Most businesses will be approached at some point to exhibit at an event. The initial appeal is considerable – getting out of the office, meeting real customers, selling your wares and handing out leaflets to lots of prospects. However, the reality is usually somewhat different.

The recipe for running an exhibition has largely stayed the same over the years. Select a theme, target businesses offering propositions relating to that theme, and attract an audience for these businesses to market and sell to. What’s not to like?

A lot actually. Having been on both sides of the fence (as an exhibitor and an attendee), I feel that many exhibitions have lost their appeal and that their business models will need to adapt radically if they are to survive. In most instances they simply do not offer value to their actual customers, i.e. the exhibitors (many behave as if the free attendees are their main customers). Alternative marketing options, such as Google AdWords, offer much greater value and transparency in terms of your ability to secure a positive return on ad spend. Because of this, I feel that more and more exhibitors will reach the same conclusion regarding exhibitions – that they are simply not worth it. The following represents some of my thoughts on trade shows and exhibitions from an exhibitor perspective.

1. Financial Considerations

The majority of exhibitions are free to attend, with exhibitors paying around £3,000 – £5,000 (and upwards, depending on the stand size) for “shell”, or empty space alone. Factor in the cost of dressing the stand, printing flyers, and the exorbitant fees charged for basic utilities like electricity and broadband, and the costs quickly start to escalate. Once you factor in taking three or four people out of the office (at the very least), paying for transport, food and accommodations, etc., you can be looking at costs approaching five figures. This is all well and good if you are selling big ticket services where one new client covers the cost. However, the majority of businesses are selling products and services, where revenue is in the hundreds of pounds, and hence the cost is better spent on more productive marketing activities with a more certain return.

2.  The Exhibition

New Show

When a new show arrives on the scene it lacks the reputation, history and legacy of an established exhibition. The risk of attendee numbers not materialising is significant (at least established shows can provide ‘some numbers’ from previous shows). Hence, my advice for all businesses is to attend the new show as a visitor the first time so that it is possible to substantiate footfall claims, to assess how well it is run etc. Of course if everyone heeded my advice there would be no paying exhibitors at a new show and hence no show in year 2.

Established Show

Established shows have ‘history’ so it makes it easier to get a sense as to the likely footfall etc. This reputation can also help them secure some well known keynotes, but as I will explain below, even exhibiting at established shows is no guarantee of success for exhibitors. In many instances, the primary focus of organizers is footfall at all cost, and scant regard is paid to the effect this focus has on exhibitors.

3. The Typical Blueprint

Most exhibitions follow similar blueprints. The first step is to secure a number of publicly known key notes regardless of whether they have something interesting to say or not. Hence business events tend to attract high caliber speakers from the ex-Apprentice school of management.

Telesales teams then approach businesses, and exhibitors are then brought on board with early ones getting prime slots on the floor plan and seminar slots where they can present ‘on brand’ material.

In terms of the audience, most exhibitions are free to attend and the exhibitor needs to market effectively to ensure a substantial audience attends. For some, marketing is minimal as this erodes margins, and the sales team ringing prospective exhibitors offers no guarantees re the attendee numbers. Regardless, even when footfall numbers sound impressive, quantity does not equate to quality and often the attendee makeup can be described as ‘variable’ at best (in terms of propensity to spend).

Similarly, it is not unusual for organisers to run up to 10 seminar halls with back to back seminars resulting in a lot less time for attendees to browse the stands. While these are great for the attendee, they are not good for the exhibitor. Another recent trend has been to merge two shows into one – which again, is fine if you are into vanity metrics like ‘attendee numbers’ but only serves to bring less qualified leads to the stand. The pattern is clear. The free attendees garner all the focus, and the exhibitor is simply not treated as the customer.

4. Manning the Stand

One of the most difficult problem faced by most exhibitors (aside from no one stopping and ‘sore legs from standing’) is dealing with the array of people arriving at the stand with hidden agendas or with no intention of engaging with the host. Here are some examples of the types of people who are likely to approach the stand (that you have paid a lot of money to have):

– The Freebie Hunter – They approach the stand clutching a handful of pens and with bags laden down with goodies. They get straight to the point asking ‘have you any freebies?’ while using their spare hand to grab a handful of sweets from the jar on the counter.

– The Job Hunter – These are more subtle. They appear keen to learn more about the offering. You think ‘potential lead’. They think ‘Can you please hurry up?’ The conclusion is swift. “Is there somewhere I can leave my CV?’

– The Sales Man – These make a direct line to the most formally dressed person on the stand assuming they are the boss. Without taking a breath, they launch into a description of their product or service, completely oblivious to the fact you do not pay to exhibit to be pitched to. They leave a business card, do not take any of your sales literature and seem slightly offended when you mutter that you are ‘out of business cards’.

– The Timewaster – These people are quite difficult to identify upfront. They are time rich and have numerous tactics to demonstrate that ‘time is not money’. They’ll feign interest in the product, ask for a demo and then look to engage in a debate along the lines of ‘does it do X?’ You successfully demonstrate each and every feature they mention and then they just wander off mid sentence, having taken up 20 mins of your time. Sales techniques involving subtle ‘pre qualifying’ questions rarely work with these either.

– The Person Looking for Directions- Again these are easy to identify. They tend to be in a hurry to catch the latest ex Apprentice candidates first foray into the world of consultancy. They catch your eye as you talk to someone else, interrupting you mid-sentence asking ‘where is Seminar Hall 6?’ You politely refer them to the show brochure in their hands and apologize to your interlocutor.

– The ‘I Look Like the Last Person in the World who will Buy from You’ – These are by far and away your favourite attendee. The surprise package. They seem to be lost in their own world as they wander by. You thrust a leaflet into their hands; mutter a few jaded words about your offering. They pause, step closer, and before you know it the credit card is out and they are on their way. The sale is made. Faith in humanity is restored briefly. But alas they are too few and far between to keep the boss happy.

5.  Summary

As a company we used to exhibit at a number of exhibitions but have noted they no longer work for us. As is clear from the above, I am of the view that exhibiting at trade shows and exhibitions is simply not a good use of marketing budget (save for the odd exceptions).

Instead, marketing money is best spent elsewhere, and all the time saved by not leaving the office, is best spent picking up the phone and talking to actual customers. Judging by the churn in repeat exhibitors at events I am familiar with I feel that more companies are reaching the same conclusion. Perhaps some of these points will prove of interest to new entrepreneurs, currently weighing up decisions to exhibit.

Finally, I have a few missed calls this week from an event salesperson keen ‘to get me on board’. I am hoping they’ll get to see this post and may get the message. If they do see this I’d like to also apologize for not accepting their invitation to connect on LinkedIn (I assume so they can target my connections). I maybe wrong, they might just have wanted to be my friend.

This article originally appeared on

Expo image courtesy of Adriano Castelli /

Alan GleesonAlan Gleeson

Alan Gleeson was the general manager of Palo Alto Software UK, makers of Business Plan Pro and LivePlan. Alan has an MBA from Oxford and an MSc from University College, Cork, Ireland. You can follow Alan on Twitter @alangleeson.