Exhibiting at International Trade Fairs is not only a great way to boost your international presence and meet new (& existing) partners but is also an expensive and exhausting experience, due to the intensity of it. I’ve mentioned a number of points to do with preparing for shows in my last 2 posts, which you can find here and here, so I’d like to move on to how you can effectively manage the week or days of the trade show itself today.
Of course, some of the ideas I may mention here, might not apply to you if you are a one woman show attending a fair for the first time with a 7㎡ stand space, however they are food for thought for the future as you grow. This is probably not an exhaustive list, but should at least cover most of the main points.
Table of Contents
Be clear about what you want to achieve
Whatever the strategic targets that you set (see also part 1 of this mini-series) chances are that strengthening the bond between you and your international partners will be a key aim, so you need to keep that in mind. Why do distributors like to work with you? If you’re not a household name product that sells itself (not many around that meet both of those requirements) or offering insanely high margins to your partners, you have to find other ways to keep your partners loyal and motivated. Distributors are often working with many brands and if you just represent a small % of their turnover, it can be hard to get their focus for your brand. One was of doing that can be to make it easier for them to sell your products (in terms of support and tools) but also simply by being a really solid partner who they ENJOY working with. How you present yourself when exhibiting at international trade fairs can be one important building block for that.
Select Staff Well in Advance
Of course, this belongs to preparation and I also mention it there, but it is such an integral factor for the success of your trade show participation that I want to talk about it again. Like I said, trade fairs are exhausting so if possible it’s better to calculate with a couple of extra people in order to ensure the team can be working at peak performance and not worn completely ragged by the end of your event. In addition to your sales team, you might want to consider a technical specialist (depending on your product), a product manager, business intelligence specialist or a senior leader for certain meetings. (This can be a cost effective way for say your managing director to meet most of the distributors, as long as he’s briefed well in advance & knows not to make extravagant promises he can’t keep).
Brief the Team Beforehand
Make sure you give the team a really in-depth, good briefing in advance of the event so that everybody knows what your expectations of them are. It also means that if anybody needs to prepare themselves in a little bit more depth or they need to buy some odds and ends for the trip that they have the time to do that in advance.
Some basic aspects that your briefing should include could be:
Strategic goals and Trade Fair Objectives
What are your strategic goals that you want to achieve by attending this trade fair? Make sure you explain how these align with your main company strategy and goals.
What is the dress code for your staff whilst they are on the stand? This could be a guideline to wear a black suit, white shirt and company tie or it could also be more informal such as dark jeans and a company shirt or polo. It’s always a good idea to make these expectations clear in order to give people the chance to prepare, especially if they might not have for example enough white shirts for full week at an international show.
Eating and Drinking on the Stand
This can be tricky. Whilst it might be acceptable for you for your sales team to drink a coffee together with clients during a meeting you probably don’t want them standing around in groups with one another on the stand drinking beers in the late afternoon, or leaving their half eaten lunch around when a client turns up. Expo Centres can be really dry though so it’s also important for the performance of your team that people stay hydrated and have a clear break to leave the stand to eat.
How to Engage with Stand Visitors
It’s all too easy for team members not to realise how their behaviour appears to outsiders so it’s best to give concrete instructions about how to approach stand visitors.There are several kinds of visitors that can turn up on your stand.
If a visitor is an existing distributor then of course your staff should be able to greet them by name and direct them to the relevant person in time for their meeting. In the event of a potential new distribution partner turning up who is from a target country (remember your strategic goals for the fair!), then it is important for the stand staff to take the details of that person, possibly in the form of a standard questionnaire and collect those together with their business card for later processing.
If the visitor to your stand is a distributor from a market which is not your target then you probably want to get rid of them politely as soon as possible so that they don’t take up your time. The same goes for competitors: stay polite but get rid of them as soon as possible.
Good conversation openers can be as simple as “Good morning, can I give you some information about our products” and determining where the person is from (& how they fit into your priorities). Just never assume that your team will know how to do this.
Believe me it looks dreadful if you walk up to a trade fair stand only to see that all of the staff on the stand are actually totally engrossed in the phone screen in front of them. I’ve seen this so many times in Asia and it never fails to disappoint. Make it clear to your staff that surfing the Internet or social media is not acceptable during their duty on the stand.
As insignificant as it sounds standing in a trade fair for eight hours a day over a period of several days, whilst remaining friendly to all visitors by keeping smiling and being attentive is extremely difficult to achieve and really hard work! However your staff need to aspire to this.
It’s a good idea to make it clear to your staff in advance exactly when they will be on duty on the stand and when they will have free time. Especially for international fairs, you can expect that team members who are travelling to that city for the first time will want to have a couple of hours somewhere for sightseeing and it’s better to organise that and plan for it in advance because then they are motivated in the times when they are actually on the stand.
The duty roster also establishes who is responsible for individual tasks. Examples are ensuring there are sufficient brochures on the stand, the cleaning of cubicles and seating areas over the course of the day, hospitality services, and breaks.
This can be a huge aspect of international trade fairs so you need to clarify with your staff what is expected of them.
Rules of the Stand
A well-organised trade fair stand and a well-managed trade fair team will make sure that:
- the stand is kept clean and in order at all times of day
- no shortages occur of advertising material, food and beverages
- all the technical equipment on the stand is kept in good working order
- the rules of the stand and duty hours are adhered to
- the atmosphere on the stand is always friendly and relaxed
- the stand supervisor always knows where his employees are
- details of conversations with visitors are put down in writing and
The stand supervisor (also sometimes called the booth captain) is responsible for ensuring the smooth running of external and internal operations on the stand. In addition to making the necessary strategic decisions about the show in advance, their responsibilities may include:
- managing the team and making sure everything runs smoothly
- coordinating the stand build according to the plan and making sure everything is available that will be needed in terms of equipment, marketing materials and hospitality arrangements
- preparing team “duty rosters” and delegating specific tasks to individual team members
- ensuring there are spare odds and ends available such as cables for equipment, data cards, wifi etc
- welcoming important visitors to the stand
- running the daily team briefing
Whoever has this role (often the senior sales person) needs to be an “accomplished diplomat” as managing stands at international trade fairs can be tricky when people are tired and nerves are stretched.
A daily short briefing, (I prefer it in the morning as attention is higher, but it can also be in the evening), informs all team members of successes and events or important visitors due over the next 24 hours. This offers the opportunity to also deal with any issues that might have arisen or for team members to raise questions. You probably need to remind people about key behaviours that don’t come naturally to them such as:
- actively approaching stand visitors
- not playing with phones on the stand
- keeping their eyes open for anything that needs tidying or wiping
It’s essential for all staff members working on the stand to be clear on the messaging to be used during the trade fair. This is one of the things that screams “unprofessional” if different people tell different versions or wordings of the same story.
You should also remember that you may have team members on the stand who are not used to differentiating “on the fly” between internal and external information. So I like to clarify what answers can be given on potentially sensitive questions such as turnovers or market shares (perhaps also restricting who is allowed to give out that information at all and to whom, depending on your company).
Demonstrations and Samples
Demonstrating how your product works or letting stand visitors either try samples or take them away with them is one of the most powerful sales tools you have when exhibiting at an international trade fair. “Show don’t tell” is something we perhaps learned in school with creative writing, but it also works in sales. Not that many of us can resist an opportunity to talk, but I hope you know what I mean!
Of course, you need to consider your demo and sample items during the planning phase.
- Is it practical to transport your product to the show location?
- how many samples do you need?
- How much lead time do you need?
- Which documents are required?
- And of course, the question as to whether you plan to reexport it afterwards or leave it as a demo device for the local partner. If you want to bring it to the show without import taxes though you will probably also need to reexport it afterwards, as otherwise it’s a regular import.
Also, if you are selling for example a new medical device or other item with a significant IP value, then you ought to consider what protection steps you can take prior to the show. I’ve seen customs officers and police close down trade show booths before now, due to patent or trademark violations.
For food & beverage producers, offering samples to taste is the most obvious way to persuade a potential partner of the quality, however this is subject to restrictions in many places right now with covid regulations. If you are able to do this though, think of how you will serve your product (especially if it’s not so simple to take as a biscuit), and how to clean up any spills.
Have enough “stuff” available
What do I mean by that? Well just a few things that can make stand life run more smoothly:
- have enough pens, pads & visitor questionnaires available to take down details & notes. I don’t mean your giveaway pens as such (they always seem to have an exceptionally high failure rate!) but something that can be relied on to write with. It’s also good to have some staplers to attach business cards to questionnaires
- hand sanitiser. Actually nothing to do with Covid, although even more of an essential now. Booths at international trade shows somehow feel inherently grubby after a remarkably short space of time, and you don’t want all your team going down with some lurgie when you’ve just transported them potentially half way around the world.
- electrical sockets…& multiport usb charger options
- obviously marketing materials, giveaways and samples
Collecting visitor data
In order to carry out an effective analysis after the fair and to realistically gauge whether your targets were met, it is absolutely necessary to collect visitor data. Pre-printed questionnaires reduce the amount of work involved, and can be filled out quickly & easily even by staff who are not usually involved in sales. However these forms are only useful if legible and correctly filled out.
As a rule, a questionnaire should only be filled out if a visitor is seriously interested in a product & meets the criteria defined as being strategically relevant. The better you can qualify a visitor, the higher your chances of converting them later to a partner (this is also more cost & time effective than scrambling to gather data later).
Alternatively, you can check whether an electronic visitor registration system is a viable option. Using this method a visitor’s address details are filed by scanning his calling card or his name tag, if available.
Team members can enter this data directly onto a PC and supplement it with details of the conversation with the customer. At the end of the trade fair all the information will already be on file. There are service providers who can help with this kind of software, but you can also record data in a simple online version of the questionnaire.
Collecting Market Intelligence
Exhibiting at international trade fairs allows you to carry out first hand market research without additional costs (to those which you already have to exhibit). The team members can ask visitors to the stand questions to gather valuable feedback about products and the design of your stand or about their home markets (if they are of interest).
Assigning a couple of people each day to walk around the show area and collect data (observations, photos, brochures etc) about competitors and their activities can be a valuable way of both gathering information and motivating team members.
Additionally, there may be various kinds of statistical information available from the show organisers themselves that can be useful to you for the future.
You should look out for:
- the trade fair catalogue incl. list of all exhibitors
- brochures on special events
- lecture manuscripts
- special editions of trade publications
- brochures and advertising material from competitors
- (product samples from competitors – depending on your industry)
- surveys carried out by the organisers
If your main aim of exhibiting at international trade fairs is to strengthen existing relationships and build new ones, then the entertainment aspect shouldn’t be underestimated. In some cases this can be even more important for business than international trade show booths!
The expectations may vary by industry and the regions that you are working in, but there are a few basic principles to bear in mind.
During the biggest shows eg. Anuga in Germany, Automechanika in Germany, Canton Fair in Guangzhou both hotels and restaurants get booked up really early (at least the decent ones do). If you need a table for yourself and 4 or 5 business partners it probably won’t be an issue, but if you want to find somewhere to seat a group of 70 or 80 then you need to plan it well (& budget it into your expected costs).
Different companies handle this aspect in different ways:
- company organises one big dinner during the show week to which all partners are invited (= expected to attend)
- company books tables on eg all 3 nights but in different restaurants to account for different dietary requirements and taste – smaller groups each time with some overlaps
- the company might organise a huge side event for a special jubilee (I was once at a company who chartered a jet & flew all their partners to Venice for the day, including a gala dinner in a palazzo on the Canale Grande)
On top of the formal dinners, there’s the question as to whether your sales managers will be going out drinking with clients afterwards. If yes, in an ideal world, they won’t be working the early shift on the stand next morning. Both aspects of the work are important when it comes to strengthening the ties to your distributors.
It goes without saying that your stand should always be kept clean. An exhibitor can carry out daily cleaning duties themselves or hire the services of one of the organisers’ contractors (a more practical option, especially when you’re overseas).
It’s worth designating a stand team member to ensure cleanliness and order throughout the day as a stand can rapidly start looking uncared for. Overflowing paper baskets, brochures, dirty coffee cups and biscuits left lying around will quickly create a bad impression both of the your company’s general service and of the company itself.
Security on the stand and for the exhibits should be properly organised, including for construction and dismantling periods. Wherever you are in the world an expo centre is really hectic during these periods so valuable exhibits or sensitive company information should not remain unguarded. That also applies to the daily running of the stand. Valuable exhibits must be kept well guarded, particularly at trade fairs where attendance is high.
Exhibition halls are always guarded by security services overnight, however you could also consider employing your own stand security service if you have especially valuable demonstration machines and exhibits.
Exhibiting at International Trade Fairs is Intensive
As I’ve said several times already in this series, participating in an international trade show as an exhibitor is extremely expensive. However the week of the show itself is also unbelievably intensive when you factor in the stand assembly, daily attendance at the show, entertaining, dismantling the stand and then following up.
There are a lot of moving parts to be coordinated for the event to run smoothly and nerves can get a bit frayed once everyone is exhausted by the end of day 2! However, a well run stand at a trade fair can generate large amounts of business in the medium term if you do it properly.
Originally I was going to include the topic of follow up into this post, however looking at how much I had to say on exhibiting, I think it’s better if I make that a separate post! The final part of this series will then cover the topic of timelines and budgets.
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