January 28, 2010 | Mike Thimmesch |

Who do you design your trade show exhibit for?  There may be more people than you realize.

As a trade show manager about to embark on marshalling the design of your company’s new trade show exhibit, you have to consider the interests of 7 distinct people:

1.  Trade Show Attendee

This is the most obvious person for whom you design your trade show exhibit:  Your clients and prospects who attend trade shows.  Aim for an exhibit designed to attract attendees with compelling messages, inviting architecture, appealing colors, and impactful, appropriate images.

Existing clients want to visit you at the show to confirm they’ve made the right decision choosing you.  So reassure them with a welcome environment and springboard their visit as an opportunity to cross-sell and up-sell.  Prospects rely on the unique venue of trade shows to compare similar vendors at one time.  Ensure you come out on top with a clear, compelling message that promotes your value, and by creating an experience in your exhibit that demonstrates your superiority.

Besides clients and prospects, design your exhibit to make a favorable impression on your industry press and potential investors, both potent groups of attendees at trade shows.

2.  Trade Show Booth Staffer

While attendees may only visit for 10 minutes, your booth staffers will call your trade show home for several days at a time.  Give them a temporary office that helps them do their job easier.  Provide places to meet clients, demonstrate products, and most of all, write and stash those valuable leads.  Make it simple for them to maintain an uncluttered booth, with smartly designed and accessible storage spaces for giveaways, their personal effects, and room for snacks and water.  Give them enough spots for lead machines, so they don’t have to trek across a 30 x 50 booth, visitor in tow, to scan a badge.  When you design your exhibit with your booth staffers in mind, they will be more productive, increasing your trade show results.

3.  Exhibit Installer

Whether it’s you, your sales people, or hired show labor, keeping your exhibit installer in mind during the exhibit design phase will pay big dividends down the road.  Many exhibitors choose portable trade show displays specifically to lower their display set up and dismantle costs.  In all major convention centers (and all but a few hotels) you can set up your own display without hiring show labor if you can complete set up within 30 minutes without tools.

However, it’s worth considering installation and dismantle (I&D) costs even when designing medium and large-sized exhibits.  In is not uncommon for large, traditional island exhibits to cost more than $10,000 per I&D, show after show.  Designing with modular exhibit systems engineered for ease of assembly can reap savings at every show.  Also, when evaluating an exhibit’s design, look to see if there are layers of structure that may hamper your installer from building other parts of your exhibit.  And exhibit designs requiring rigging also require (surprise!) hiring riggers, every show, and will cost you significantly more to install.

4.  Vice President of Marketing

Your top marketing officer wants your trade show exhibit to fulfill multiple objectives:  build or reposition your brand, communicate your primary marketing messages, and launch new products and services.  Sometimes they will want your trade show exhibit to do all of these simultaneously, and that’s certainly viable.  But trouble brews when your top marketer wants to load the exhibit down with too many products or messages. Gently remind your V.P. of Marketing that an overloaded exhibit loses its ability to quickly capture attendees’ attention, which is the exhibit’s job.  You have other tools beyond the exhibit to communicate lower level messages and secondary products.

Also, because your marketing messages can change from show to show, or your company could potentially rebrand soon after you design your exhibit, your V.P. of Marketing will value more flexible trade show exhibits that can easily change their look and “skin” and let you keep your message fresh.

5.  Vice President of Sales

Your V.P. of Sales expects your trade show exhibit design to help facilitate a significant amount of sales – that’s why he/she loaned you so many sales people to staff the booth.  Your exhibit must pull prospects in and give your staffers the tools and environment to convert visitors into qualified leads.  Your V.P. of Sales wants to be proud, not ashamed, when they host their best clients and prospects in your booth.  And they want your exhibit design to create such a memorable experience in the minds of attendees, that when your sales people make follow-up calls after the show, they are greeted with “I’m glad you called,” rather than “Who are you?”

Depending on how your distribution is organized, your V.P. of Sales may also want to spend quality time with their dealers in your booth, too.  If that’s your primary goal for the show, then design the space for those meetings.  If not, you may need to have an interesting discussion with your V.P. of Sales.

6.  CFO

At some phase of your exhibit design process, someone in your organization, from a purchasing manager up to the V.P. of Finance, will scrutinize the cost of your exhibit.  And they should: trade shows are often the single largest expenditure to support B2B marketing.  Their first instinct is to push for the lowest priced bidder, or to even question the expenditure all together.  So bring them persuasive industry statistics about the value of trade show marketing share the average cost of trade show exhibits ($1,500 per linear foot for inline exhibits, and $163 per square foot of island exhibits, according to the EDPA), and most of all, your own ROI measurements from previous trade shows that demonstrate healthy sales generated from your marketing investment.

You can more easily advocate for your preferred exhibit design if you can show that it will make the most impact for the lowest cost, such as with custom modular exhibit systems that lower ongoing operating costs.  Your CFO may favor that you rent the design you are contemplating, as rental avoids capital expenditures and frees up cash.  And your purchasing manager may warm to trade shows when she (as Ed Jones points out here) realizes how many productive vendor discussions happen in your booth.

7.  President/CEO/Business Owner

The top person in your company will want your trade show exhibit design to create the marketing impact your V.P. of Marketing craves, the sales bump your VP of Sales desires, and the ROI your CFO expects.  Depending on the size of your organization, your very top person may have final say on your trade show exhibit design.  Try to avoid a nasty surprise after you have expended considerable effort to arrive at an exhibit design that meets all your stated needs, only to have the top dog growl out their own, previously unknown goal that sends you back to a complete exhibit redesign.  If you know the CEO will want final say, spend some time to discover what their overall goals are with your trade show presence.

And if your President is not involved in the exhibit purchase, they may still see your new exhibit design when it debuts at its first show.  If that’s when they see it first, and your booth staff is very busy, greeting many interested clients and prospects, then your President will be more likely approve of your new trade show exhibit design.

There’s a reason I put Trade Show Attendees as #1

It can be quite the tightrope walk to satisfy all these people with a single exhibit design.  You must muster your best communication and diplomacy skills to keep all parties engaged without relinquishing complete control. And perhaps you are also one of the 7 people listed above, and have a better appreciation of the balancing act with your peers.

Just remember that if you primarily design your exhibit to best reach your clients and prospects, and set the right expectations with everyone else, then you give yourself a good shot at winning unanimous approval of your trade show exhibit design.

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