Each year, our teams zig and zag from our office outside Washington, D.C. to destinations ranging from Montgomery, Alabama, to San Diego, to Honolulu to execute trade show experiences for our clients. As marketers, sometimes we get lucky: when events are in our backyard, execution is easier, and problems are more straightforward to solve. But often we have to hit the road to new or far-flung destinations – which requires a lot of planning and logistics expertise. Fortunately, making tracks also means accumulating some practical wisdom for showcasing a company at an event to remember.
1. Set a strategy upfront. Thinking through and documenting your show objectives and strategies well in advance, before you even think about hitting the road, will make the three-ring circus more manageable when you’re on the ground. Capture and disseminate the plan with your whole team. It should include your broad goals and specific objectives, how the booth presence is being designed to maximize your presence toward those ends, who the key players are, timelines, and success metrics.
2. Make a schedule and a checklist. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Neither is a trade show booth – regardless of its square footage! At the bare minimum, it takes eight weeks to fabricate a new 20×20 booth –and that timeframe doesn’t include shipping or construction at the show site. Create a schedule that maps every stage of the process, beginning with ideating your booth concept, initiating the blueprint, securing approvals, fabrication itself (including printing graphics and building furniture), and finally, shipping and construction. Ideally, you should begin the process at least three months in advance of when the booth needs to be delivered to the trade show floor for the build. Figure out your “at-risk” dates – those critical milestones that, if missed, jeopardize your ability to turn out an optimal experience. Those deadlines will help drive what activities you prioritize at each stage of the process.
3. Build in contingencies. This is especially important when you’re either traveling a long way to get to your trade show or you are unfamiliar with your destination – or both. In these scenarios, your go-to quick fixes for problems might be harder to come by. For example, picking up a screwdriver or an extra dongle can be more complicated without a big box store nearby. Do some reconnaissance in advance of your departure. If you don’t know where you’ll be able to find staples, pack extras and ship ahead. Locate the name of a local printer or copy shop so you can run off extra copies of collateral or print new signage. Remember, contingencies reduce your downside risk and can help you save money, time and effort when addressing mishaps.
4. Pack certain critical items with your personal luggage. By critical, I mean things you absolutely cannot run the show without. No matter how thorough you are in planning, things can always go missing during the shipping process. This includes device chargers, key contact information (written down), and a printed copy of the event plan. At a recent trade show where our team staffed in Hawaii, we were sure to pack a set of in-booth giveaways in our luggage. It seems like a small thing but those trade show veterans out there will know how painful it is to staff a booth with no tchotchkes to entice visitors to stick around and chat.
5. Make friends with show services. Most trade shows are run by vendors that manage the show floor and serve as the primary POC for exhibitors. During a show, representatives usually camp out in their own booth, which is open during exhibit hours. They are dedicated to assisting exhibitors and can help with everything from troubleshooting registration and lead retrieval to Internet connectivity and cleaning services. A few tips: often the folks you correspond with before a show are the same people who staff show services on site – so don’t be a jerk in your advance communications, no matter how stressed you are! You would be surprised how many names they remember.
6. Don’t go it alone. Don’t underestimate the power of collaborating with a trade show vendor – professionals who specialize in booth fabrication, management and on-site construction. They live and breathe this stuff: certificates of insurance, bills of lading, advance shipping – all the logistical pieces that work behind the scenes to make a trade show run smoothly. And the seasoned vendors bring experience to point you to hacks that make everything look and feel more professional in the booth, like fabric steamers, backup routers, screen cleaners, and more.
7. Keep your booth team in line. Trade shows are notorious for lots of downtime. There are lulls in traffic when hardly any customers seem to be walking the show floor – and the temptation for booth staff to “check out” is very real. Create a staffing schedule to ensure coverage is evenly divided, and run an end-of-day meeting to recap out successes for the day and keep the team focused on core objectives.
8. Last but not least: remember to do some self-care. Trade show schedules are punishing and non-stop. Bring a personal go-bag with water, mints, ibuprofen, band-aids, and granola bars or trail mix. Getting sick or exhausted isn’t an option when you’re captaining the ship.
Executing a successful booth experience is as rewarding as it can be stressful. But with the right tips and tricks up your sleeve, even the furthest afield trade show can be a smashing success.