(CNNfn) - NEW YORK The Internet may be the fastest way for a company to pitch its products or services to customers worldwide, but sometimes your customers need to feel, touch, watch or taste your product before they actually cut that check.|
"People want high-tech, high-touch service, and exhibiting at trade shows is the best way to provide that," said Dick Wheeler, owner of Professional Exhibits and Graphics, an exhibit company based in Sunnyvale, Calif.
In today's high-tech world, trade shows are still the second-most popular form of marketing, according to the Tradeshow Week Databook. In 1998, the percentage of marketing dollars spent on exhibitions was 14 percent, second only to direct field sales (47 percent). Trade show marketing was ahead of advertising (11.5 percent), direct mail (9 percent), public relations (6.5 percent) and telemarketing (5 percent).
According to the Databook, business-to-business trade shows now account for 49 percent of the exhibition industry's $100 billion annual spending.
Building a buzz
"Much like any other advertising medium, a trade show lets people know who you are and what you do," Wheeler said. A lively trade show exhibit can quickly build a buzz around a new product. It also can make your small company look bigger and like it's doing a lot more business.
Having a strong presence at a show opens the doors to contacts, and lets you check out your competition by visiting their booth. "Manufacturers are there, looking for new distributors, some are selling product to the end user, others are there just to create an image -- it's brand marketing," Wheeler said.
In addition to generating publicity and networking opportunities, trade shows give business people a place to do deals and sign contracts face to face.
"Very often, people will rent a suite just for negotiating," said Wheeler, who recommends doing deals in private, not on the show floor. "Too many ears can listen in on conversations if you're meeting in the exhibit space."
Wheeler learned the exhibit business by working for a rival company five years prior to buying Professional Exhibits and Graphics in 1992. Wheeler and his wife, Jody Tatro, the company's CEO, set up their three California offices like a mock trade show, with $600,000 worth of product on the showroom floor.
Get a unique look that's completely shippable
Although you can buy exhibit booths online, many customers still like to look at the booths up close. "As you go through the process, you tell them what your budget is, and then, they give you all of the options," said Stacey Tomlinson, marketing specialist for WhiteLight System Inc., a software company based in Palo Alto, Calif. Tomlinson said her company spent about $22,000 on an exhibit for their first, upcoming trade show.
The price includes the design work, the booth itself, accents to the booth shape, additional parts, storage crates, a carpet with padding, a carpet bag and free instruction on how to set it up and take it down. "They brought us in-house, and trained all of us on how to put it together," Tomlinson said. "Our set-up time is an hour and a half, and everything ships in four crates and a carpet bag."
Wheeler says he can offer his clients competitive prices because he combines all of the costs into one package. He includes building the booth, transporting the booth materials to and from the exhibit, installation, exhibit storage, and refurbishing the booth after the show. "The only thing we don't include is the cost of your meals or airline tickets," Wheeler joked.
Put up a booth in your office and look like a pro
Rather than storing your booth, why not set it up in your office? "We're getting miles of use out of this exhibit and materials because we set it up in-house," said Kevin Toft, creative director of Brea, Calif.-based Homeseekers.com, an online listing service for homebuyers. "When we put the booth up at the office, it shows stability and strength to our visiting VIPs," Toft said. "It also makes the office look more professional and dynamic."
The cost of a trade show booth depends on the size and how elaborate the design and detail. Prices range from $5,000 to $15,000 for a 10 ft.-by-10 ft. display, $10,000 to $30,000 for one 10 ft. by 15 ft., and $20,000 to $60,000 for a 20 ft.-by-20 ft. exhibit.
Prices also vary depending on the style of the exhibit. Some booths are configured like an "island," so visitors can walk all the way around the exhibit. Others are very simple, and the visitor views the exhibit from just one side.
So when should your company start exhibiting at shows? "As soon as you open your doors," says Wheeler, who, like many entrepreneurs, had some tough times before reaching his current sales of $16 million a year. Several employees quit when they bought the firm, and about half of the 150 employees they hired didn't work out.
"My new employees had been competing against me for so long, they were afraid to have their competitor become their new boss," Wheeler said. "They resented the fact that we were onboard. I didn't know how hostile it would be." Because neither he nor his wife had any managerial experience, dealing with staffing issues was a nightmare.
"People tried to leave a mess behind when they resigned; they canceled our janitorial service, canceled contracts to the copiers -- all things we found out after the fact." Despite the rocky start, the company has flourished and grown in recent years.
Some trade show tips from Wheeler
1. Your graphics should communicate who you are, what you do, and how the customer can benefit in three seconds or less. You must create an impact quickly on a busy trade show floor.
2. Make it easy for people to get in and out of your exhibit space.
3. Staff your booth with well-trained, friendly, outgoing people.
For your staff:
1. Pin name badges on the right side of the body so people shaking hands can read your name.
2. Don't allow any eating, drinking, chewing gum or smoking in the exhibit.
3. Don't allow staffers to sit down. The staff should be standing and looking very approachable, not chatting with peers, their hands stuffed in their pockets.
For the presentation:
1. Come up with an open-ended question to qualify the leads. Find out if the visitor is a decision-maker, vs. someone just dropping in to kick the tires and waste your time.
2. Learn how to politely dismiss a poor prospect. With thousands of people coming through, script an efficient presentation that won't stall traffic.
3. Give visitors the information they need before they move along. Collect a business card to follow up after the show.
(If your business is too local for a trade show, consider using your vehicle as a rolling billboard. You can buy magnetic signs for your cars or trucks for a few hundred dollars. You can also buy custom-designed vinyl wrapping for vans and trucks for about $2,500).
-- Reported by Julie Neal
(Jane Applegate, a syndicated columnist and author of 201 Great Ideas for Your Small Business, covers small business for CNNfn. "Succeeding in Small Business" appears on Wednesdays.)