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Advice to trade show exhibitors

- Cathy Erickson of Adel has planned events nationwide for clients and also owns Great Iowa Pet Expo and similar shows in Indianapolis and Kansas City.

Consumer trade shows offer an incredible way to market products, build brand awareness, promote your nonprofit and even build your business-to-business network. But as we recently learned in the Des Moines market, shows sometimes aren’t well-funded or well-managed.

(The Iowa Attorney General’s Office last week began investigating a women’s expo company that left vendors in a lurch after canceling events in Omaha and Des Moines. After the Better Business Bureau received numerous complaints from people who said they paid fees ranging from $100 to $350 to be a part of What Women Want Expos, the bureau issued an alert saying the owner of the expo company had gone out of business.)

I have a saying that those who work with me have heard often: “If producing events was easy and they always made money, everyone would just produce events!”

They aren’t easy, and they don’t always make money. But when shows are managed well, when the crowds are strong and sponsors want in, it looks like easy money. And that’s the problem. That’s when someone who has no real experience steps back and says, “Hey, I can do that too.”

Often they can’t. They dive head first into a money pit that can swallow them up and drag innocent exhibitors down with them. The good news is that if you’re a first-time exhibitor or an exhibitor who wants to try new trade shows, I can offer some tips for checking out the producer and the trade show before you ever spend a dime.

Be nosy: Ask for references and testimonials
That wizard might sound powerful and commanding, but what’s really behind the curtain? These days, anybody can create a nice website and promotional brochure. Has this group been successful in the past?

Ask for the contact information of people who have previously exhibited with this producer. That’s where the real dirt can be found. Established exhibitors usually have a calendar of events exposing them to many producers throughout the year, the good, the bad and the ugly, and they usually aren’t afraid to share their opinion. I never cease to be amazed by the stories my exhibitors tell me.

Ask about the crowds, if sales were strong, if they brought in talent. Are they easy to work with? Are they organized? Do they communicate well with their exhibitors? Can you find them during the event?

Research the company’s marketing and promotional plan
“We’re doing TV” could mean that there is a $20,000 ad buy in place, or it could mean that they are giving away a couple of tickets via the station’s website. Make it your business to know which one it is. I can’t tell you how many times exhibitors have told me about a new show they booked and no one showed up.

A seasoned pro will be able to tell you immediately what media outlets they are using and how they are using them to include contests, interviews and promotions.

Inexperienced event producers often don’t know how to budget for their event. They run into “unexpected” expenses, leaving no money left for advertising.

And beware a single media group (radio, TV, digital or print) that is only advertising a consumer trade show through its own outlet. Successful plans utilize a healthy mix of all outlets.

Study the show materials
Ask about the photos: Are they from their previous shows, or are they stock images? Is that the site where the show is now? Are those the vendors who have participated in prior years? It’s a red flag if their photos weren’t taken at their own show.

Are their statistics attributable? I don’t know why attendance of 10,000 is so magical, but we see it claimed over and over again. Ask how the attendance predictions are determined.

Ask if they will be posting the exhibitor list and when that usually happens. Ask if the talent is already booked. I’m amazed how some shows list appearances but when you get there you learn that the talent couldn’t make it. Most often, it means the producers couldn’t pay them.

Does the event have a Facebook page, a Constant Contact newsletter for exhibitors, Instagram or Twitter? It should.

Know your promoter
Look them up on LinkedIn or Facebook. Ask for personal references. I encourage you to ask for the contact information of exhibitors who can give a testimonial. Even producers of new events should have former exhibitors or vendors who can vouch for their credibility.

Ask if the producer does this full time. Can they be reached during regular working hours? Visit a show they produce and talk to the vendors. A simple “How is the show going?” will generally spark a conversation.
If the producer is not local, talk to the site manager to verify that the event even has a signed contract for space. You might be amazed.

Negotiate your contract for payment upon move-in
If everything is looking good but this is a first- or second-year event, try asking the producer if you can sign a contract but hold your payment until move-in. Then, if the show cancels, you don’t lose your booth fee.

Most exhibitors have a lot more invested than just the booth fee. Inventory, promotional items, hotel rooms, staff and travel costs all play into a trade show booth budget. By delaying your booth payment, you can at least protect that fee against fraud or mismanagement.

Trade show exhibiting is so much more than filling up a booth. The planning and execution is time-consuming and often expensive. When you’re adding a new show to the calendar, plan to dig down a little bit before writing that check! 



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