8 Tips on How to Stand Out at a Trade Show

The Affinity Express booth at the Mega Conference 2012

Our booth at a recent newspaper conference

There is an art to creating large-scale trade show exhibits, but it can be just as difficult to create displays for small- to medium-sized businesses, when every inch of space counts.

Many conference attendees do not have a lot of time to spend in the exhibit hall and may not be interested in stopping for anyone (unless you’re featuring a great giveaway, candy or beer!). Plus, depending on the venue, there are likely to be dozens or even hundreds of other companies vying for their attention.

Here are some tips to help you maximize your impact when creating a ten-foot exhibit.

1. Choose the Right Hardware

With a smaller booth, chances are that you are not paying to have someone else set up your exhibit (such luxury!). Therefore, the smart option is to select hardware that is fast and easy to put up and is also light for shipping but sturdy. This is not difficult, as there are quite a few options available today. Affinity Express has two exhibits that each take about five minutes to set up, from unpacking and securing the hardware to hanging the visuals. Although I can’t exactly drag an exhibit across McCormick Place myself, the booth is light enough that it saves money on shipping compared to one or more cases weighing hundreds of pounds.

Before you start designing your graphics, be sure you have measurements from the manufacturer and adhere to those specifications.

2. Stop Traffic

Large exhibits have scale and height on their side, but you can use color and contrast to your advantage in a ten-foot space. Graphics should be bold to catch the eye: think bright blue on yellow, vibrant oranges, fluorescent greens and so on. They should also be large enough to be seen clearly from a distance of 10-20 feet outside the booth.

Recently, Senior Marketing Designer Mel Fernandez and I built on the colors in the Affinity Express logo and created simple icons for the services provided by one of our divisions. Most of the revision work was around simplifying the icons so they were as clear as possible, whether someone was next to the exhibit or one row over.

Of course, you have to align with your industry and I understand that an accounting firm might not come across as credible with a big, hot pink starburst (but then if you only have other accounting firms to compete with, a little might go a long way). And you can still be dignified if you pick a different color scheme from your competitors—even just for a trade show exhibit. Fortunately, in our business of advertising and marketing production, I don’t have to worry as much about going over the top!

3. Shout Your Name

When there are some exhibitors I want to meet, I find it tremendously frustrating to have to search for the name on a display as 15 representatives from other booths scream, “Hi, how are you today” at me (worst opening line at a trade show EVER!). One of the last things you want is for people to approach you looking for a different vendor: that is a dead giveaway that your name is too hard to find.

4. Communicate What You Do

On the chance someone needs your products or services but wasn’t specifically planning to meet you, it is best if you can get this across within a second or two. You can use a tagline, a graphic or a short statement but visitors have to be able to understand what you do or the results they get in the time it takes to cover ten feet of space on foot (and while I have a craving for those mini-Snickers bars I heard were in the next aisle)—no small task.

5. Prioritize

Don’t try to sell every product and value proposition with your exhibit. Having someone stop and stand there scratching his or her head to decipher the message is bad enough. When they finally get it and then quickly move on, it’s painful. You can sell additional products, services or concepts in handouts once you get someone interested. Highlight the most important information.

6. Follow Design Rules

I asked Mel what rules designers should follow to make sure their trade show backdrop looks professional. Here are his tips:

1.   The design should bleed out for pole pockets and hemming.

2.   No text or logos should fall on the seam.

3.   The art must be CMYK not RGB.

4.   Raster images should be 100 DPI at 100%

5.   For Adobe Illustrator (.ai format), all fonts must be outlined and images embedded.

6.   For PDF format, make sure to use the worldwide print standard: PDF/X-1a:2001

7. Organize the Space

When designing an exhibit, it seems like you have a ten-foot canvas to play with, but not all of that space will be visible to visitors. You will probably have a table, some chairs and people in your booth. Ideally, you want to make sure that it is still clear who you are and what you do whether you have visitors milling about or not. Putting critical information or graphics “below the waist” means they won’t be seen (unless the booth is completely empty and you don’t want that).

Graphic Services show exhibit backdrop

Our exhibit backdrop for graphic services conferences

8. Accessorize

Go beyond the backdrop to communicate using the rest of the space in the booth.

  • Create 11×14” or larger signs with easel backs that can rest on a table. This is a good place to feature special promotions, recent updates and contests or raffles tied in with the event. But don’t go crazy with a lot of words in these smaller spaces.
  • Put up LCD screens that play slide shows or videos of your work. Have visuals on hand to help you answer questions from prospects.
  • Table cloths or other drapes can have a large logo or other graphic. You can create a list of products or highlight your tagline.
  • Many exhibits come in cases that become small tables that feature visuals on the front. For the most value and flexibility, it’s best to feature your logo here.

All these pieces should work together from a branding standpoint but they can advance different products and features.

We used posters to highlight award wins and industry accolades. This was inexpensive, fast and easy, while allowing us to use these materials at future events. It is also a great way to “customize” your booth for a specific event. We had a special poster with the Local Media Association logo for the Key Executives Mega Conference last week that spoke specifically to the needs of the membership.

Global Services 100 Poster for Affinity Express

This poster announces our inclusion in the Global Services 100 and is usually put up at our conference booths

Ultimately, exhibiting at a trade show is all about being found by those who are looking for you and, even more importantly, by those who are not and are pleasantly surprised. The best way to ensure this happens is to use design to stand out and communicate clearly and concisely.

If you have any great stories of small exhibits that are compelling and effective, I’d love to hear them.

About Kelly Glass
Kelly has been vice president of Marketing at Affinity Express for nine years now. She drives company strategy and all marketing activities.

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