I’m thinking I’ve worked with pretty much every reasonable medium there is, including flyovers and sandwich boards.  I even had a group AVP that wanted a tattoo of his product logo on his arm.  “No—I’m not putting that in the creative brief.” Of course, some media are easier to work with than others.  TV is more complex than radio; direct mail more challenging than a print ad.  But the most challenging medium on the planet has to be trade shows and exhibits.  They’re often major construction projects, with multiple client representatives participating—and everyone’s a 3-D design expert.

Aside from the cost of exhibiting, the drain on human resources needed to plan and staff an exhibit can be substantial.  There is likely no other area of mar com so misunderstood and with a higher level of anxiety as exhibit marketing.  Few companies attend trade shows with the right orientation.  Few send the best mix of staff to meet show objectives, and fewer still understand the issue of traffic flow and how it’s tied to exhibit design.  Too often companies drift into working their show program as if it were just another big neighborhood lemonade stand, waiting for somebody to wander by and walk in.  It’s not a lemonade stand.  It’s a competition of ideas in a Roman arena, and you need to show up like you have a purpose.  And that’s the easy stuff.

Right now, during the pandemic era, trades shows, as a marketing communications medium, have pretty much been placed on the shelf. The feature that made trade shows so effective has become the reason that most of them have been shut down.  When they were running, the shows were an opportunity to solidify friendships and get introduced to new opportunities—not to mention the value they brought to the cities and venues where they were held. Also, if you want to let a client know how important they are to the agency, go to their trade shows.

Of course, at some point trade shows will be up and running again.  For most B2B companies, trade shows are the principal vehicle for delivering a selling message to key markets.  And there is no adequate alternative to effectively reach out to key customers. Shows will come back.

In Forbes’ March issue, Bill Conerly wrote that many companies had sales that were generally unaffected during the pandemic.  Great news—that means trade show activities had no measurable effect on sales and companies can now allocate what had been previously spent on attending shows to other sales support efforts.  Trade shows will die off. “Wrong”, says Conerly.  “Companies can coast now and then, especially if they have good momentum and especially if their competition also coasts.  However when competitors start running up their trade show programs again, companies that ignore trade shows will fall behind.”

So, what’s happening during this down time? For many exhibitors, not much.  If there are no shows, there’s nothing to prepare for.  Just going to wait till they start up again.  Here’s the rub.  Trade shows will return, but they will be forever changed, according to show contractor, Freeman.  “Event organizers have been using the same basic business model for the past 100 years.  Because things didn’t feel broken, we didn’t feel a need to fix them.  In 2021, savvy organizers won’t be mired to the ways of the past.” If exhibitors wait until shows start up again, they will be behind smarter competitors in taking advantage of new opportunities and design updates. Show organizers are working around the clock to figure out new draws to encourage exhibitors back.

For an agency account manager, experience and innovation have never been so important.  This could be a bear to figure out.  However, there’s an easy fix for getting up to speed.  Get with and stay connected to the best trade show and exhibit house you can find.  A good exhibit house will have been tracking anticipated changes and figuring out ways to best position its clients and customers for the new environment.  Good exhibit houses also know the value of working through, and partnering with, a company’s ad agency to provide the best plan for the new age.

In his book, How to get the most out of Trade Shows , Steve Miller lists several reasons why exhibitors fail.  Two in particular stand out.  The obvious one is that trade shows are the most complicated form of marketing.  The other, much less obvious, is the failure of exhibitors to support their show program with adequate pre and post direct mail, advertising, telemarketing, booth staffing, and post show follow up—mostly stuff that comes out of the agency side.

In particular I’ve noticed, often, that exhibitors approach trade show exhibit houses without their agency of record.  I’ve never really understood why a B2B company would consider a medium as important as a trade show without their agency.   I suppose it’s always been done that way, so why change?  Well, this pandemic down time is the perfect time to start rethinking how a comprehensive trade show program should be addressed: it should involve the ad agency, along with the exhibit house.  The agency becomes a force multiplier that enhances the show ROI.

This whole thing, this effort to become a more effective exhibitor, can start with just getting the agency, the client, and the exhibit house around a table and a pot of coffee to answer the question: how do we do better in 2021?