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Teach Your Exhibitors a Lesson
By Susan Friedmann, The Tradeshow Coach

The purpose of exhibitor education is to raise the level of professionalism on the show floor, enabling exhibitors to build better relationships with their customers, suppliers, and advocates in the marketplace

Do you view educating exhibitors as a necessary evil? Or do you view it as a means of investing in your exhibitors, something that sets you and your show apart and increases the probability of a greater return on your exhibitors' show investment? Which position most accurately characterizes your perspective? The latter is the one that you should both accept and embrace, as it is a key component of ongoing show profitability.

The purpose of exhibitor education is to raise the level of professionalism on the show floor, enabling exhibitors to build better relationships with their customers, suppliers, and advocates in the marketplace - an interaction that results in higher-quality leads gathered. Common sense tells us that when exhibitors are successful at a show, chances are pretty good they will return. Offering an education program that works is an important way to help guarantee the ongoing success of your show.

For exhibitor education to work, there are five essential elements needed.

1. An ongoing commitment to exhibitor education.
Over the years I've worked with several associations who organized exhibitor training sessions just because they felt it was something they needed to do. But when response was poor, usually as a result of insufficient marketing or bad timing, the project was quickly abandoned with comments such as "we tried it and it didn't work." Rather than giving up, an ongoing commitment to exhibitor education implies continuously looking for ways to make it work. The Association for Manufacturing Technology (AMT), McLean, VA, exemplifies total dedication to exhibitor education. Every two years, six months prior to their big show (IMTS), they conduct an intensive program in Chicago, the show site. Exhibitors over the years have seen the value of this program and make it a policy to attend. Attendance usually exceeds 500. It has taken years of ongoing commitment to develop the program AMT produces but it's been worth it to them to have better educated exhibitors.

2. A comprehensive plan of action.
Making this concept work means thoroughly understanding the results you're aiming for and then planning a strategy to accomplish them. Various methods available to disseminate educational material are dealt with later in this article. But it's important to realize that the more vehicles you use, the more chances there are for exhibitors to better see, hear, and understand the complexities of the exhibiting process. Exhibiting comprises many different components -pre-show, at-show, and post-show. Very few companies have mastered all three areas, which means that there's plenty of room for solid education. Each year you can plan to address different aspects of exhibiting in detail, such as working with the media, working with union labor, or managing show leads.

3. A specific budget allocated for exhibitor education.
As with most activities, budget rules. The more you have, the more you can do. However, there are many creative and inexpensive ways to pass on exhibiting information. Your own Web site is probably one of the most cost-effective vehicles to use. When an association approaches me for training and pleads poverty, my first suggestion is to find a sponsor or an "angel." This could be either an association member who is willing to support the industry or more specifically a company who would also be interested in your exhibitors, such as display or ad specialty companies. Sometimes convention and visitors bureaus (CVBs) of the convention site have been known to sponsor events. It never hurts to ask.

4. An appropriate timing schedule.
Timing is everything. Since education should be ongoing, I suggest that at least once a month articles, tips, and other useful information be sent out. The rules for this are consistency and value. Consistency means that you commit to a regular schedule to send out information, be it by e-mail, broadcast fax, updates to your Web sites, or other methods. Everything you produce needs to have value to the exhibitor. It's only when people feel that the information you send out is valuable that they will take time to read, save, and share with others. Every week I send out via email my ExhibitSmart Tip of the Week. My goal is to consistently share valuable tips and techniques to help exhibitors be more successful, and I'm constantly amazed when people write back to thank me and to let me know that they passed the information on to their entire marketing department. This only happens because they see and appreciate the value of the information.

5. A dedicated person/team assigned to handle this project.
Often the reason exhibitor education fails in an association is purely as a result of a lack of staffing. The chances are that your team is probably already overworked and underpaid, so adding another mammoth project to their workload doesn't sound very appealing. However, if you really want your exhibitor education program to work, I highly recommend that at least one person be committed to the project. Also, it's essential that this task be considered a valuable part of this person's job function. The more serious management is about adopting and supporting an ongoing exhibitor educational program, the greater the guarantee for success.

As you start considering and planning your program, there are five key considerations: who your target audience is; what you want to achieve; and, obviously, when, how, and where the education should take place. Let's take each of these questions and cover them in more detail.

Who is your target audience?

It is important to realize that your exhibitors are not a homogeneous group. Rather, they can be split into many different groups: for example, national and international companies; small, medium, and large companies; novice or experienced exhibitors. You need to determine which group or groups have the most need when it comes to education. Do you want to offer something to all exhibitors or to special groups such as first timers, new exhibitors, or international exhibitors, for example? The answer depends on what you want to achieve.

What do you want to achieve?

As I mentioned earlier, exhibiting comprises many different components that fall into the pre-show, at-show, and post-show categories. Using these three distinct areas as a framework, I simplify the learning with my 4-P formula - Planning, Promotion, People and Productivity:

Planning - everything and anything exhibitors need to be aware of prior to the show, including logistics, transportation, exhibit space, their own goals and objectives, and so forth.

Promotion - information on pre-and at-show promotional opportunities - advertising, public relations, sponsorship - as well as what exhibitors can do to help build traffic to their booth.

People - information on ways to enhance their staff's trade show professionalism and effectiveness, from having the "right" people staff the exhibit to their attitude and behavior on and off the show floor.

Productivity - what needs to be done after the show to turn leads into sales.

Your job is to decide which areas you want to address and how you want to address them.

When, how, and where should it take place?

It is critical to the success of any educational program to decide when the best time is to make this information available. Your options are pre-show, at-show, or both. It all depends on what you plan to offer.

When you consider offering your educational information prior to the show, there are several vehicles available -- newsletters, Web sites, broadcast faxes, e-mail, publications, audio/video tapes, having a toll-free help desk, and, of course, the most important, the exhibitor workshop. However, this too can take several different forms. You can offer a face-to-face program with experts, you can use your own internal staff, or you may consider outside resources. Of course, budget is likely to be your determining factor.

Other innovative forms could include interactive learning on your Web site, video conferencing, or a less inexpensive, but effective and increasingly popular method in the educational process, teleclasses. These are workshops that are conducted over the telephone via a bridgeline. The response I get from conducting these type of classes is that people appreciate not having to travel and can learn what they need to know in the comfort of their office. These types of classes also offer the flexibility of doing a series instead of just one workshop and can be done at different times during the day to take east, west coast and international participants into consideration.

If you intend to offer a face-to-face workshop, location is key. Your options include the show site city, where if you conduct the workshop prior to the show, you could include a site visit, or a central location, depending on where your exhibitors are situated. Also, you might consider offering several workshops in different cities around the country. Surveying your exhibitors helps to determine their preference.

The attendance challenge

The biggest challenge most show organizers face once they plan an education workshop is physically getting the exhibitors to attend. The following five points are critical in helping guarantee your success:

1. Offer a dynamic program and one that is of interest to your target audience.
Consider the various areas you want to cover and who would be the best person to conduct the workshop. Give the sessions snappy titles. Remember that packaging your product helps to sell it.

2. Offer value.
Whether you decide to charge for attending or you offer it gratis, exhibitors need to see a value. They need to see that it is well worth their while to invest time and money in attending. Once again program content and marketing are key.

3. Offer an incentive.
Consumers today are educated to expect some kind of incentive to buy, and in the same way, your exhibitors will be more tempted to attend if you offer a value-added component. Some show organizers include their show providers in the program. They might have a tabletop display and offer discounts on their services prior to the show. These would only be available to workshop attendees. Other incentives might include books or tapes, door prizes, or opportunities to win a free booth.

4. Make it mandatory.
Consider making the workshop mandatory to first-time exhibitors and/or new exhibitors to your show. This will help guarantee a certain number attending.

5. Promote like crazy.
Promotion is the key to great marketing and sales. Your exhibitors need to hear over and over again about the benefits of attending the workshop. Use every vehicle possible to promote it -- publications, mailings, Web site, e-mail, broadcast fax, telephone, and so on.

Measure effectiveness

Since your exhibitor education is an on-going process, it is essential to continually measure its effectiveness through feedback systems, surveys or focus groups. You should constantly be looking for ways to improve your offerings, finding out what works and what exhibitors find most valuable.

Exhibitor education that works is more than just sending out an exhibitor manual or presenting a one-hour presentation prior to the show opening. Rather, it is an ongoing commitment, an understanding of needs, a dynamic program and a dedicated team. It is show management's responsibility to constantly find ways to help increase exhibitors' level of success. When they succeed, so do you!



Susan Friedmann, works with organizations who want to boost their exhibiting results by attracting new business at tradeshows. She designs and implements strategies for show organizers and exhibitors. She can be reached at 518.523.1320, on the web www.thetradeshowcoach.com or by email susan@thetradeshowcoach.com

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