Special Report on Conferences and Exhibitions: Making a stand is all a matter of organisation: You've booked the space, but will the visitors come? Ideas by Peter Cotterell

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The Independent Online
TAKING an exhibition stand is one thing but unless potential buyers come and see it, all the effort, not to mention money, is wasted.

Of course there is the argument, a perfectly logical one, that getting visitors to an exhibition is the job of the exhibition organisers, who after all are selling an audience, and at a not inconsiderable price. It is, it is said, the exhibitors' job to make sure that visitors come to their stands.

There is truth in this, and with a well-attended exhibition the exhibitor can concentrate on picking a good site, designing an attractive and compelling stand which communicates the benefits of the product or service loudly and clearly, and making sure that staff are properly trained to capitalise on all the advantages that a well- thought-out participation in a well-promoted show can bring.

Sadly, visitors are not flocking through the doors. This may be due to the recession but is almost certainly another manifestation of a dwindling response to trade press advertising, direct mail shots and PR-based advertorial that seemed to work so well during the boom years.

Some exhibition organisers, aware of the increased difficulty of getting anyone to turn up for anything (and this includes conferences as well as exhibitions), are relying more heavily on invitations distributed to potential customers by their exhibitors. For trade events, more than half the visitors attend because of an invitation from an exhibitor, rather than an organiser. Indeed, there are those organisers who will argue that any exhibitors not spending more of their own money in this way, having booked and paid for a stand, have only themselves to blame if they don't see any suitable visitors.

For those exhibitors happy to subsidise their organisers' visitor promotion there are some useful ways this can be done, with benefits to both parties.

Once the space is booked obtain tickets and get the sales force to distribute them to customers, or mail them out with bills.

Draw up a 'hit list' of the best potential customers and telephone them all to invite them to the show, preferably specifying dates and times.

Run a special event at the show to attract potential customers - a seminar, or a hosted breakfast, lunch or dinner.

Announce the launch of a new product or service at the show.

Offer a special exhibition discount.

Run a prize draw for all customers coming to the stand.

Concentrate on sensible and serious, rather than fatuous, PR. A serious demonstration of an important new product will ultimately pull in more business than silly gimmicks which commonly attract crowds of 'tyre-kickers'. Having said this, don't ignore the possible advantages of a visual and dramatised presentation that will attract press coverage.

Consider using a famous person in the industry to endorse something on the stand. Or a famous author to sign copies of a book, given away or sold.

Consider a relevant on-stand competition that highlights a feature of the product. Polaroid once invited visitors to try to 'freeze' objects printed on a rapidly spinning wheel, with a Polaroid camera of course.

Dare to be different. One exhibitor with all-male clients sent out solid silver monogrammed cuff-links to 50 top potential customers. The trick was that only one cuff-link was sent - customers had to call at the stand to collect the other one.

Another exhibitor sent customers an incomplete pack of 48 high-quality advertising playing cards and told them: 'We've got all the aces - come to our stand and collect.' Most did.