Keep Calm and Trade Show On!

Since it is still March and with St. Patrick’s day comes the “Everyone and everything is Irish” mentality, I present the Murphy’s Law of trade shows: If it can go wrong ….at some point, it will…and it will stress the heck out of everyone working your company’s chosen trade show. Ok, I know that sounds pessimistic; but I’m really an optimist in that I believe you can, and will, survive. That said, since Murphy’s Law is no respecter of persons, you can and should prepare, as a precaution, for a few of these types of calamities. As an aside, just so you know, being 25% Irish, I must defend my 50% Irish deceased mom and her, also deceased, 100% Irish mom by saying Murphy’s law really only sounds Irish. Murphy, is in reality commonly thought to be Captain Edward A. Murphy, an American aerospace engineer, who performed studies on deceleration for the U.S. Air Force in 1949. But, I digress, as all good Irish tellers of tales do!

Back to the trade show and exhibit theme of: “If it can go wrong, it will”. Maybe all of your trade shows and events have always gone as smooth as fresh, creamery, butter (Kate & Leopold fans I know you are going nuts with that phrase). A problem free trade show certainly is the goal; more often than not, that is how it will go especially if you do your due diligence and prepare. However, consider there are a few things that could go wrong at a show, and realize prepping for them in advance will help you do what you can to prevent, endure, or at least stay calm, during them.

Most of the solutions to the disasters outlined will require that you have a show phone number/ contact person cheat sheet. You should know who your “go to” at each show is. You should always know with which company you shipped your booth and relevant order/account numbers. Remember, sometimes you are setting up on weekends so instead of relying on someone back at the home office who may be on a call or unavailable, it is better to carry this information yourself. If you are the trade show manager, you may want to create an important name/number sheet for all of your booth personnel in the even that you lose yours or get delayed arriving. In this day and age, if you email everyone a copy, someone is bound to be able to pull it up on their cell phone in an emergency. A little extra effort on the front end of planning will go miles when things go awry and everyone around you is tired, frustrated and stressed.

1 – Exhibit / Display Fails to Arrive

As a foundational comment, let me first say, it is usually better to ship to the “advance warehouse” and not directly to the show because if things go as they should, on the first day of move in – the first day you are allowed to go to your physical booth space and start setting up –  your freight (cases, crates, packages etc.) will be waiting for you in your booth space. If you choose to ship “direct to show”, you have a specified narrow window of time for delivery and trucks get ushered into line in the marshalling yard to await their turn to unload. According to the tradeshowhelp.org website, the average wait is about 3 hours and can be as long as 8 hours at larger shows! This will get costly and leave you sitting in your booth waiting anxiously to start booth set up. In theory, shipping to advance warehouse lowers the risk of materials not arriving “on time”. Advance warehouse gives you the opportunity to verify prior to the show that your materials have at least made it to the warehouse.

Now, if you are at the show and your display is still missing in action, here are some responses:

  • Check with your shipping company; see what solutions/explanations they have to offer. Maybe they can get the booth there before the start of the show. Coordinate with show management. Can you come in early or stay late to get it set up if/when it arrives? Be forewarned, in order to keep the overall tradeshow running smoothly, show rules can be very restrictive.
  • Check with show drayage in case your display was just misplaced. Sometimes fork lift drivers drop your cases and crates at an incorrect booth #. Have the supervisor in charge double check and suggest some solutions. Also, find out from this person what the rules, regulations, and hours are for receiving a late arriving booth if your shipping company is to blame.
  • Create a new “space”. Rent what you can… tables, chairs – make it a break station. Serve bottled water or coffee – purchase and rent as you must. Draw in show attendees with a place to sit. Maybe hand out promo packs of aspirin with a company sticker placed on them – “We’ve got a headache, you?” Then link the conversation to how you can solve problems for them before they get a headache etc. Get creative with your sparse approach. Remember, trade shows are about more than just your display. They are about quality engagement with people. You are at a disadvantage, but don’t let it make you quit the game. You have too much invested to sit down and cry.
  • Get a sign made that says, “We made it here, but the booth didn’t!” or something to that effect. Use the humor of the situation to engage your target audience.

As a proactive emergency preventative measure, consider traveling with a carry on sized product like a retractable banner stand such as the Mark Bric BannerUp Plus with a graphic that has your logo and a quick message about your products and services on it. This way, if nothing else makes it there, at least you will have something with your company identity on it in the booth; if all goes well you can incorporate this, or a different banner graphic you keep in your show shipping cases, into the display. Prevention and cure!

2 – Graphics Damaged or Missing  

Some damage is easily repaired with a repair kit. Have magnetic graphics? Carry extra magnetic tape. A fabric repair kit or needle and thread may remedy certain problems temporarily. If you have a good relationship with your exhibit provider call them and they may be able to help you. “If one of our clients were in this situation, we would do our best to redo their graphics, or the portion of the display that was damaged, within the emergency time frame and budget. We also have a dealer network around the world that has resources and contacts that we could enlist on an emergency basis. People in our network are empathetic and will do what they can to solve problems” says Ed Marquez, President of Mark Bric Display.

Always carry a soft copy (a digital) version of your graphics with you. This way you can have them re-made in a pinch at a local shop. If you don’t have the budget to remake the whole display, use graphic elements and logo files to create something to at least help with corporate and brand identity while exhibiting at the show. You can use the graphics and logos to create something smaller and within your emergency fund budget to get you through the show.

3 – Smaller Items Damaged or Missing

Sometimes lightbulbs break, outlet strips are forgotten, no one packed the pens, sticky notes or stapler! Realize that most of these common trade show staples can be found and replaced either by show contractors or a local vendor. Wal-Marts and Walgreens are almost everywhere. Call Uber and go! Most problems are fixable. Remember to breathe.

4 – Booth Personnel Fail to Arrive

Sometimes people get ill, have emergency situations, miss their flights or weather makes travel impossible. Have a contingency plan just in case. Maybe part of your standard packing list should include a small bit of signage that says, “Sorry, I am not here; but, I will return in 30 minutes or less”, just in case you end up having to work the booth alone and need a small bathroom break. We all know this is not ideal and frankly, is the stuff of which a trade show manager’s nightmares are made. However, a miserable tradeshow booth staffer doesn’t feel like engaging, probably isn’t smiling and won’t have a positive effect on attendees. Better to be present and fresh for most of the show, than available but unapproachable the whole time.

Hopefully you have a few extra folks scheduled so one person dropping out or not arriving is not too inconvenient. Ideally, remember there should be shifts and breaks for all personnel. If budget allows, consider hiring staff to help you. Some shows have show talent that you can contract for a day or peak hours. If you have read your show manual prior to the show you will at least know if this is something that can be arranged for a price.

5 – Technical Difficulties

These can range from forgetting your laptop altogether or accidentally spilling coffee on it and it then failing to function. Be sure, like you will be doing for graphics, to bring your video/ presentation on a thumb drive or other backup device. This way you have what you need file wise and can then rent hardware from the show or borrow a co-worker’s device in a pinch. Plan in advance. Again an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

6 – Lost Literature

Don’t sweat that – you can always email or send these items to interested attendees later – just be sure to get accurate contact info. Sending the literature after the show can be beneficial as it puts your name in front of the booth visitor a second time at a later date. Plus, not having handouts to hide behind, may just force those wall-flower booth staffers to really engage with booth visitors. A personal touch is better than mindlessly handing literature to someone who is just going to toss it in the trash as soon as they round the corner to the next aisle anyway. No, really, I am an optimist! If you must have the literature and you can access the files, either from the aforementioned thumb drive or by having someone from the home office email the files, find a one-hour print shop to help you out. Online yellow pages might just save the day.

7 – Show Promotion Give-Away Fails to Arrive

There are several solutions here. The most obvious being, go without. If the give-away is linked to a pre-promotion campaign this may prove tricky. You could still go without for the show, explain, get contact info, then ship items out to individuals later. If the attendees are coming specifically to redeem a coupon or flier you have sent, you do not want to be a promise breaker – that is bad for business. So, consider having someone overnight ship the missing promotional item to you. Or, you could upgrade and replace with something equally enticing that you could procure locally; it may even be cheaper than overnighting items or shipping them out later to hundreds of individuals – postage can really add up these days. Do a quick cost analysis before you choose your solution.

Bonus Tip:

Any of these scenarios would probably make you sweat and no longer be booth ready – you probably look like you have been through the ringer! So as a preventative measure, carry a spare shirt, some deodorant, and some baby wipes or make up wipes with which to freshen up. Also keep breath mints on hand as stress contributes to bad breath and you don’t want to have that to worry about too.

Bottom line is this, if you do shows long enough, something will go wrong. People understand that these things happen. Your job is to do the best you can, given the circumstances you’re dealt. The world we live in is never perfect and everyone has had a bad day at some point; so maybe empathy will work in your favor! See there it is…optimism!

If we are honest there are probably hundreds of variations of minor inconveniences and major calamities (aka booth is on fire – seriously, bad wiring can make it happen!) that can put speed bumps and road blocks in the path to trade show success.

Stay focused on the goals and objectives your company has set for the show and push through it. When Murphy’s Law is in motion, remember: keep your expectations reasonable, realize that most problems are fixable, take a deep breath, ask for help, then Keep Calm and Tradeshow On!

 – By Stacy D. Poole Marketing Professional at Mark Bric Display Corp.


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