan their workload and travel while discounted airfares are available. If you are booking travel, make all necessary reservations as soon as possible. I try to arrange flights a month in advance and book rooms by the housing-block deadlines to make sure I get the best rates on airfare and my pick of available hotels near the show venue.
Before leaving for the show, plan the location and content of your pre-show staff-training sessions. Inform staffers of the content of these sessions and their importance. Attendance is not optional.

Installation and Dismantle

Your installation schedule is the cornerstone of your exhibit setup, and must be planned well in advance of your arrival on site if you want things to go smoothly and efficiently.

In conjunction with your exhibit house and/or based on past history, estimate the number of labor hours required to complete your I&D, and order labor, if labor is required, through the official general services contractor (GSC) or select your own exhibitor-appointed contractor (EAC).

Then figure out the order of installation and time needed for all other services - such as electrical and Internet-wiring placement - that will affect the timing of your setup. Once you have created a timeline, set specific times for each stage of your setup, making sure to maximize straight-time labor to avoid overtime charges. When in doubt about how all the pieces will come together, ask your I&D labor provider to review your draft timeline.

If you select an EAC, you'll have an additional deadline between 30 and 60 days prior to show opening to submit a form to declare your intent to use an EAC and for your EAC to submit insurance information to show management. Most GSCs request I&D labor orders about 30 days prior to the show.

Shipping and Transportation

Your exhibit transportation schedule should be driven by your I&D schedule. Build a shipping manifest of what you'll be shipping to the show (exhibit properties, equipment, giveaways, collateral, supplies, etc.). Then determine the best mode of transportation (common carrier, van line, airfreight, expedited carrier, or company-owned vehicle) based on your service and time requirements.

Your carrier will determine when your shipment needs to be ready for loading after you provide the following information: the full name of your show (not the acronym), the show's GSC, whether you'll be shipping to the advance warehouse or direct to site, targeted inbound and outbound dates and times, show dates and times, your I&D schedule, and details regarding marshalling-yard access.

Work closely with your transportation carrier's agent to assure that you have allotted adequate time to move your exhibit freight. I generally build one extra day into the transportation schedule, especially on a cross-country move, for potential problems such as mechanical failure or inclement weather.

Plan both legs of your round-trip shipping logistics with your carrier before the show to avoid shipping your exhibit home at higher rates with the show's nondiscounted official carrier or having your freight forced.

Your specialized trade show transportation carrier often provides you with both your inbound and outbound labels and bills of lading as part of its service. If it doesn't, you have to print your own. Your truck driver will provide the bill of lading when he or she comes to pick up your freight going to the show. And the GSC will provide your uniform material handling form when you sign off on your show invoice on site that must be turned in before your outbound freight can be loaded.

On-site Services

When your exhibitor-services manual arrives, determine which services you'll need on site. This will vary by show, but standard services to consider include exhibit and carpet rental, electrical, Internet and telecommunications, material handling, plumbing, compressed air, graphics and signage, rigging, sign hanging, exhibit hosts and hostesses, floral and plant rental, photography services, and catering.

Once you determine which services you need, complete and submit the appropriate forms to the proper vendors. If you're late to sign up for exhibit space and are unable to meet the show contractors' discount deadlines, try to negotiate with show management to get the pre-show, early bird pricing as part of your agreement to exhibit at the show. If you succeed, submit this concession in writing with your order forms to secure the discounts.

Put Your Plan into Action

Once you have developed your pre-show timeline, distribute it to your in-house show team as well as your external vendors and any partners who have responsibilities to help you meet those deadlines. Make sure each stakeholder understands his or her responsibilities and associated deadlines, along with the repercussions they will incur for missing them.

Throughout the pre-show planning process, keep your timeline updated and stay on track, and you won't have to worry about missed deadlines - or paying exorbitant rush charges. If you plan for success, and stick to that plan, you're much more likely to have a successful show.e

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