When approached with a sound plan and a well-briefed team, an exhibition represents a tremendous opportunity. The best stands at Gulfood, Gitex, Intersec, Arab Health and the like will generate thousands of qualified leads, hundreds of thousands of dollars in sales, and brand buzz that lasts until next year’s event.
But competition for business at these leading exhibitions is fierce, so you can’t just turn up with any old stand or you will be overlooked. In order to secure the measurable results you want, a stand that truly separates itself from the crowd is required.
When you see the finished article, an outstanding exhibition stand may look like the work of magic but in reality it is the result of a step-by-step process that requires experience, expertise and a great deal of hard work and commitment from a number of key personnel: exhibitors, designers, planners, builders and more.
In this article I’ll set out the steps to follow in order to make your exhibition stands justify the investment.
Step 1. Pinning down the brief: This first stage is crucial, because it dictates every other decision. If you don’t put the work into getting the skeleton of the project right, the finished stand won’t look – or perform – the way you want it to.
A good project manager is crucial and should be brought in from the very start. They will work closely with you to develop the brief, ensuring that it represents a comprehensive plan for delivering the outcomes you want from the exhibition. They will ask key questions about your aims, vision and goals and will note your requirements in detail, often teasing out details that you hadn’t considered. They will then translate all that into a workable brief that has buy-in from all stakeholders.
A good project manager is crucial and should be brought in from the very start. They will work closely with you to develop the brief, ensuring that it represents a comprehensive plan for delivering the outcomes you want from the exhibition.
Step 2. Putting heads together: Once everyone is aligned with the brief, the project manager needs to gather the design and execution team and brainstorm ideas for achieving your goals. With numerous stakeholders involved, there will often be competing priorities, such as budget limitations, differing goals and visions, so this is a crucial step.
The client, project manager, design and execution team need to work closely here to balance priorities, ideas and inputs to realise the agreed concept. This takes a concerted collaborative effort to ensure all competing priorities are considered and everyone commits to the chosen course of action. This is the stage that brings the vision to life, crystallising an idea that will realise your goals.
Step 3. Crafting your brand story: Now the brand activation manager and senior designers take the reins, creating the stand using 3D design software so everyone can get a realistic visual impression of how it will look. The brand activation manager and designers ensure that the design is an accurate embodiment of the concept from step 2, which in turn reflects the brief. They will make iterative adjustments until you are completely happy.
This step isn’t just a matter of visual design; it’s about telling your brand story. Your exhibition team should incorporate activation solutions using technology and other interactive ideas to help bring your brand to life. In Basics Interior Design 02: Exhibition Design, author and Principal Teaching Fellow at the University of Lincoln, Pam Locker, talks about the exhibition designer as a ‘creative practitioner’ whose job is to ‘create interesting opportunities for storytelling’. This is vital.
The exhibition team will consider customer journey and visitor experience while designing too, so the stand goes further than just spectacular appearance. Rather, they are creating an experience for visitors that will reinforce your brand values and cement your reputation. A good exhibition team thinks long and hard about how your stand looks, feels and is experienced from the perspective of your customers.
Step 4. Laying the groundwork: Once the design is finalised, it’s time to talk about making virtual into reality. Now everyone involved in the project should sit down with you and walk through the process of bringing the exhibition stand to life. Any materials and machines needed should be discussed and sourced and the entire build process mapped out.
The project manager will be closely involved here, along with a dedicated account manager to relay information between the different teams and you, the client. You should always be in direct contact with that account manager in order to maintain a comprehensive overview of the project’s progress.
You should always be in direct contact with that account manager in order to maintain a comprehensive overview of the project’s progress.
Step 5. Building the stand: At this point you have a fully designed virtual stand that meets your goals and brings your vision to life, but there’s nothing physical to touch, walk on or interact with. This step changes all that.
During this stage, the senior designers work closely with the exhibition build team to ensure their designs are accurately translated into reality. Depending on the requirements of your stand, the project build team might be vast and may involve professionals with many different specialities. Most exhibition teams have a selection of dedicated in-house specialists, but they might also hire in people with niche skills.
Carpenters, labourers, engineers, joiners, finishing specialists, sign fitters, machinery specialists and electricians will work together to bring your stand to life. As the process gathers momentum, the pressure increases, with precious little room for error. The project manager will ensure everyone does what they should and keeps to time and budget, and the account manager will liaise between you and the project team to keep everyone updated.
Step 6. Transportation time: Your stand looks beautiful, but so far only you and the team can admire it. The next step is to get your stand to your exhibition, so your customers can enjoy it too. Depending on the size, shape and weight of your stand, you may require special transport, which your exhibition team will arrange. They will handle all safety, testing and documentation checks, along with any border control, transport changes or unexpected delays. At every stage of the journey, a logistics manager will be responsible for ensuring that your stand arrives intact.
Your exhibition team will also manage the delivery of any marketing materials or products, as specified in the brief. They will coordinate suppliers so that everything arrives at the right time, with minimal hassle from your side. A good exhibition team will relieve you of all the pressure of logistics – just bring yourself and everything else will be done.
Step 7. Safe setup: Your exhibition stand has been delivered safely to the venue but the work is far from complete. Setting up is rarely a simple process and it might include heavy equipment that needs lifting on-site. The supervisor will manage the unloading process and ensure that health and safety regulations are adhered to. You may prefer to be present during this process but in many cases the client is not involved, preferring to arrive once their stand is set up.
The setup crew and project manager will be on-site bright and early with the logistics team. Depending on the size and complexity of your stand, you might also have a dedicated on-site set installation manager and dedicated lighting and AV professionals too. Your exhibition company will ensure there are as many people as required to make sure your stand is ready in good time for the exhibition. The project manager will oversee the process and double-check all the little details that make the stand look perfect. By the time you arrive, you could be forgiven for thinking it had been there forever.
Step 8. Always on hand: No good exhibition team leaves before the exhibition is over – although the logistics team might be getting a few hours of well-earned sleep. The exhibition team will be by your side throughout the show in case anything comes up that needs urgent attention or there are any last-minute requests.
When the event is over and you’re basking in the glow of success, the logistics team will be busy dismantling the stand. If you’re planning to use it for other events, your team will organise in-house or external storage. If not, they will ensure it is disposed of appropriately, including recycling as much as possible – a consideration that should be built in to the initial design brief.
When the event is over and you’re basking in the glow of success, the logistics team will be busy dismantling the stand.
The invisible team that determines exhibition success
Taking stand space at an exhibition is a major commitment, both financially and practically, but when you get it right the rewards justify the investment. You could compare it to making a movie – consider that list of credits that keeps rolling after the film has finished and everybody is making for the exits. Their names go largely unread but without them there would be no movie.
In their book Project Management: The People Challenge, Roland and Frances Bee describe this as ‘the invisible team’. They vastly outnumber the ‘visible team’ and for every hour you put in, they will put in countless additional hours behind the scenes. The work of art that you and your audience see is the result of the expert coordination of this team of tens, potentially hundreds, of people throughout the eight stages of successful exhibition stand planning and implementation.