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exhibiting 101

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

like a good analogy - my favorite one being that exhibiting is a lot like show business. Think about it: We have a stage (the exhibit); a script (key messages, qualifying questions, elevator speeches, and product information); actors (booth staffers); props (informational graphics, product samples, collateral literature, lead forms, and giveaways); and oration (presentations and demonstrations). Last but not least, we have producers and directors (aka exhibit managers) orchestrating the entire performance, hoping for accolades and positive reviews from trade show attendees and upper management.

As any producer or director will tell you, the likelihood of pulling off an award-winning performance increases exponentially in relation to the talent and skill of your actors. Luckily, you have some control over how well your actors perform when the spotlight hits them, thanks to a little tool called booth-staff training. Think of it as the final - and oftentimes only - dress rehearsal before the big show.

As exhibit and event managers, we tend to forget two things about our staff at trade shows: 1) They may not perform this "acting" role often and probably aren't as comfortable as we are in the trade show environment (especially if your exhibit staff changes for each show), and 2) depending on the amount of information shared with them, staffers may not know much about the show, its attendees, the exhibit hall, the target market, or even your company's exhibit.

The reality is that the majority of companies simply don't invest enough time and resources in booth-staff training. If that's the case with your program, you can at least provide the basics during two essential training sessions: the pre-show meeting and the in-booth orientation. The pre-show meeting is the dress rehearsal leading up to your exhibit-marketing opening night, and your on-site orientation is the final all-cast announcement made backstage before the curtain goes up.

I've put together a training manual of sorts to guide your staff through their next roles. The following information should help you conduct a pre-show meeting that will have your rookie booth staffers performing like show-business pros in no time. For additional information on how to conduct an on-site orientation meeting, visit www.ExhibitorWebLinks.com.

Break a Leg

I like to conduct the final pre-show meeting - not to be confused with the in-booth orientation - at the hotel at which a majority (if not all) of my staffers are staying the day before the show opens. It's convenient, generally more private than, say, hosting it on the show floor, and will typically be less expensive in terms of food and beverage than the convention center. If possible, incorporate the pre-show meeting into staffers' travel plans (or notify whomever coordinates staff travel for your company that attendance is mandatory) to ensure everyone arrives in time to attend. If you can't host the pre-show meeting the day before the show, you can hold it during breakfast the morning of the first day. I also call this training session an "exhibit review" or "orientation." I've found that when I do this, senior/veteran staffers are less likely to balk at attending.

The pre-show meeting can cover any or all of the items included in the outline that follows. What you should include depends on the experience level and size of the team staffing the exhibit, the current behaviors/outcomes you want to change through training, the expectations of the show's audience, the size and complexity of the exhibit and promotional programs, and the availability of staff to meet leading up to the show. To help you get started, here is an outline I use containing the type of information that can be discussed during a pre-show meeting.

Welcome Message
The first step in setting the scene for an effective training session is to let staffers know you have the support of upper management. Unless your booth staffers report directly to you, your staffers may not take the training seriously. After all, you're probably not their boss, so why should they give you their time? It sounds juvenile, but believe me, it's a common attitude. For this reason, I like to have someone from upper management (or the most senior member of the staff attending the show) kick off the training with a welcome message that contains the following information.

 Explain your measurable corporate objectives broken down into individual goals for each of your staffers. If your staffers don't know what's expected of them, or what your company hopes to achieve at the trade show, they're less likely to deliver than if you communicate your expectations and ask for their buy-in.

 Present the key corporate messages. Don't just read them aloud and move on. Reinforce these until staffers know them like the backs of their own hands. This is your exhibit's script, and your booth staffers need to be comfortable delivering their lines.

 Reinforce management's commitment to and support of the exhibit program - after all, they're the ones footing the bill and likely the ones who decided to exhibit at the show in the first place. Their support is imperative to the success of your program. If you have buy-in from upper management, there's not really room for dissention among the ranks. Review the time spent and financial investment made to participate in the show. I've found that once staffers realize the commitment made by your company, they think of booth duty less like a chore and more like a job responsibility.

 Remind staffers that they are ambassadors representing the company; thus, professional behavior is expected at all times and in all places.

 Express appreciation for staffers' efforts, long hours, and absence from home and the office during the show. Under-appreciated staffers are far less likely to become invested in the success of your program.

Exhibit-Staff Introductions
Introduce the cast of characters that are going to play a part in your exhibit production. This doesn't have to be anything fancy - you just want staffers to know with whom they're going to be working at the show. In fact, I like to keep it short and simple, and typically only cover the following two action items.

 Allot time for each person to answer a few questions about themselves (such as name, office location, length of time with the company, areas of product expertise, etc.).

 Introduce personnel with specific tasks/roles (booth captain, PR liaison, in-booth demonstration host, competitive intelligence gatherer, floaters, etc.) to booth staffers. Obviously, it's important for booth staffers to know who will be doing what in the exhibit so they can direct attendees, members of the press, other exhibitors, etc. to the appropriate person.

Strategy Review
It's important that all staffers understand the reasons why­ your company is exhibiting at a particular show. They need to know both what to expect and what is expected.

 Discuss the show, its attendee profile, and the anticipated number of attendees. You'll also want to outline the company's target-audience profile so staffers can learn about the type of attendee with which your company is most interested in speaking.

 Review the names of VIP customers/prospects that may visit the exhibit, and provide any special instructions. For example, upper-level management or specific salespeople may want to be notified when a VIP stops by the booth.

 Explain the show/exhibit theme and tie-in with your key messages (if applicable) so staffers can relay details to attendees.

 Present corporate pre-, at-, and post-show marketing tactics and any related promotions/activities. It's important that booth staffers know about all the components to your exhibit-marketing strategy since they'll likely need to field attendees' questions regarding them.

 Brainstorm and review the previous show's most frequently asked questions to learn what information attendees want to know. Then share answers to those questions with booth staffers. Ideally, you will have conducted a post-show review after your last trade show, and you'll already have most of these FAQs identified. If not, ask staffers what kinds of questions they fielded at past shows in the same or similar markets, and be prepared with a few questions you anticipate they'll be asked at the upcoming show.

 Identify the corporate party line on any difficult or sensitive issues (such as cost, quality, production timelines, bad press, etc.). You don't want a booth staffer accidentally spilling the beans on a quality-control issue or delayed product launch.

 Distribute pocket-sized laminated cheat sheets containing product info (including benefits for the target audience, features, applications, specs, availability, pricing, etc.) if warranted by the complexity of your product line. These quick-reference guides provide a fail-safe for staffers who may not remember all the details.

Your exhibit will likely be the first impression many attendees will have of your company, so it's important to reinforce these basic behavior guidelines.

 Review the differences between selling on the trade show floor (where staffers must compete with other exhibitors for the time and attention of prospects and clients) and selling in the field (where staffers generally have the undivided attention of clients and prospects).

 Relay successful verbal and nonverbal communication techniques when it comes to interacting with attendees in the booth, including engaging, qualifying, presenting, gaining commitment for follow-up, recording information, and disengaging.

 Incorporate role-playing, if applicable. This will help your staffers get comfortable with the idea of interacting with prospects and clients on the show floor.

 Discuss positive and negative body language. I can't tell you how many times I've seen attendees zoom past an exhibit filled with staffers that have their arms crossed and their backs turned to the aisle. Smile, make eye contact, and look like you want to hear what attendees have to say. Don't stand in a rigid "police" or "military" posture or talk in closed circles with other staffers. That's not to say you can't talk amongst yourselves while you're in the exhibit - just make sure you are turned toward the aisle so you can keep an eye on the passing foot traffic.

 Present three to four qualifying questions as well as a three- to four-sentence elevator speech. That way, any attendee can approach any staffer in your exhibit and receive a consistent, on-point message about who you are and what you do.

 Reinforce booth-behavior don'ts, e.g., no eating, drinking, chewing gum, talking on cell phones, checking e-mail, reading, etc. Not only are these behaviors off-putting to attendees; they're just plain tacky.

Housekeeping Details
Since booth staffers at any given show typically have varying levels of trade show experience, I like to cover all the bases when it comes to basics like schedules, transportation, registration, etc. The following information might seem rudimentary, but it's your duty as an exhibit manager to provide it. Remember, you're responsible for the success of the show. Falling flat because your booth staff didn't know how to get from the hotel to the convention center isn't a risk worth taking.

 Instruct staffers where and when to pick up badges at exhibitor registration (if you're not distributing badges to staff before the show). While veteran staffers will likely be able to suss out the registration desk on their own, newbies might get overwhelmed.

 Go over show dates and hours and when staffers need to be at the booth. Discuss what staffers should do if they are running late for their assigned time or fall ill and are unable to make it to the show floor. That way, you'll be better able to course correct and make sure their shifts are covered. I always schedule a few floaters for every shift in case of unexpected no-shows and last-minute schedule changes.

 Review the staff schedule and the special-events schedule (if applicable) and where it will be posted in the exhibit during the show.

 Present ground-transportation options, directions (if walking or driving), and an estimate of how long it might take to travel from the hotel to the convention center on show days. This is especially helpful if booth staffers will be relying on show shuttles to and from the exhibit hall, since they generally take longer and make multiple stops en route.

 Reinforce your company's dress code and distribute booth uniforms (such as branded shirts) if you're using them. Distributing uniforms during the training session is a good way to encourage staffers to attend - if they don't have the uniform, they'll stick out like a sore thumb in the exhibit during the show.

 Point out that exhibit storage for personal items is limited. You don't want purses, laptops, and other personal belongings sitting out in the open. Not only does it make your exhibit appear messy and unkempt; it's not secure.

 Discuss the schedule (and location) of end-of-day debrief meetings to review what worked and what didn't work in the exhibit that day. These debriefs are a great time to get feedback from your team and brainstorm any necessary mid-course corrections to be implemented for the remainder of the show.

 Review the schedule and responsibilities for exhibit teardown. Booth staffers have a way of disappearing toward the end of the show, so assigning tasks ahead of time ensures your crew is there when you need them.

As an exhibit manager, adding staff training to your docket is probably the last thing you want to do, but having a prepared booth staff will pay dividends in the end. Regardless of what happens on Broadway, there's no such thing as succeeding in business without really trying. e

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