Fall is the beginning of trade show season. From local one-day events to week-long national exhibitions, almost every business large or small will probably be involved in an exhibit of some kind in the next few months.

“Whether you are attending a trade show or exhibiting at one, the first thing you should do to prepare is to develop your goals and objectives,” says William J. Nicholas, a certified professional global exhibits and events manager.

Nicholas is an adjunct professor teaching courses in the meeting and planning certificate program at Middlesex County Community College. The program includes eight courses, five required and three electives. Total cost for the program is $798. For more information on the program call the college at 732-906-2556.

Through his event planning business, WJN Exhibits and Events LLC, based in Basking Ridge where he also lives, Nicholas helps businesses plan booth exhibits as well as organize entire events. He also offers workshops and seminars on event planning to corporations with CEU credits in event management and trade show management available for participants.

He began his career in the 1970s as a computer technical specialist at Bell Laboratories. “I guess I was destined to work at Bell Labs,” he says. Both of his parents worked at the company, his father in the microfilm department and his mother with the Safeguard program. In fact, the pair met while carpooling to work.

He began working with computers, “punching cards” and eventually heading the UNIX lab. He was taking classes in computers at Middlesex County Community College when he met his professor in the halls at Bell Labs one day. “I asked him what he was doing there and he said he’d come to learn about UNIX. I ended up teaching classes with him.”

Nicholas first became interested in trade shows when he began to attend as a technical marketing specialist, laying down the LAN and E-mail network before the shows. “I realized that the company was paying someone to put carpet down after I laid out the network — I could do that myself. One thing led to another and I started doing all of the services and displays myself.”

He held management positions in both marketing communication and events at AT&T, Lucent, Avaya, and National Starch and Chemical Company, producing international sales kick-off meetings, sales reward events, certification training modules, educational seminars, corporate tradeshows, and road shows. At Avaya he helped to launch the VIBE program (Very Impactful Branding Experience) and helped to promote Avaya’s sponsorship at the 2002 FIFA World Cup in Korea and Japan.

He is a certified meeting professional, a certified manager of exhibitions, and an active member of a number of different professional associations including the Trade Show Exhibitor’s Association, the TSEA Mentor Program, Meeting Professionals International, the Convention Industry Council and the Healthcare Convention Exhibitors Association. He is also a member of the Somerset County Business Partnership and the New Jersey chapter of the Business Marketing Association.

Goals and Objectives. “Setting your goals and objectives is the most important step in making sure a trade show is successful,” says Nicholas.

How many leads do you want to generate? “A trade show is one of the best places to find new customers, but 97 percent of the leads are never followed up,” he says. Unless you follow up within 72 hours, “it is meaningless. And if you don’t follow up, it really isn’t a lead in the first place.” Develop a plan to capture contact information from visitors and to follow up efficiently on those leads before the show begins.

Staff Training. Training all of the staff who will man the booth is also important, says Nicholas. Many business owners just assume that their staff know what to do at a trade show, but that is often not true, he says. “How many times do you go to a show and see the staff huddled in a group talking to each other? What kind of message does this give about the company? It says we have no time for you,” he says.

Everything from posture to facial expressions can help to welcome or turn away a prospective customer. “When you are working at a booth you should smile and look energetic — even when you don’t feel that way,” Nicholas notes.

Subtle non-verbal clues can also be welcoming or unwelcoming. “I hate to see a person standing with their hands crossed over their chests or crossed in what I call fig-leaf posture,” he adds. Sitting behind the booth, waiting for people to approach is another no-no.

When you are working at a booth you should get out from behind it, smile, approach the person and engage them in conversation. Nicholas calls it the 3-30-60 rule. You have three seconds to engage the person, 30 seconds to qualify them and find out their needs, and 60 seconds to tell them how you can help.

Telling Your Story. With slightly over a minute and half to attract a customer and tell them about your company, how you set up your booth is extremely important. “It’s very important to think about how we learn as adults. We are much more hands-on. We want to touch and feel things,” says Nicholas. Having samples and demonstrations are very important.

It’s also imperative to have signage and a booth setup that can attract potential customers as they quickly walk past your booth. You are competing with dozens, perhaps hundreds, of other companies in similar-sized booths all crowded next to each other. What will make you stand out? “A good trade show manager knows that less is more,” he says. The customer should be able to quickly see who you are, what you do, and how you can benefit them.

Signs should be large and readable from at least 12 feet away, says Nicholas. Everything in the exhibit should enhance your brand. Nicholas knows larger companies that have gone so far as to control the temperature of the lighting in their booth so that the colors of their logo will show up correctly on their signs, brochures, and other materials.

How Else Can You Gain Attention? There are dozens of ways in which you can insure that trade show goers see and remember your name. Printed material often gets dropped on the floor during trade shows. Nicholas recommends that flyers and other materials be printed on both sides.

That way, no matter which way it falls, your name can still be read. There are often a variety of ways to advertise at a trade show besides your booth. You can sponsor the name tags, purchase an ad on the “belly band” of trade show materials, and of course, don’t forget the ever-popular give-away bags. Just remember to make yours big. “Each time a person gets a bigger bag he puts his smaller bags inside it. Make sure your bag is the one on the outside,” says Nicholas.

Preparing now for your fall trade shows will help make sure they are successful.

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