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exhibiting 101

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

K, I admit it: I feel old when I say this is my 20th year managing exhibits. But, I'll also admit that I'm still learning. At every show, I learn something new, slap my forehead, and usually think, "I should have thought of that before." But for those exhibiting rookies who don't want to go through the pain of learning the hard way (i.e., slowly and by excruciating experience), I'd like to share 10 of my "ah-ha!" moments.

1. Read the Exhibitor Services Manual
Yes, it can be painfully boring, but by absorbing what's in the exhibitor services manual, you can avoid big problems popping up on the show floor. Every show is different, and each has its own set of regulations.

There are exhibitor regulations published by show management, the convention venue, the fire marshal, and the structural engineer that dictate what's permissible on the show floor.
Note that you can request a variance from show management if necessary. I've asked for variances to do everything from serve coffee in an exhibit to increase the height of a perimeter exhibit from 12 feet to 16 feet. That's not to say you'll always be granted a variance, but it never hurts to ask.

2. Always Have a Plan B
If something can go wrong at a trade show, it will. The first piece I ever wrote for EXHIBITOR was back in the mid 1990s, and its opening line went like this: "If anything goes wrong at a trade show, the problem will appear at the last moment, in a far-away city with an unyielding union environment, on a weekend when your exhibit house is closed, with a widget specific only to your exhibit, when you don't have a rental car and your credit card is maxed." And all of these things have happened to me at shows.

Did I plan for my truck driver to have a heart attack on the way to the trade show, and leave my exhibit by the road? Did I plan on a client's much-promoted product being "killed" the week before a show? Did I plan on a fire burning up the main display in an exhibit the first day of a show? No, but fortunately I had a plan B for all of those worst-case scenarios.

3. Foster Relationships
Develop relationships with the internal stakeholders on your show team - both your internal staff and your personally selected show-services vendors, known as exhibitor appointed contractors (EACs). In addition to your EACs, you'll also be working with vendors contracted by the show venue, as well as general contractors and subcontractors selected by show management. Be courteous, helpful, and responsive, as these people can become your greatest allies.

The next tier of relationships includes the industry peers you meet while on the show floor, such as the dock and material-handling staff, service-desk personnel, floor managers, show electricians, installation-and-dismantle crew, and even exhibitors in neighboring booth spaces. Being friendly goes a long way. In fact, I bring homemade cookies to give to everyone on the show floor during setup and in return, union stewards have looked the other way as I vacuumed a small mess in my client's exhibit, and laborers have rounded down (instead of up) when it came to completing small tasks in my booth.

If you're not a baker, simply mind your Ps and Qs, demonstrate common courtesy on and off the show floor, and remember the Golden Rule: Treat others as you'd like to be treated.

4. Build in a Budget Buffer
Since there are so many financial unknowns when planning for a show - such as exact shipping costs with fluctuating fuel surcharges, sign-rigging snafus, material-handling weights, overtime labor, and last-minute rush charges - it's doubtful that you'll ever be able to budget with 100-percent accuracy.

So to protect yourself from budget overruns, add at least 10 percent to your best-estimated budget for emergencies and last-minute opportunities or requests. That budget buffer has saved me a few times. At a recent show, for example, I used that extra cash to purchase a length of truss after I discovered there weren't hooks on the venue's ceiling from which to hang our sign exactly where we wanted. Because I had a "slush fund," I was able to fix my problem on the fly without going over budget.

5. Always Ask for a Discount
I've whittled down the cost of countless products and services just by asking vendors if they offer any discounts. These have included special pricing on package deals, price cuts for ordering before a pre-set deadline, special fees for not-for-profit organizations, and even discounts for paying with cash or company check instead of a credit card.

There's no harm, or shame, in asking for a discount. You're just looking out for your company's financial best interests. You'll be surprised how often simply asking pays off.

6. Pad Deadlines
After a few years of chasing the deadlines in the exhibitor services manual, I had another "ah-ha!" moment: Why wasn't I building a few extra days into my deadlines to make sure I garnered all the discounts I could and avoided last-minute rush charges? Now, I take the actual deadlines, push them back by three to five days, and communicate those new deadlines to my internal stakeholders and even my vendors. For example, one of my client's tech-support gurus consistently falls behind schedule. So to make sure I have the electrical power and Internet specs I need from him in time to place my order for the show, I now pad the deadline by a week. And I haven't missed a discount since.

In addition to padding show deadlines, give yourself some extra time with everyday tasks and requests. During your career, you'll have many opportunities to make a statement to your boss, colleagues, customers, etc., about what you can (and can't) produce. I learned a valuable lesson about this early on when my boss at the time came into my office and asked for the potential costs of exhibiting at a particular show he wanted to add to our schedule. I told him it would take me a day or so to research it. I knew I only needed one figure - the per-square-foot cost of booth space at the show in question - to calculate the estimate. I also knew the task would only take a few minutes.

So why did I tell him I needed two days? I not only wanted to give myself ample time to come up with the correct figure, but I also wanted to exceed his expectations. I like to set a deadline for all projects and tasks that I know I can beat. That way, I'm in control of the situation, and am rarely left struggling to deliver on time.

7. Keep a Paper Trail
Keep copies of all contracts, payment confirmations, orders, and change orders. This paperwork can be a lifesaver on show site when things aren't happening according to your order. You can also use it to audit your invoices and catch erroneous charges, which happen more often than you may expect. A few years ago, I was charged material handling for the entire weight of my tractor/trailer and exhibit freight, not just the freight, when a service-desk rep picked the wrong number off of the certified-weight slip. And I was overcharged for the rented coffee cart on my final bill compared to the proposal, which turned out to be a miscalculation based on a change of sales tax. I was able to correct the errors by simply presenting my original paperwork.

In addition to paperwork, always have contact numbers or e-mail addresses where you can reach your vendors at all hours with you on site, since it seems like show-related problems arise at the most inopportune time. Together with copies of all your original agreements, these numbers can help you efficiently resolve issues that could otherwise result in unexpected charges - and gray hairs.

8. Include Your Exhibit Staff
Your exhibit staff is your first line of defense, so include them in important exhibit decisions. Communicate your vision for the exhibit program, and outline each individual's participation as an integral on-site staff member and as ambassadors for your company during your pre-show meeting.

At the show, plan a booth orientation and sales-training review on boothmanship skills and proper etiquette. Appoint a booth captain that will be present at all times, to whom staff can turn with any questions that arise. Hold daily debriefing sessions after each booth-duty shift ends (or at the end of the day) to get feedback on what's working and what needs improvement. Then, take that input and make any necessary mid-course corrections. For example, if your staffers are struggling to keep up with badge swipes in the busier parts of your exhibit, add more lead-retrievals systems or adjust the booth-staff schedule to accommodate the traffic flow throughout the day.

Asking for - and acting upon - staffer feedback is crucial. Your exhibit staff is what attendees will remember after the show is over, and anything you can do to improve staff morale will also enhance your company brand and memorability.

Here are some simple things you can do that go a long way to keep your staffers happy: Assign reasonable booth-duty shifts (no more than two hours without a break), serve snacks like granola bars and fresh fruit, put bottles of water in the exhibit (either in a storage closet or under the reception desk) for easy access throughout the show, order box lunches, and have vitamin C drops, cough drops, hand sanitizer, and tissues on hand. In addition to those basics, I always have extra foam insoles for shoes (they cost less than $1 apiece) and local maps of nearby restaurants, drug stores, transportation hubs, etc. so staffers can find their way around.

9. Be a Cheerleader
My dad used to tell me that if I didn't toot my own horn, nobody else was going to toot it for me. And he was right. But what he failed to mention was that I might not always be a one-woman band. True, sometimes it feels like you're in it alone. But you're likely part of a team of individuals who make or break your company's exhibit program, and I can't say enough about thanking all those involved for a job well done.

Also thank your internal staffers for their participation, and call out any above-and-beyond heroics that made your show a success. In addition to these team members, thank those individuals outside of your company who excel at making you, and your exhibit, look good. Toot the horn as loudly and as often as possible to both your fellow colleagues and their supervisors, especially when your trade show program has a big win. Exhibiting is a team effort, and I've found that giving praise where praise is due keeps staffers motivated, enthused, and on your side.

10. Never Stop Learning
Don't be afraid to try something new at every trade show and learn from your mistakes. You can continue to hone your exhibit program by reviewing your pre- and at-show notes, surveying your booth staffers, and issuing a post-show analysis after each show that reviews the highlights and lowlights of that particular show, along with recommendations for future trade shows.

In fact, some of the best improvements to my exhibit programs have come by way of trying something new. It seems like most exhibit managers are life-long learners. We have to continue learning to stay ahead of industry and technology trends and survive corporate and economic changes.

Though you can pick up a fair share of exhibit knowledge at a show, be open to learning opportunities off the show floor, as well. You can attend classes, read industry articles and newsletters, participate in industry associations, join in on discussions via LinkedIn Groups, or even find a mentor off whom you can bounce your ideas. Whatever you do, don't stop learning, gratefully accept advice from those who have more knowledge and experience, and don't be afraid to ask questions.e

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