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exhibiting 101

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

he exhibit hall is typically open for just a few hours each day during a show, which means you have a small window of opportunity to engage your target audience. However, that window doesn't necessarily close when the show floor shuts down. In fact, many exhibitors have found that after-hours hospitality events, aka "the second show," can extend the reach of your face-to-face marketing efforts.

This "second show," referred to as such because it requires its own strategy and logistics to manage, can be anything from a simple cocktail reception in a hospitality suite at the local Holiday Inn to an annual big-budget event at a NASCAR track with a performance by a well-known country-western band.

But regardless of the size and scope of the party, its success or failure will depend more on your pre-event planning than whether you opted for the crostini or the crudite. So to help you score a home run with your next hospitality event, simply follow these planning guidelines and you're sure to hit one out of the park.

Plan it With a Purpose

In addition to the obvious perk of providing your company's staffers with out-of-the-booth facetime with prospects, clients, and/or members of the media, hospitality events can fulfill myriad marketing objectives. Such events can be used to build brand awareness, create networking opportunities, foster brand loyalty, differentiate your company from your competition, educate attendees, kick off company mergers, etc.

If you're not sure what type of event to host, it's sometimes easier to think about the results you want, establish a goal, and then work backward. If you don't have a specific objective, a full-fledged hospitality event might not be right for you, and you may be better served simply arranging dinner dates with clients after show hours - or attending events hosted by show management and networking with clients and prospects there. This strategy allows you to make the most of an existing networking opportunity without having to foot the bill for it yourself.

Vet Your Guest List

Of all the strategic planning and tactical implementation, the most critical part of pulling off a successful event is the process of compiling your list of qualified invitees. Guests at hospitality events are often clients, potential customers, past customers, dealers or distributors, business partners, members of the press, and even industry VIPs and influencers who can endorse your product. You can pull names from your company's database or CRM system, and you can even request a list of pre-registered attendees from show management.

But be careful of inviting everyone and their mom to your second show, unless your goal is indiscriminate brand awareness, and your budget is sufficient to feed all those hungry mouths. Assuming you want to keep costs under control, it's best to first define how many attendees you can afford to invite, and then prioritize your guest list based on your objectives.

Also take your guests into account to help you decide who from your company should attend. For example, if your target audience is VIPs, then perhaps your upper management should be present to mingle with attendees. On the other hand, if you're going to host a room full of prospects and clients, be sure your sales reps are available to answer attendees' questions. If you're limited in terms of the number of reps you can afford to send, identify which reps will have the most (or most important) clients at the event, and leave the rest at home.

If you want to get on the radar of your invitees, but don't have all the event details completely finalized yet, send out "save the date" messages by e-mail or snail mail, then post additional details about the event as they become available using social-media tools, such as Facebook or Twitter. Note that the timeline for promotion generally depends on the type of event. Many trade show attendees are making later and later decisions about attending shows based on tighter corporate business-travel policies. Those attendees may have to get approval from management before registering for a show or conference - a step that can often slow down the rate at which guests RSVP to after-hours events until they get approval to attend the show in the first place.

I generally recommend that events held in conjunction with participation at a trade show be announced about two months in advance, with instructions for attendees to pick up tickets at your exhibit. This tactic ensures your guests will visit your exhibit during the show and speak with your staffers, not just show up to your event for the free food and booze.

Time it Right

When you hold your event is another critical component to its overall success. Think of all the time wasted when the show floor is closed. If you're not attending conference sessions, there are myriad opportunities before and after the exhibit hall is open to connect with prospects, clients, VIPs, and even members of the media.

If you're unsure when you should host your event, determine the types of people you hope will attend and consider their schedules. If your goal is to attract people who are attending educational sessions during the day, take their course load into account and make sure to factor in travel time to and from your event venue. And be sure to steer clear of overlapping with show hours unless you get approval from show management to do so.

Pick the Perfect Place

When it comes to selecting a venue for your hospitality event, consider the demographics of your target audience. For example, if your audience skews younger and more casual, then perhaps a local bar or nightclub would be a fitting venue. Or, for an upscale event, consider museums, country clubs, art galleries, historic mansions, golf courses, or even yachts. For a more laid-back event, warehouses, airplane hangars, military bases or ships, aquariums or zoos, schools, and parks are welcome alternatives to stuffy ballrooms. And depending on your guests' affinity for sporting events, renting a box or suite at a football, baseball, or hockey game is also a nice option.

Whichever venue you choose, consider the following: the number of proposed attendees, whether all the guests will be at the venue simultaneously (think sit-down dinner) or come and go at different times (think cocktail reception), the type of food required (not all venues can handle full catering), the space you'll need for audiovisual equipment or entertainment, and the proximity to the convention center or show hotels. Over the years, I've learned that the convenience factor often overrides all other considerations. If the venue is within walking distance of the exhibit hall or the host hotel, you're more likely to attract a crowd than if guests have to take a taxi or congregate at a specific place and time for arranged transportation.

And as a general rule of thumb, the more unique the venue, the more complicated the event logistics: Unique venues may not have kitchens, which could mean hiring caterers to prepare the food off-site and truck it in. Or electrical power may be limited, forcing you to rent power generators (this is more likely the case in older venues, such as historic-landmark buildings, and nontraditional venues, like airplane hangars).

Remember ROI

A hospitality event shouldn't be hosted simply to feed the hungry masses. You'll likely need to prove to management that attendees got something out of the event (and that your company will eventually see a return on investment as well), or you can say goodbye to your customer-loyalty gala at the Guggenheim.

At the very least, note who actually showed up to the event, and if any follow-up action was taken afterward. Generally, my clients have attendees check in when they arrive, and knowing the attendees they invited, can determine the percentage of the target audience that attended. One client has its sales staff (who issue the invitations to their customers), compile a post-show report of their follow-up with attendees after the party.

I don't recommend an exit poll or follow-up survey after an event that has a more celebratory vibe, but I have sent post-event e-mail surveys after more serious events (such as user-group meetings or new-product launches) to determine if the attendees received the information they needed while at the event.

Know the Law

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that as an event planner, you're faced with two additional responsibilities that exhibit managers don't typically spend much time thinking about: legal liability and risk management.

You're not simply hosting a free-for-all party - you're exposing your company to additional legal responsibilities, especially if liquor is being served. To circumvent any potential legal issues, consult your corporate attorney as well as the event venue, as it may have policies in place regarding liquor liability and overall risk management.

Paraphrasing what a corporate attorney told me, "Anyone, especially companies with deep pockets, can be sued for anything. But the question really is, did you do everything you could to control the risks of the event and mitigate damages?" That could mean verifying the bartenders' education on liquor control, being sure you've advised waitresses to stop serving guests who appear to have had too much to drink, making sure that all drinks are measured and not free pours, giving a limited number of hosted drink tickets per person, and/or offering transportation back to local hotels so guests will not have to drive if they have had alcohol.

In terms of risk management, there are so many things that can go wrong at events, including weather-related problems with outdoor events, security issues with invitation-only events, potential medical emergencies with your guests based on food allergies or liquor consumption, or even a twisted ankle while dancing. Familiarize yourself with the venue's response policies to various risks, and have your own risk-management plan in place to ensure everyone's safety.

If you think nothing bad happens at company-hosted events, beware. Paramedics carried me out of the first company party I ever planned when the ranch dressing on the salad was replaced with Caesar dressing, which contained anchovies that set off my severe seafood allergy and sent me into anaphylactic shock. I've had a guest who had symptoms of a heart attack at a reception that turned out to be severe heartburn from the spices in a dipping sauce. And I've had to pay a cab driver, in cash, to clean up his cab after one of my staff members had gotten very ill from over-imbibing at our corporate party.

Play by the Rules

When you're hosting an event during a show or conference, it's important to familiarize yourself with the show's policies on hospitality events so you don't get in trouble for outboarding. This frowned-upon industry practice occurs when a company that chooses not to exhibit (or can't afford to exhibit) at a particular show instead sets up an exhibit, product display, or hospitality event in a hotel suite or other off-site space during the show.

Show managers, who invest substantial marketing dollars to draw quality attendees to a show, consider these outboarders as parasites that reap the benefits of the show's draw of qualified attendees without paying their share of the costs, and actually hurt other paying exhibitors by drawing attendees to their off-site venues.

Hotels are often caught in the middle of this practice, since they want to maximize the use of all their upgraded rooms/suites to enhance their room and catering revenue. But hotels within the show's official housing block are generally restricted from renting hospitality suites without first vetting the potential renter with show management to determine that it is actually an official exhibitor. When in doubt about what can and can't be done during a particular trade show, ask show management. It's better to have your t's crossed and i's dotted ahead of time than to have to pull the plug on your event at the last minute.

Just like any piece of your exhibit program, hospitality events require thoughtful planning and execution in order to garner the highest reward. But whether you decide to throw a sophisticated shindig for your company's VIP clients in a hotel ballroom, or take prospects to an outdoor ball game, hospitality events can be a great way to connect with your audience outside of the show floor and without your competitors lurking across the aisle.e

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