If you are a corporate and are planning to participate at an exhibition or trade show, know that it takes meticulous planning to make it worth the expense and time.

Those who want to make their participation count must have been slogging at it for at least a year, at the least.  Yes, one requires a full year to ensure that being at a trade expo is worth the investment.

I have been involved with exhibitions in one form or the other for more than 20 years. Starting off as a communications officer at the country’s premier exhibition company in early stages of my long career in public relations, I have been official announcer at the ceremonial opening of the expo and a judge in their exhibitor’s competitions.

I have assisted a wide variety of organisations from various sectors providing counsel and tips about exhibitions events planning. I am obliged to share advice that will assist large corporations, government agencies and small to medium enterprises (SMEs) to re-do their checklists, or worse, to scramble their teams into action with less than two months to go.

The first point of call is having your why.

WHY are you shipping your team and products to an exhibition in the first place?

Trade shows organisers give us good reason when they tout their exhibitions and events as the first place where industry trends, ideas and innovative products are unveiled.

Trade shows brings together a diverse audience to promote trade and investment in the country. They also offer stand building, venue hire and business consultancy services.

Exhibitions such as the Zimbabwe International Trade Fair, the Zimbabwe Agricultural Show as well as numerous trade and provincial shows are a huge opportunity for brands to add value in terms of image, sales, exposure and market positioning. What that translates to is the fact that such a golden opportunity deserves meticulous planning to make it pay.

Exhibitions, also known as “expositions” or expos are shows where businesses and brands expose the services that they provide or sell to an audience. It may to launch a new product or service, providing information to targeted audiences about their activities, or simply giving that much-needed sales boost.

This should be part of a marketing, public relations, or brand activation strategy. This means that well thought out preparation is a prerequisite to your brand’s success in taking part in an exhibition.

Let me shock those who think that participation at an exhibition or road show is a walk in the park. Badly prepared exhibits are an immense cost to a business, money that can never be recovered. It is serious business, not a  short paid for vacation to impress the bosses.

For any business that is involved in exhibitions, whether they be service providers or those that are exhibiting, it would increase your prospects to start planning for participation early.

To give you an idea, the big guns that win display competitions year in and year out such as Delta Corporation, Econet Wireless, Bulawayo City Council, the Zimbabwe Defence Forces and the Zimbabwe Republic Police, start planning a full year before the show.

It should start with the post-mortem,and all examination of an organisation’s previous participation. One does not want to repeat the same mistakes previously committed. It’s also at such meetings that the reviews from those that visited your stand count.

Well, you did solicit comments from your visitors, didn’t you?

Drastic as it might sound, it is at this point that you decide whether it’s worth throwing in good money. That is if you believe exhibiting was all a waste, that is. There is no point in flogging a dead horse, getting it wrong year after year.

Unless you have a bottomless bank account, that hard earned company money could be used more profitably elsewhere.

The second port of call should be that of selecting a theme. Many organisations opt to adopt the one that the exhibition organisers have selected, if they choose to participate in the competitions. The other is to link your participation to organisational aims and objectives.

What is it that you want to achieve through your participation? Are you launching a brand, product, service or to inform the public that the company is alive, kicking and doing amazing things in the market?

Whatever the objectives they must be SMART, that is, specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound. Every activity, item and prop on your stand should be geared towards achieving clear aims and objectives.

In that way, most aspects, including the elephant in room – costs – would have been covered as part of a much broader marketing or communications strategy. An exhibition offers a whole package of techniques and tactics that cut costs when executed properly.

It pays dividends to work with exhibition organisers or trade event facilitators before you hold your planning meetings. This ensures that all your requirements are identified and booked early to avoid that last minute disappointment.

Issues such as booking space and the form your participation will take all rely on set parameters. One such organiser is very good at providing all the essential information required through boot camps they organise every year that exhibitors are encouraged to attend.

They also maintain a database of registered and approved service providers. These have been carefully designated to avoid incidences of shoddy delivery and, in some instances, clear cases of fraud.

Your budget determines the scope and nature of participation. The mistake some exhibitors make is to start considering budget issues at the tail end of the planning process. This results in people having to cut back, fix and paste to fit into the money available.

Lenox Mhlanga is Management Consultant at Sunshine Corporate Communications, a boutique Public Relations agency that offers unique services in a novel way. He has experience working for the World Bank and has lecturered PR at NUST.

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