Making an exhibition of myself

Last week I manned (personned? personified?) a trade stand for the Open University at a big event aimed at charities and voluntary organisations.

There were inspiring keynote sessions, multiple track workshops, surgeries and presentations, a blogging zone (hello there!) and a lady giving Indian head massages. The delegates (a record number according to the organisers) were to mill around the exhibition area between (or perhaps even during) sessions, engaging in meaningful interactions with myself and another two dozen or so hopeful purveyors of products and services to the third sector.

So what happened? Not much actually. Interested enquirers, or even innocent passers by, were thin on the ground. They can’t all have been in the blogging zone surely? At coffee and meal breaks the exhibition hall packed out (cunningly that’s where the food was) but everyone seemed more interested in networking, making phone calls and eating than in meaningful interaction with the likes of me.

Going for a wander after the lunchtime rush to see how others were faring, I got the impression that everyone else was feeling a bit lonely too. We jealously derided the promotions company who had got a chocolate fountain and what looked like champagne cocktails to entice browsers. We loyally admired each other’s freebies (squeezy stress-relief balls very popular this year, with exhibitors at least). We even entered each other’s prize draws. Please, please, please let me win that iPad! Other exhibitors kindly admired my leaflets (being the high-minded OU, that was it on freebies from stand 34!). Little did they suspect I was planting a seed of educational desire in their subconscious minds which will surely bloom years hence…

Silence is turtle-shaped

The guys opposite were enterprising souls. Advised on likely numbers by the organisers, they brought along industrial quantities of Haribo sweets. As they demonstrated several times, accepting one of these ultrachewy items means you have to listen to whatever someone is telling you about their product as you are too busy trying to dislodge it from your teeth to say anything yourself. Great idea, but watch out for about seventy quid’s worth of unused chewy sweets on eBay soon.

My Six Top Tips for exhibitionists everywhere as a result of this experience are:

    have something to start a conversation with — could be Haribo, or any number of small giveaways, but once you give someone something it’s difficult for them not to spend at least some time talking with you. A branded item with a contact number or website is ideal — but make sure you give it actively or the opportunity for interaction passes.

    think quality not quantity — OK, we could have done with more footfall, but of the people I talked to, the vast majority sounded genuinely interested in taking things further in due course

    see it as the start of a relationship. You can’t evaluate presence at an exhibition from immediate sales, but by the leads it generates. So have a follow-up form where you can record contact details and an exact idea of what it is that your visitor is looking for.

    stand up (sitting down on an exhibition stand disconnects you from visitor level). Tiring, but essential.

    look your visitor (or prospective visitor) in the eye and ask how they are feeling today. Works for those enthusiastic young people with tabards and clipboards, so why not you?

    most importantly, listen.

Oh, and make sure whatever event you are exhibiting at does not comprise too much of a distraction from your stand.

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