If you have to ask, the answer is no. Education exhibits are a lot like boating. You feel like you’re really missing out until you go do it, and then you find out it’s about ten times more time, money and effort than you expected. You could have made just as many sales devoting all that time toward prospecting. I know you won’t listen to me and feel there are “must attend” conferences, so here’s 10 suggestions to make the most of them. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!
1. Pre-exhibit Appointment Setting. The next time a rep asks you to sign up for a conference exhibit, hand them a sheet of paper with the numbers 1 through 10 on it. Say come back to me when you’ve scheduled 10 administrators for demos in our booth and I’ll send in the fee. If you’re not that cruel, you can at least require these steps:
- Use your email list and social media to announce that you are attending and WHY your contacts should visit your booth. Offer a discount or free PD to schools that book a demo at your booth.
- Have your customer service team offer to train existing customers in the booth. Not only is that a great opportunity to increase usage, they usually bring non-customer friends by with them!
- Reps should hit the phones to schedule product walkthroughs with at least 5 prospects per day of the conference. Even if the people they contact can’t meet at the conference, they might schedule a date at their office.
- Schedule breakfast, lunch, dinner, and break meetings with prospects, or barring that, existing customers.
2. Brand. You want your logo, colors, and product name to make a lasting impression. Have huge overhead signage with one clean message summing up your value proposition. Include:
- Company Name
- Product Name
- Grade Levels
- Job Titles that you service
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Popup banners and other smaller signs with detail are nice visual aids but people won’t stop to read fine print. Make sure your pictures say a thousand words. Brand everything with large logos and use only your company color scheme.
3. Minimalist handouts. You know what I do when I check out of a conference hotel? I stand over both the trash can and my suitcase and divide the stuff I picked up at the conference between the two. Post-it Notes are going to make the suitcase no matter what vendor game them to me, but the 24-page brochure for a company I really liked is going in the bin. Too bulky. I will think I can remember their url, but 2 days from now, I won’t. Make sure you have a SMALL printed piece with all pertinent information on it. Giveaways may draw booth traffic, but really add to conference expense and are no guarantee that you’ll get more qualified leads. Consider food instead. It’s cheaper and has the same draw power.
4. As always, you are there to sell appointments not your product. Most companies think they are there to gather leads or make sales. My reps are told to sell appointments. Print either your actual Outlook calendar or a blow up of the month ahead and post it where schools can sign up for times. I did this once for my own sanity since I covered a huge territory and only the locals really knew how long it would take me to drive from one district to the next. It was GENIUS! The “keeping up with the Joneses” AND the “scarcity” effect both work in your favor to get prospects to set a date.
5. Forget door prizes. Freebies such as gift card or iPad drawings attract the wrong prospects and waste your time and money.
6. Present. If your marketing resources are lean, this is an ideal acid test of conferences. Only exhibit if you can also book a presentation. Don’t think you as a vendor will be accepted to present a sales pitch on your product. You must ask a client to present on a relevant conference subject where your product makes an impact. Picture yourself at a golf conference. Would you rather listen to a manufacturer tell you how great his clubs are, or a golf pro telling you how to stop slicing? Nothing prevents that pro from saying he prefers Calloway’s and btw the rep is back there if you want to sign up for a two week demo set. Take really good care of your top clients so they will do things like this for you! They get free admittance and will often work in your booth for part of the day in trade.
7. Hijack the conference. If you do have a hand-tailored audience in one place for a conference, it might be more cost-effective to schedule a social event and product introduction before or after the main event. This is commonly done for C-level administrators, but you could also do it for key ambassador teachers, target principals, or multiple job titles from a single large district you are trying to win. Think about what the particular conference lacks, and fill that need.
Perhaps the conference is far from the airport. You could book a bus to shuttle your VIP’s to the airport. Have them meet in your presentation room for one last cold beverage and while their bags are being loaded and everyone assembles, you’ve got 20-30 minutes to convince them to invite you to speak to their staff.
No breakfast on day 1? Many conferences start in the afternoon to accommodate travel schedules or because the association’s committee reserves that time for other meetings. That leaves a great opening for you to host a breakfast with a pre-conference Key Note speaker.
Happier Hour. Cocktail hour is kind of a standard option dominated by the larger vendors, so you may discover it is hard to find people to attend yours. How about a Happier Hour where you book an evening of entertainment. Conferences rarely have scheduled events after 6. How about light food at a museum exhibit or a private double decker bus tour with a box meal? These types of events scale down for small groups easily. If entertainment sounds expensive, consider the savings from skipping the exhibit fees.
8. Sponsorship. Weigh the sponsorship options seriously. Education conferences frequently offer reasonably priced sponsorships. I like those that give you either a captive audience in some way or prominent marketing such as back cover advertising in the show magazine or your single logo on bags every attendee will carry.
9. Be a friend in need. Much better than spending a day on your own boat is spending a day on your friend’s boat. Have a partner or client with an exhibit booth? Ask if you can get a corner and offer to provide extra hands for their operation or contribute to the booth cost. Complementary products make great exhibit bed fellows so you’ll wind up enhancing one another and drawing double the eyes to the booth.
10. Attending is 85% as good as exhibiting. You can make almost as many appointments, and cover even more ground when you DON’T have an exhibit booth. Bring your small handout piece with attached business cards to each session so if you start to exchange cards it’s a package deal with your product information. Be an active participant in the conversation without talking up your own product. Take notes on what others are saying, and seek them out later to ask more about their point or simply let them know you thought it was note-worthy.