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By The Drum | Administrator

April 24, 2003 | 10 min read

Exhibition design concept by 442

Exhibitions are now commanding more of a client’s marketing budget than ever before, offering brands a real opportunity to press the flesh with potential customers. But how measurable is the return? Gordon Laing speaks to the people who thrive on making an exhibition of themselves.

There was a time when all you left an exhibition with was a handful of branded pens, sore feet and a fistful of flyers and return forms.

Now sleek design and high technology dazzle the clients – not an array of colourful pens – as each stall sets out to better its rivals. Your feet may still be sore, but at least now, for the most part, it’s worth it.

Although not always deemed a mainstream medium, events and exhibitions (perhaps surprisingly) account for 11 per cent of the UK’s total marketing spend – only just behind direct mail and national newspapers at 12 per cent.

With over 17.3 million visitors to exhibitions, both trade and public, in 2001 alone, it isn’t difficult to see just why exhibitions play such a vital role in the marketer’s schedule. However, with a spend of over £2 billion pounds for that same year, it is vital that a return on investment (be it long- or short-term) is reaped.

Once all the money has been invested in space, staffing, stand design, promotion, transportation and construction, what can you expect to see from your investment?

“It is always difficult to measure the effectiveness of an exhibition, since some ‘seeds’ that are sown can germinate years later,” says Andrew Glidden of Glidden Design. “Sometimes a stand can be ‘mobbed’ and yet the resulting direct sales are minimal. For some of our clients, the major purpose is to increase sales with immediate effect. For others, they simply want to reinforce their position in the marketplace, and may not measure success in sales at all. There can be a certain cachet for having the best location, the biggest stand and the most obviously overblown budget. But equally, success can be measured by what the competitors think. A great idea is more important than a huge budget, and the biggest impact can be made in the smallest space at the back of the venue if you are really imaginative.

“I have never been briefed with the words ‘Now, don’t forget, we don’t want value for money here.’ Even the ‘wow’ factor stands have to be approached with a respect for budget. There is usually a way of getting 99 per cent of effect for 50 per cent of the cost. Nowadays clients are much more careful with their spending.”

David Dunn, a director at Edinburgh-based 442 Design, said: “If used properly, exhibitions are an important component of any marketing strategy. For many companies it is an opportunity to offer a shop window to engage with customers. It can also enable a human interface between customer and product.

“Companies like Adidas have used exhibitions to launch products in advance of the mainstream marketing campaign. The benefit being that exhibitions can move around to specific events where the target consumers will be. It can also tie in closely with a sponsorship strategy, which in Adidas’ case was targeted at city marathons.

“Most companies who use exhibitions effectively have very clear targets to meet. They are an ideal way of generating leads and potential sales. It is usual that an exhibition will allow for a targeted follow-up to the leads. Direct sales from a stand are less common – depending on the type of show and product – but interested leads are extremely valuable to most businesses.”

There are numerous reasons for participating in exhibitions. However, despite a long list of benefits, the remarkable, and often sad, figure shows that four out of ten companies don’t exhibit after their first attempt.

“They often say ‘the exhibition didn’t work,’ but what they mean is ‘we didn’t work the exhibition,’” says Janet Lee-Adams, marketing director at Eastern Digital. “One problem is that companies aren’t sure why they are exhibiting. Is it because they are looking to increase their market share, looking to promote what they do to a large audience, looking to meet the right people or is it part of a measurable PR strategy or to launch a new product? You should decide what will fit your business strategy before you exhibit.”

In recent years the industry has seen something of a downturn. Companies on the continent spend far more of their marketing budget on exhibitions – sometimes double the budgets in France, Italy and Spain. In the US close to 20 per cent is spent on exhibitions, and in Germany, where exhibitions are held in higher regard still, the share is closer to 25 per cent.

“We still have a long way to go,” continues Janet Lee-Adams. “Germany is home to the three largest exhibition venues in Europe, and the UK’s only contribution to Europe’s list of top ten venues is the NEC, which creeps in at ninth place. But the UK is catching up as companies grasp the importance of the value of face-to-face contact between buyers and sellers.”

Focusing on exhibitions held at Exhibition Venue Association (EVA) venues – which account for around half of all UK exhibitions – a current trend in the industry is highlighted. Although there was a five per cent decrease in the number of exhibitions in 2001 and 2002, a growth of 16 per cent has been noticed since 1996.

However, comparisons between figures observed by the Association of Exhibition Organisers (over two-year periods) show steady growth. In 1996/97 there were 1,551 events staged; In 1998/99 1,660 events and in 2000/01 1,691 events; and, although figures have not been released for last year, the future looks to be building on the recent success.

While this might be a sign that budgets are being justified, it is also a warning that now, in such a competitive environment, it is more important than ever for your stall to make in immediate impact.

“It is very important to stand out from the crowd,” says Lee-Adams. “You need to be able to differentiate your product from the competition and look attractive to the audience. If you don’t then the competition will, and if that happens you really have to question whether or not your budget is being utilised to its full potential.”

However, this standout factor has to be tailored to the target audience that you are hoping to attract, says David Dunn a director at 442 Design.

“Stands that are over-elaborate and over-designed are, in our opinion, not relevant. Often companies that specialise in exhibitions will take a very formulaic approach to their offer. Like any design, exhibitions should seek to innovate, communicate effectively and ultimately get talked about.

“Customers should expect much more from an exhibition than mobile reception desks with coloured lighting. They should be seen as a clear visual communication of a company’s brand values. That needn’t be expensive. A well-designed modular stand can be effective but it does need to be thought through to give a point of difference. Most effective stands have an element of interaction in them to engage with customers. Technology can be used very effectively to enhance this.”

In a study conducted by Exhibition Facts it was discovered that, of the companies interviewed, on average, 41 per cent of their annual promotional budget was spent on exhibitions, and the estimated average spend per company, per UK exhibition, in 2001 was £12,300. Enough to keep the 27,000 full-time staff and 5,000 part-time workers employed in the UK exhibition industry busy.

Big budgets often mean big expectations, yet exhibitors have to remain focused on the task that they have set and not become blinded by the plethora of new technology and innovation, says Werner Keschner, of Fantastic Fabrications: “People love the ‘wow’ factor and it is very important, but the actual content needs to back this up and with a creative integrated approach this is achievable. What people actually want is the reassurance that the logistics of the exhibition go well. The best design and stand in the world is useless unless it is there on time and in perfect condition.

“Technology is a fantastic tool when used well, adding value and increasing understanding. While helpful though, it sometimes can be used as a smokescreen. It is better to have a carefully conceived and though out stand that delivers the message and reinforces the brand, rather than trying to blind people with technology that is either irrelevant or confusing.”

This is a view that Glidden agrees with: “Sometimes I feel that people are using technology for the sake of it, without thinking about what their potential customers actually want. There has been an explosion in the use of plasma screens, sound and interactive displays, which can actually turn certain customers off. The foundation must always be ‘what are we trying to achieve, who are we aiming at, what are their needs and what is the most effective way of meeting them?’

“One client of ours, who took a stand at an internet business exhibition, gave us the brief along the lines of ‘We want a bench with coloured iMacs on it’. Being an internet show, we persuaded them that everyone would have technology on show, and what was more important was to talk about what they did for their clients. We designed a simple red wall structure with recesses illuminated with coloured light, into which were placed deliberately ‘anti-technology’ items abstractly relating to their clients, with a brief explanation. Touch screens showing the actual websites were concealed within angled plinths, allowing viewers to focus on the content, rather than the technology.

“Customers should be manipulated subtly without feeling controlled. Many people are very wary of being ‘talked to’ at exhibitions, so making them feel at ease is vital. Lighting, graphic imagery, copy, physical structure, colours and materials all play their part. If direct dialogue is desired then there must be a clearly defined strategy and interface for this, with the appropriate levels of privacy and openness.”

Yet, as marketing budgets continue to suffer and external trade remain cautious, the exhibition circuit remains (relatively) healthy. In a ‘search when required’ internet age how does the exhibition road show stay relevant?

Glidden says: “The old adage of increasing advertising spend in a recession holds true to some extent with exhibitions. A great idea doesn’t have to cost a fortune; however, I have seen many bad ideas around that must have.

“One of the aspects of going to an exhibition is seeing the ‘underbelly’. How many times have you seen people looking around the back of and underneath a product to see how it is really put together? You can never replicate that on screen (not yet anyway).”

“It is so important, especially in this economic climate, to be able to speak to your clients one on one,” says Lee-Adams. “When you meet people you can build a trust and rapport that you just can’t do over the phone, via e-mail or in a boardroom. It can really add to your credibility.”

Keschner concludes: “No doubt there will be even more changes to come as developments arrive but the emphasis must be on achievability and adaptability.

“Exhibitions will always have a place in marketing. There is no substitute for the hands on and face-to-face encounter, the spontaneous meeting and instant rapport that can result from this.”


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