Exhibiting at a business event has almost become a right
of passage for start-ups as they hunt for customers and contacts.
Yet, Alan Gleeson, the general manager of Palo Alto
Software LTD, feels it's time entrepreneurs forget the tired
business shows and concentrated on generating leads
Most businesses will be approached at some point to exhibit at
an event. The initial appeal is considerable - getting out of the
office, meeting real customers, selling your wares and handing out
leaflets to lots of potential customers. However, the reality
is usually different.
Having been on both sides of the fence (as an exhibitor and an
attendee), I feel that many exhibitions have lost their appeal and
that their business models will need to adapt radically if they are
to survive. In most instances they simply do not offer value to
their actual customers i.e. the exhibitors (many behave as if the
free attendees are their main customers). With alternative
marketing options such as the likes of Google AdWords offering much
greater value and transparency in terms of your ability to secure a
positive return on ad spend; I feel that more and more exhibitors
will reach this same conclusion regarding exhibitions - that they
are simply not worth it. The following represents my thoughts on
trade shows and exhibitions from an exhibitor perspective.
1. Financial Considerations
The majority of exhibitions are free to attend, with exhibitors
paying circa £3,000 - £5,000 (and upwards, depending on the stand
size) for shell space alone i.e. the empty space. Factor in the
cost of dressing the stand, printing flyers and the exorbitant fees
charged for basic utilities like electricity and broadband and the
costs quickly start to escalate. Once you factor in, taking 3-4
people out of the office (at the very least), paying for transport,
food and accommodation etc you can be looking at costs approaching
5 figures. This is all well and good if you are selling big ticket
services where 1 new client covers the cost. However, the majority
of businesses are selling products and services, where revenue is
in the hundreds of pounds, and hence the cost is better spent on
more productive marketing activities with a more certain
2. The Exhibition
When a new show arrives on the scene it lacks the reputation,
history and legacy of an established exhibition. The risk of
attendee numbers not materialising is significant (at least
established shows can provide 'some numbers' from previous shows).
Hence, my advice for all businesses is to attend the new show as a
visitor the first time so that it is possible to substantiate
footfall claims, to assess how well it is run etc. Of course if
everyone heeded my advice there would be no paying exhibitors at a
new show and hence no show in year 2.
Established shows have 'history' so it makes it easier to get a
sense as to the likely footfall. This reputation can also help them
secure some well known keynotes, but as I will explain below, even
exhibiting at established shows is no guarantee of success for
exhibitors. In many instances, the primary focus of organizers is
footfall at all cost, and scant regard is paid to the effect this
focus has on exhibitors.
3. The Typical Blueprint
Most exhibitions follow similar blueprints. The first step is to
secure a number of publicly known keynote speakers regardless of
whether they have something interesting to say or not. Hence why
business events tend to attract high caliber speakers from the ex-Apprentice
school of management.
Telesales teams then approach businesses, and exhibitors are
brought on board with early ones getting prime slots on the floor
plan and seminar slots where they can present 'on brand'
In terms of the audience, most exhibitions are free to attend and
the exhibitor needs to market effectively to ensure a substantial
audience attends. For some, marketing is minimal as this erodes
margins, and the sales team ringing prospective exhibitors offers
no guarantees on the attendee numbers. Regardless, even when
footfall numbers sound impressive, quantity does not equate to
quality and often the attendee makeup can be described as
'variable' at best (in terms of propensity to spend).
Similarly, it is not unusual for organisers to run up to 10
seminar halls with back to back seminars resulting in a lot less
time for attendees to browse the stands. While these are great for
the attendee, they are not good for the exhibitor. Another recent
trend has been to merge two shows into one - which again, is fine
if you are into vanity metrics like 'attendee numbers' but only
serves to bring less qualified leads to the stand. The pattern is
clear. The free attendees garner all the focus, and the exhibitor
is simply not treated as the customer.
4. Manning the Stand
One of the most difficult problems faced by exhibitors (aside
from no one stopping and 'sore legs from standing') is dealing with
the array of people arriving at the stand with hidden agendas or
with no intention of engaging with the host. Here are some examples
of the types of people who are likely to approach the stand (that
you have paid a lot of money to have):
The Freebie Hunter - They approach the stand
clutching a handful of pens and with bags laden down with goodies.
They get straight to the point asking 'have you any freebies?'
while using their spare hand to grab a handful of sweets from the
jar on the counter.
The Job Hunter - These are more subtle. They
appear keen to learn more about the offering. You think 'potential
lead'. They think 'Can you please hurry up?' The conclusion is
swift. "Is there somewhere I can leave my CV?'
The Sales Man - These make a direct line to the
most formally dressed person on the stand, assuming they are the
boss. Without taking a breath, they launch into a description of
their product or service, completely oblivious to the fact you do
not pay to exhibit so you can be pitched to. They leave a business
card, do not take any of your sales literature and seem slightly
offended when you mutter that you are 'out of business
The Timewaster - These people are quite difficult
to identify upfront. They are time rich and have numerous tactics
to demonstrate that 'time is not money'. They'll feign interest in
the product, ask for a demo and then look to engage in a debate
along the lines of 'does it do X?' You successfully demonstrate
each and every feature they mention and then they just wander off
mid sentence, having taken up 20 mins of your time. Sales
techniques involving subtle 'pre qualifying' questions rarely work
with these either.
The Person Looking for Directions- Again these
are easy to identify. They tend to be in a hurry to catch the
latest ex Apprentice candidates first foray into the world of
consultancy. They catch your eye as you talk to someone else,
interrupting you mid-sentence asking 'where is Seminar Hall 6?' You
politely refer them to the show brochure in their hands and
apologize to your interlocutor.
The 'I Look Like the Last Person in the World who will Buy
from You' - These are by far and away your favourite
attendee. The surprise package. They seem to be lost in their own
world as they wander by. You thrust a leaflet into their hands;
mutter a few jaded words about your offering. They pause, step
closer, and before you know it the credit card is out and they are
on their way. The sale is made. Faith in humanity is restored
briefly. But alas they are too few and far between to keep the boss
As a company we used to exhibit at a number of exhibitions but
have noted they no longer work for us. As is clear from the above,
I am of the view that exhibiting at trade shows and exhibitions is
simply not a good use of marketing budget (save for the odd
Instead, marketing money is best spent elsewhere, and all the time
saved by not leaving the office, is best spent picking up the phone
and talking to actual customers. Judging by the churn in repeat
exhibitors at events I am familiar with I feel that more companies
are reaching the same conclusion. Perhaps some of these points will
prove of interest to new entrepreneurs, currently weighing up
decisions to exhibit.
Finally, I have a few missed calls this week from an event
salesperson keen 'to get me on board'. I am hoping they'll get to
see this post and may get the message. If they do see this I'd like
to also apologize for not accepting their invitation to connect on
LinkedIn (I assume so they can target my connections). I maybe
wrong, they might just have wanted to be my friend.
Gleeson is the General Manager of Palo Alto Software Ltd,
creators of LivePlan and Business Plan
Pro.You can tweet Alan at @alangleeson