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Special Report on Conferences and Exhibitions: Putting on a good show with the right attitude: Post-event follow-up is vital to get the best out of exhibiting, writes Peter Cotterell

EXHIBITIONS can be one of the most cost-effective ways by which an organisation promotes itself. The exhibition visitors are interested, otherwise they would not be there.

A great deal of sales and marketing work can be done in a few days. Yet many exhibitors, large companies in particular, fail to make the best of all the opportunities. Why?

For most it is simply a question of the wrong attitude to the event. Exhibitors still participate for woolly PR reasons, to 'fly the flag', not realising that much more than 'visibility' can be gained. Or, perhaps worse, the event is seen simply in terms of a chance to hard sell anyone unlucky enough to step on to the stand.

Exhibitions work best when they are regarded as primarily an opportunity to prospect, to generate high quality sales leads for future follow-up.

They are therefore predominantly a marketing exercise rather than a PR or sales one and should be judged on the number of interested potential customers they generate, in the same way as direct mail or advertising should be judged. And the cost per lead is the measure of the costeffectiveness of the exercise.

This approach may seem hard-nosed and it is true that sales can be made at some exhibitions, that valuable press coverage and visibility can be gained, existing customers can be entertained and competitors can be evaluated. However these should be secondary objectives, not the main one. If exhibitors concentrate on generating names and addresses for following up, they will help ensure that the event delivers more than sore feet and a large hole in the budget.

For exhibitions are not a cheap form of promotion. The cost of a modest stand space must be added to the full costs of the stand design and erection, promotion, management time, hotel bills and the stand staff costs. And it is worth remembering that some ancillary services in the UK, such as electrics and catering, are the subject of a monopoly arrangement, a situation that is fully and cynically exploited by UK exhibition organisers, contractors and hall-owners. Commonly, exhibitors should multiply the stand space cost by at least five to get a feel for the likely total.

The selection of the right event is currently something of a lottery. The recession has not been kind to exhibition organisers. The theory, put forward in hope, that organisations would keep spending on the medium because of its direct effects has been tested and found wanting. And when things are tough genuine buyers find more important things to do, leaving exhibitors to talk to students, sellers and each other. This will change, however, as the world economy starts to grow again.

There are some important ground rules for sensible show selection. Exhibitors should firstly question any event where a list of visitors will not be made available. Most exhibitors will only see a small proportion of the potential customers visiting a show at the event and a visitor list is essential for the identification and follow up of the rest. As a guide, a small exhibitor with two stand staff in a 500-stand, 5,000-visitor event will be lucky to have conversations with 10 per cent of the total potential. Exhibitors with more money, larger stands and more staff can do better.

Generally speaking, the more specialised or 'vertical' events are better, where a specialist sector is targeted by the organiser and audiences are small and carefully selected rather than large and indiscriminate. The more general or 'horizontal' exhibitions are finding less favour now, witness the recent death of Reed Exhibitions' 'Which? Computer Show', due to lack of exhibitor support.

Care should also be exercised when looking at exhibitions staged by magazines. Invariably they are put on to promote the publication, and other publications will try to avoid giving them any publicity. Visitor lists are almost never released.

A useful evaluation of an event can be made by ringing 20 or 30 top decision-makers in the industry and asking them if they will be attending. Another good method is to obtain exhibition catalogues from two successive presentations of the event and to calculate the number of exhibitors that dropped out from one to the other. Anything higher than 30 per cent might indicate a poor show, and a few telephone calls to those that pulled out will often confirm this. One 'business to business' event in Milton Keynes evaluated in this way a few years ago showed a 73 per cent drop out, just before it was cancelled permanently.

Other considerations will be the experience of the organiser, the suitability of the timing of the event, the convenience and attraction of the venue and the quality and depth of the organisers' promotion to visitors.

Lastly, exhibition size is an important consideration, in particular the ratio of exhibitors to visitors. A show attracting 3,000 visitors and with 100 exhibitors may well be a success for both. On the other hand, an event with 1,000 exhibitors and 5,000 visitors could be a disaster, except for the organiser. Particularly worth looking at are very small presentations, sometimes no more than a handful of displays alongside a conference attracting the right target market. The audience, though small, is serious and the cost is generally low.

Exhibitions are, in the main, not a cheap medium but, carefully selected, they can be a most costeffective one. And, with the right strategic approach they can generate large numbers of sales opportunities for later follow-up and conversion.

(Photograph omitted)