In the age of email, voicemail and web trading, it is easy to forget that our customers are living, breathing people. One of the few remaining places where it is possible to re-establish human contact is the trade show, and this autumn millions of us will be honing our handshaking as we trudge around the stands.
"Exhibitions allow visitors to see the public face of your company and meet the people who work there," says Hugh Keeble, a veteran director of IT shows such as Which Computer? and Storage Expo, and now director of exhibition organiser EasyFairs.
"They also offer an unrivalled place to demonstrate your product and collect sales leads."
There are many reasons for attending shows. You can raise awareness of your brand, form relationships with vendors and distributors, launch new services, recruit staff, team-build with your salesforce and even meet the press.
The show's publicity machine may allow smaller resellers to achieve press coverage they would not merit by themselves, and the most enterprising can generate their own publicity.
At Call Centre Expo, to be held at the NEC in Birmingham at the end of September, contact centre distributor Dacon will be circulating a questionnaire among delegates. As well as giving the company valuable market research, the results can be released to the media as a potential story.
But in today's 'no-frills' economy, channel companies expect to earn hard cash. "I have to make exhibiting pay for itself and prove a tangible return on investment [ROI] to my managing director," says Jon Ashley, marketing manager at data management and data protection VAR Redstor.
ROI means sales leads. "Brand awareness has almost become a dirty word; nobody wants to fund it," says Barry Mattacott, marketing manager of security distributor e92plus.
"These days it's all about direct response and must lead towards sales. You want 'pull' not 'push': qualified leads from delegates who are actively looking for your solutions, rather than prospects that you are pushing your solution onto."
For a small VAR like Neverfail reseller JI Consultancy, shows can be vital. "Shows are the biggest sales lead generator of all our marketing activity," says JI's managing director, Julian Box.
"We used to run our own seminars, which were slightly less expensive than show attendance. But shows provide more people to speak to, and therefore more opportunity for new business, which is vital for small VARs like ourselves.
From this year's Business Continuity Expo we gained 50 leads, of which 10 per cent were very good quality and two have already resulted in some good business for us."
According to Neil Jones, European managing director of event marketing agency George P Johnson, the key measure is "validated lead revenue": the potential revenue from the leads gathered, tempered by the knowledge of what percentage of these are likely to be turned into sales.
This gives a realistic estimate of the actual sales value, without having to wait until the money is in the bank.
The exhibition market is not what it was in the 1980s and early 1990s. Headline-grabbing setbacks, such as the suspension this year of the granddaddy of all IT shows, Comdex, are representative of a sea change in exhibition attendance.
Although plenty of IT companies still dutifully turn up to the big, horizontal trade shows, key buyers and decision-makers seem less in evidence, and the future may lie elsewhere.
"Many organisers are now finding that their 'monster' events, once cash cows, are attracting fewer visitors and that buy-in from exhibitors is decreasing," says Liz Wood, portfolio director at event organiser VNU Exhibitions Europe.
"Business people no longer have enough resources to spend extended periods visiting trade shows. To justify the time spent, they need to know that all their needs will be fulfilled in one visit."
Some vendors are organising their own shows and inviting partners to exhibit. These are fine, as long as there are not too many stands; otherwise it is difficult to differentiate yourself from the reseller next door.
Niche shows and conferences offer more opportunity to stand out. Keen to target the financial market, Redstor exhibited at the Resilience show, which focuses on business continuity, and found it was the only company of its type there.
In some ways the IT market crash may have done the exhibition industry a favour, causing what Wood calls a "Darwinian shake-up" in which only the fittest will survive. "In this tough marketplace visitors and exhibitors will demand more from their show experience," she adds.
Understanding what delegates want from a show and what kind of people they are is key to successful exhibiting. What they don't want is sore feet. According to research by HSBC Bank, people spend only about one-fifth of their day wandering around the exhibition stands.
The bulk of their time is carefully pre-planned: attending lectures and workshops and having pre-arranged meetings with exhibitors or other delegates. Meeting the right people and hearing knowledgeable speakers is more important than collecting a polybag of brochures.
Event organisers have cottoned on to this and often provide free seminars and conferences alongside the main event, to which exhibitors are encouraged to contribute.
At a big show as many as half the exhibitors may also be giving presentations and educational seminars on their own stands. The chances are that these will be the ones delegates are actually visiting.
With so many IT events on offer, selecting the right ones to exhibit at is an art in itself. Directories such as the Exhibition Bulletin and the web site www.exhibitions.com list what is available, and the Association of Exhibition Organisers (AEO) can provide background information on its members' events.
But finding the optimum visitor profile for your company's needs may require additional research.
"The best way to find out who attends which shows is to ask your customers which ones they go to," says Ashley. When Redstor runs seminars or customer questionnaires, it always asks which events people attend and which magazines they read.
Reputable show organisers understand who comes to their events and why. The sales representative should be able to tell you who attended last year's show - with Audit Bureau of Circulation-audited statistics - and who is expected to attend this year, including their status and buying power.
If this information is not forthcoming, think carefully before signing the contract. Also, ring up some companies that exhibited at last year's event and ask them what they gained from it.
Conscientious organisers should assist with marketing activities, press coverage, advice on design and content, access to delegate lists and so on. "Some organisers fall over themselves to help you," says Mattacott.
You do not have to pay extra to get the best locations within a show, but you do have to book early. If you don't mind being stuck behind a pillar in aisle 19 you may get considerable discounts if you book late, although this will reduce your preparation time.
Shows are not cheap. Major events charge about £200 per square metre, so a modest-sized pitch typically costs about £3,000. And that is only for starters. You still have to get the stand designed and built, pay hotel and hospitality bills, and count the cost of taking staff away from their usual duties.
"When you take into account all of the 'grey' costs, it can cost £10,000 to £12,000 to attend a three-day event," says Ashley.
Not surprisingly, many companies try to share the cost by going into partnership. This is a bit of a double-edged sword, but it can be beneficial.
"The danger of working with a bigger brand is that you can get lost in it and saturated by it," says David Saunders, managing director of conference organiser Marketforce Communications. "The advantage is that you can attend an event you might not otherwise be able to afford."
Vendors frequently offer resellers space on their show stands. On balance this can work in the reseller's favour, as long as it is not competing with other resellers on the same stand. And you will only get business related to the vendor's product.
Resellers may even return the compliment. "We encourage the manufacturers we represent to take part, but we make sure it remains a Phoenix Datacom-branded stand," says Tony Smith, marketing manager at Phoenix Datacom, a VAR specialising in network performance.
Distributors, too, may be in a good position to organise partnerships, while maintaining a low profile themselves. Dacon regularly shares its stands with vendors and resellers, splitting the cost with whoever is involved. At Call Centre Expo, Dacon's stand will feature several vendors and one reseller, DeTeWe.
"We always have just one reseller per stand, because otherwise lead allocation becomes an issue," says John Bell, Dacon's business development manager. "The stars of the show are the products, backed up by the support the reseller can offer."
However, it is a sad fact that many resellers don't get the benefit they should from shows - either because they don't go to the right events, or because they don't prepare properly, do things right at the show, or follow up effectively afterwards. Long-term planning is essential.
"We have regular meetings with sales and marketing teams and senior management," says Paul Makin, sales and marketing director at Navision reseller Alpha Landsteinar.
"We look at our business and sales plans, and from there develop a marketing plan so we can meet all company objectives at the end of the year by obtaining all the expected results from a show."
It is the organiser's job to get people to the show, but it is your job to get them onto your stand, so it is important to be proactive. Pre-invite as many people as you can manage, including customers (lapsed as well as current), the press and prospects culled from the exhibition's delegate list.
Austen Hawkins, commercial director of the AEO, says: "People spend £10,000 on a stand, but if they spent a few hundred more on marketing or training they could quadruple the benefits."
It is best to have a mixture of people on the stand: cheery sales people to welcome visitors and collect leads, support staff to field technical questions, a receptionist to make appointments, and a senior bod for swank value.
Everyone should be fully briefed about the company's aims for the event, and armed with some appropriate chat-up lines to win delegates' confidence - nice, open questions like, "What are you looking for at the show?"
Sales people may need to be warned off the hard-sell approach; you're looking to collect leads, not necessarily make sales on the spot. And establish a few ground rules; for example, nobody has a hangover; nobody reads a newspaper on the stand; and nobody says, "Can I help you?"
Collecting leads is more than chucking business cards into a bucket. You need to capture enough information about the person - identity, business need, likely solution, buying plans, budget - that you can follow up intelligently after the show. Then classify the leads so you can follow up the strongest first.
An estimated 70 to 80 per cent of exhibitors don't follow up leads properly. Someone should be responsible for organising the follow-up, ensuring the sales people phone the people they met to arrange meetings and so on, and writing to more nebulous prospects - several times if necessary.
"The key thing is to get the right sales people following up leads within a week of the show," says Smith.
The stand itself need not be elaborate. A simple pop-up job with some backdrops is cheap to buy, can be re-used at show after show, and doesn't have walls or steps which may subliminally discourage visitors from coming onto the stand. A private 'inner sanctum' is handy for entertaining important guests.
Vitality is worth more than vanity. "You only have two or three seconds to grab people's attention, so it is very important to create some sort of movement," says Emma Swales, marketing manager at stand design specialist Nimlok.
This can consist of light or sound, software or videos, lectures, demonstrations, or just the throng of delegates enthralled by your pitch.
If all else fails, there are always gimmicks and giveaways. Alpha Landsteinar swears by the "free sweetshop" format it uses at the Retail Solutions show. But beware: Smith remembers a company that paid a troupe of Japanese traditional drummers to perform on its stand.
"True enough they got a crowd each time the drummers set up," says Smith. "But the crowd fled as soon as they started playing. The noise was actually painful!"
Alpha Landsteinar (01249) 810 600
Association of Exhibition Organisers (01442) 873 331
Dacon (01442) 233 222
e92plus (0870) 200 9292
EasyFairs (020) 8973 2430
George P Johnson (020) 8334 6700
JI Consultancy (0870) 120 5506
Marketforce (020) 7608 3222
Nimlok (0800) 526 813
Phoenix Datacom (01296) 397 711
Redstor (0118) 377 6500
VNU Exhibitions (020) 7316 9000
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