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The 11 Golden Trade Show Rules

By 4sdl, Nov 19 2013 04:39PM

Making a successful trade show stand is easy...isn't it?

So why does it always seem so difficult?

With our '11 Golden Trade Show Rules' you should find it easier next time!

Rule 1 – It will always happen

You know that feeling you get in your gut. You're just going through your trade show check list for the hundredth time and something on the list catches your eye. A slightly loose end? Maybe the AV guy said he would confirm set up time but hasn't called back yet. Whatever it is, you have a choice. Ignore it and assume it will be ok - or act on it.

And when you’re on site, that’s where things get really interesting.

You just knew that laying a graphic on the floor was a bad idea. But it was only for a moment.

And leaning that monitor against a box of literature might be asking for disaster. But it was just for a second.

And sure enough, someone stood on the graphic and moved the box of literature so the screen fell over.

If there was ever a golden rule of golden rules, ‘if it can happen, it will’ is probably the one.

Parades were meant to be rained on.

It’s going to rain on yours, at some point. You can count on it!

Question - when was the last time you ignored a gut feeling and everything worked out ok?

Answer, never. So you can safely assume that is the nature of things and act on your gut feeling whenever it takes hold!

Rule 2 – Everyone will agree to help then disappear!

Great idea, a trade show planning meeting right at the start of the project. You get the Sales Manager, Marketing Manager, maybe even the MD for an hour and go over all the details.

Everyone agrees to help, action points are noted, timescales agreed. You issue a project checklist with everyone's name with tasks and deadlines highlighted.

One or two folks even reply - 'great summary, thanks for the prompt. I'll get right on it'.

Then what? Everyone disappears. All those commitments fade away. Every standard excuse (plus some new ones) will be used later to explain why things weren’t done.

So, just remember, if this project is your baby, you're going to have to get it walking pretty much by yourself!

Rule 3 – Everything costs more

It’s not inevitable but somehow costs for trade show projects generally seem to finish higher than your original budget.

Why is that? You included everything. You may even have had the benefit of last year’s final account to use as your guide.

But then someone drops the new prototype, the graphics artwork gets lost, forklifting charges are higher than expected (aren’t they always - why is that?) – there’s always something.

The lesson is, always have a contingency sum available. Chances are you’re going to need it!

Rule 4 – Nobody cares

You know how it is. Everything’s going well. In fact, you’ve just reported ‘on time, on budget’ to your boss.

Then there’s a crisis....

Suddenly you’re facing a major problem which is going to affect timings, budgets, maybe even

final completion.

And guess what? Nobody cares. Well, they do really, but, as far as they’re concerned you’re the one to sort it out.

Which, if you think about it is good. It means they have confidence in you. Or maybe they just don’t want to get involved in case it all goes completely wrong….

Rule 5 – Graphics will be late

Everyone always puts graphics high on the list as a major task to be started early and finished in good time.

Why? Because they’re invariably late so planning early should help.

So why is it always the same? Images are supplied late and are not good enough quality to use. The MD has insisted on final copy approval and he’s just flown to China for a week.

Whatever the cause, you can be sure someone’s going to be working a late evening or two in the week leading up to the show!

Rule 6 – Everyone has an opinion

If you ask a question you will get an answer.

So, if you ask several people for their opinion of a) the stand design or b) the carpet colour or c) the furniture, you can be sure you’ll get lots of responses, most of them different!

If you have the authority, just make the decisions and forget about being ‘inclusive’. If you need a decision from someone else, just ask the one person who can decide.

Generally, it doesn’t matter what you do. You’ll still get lots of differing opinions as soon as staff arrive on the stand.

Remember, there is no right answer. Trust your experience and instincts.

Rule 7 – Your space will always be smaller than you think

Every time. Every single time.

Whenever a client walks onto a stand the first comment is almost always ‘it’s not as big as I expected’

And it’s no surprise. Most of us are not very good at imagining space (how far is a mile when you’re looking at a view?)

And we always tend to imagine a space is larger than it really is.

So, if you have the room, mark it out on the floor early on in the project. I can guarantee you’ll be double checking your tape measure!

And whatever else you do, trust your designer. If he says ’it won’t fit’, or ‘that gap’s too small’ he’s probably right. Remember, he does this all the time so is likely to have a better appreciation of the actual space.

Rule 8 – It will be noticed

It’s uncanny.

Even on the largest of stands with acres of carpet, walls in every direction, furniture by the lorry load you can absolutely guarantee that your boss will notice the smallest imperfection as soon as he walks on.

It’s like that small scratch on the laminate has a neon sign hanging over it saying ‘here I am!’

So, when you snag the stand, make sure you do it well. Trust your contractor of course (if you feel you can) and don’t be tempted to nitpick things which really aren’t important.

But make sure you catch the important stuff and check it’s been done. If your contractor walks round with you on snagging and doesn’t write it all on a proper list, start worrying. Chances are he’s not even listening properly and he’s hoping you’ll forget about most of them!

Rule 9 – Your competitors are not your friends

There’s always a lot of ‘friendly’ rivalry at shows. Former colleagues now working for competitors stop by to ‘catch up’ on the latest gossip.

But just remember, while they’re ‘catching up’ they’re also taking a good look at your stand.

And you can be certain that if they see something on your stand that isn’t quite right, they’ll be telling all your customers and prospects every chance they get - so make sure you see it first!

Rule 10 – It's always further from the car than you thought

Show sites are large places. They need to be.

Which means everything is a long way from everything else.

So, when a colleague asks if you wouldn’t mind just taking this box of literature with you, just bear in mind that you’re likely to end up carrying that box (plus other items that always magically appear) at least half a mile.

And I don’t know about you, but a box of literature can seem awfully heavy after just 5 minutes!

Rule 11 – Nothing will ever be perfect

We live in an imperfect world.

That doesn’t mean we should strive for anything less than perfection.

But, where trade shows are concerned we also need to be realistic.

Even with the best of intentions, the most thorough plan, and with constant vigilance, somehow, something will conspire to turn out just slightly different than your vision.

The risk is striving to make one thing perfect while losing sight of the bigger picture.

The secret is to know how to work with change, adapt to get the best possible outcome.


Creating a successful trade show stand is a demanding process. Things will go wrong.

Speaking with some of the most experienced trade show managers, one thing becomes clear. You need to know how to roll with the punches. To work with what you have. To stick with your belief that it will turn out well and then to set about with determination and focussed effort to ensure that every challenge can be met with a considered and effective response.

Maybe, above all else, relax. Stress comes with this particular territory - you can fight it or you can work with it - we suggest the latter!

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