8 mistakes that waste your trade show budget

January 9, 2018

Time and again I see exhibition marketers struggle to justify their budget due to difficulties proving ROI.

The UAE and global exhibition markets are both crowded and competitive arenas. Identifying the challenges involved in demonstrating excellent ROI is instrumental in winning senior buy-in, gaining credibility and securing the budget required to be truly effective.

It’s often basic mistakes that can damage your exhibition returns without you even realising.

So let’s look at eight of these common errors and how best to avoid them.

1. Obsessing over costs: ROI is about two things: controlling costs and maximising returns. Balancing these approaches is the core of exhibition marketing. If the scales tip too far towards cautious cost-control, you will likely neglect the tools and technologies at your disposal which could drastically improve that ROI figure.

If the scales tip too far towards cautious cost-control, you will likely neglect the tools and technologies at your disposal which could drastically improve that ROI figure.

Virtual reality is an apt example. Hype abounds for VR, but many exhibitors still see it as a cost and not an opportunity.

Consider Robert Thierauf’s point in Virtual Reality Systems for Business: “[Virtual reality] is a proven means of attracting attendees to a booth – typically, attendees will wait a long time to try VR”. In an increasingly frenetic exhibition environment where capturing and maintaining interest is a primary challenge, investment in such technology can be the deciding factor in improving footfall, interest and subsequent ROI.

The same can be said of many technologies, like live streaming, beacon technology, and projection mapping. Understanding these options sufficiently to apply them at the best moment is important, but must be matched with a willingness to invest in their use when the time is right.

2. Not creating an experience: Boring exhibitions are not memorable experiences. At their worst, exhibitions can be dull, lifeless events where most people are there because they know they should be.

That’s a far cry from exhibitions at their best. A fantastic exhibition is exhilarating, and there’s a tangible sense of excitement crackling in the air.

What’s the difference between the two? It’s largely about whether you can create an experience. An effective exhibition is experiential marketing where a direct connection with your audience is achieved. Smith and Hanover’s definition from Experiential Marketing: Secrets, Strategies and Success Stories is appropriate: “[to] deliver the true promise of experiential marketing your experiences must stimulate the active involvement of your target audience”.

Audience participation is the key to an electric atmosphere and to maximum ROI – to pulling people into your stand and getting them involved. To do so, you must create an experience – something people want to be involved with: “Engagement occurs when participants perceive they are going to receive value in exchange for the time they invest.”

We all must work within budget limitations, but greater investment invariably elevates your exhibition beyond the ordinary. This creates an experience that maximises ROI – if the exhibition is well managed.

3. Not attending the right exhibitions: Global tradeshow research tells us that the Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR) has found nearly half of all attendees only visit one exhibition per year. The pressure is on to choose the right exhibitions to meet your target customers.

If you sell women’s fragrance, should you attend the Modern Woman Show or The Scent? What about Beautyworld? Should you squeeze all three into the budget, or prioritise and invest in a single enhanced stand to beat the competition?

A knee-jerk answer to these questions is regrettably common and is often detrimental to success. It’s imperative to return to your goals and audience when making these decisions, to ensure exhibition attendance is researched. Just because a competitor is attending doesn’t mean you should be, for example.

Instead, you want a clear understanding of how the exhibitions you select contribute to overarching marketing and growth goals. This helps you choose the exhibitions that will generate the most ROI and brand development.

4. Cutting costs on your exhibition stand: The cost-centric mentality often manifests as a reluctance to invest in exhibition stand design. Why would you invest in a custom-built stand when you could rent a stand instead?

On the surface, that’s a fair question. And sometimes it might make sense to rent, if the alternative means not exhibiting at all (perhaps if you have had a very difficult financial year).

However, your exhibition stand is the most important aspect of your event. Findings published in Exhibit Marketing and Trade Show Intelligence show us that when someone walks past your booth, you have about three seconds to get their attention. No attention, no lead. No lead, no sale.

Findings published in Exhibit Marketing and Trade Show Intelligence show us that  when someone walks past your booth, you have about three seconds to get their attention.

Your stand is the gateway to ROI; it doesn’t make sense to cut costs here. Aside from floor space, this should be your big-ticket budget item.

That’s not to say you must go all-out if your budget is limited. You don’t have to be loud to be noticed, and finesse consistently beats raw spending power. I’ve seen exhibitors achieve phenomenal results from sleek, understated stands all because they’ve done one important thing right: they’re authentic.

It’s hard to overstate the value of authenticity. It’s about telling your brand story in an engaging, human and real way so that visitors really connect.

5. Not creating the right team: When you’re exhibiting, your people reflect your brand values and they’re often the first touchpoint for potential customers. Don’t underestimate their importance.

First, be generous with your headcount. CEIR reports that companies can save over 90% on lead acquisition by making a first face-to-face contact at an exhibition. Take more people and you have more opportunity for face-to-face interaction – with potential cost savings well into the thousands.

Second, take people who reflect your target audience. We’ve written before about Robert Cialdini’s famous principles of persuasion – liking is especially important here. Send people who are similar to attendees and they’ll be perceived as more likeable, which means they’ll build better rapport and achieve more positive results. All of which means you’ll boost your ROI.

6. Poor budget management: Too heavy a focus on cost-control can cripple ROI potential, but the other side of the coin is poor budget management.

And this is a big problem, according to the Global Events Industry Benchmarks report, with budgeting proving the most challenging part of events planning for most respondents.

Maximising exhibition ROI starts with accurately setting and sticking to a budget. Don’t fall foul of hidden costs like on-site labour, storage, transport and audio-visual – these things quickly add up.

Good cost leadership is vital. Nearly half of respondents to a Meeting Professionals International survey predict continued cost increases across the industry. The ability to find, negotiate and close a good deal gives you the best chance of delivering good ROI.

7. Not effectively harnessing data: Each exhibition should feed into the next with lessons learned, allowing you to hone your objectives and achievements. Unfortunately, this isn’t something event marketers are great at – nearly 60% of marketers believe they have no way to measure event ROI.

Go back to basics, to your event objectives. Before planning an event, I always identify what I’m trying to achieve. And if I know what I’m trying to achieve, I can identify key metrics. Say you’re attending to support a new product launch. You’ll likely measure the number of qualified leads, number of product demos and qualitative product feedback, for instance.

Combine quantitative metrics like booth traffic and qualified leads with qualitative metrics like post-event surveys to measure engagement. This will build a complete picture to inform your efforts next time. Without good data collection and management, you’re essentially flying blind. You limit your progress, and you’ll struggle to build a business case for next year’s budget.

8. Forgetting about post-exhibition: When you’ve put so much time, effort and energy into an event, it’s tempting to hit the “over and out” button the moment the exhibition closes its doors. That’s one reason studies regularly find that approximately 80% of leads aren’t followed up post-event. The problem, of course, is that post-event is where your ROI is realised.

Leads aren’t returns until they are actioned and closed. The only money in the bank comes from sales.

Leads aren’t returns until they are actioned and closed. The only money in the bank comes from sales. And you don’t turn exhibition leads into sales by logging them to your CRM and forgetting about them. You don’t turn PR momentum into sales without a regimented process.

What’s needed is a clear, structured and prompt way to handle leads post-event, so you can optimise your channel strategy. Sales Management author Chris Noonan suggests a timetabling method to ensure leads are assigned to the right departments for the right follow-up activity, with “a simple follow-up control form to ensure action is happening”.

The point is, you don’t just want an amorphous list of names and contact details. You want grouped and prioritised lists of relevant leads for each department to enable decisive and prompt follow-up.

Avoid these 8 mistakes to maximise exhibition ROI

The Global Event Industry Benchmarks Study 2015 found that exhibitions represent up to 25% of overall annual marketing budgets for nearly half of respondents.

That’s a big chunk of the budget – and with high potential comes the need to justify it. Respect the basics and consider these eight mistakes commonly made each year, and you’ll be able to do just that.