Smart Moves: Talk to your client without the gimmicks

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Exhibitions can be an excellent and economic way of promoting your products and your business. The key objective is not usually to close sales but to identify sales leads that can be followed up later.

In its information factsheets, "Preparing for an Exhibition" and "Effective Exhibitions", Barclays Bank suggests the best way to achieve this is to use marketing gimmicks - "professional entertainers, celebrities, special effects ... a free draw using business cards".

Tina Fox is operations director of ITM Communications, the producer of the Activate graduate recruitment tool. She is present at more than 50 fairs every year. "Attending student fairs provides the perfect distribution point for us," she explains. "Students are our target audience while employers are our clients. At many events both are present. It is a good branding exercise, too. Our stands are busy, fun and provide much more of a magnet than people in suits sitting behind a desk."

But not everyone is as successful as Ms Fox. It is not uncommon for the post-exhibition euphoria at the resulting leads and potential sales contacts to come to nothing. "We call this 'exhibitionitis'," says Peter Cotterrell, general manager of the National Exhibitions Association. "Exhibitions are fine, but there are alternatives."

One such alternative is the "appointment workshop". "Most of the traditional exhibitions are too expensive and too long," says Mr Cotterrell. "It is not just the exhibition space that costs money but the time that high- level management has to take away from the office. This is why the appointment workshop is emerging as an effective alternative."

These workshops are particularly popular with the travel industry. Co Plus Events Management is responsible for organising events around the world on behalf of the Association of British Travel Agents and the Association of National Tour Operators. These do away with the fancy stands, the music and the video screens. Instead, exhibitors sit behind a simple table with a pile of brochures and a couple of chairs.

"At exhibitions, potential clients may feel uncomfortable about approaching a stand with a string of questions," explains Elaine Dellar, managing director of Co Plus. "Workshops are less nerve-wracking and feel like a series of normal business meetings."

Word is spreading into other areas and The Catering Forum now runs a three-day cruise, inviting buyers from the hotel industry to meet with around 50 suppliers.

There are drawbacks, however. "There have been some instances when delegates have only been admitted on the understanding that they commit to a certain number of meetings. When potential buyers are offered free flights, food and accommodation, it can be easy to feign interest in a product," cautions Mr Cotterrell.