Expensive trade-fairs will only pay if there's also preparation.
Exhibition stands alone cost thousands. And that's not counting the cost of staff time, stand giveaways and entertainment. How many trade shows are worth the money? And if they don't pay, who's to blame - the exhibition organisers or the exhibitor?
David Metcalfe thinks that 90% of business-to-business exhibitions are a waste of time and money. 'They are run to meet organisers' objectives, not those of the exhibitors - it's little more than a rip-off.' Now marketing Bolton City Challenge, Metcalfe spent years with Norweb, the regional electricity company, and has done the rounds from high-spec industry fairs to local meet-the-buyer events. 'All too often exhibition stands are organised by marketeers, not sales people,' he says. 'Marketeers will commission a design agency to come up with a stunning-looking stand which frightens visitors away. Good 14e stands have a sales-driven, touch-me-feel-me look about them. Exhibitions are about people talking to one another, not looking at visuals.'
The success of a show depends on its market focus. In general, the narrower the focus, the happier exhibitors are likely to be. The British Franchise Exhibition is certainly specific. Even so, its effectiveness has declined over the past few years, according to Peter Wills, marketing services manager for Dyno-Rod. 'We have lots of good people come on to the stand, but we don't expect to get more than one or two franchisees recruited as a result.' As the total cost of exhibiting probably tots up to £10,000, and a Dyno-Rod franchise fee is £20,000, it's a tight margin. 'We don't sit around drinking coffee.'
The range of trade shows is immense. MIPIM is the excellent international property fair in Cannes, costing vast sums (rumour has it that English Partnerships' bill for exhibiting was upwards of £250,000). At the other end of the scale are tiny travel trade shows in the West Country. Juliet Hawkes is business development manager for the retail and tourism side of Bristol wine-shippers John Harvey & Sons, and while the Harvey's Bristol Cream brand manager jets off to the international Duty Free trade shows, Hawkes stays local, paying around £200 for her stands. 'They are very specific to our target market, and although very basic they generate bookings for us.'
Where trade shows come into their own is in the export field.
Nick Sljivic, director of VP International, is a specialist trade adviser on Central and Eastern Europe. 'Fairs are the best way to break into these markets,' he says. 'The big trade fairs in Brno (Czech Republic) and Poznan (Poland) are as sophisticated as the best British shows, and exhibitors do a lot of business. If you're not there you're not a player.' What's more, the cost of exhibiting at Poznan or Brno - including stand space, travel, accommodation and the rest - can be cheaper than the cost of a stand shell in the UK.
The big chambers of commerce will organise attendance for exhibitors to DTI-subsidised trade fairs. Stuart Whitehill is project manager in the overseas fairs division at Birmingham Chamber of Commerce. 'Last year we took JCB to France, Hepworth International to Australia, but the majority of exhibitors are SMEs,' he says. 'The package includes promotion by the Foreign Office in local journals and an embassy reception. The block of British stands are designed to a high standard, but it's vital that each exhibitor puts effort into their own stand and does the necessary pre-show work, inviting buyers and contacts.'
Not all British exporters understand the need to bend to the prevailing culture. 'In France the Union Jack is not a selling point,' Whitehall emphasises. 'Exhibitors need to be as French as possible - French speakers on the stand, no overt Britishness. In Hong Kong, Singapore, Kenya and the Middle East, though, British means high quality and the Union Jack can't be big enough.'
Across the board, the cost of exhibiting seems to fit within a surprisingly narrow band, regardless of location, market or the effectiveness of the exhibition itself. Where exhibitors differ widely is in what they do with the space and time they have purchased.