After all, a small, one-time purchase from a mismatched supplier, or a night out with Mr. or Ms. Right Now, isn't really a big deal. But if you want an exhibit-marketing partner that's in it for the long haul, all parties need to be on the same page when it comes to everything from finances and expectations to commitment levels and work ethics. Granted, there's no ideal to which every exhibit house should aspire, but compatibility is paramount to a successful long-term relationship, and to an effective exhibit-marketing program.
So to help you identify "the one" among a sea of suitors, EXHIBITOR spoke with industry experts on both the client and supplier side of the fence. They suggested that you treat each exhibit builder like you might treat someone on a first date, and that you pepper representatives with critical questions prior to, or at the start of, the request-for-proposal process. After all, if a firm's core values and level of commitment are drastically different than that of your company, there's no need to talk payment terms, design parameters, booth renderings, and new-build timelines.
Here, then, are 15 important first-date questions to pose to each prospective exhibit house on your list. Since every exhibitor is looking for something slightly different, there are no right or wrong answers. But simply asking the questions straight out of the gate should help you find the perfect partner – and prevent you from getting into bed with Mr. or Ms. Wrong.
Some people see this as a trick question with no correct answer. But it's a great way to match your company's requirements to an exhibit house's core competencies, says Liese Tamburrino, managing director of North America for Von Hagen GmbH. "Ask yourself this question: Is my company more concerned about stellar custom design or spot-on strategy, logistics, and execution?" she says. "Your answer should match that of the firm you choose. Sure, you'd hope that any exhibit house could deliver both. But when it comes to design, some companies excel at it, while others might be experts in rental, labor and logistics, or turning a sow's-ear budget into a silk-purse booth. No exhibit house is a master of all things."
Certainly, any company can (and probably should) evolve its offerings over time as the market ebbs and flows. After all, no market is stagnant, and especially given the incredible advancements in technology, you should expect long-standing companies to significantly shift their focus or at least slightly alter their direction over an extended period of time.
More likely than not, an exhibit house can't provide every service or product you'll ever need. For example, it may not provide lighting and staging, multimedia production, labor, measurement, transportation assistance, international offices, etc. Or it may outsource various exhibit components such as tensioned-fabric structures, lead-retrieval kiosks, banner stands, etc. So assuming the builder doesn't cover all your bases, does it have partners that can, or will you have to source your own providers? "While our company actually builds our own booth now, if I were looking for a new exhibit house, I'd want to know how much sourcing I'd have to do over the course of the relationship," says Dominique Cook, CTSM, trade show coordinator for Marvin Windows and Doors. "Some exhibit managers prefer to locate their own vendors, while others might be looking for a one-stop shop that can provide everything from logistics management to literature fulfillment."
According to EXHIBITOR magazine's Rental/Refurb Survey, more than one-third of exhibitors use rental exhibits for some or all of their shows. And 30 percent of respondents report that rental exhibits have proven to be more cost-effective options. So if rental is critical for your program, determine whether it's important to the exhibit houses you're considering.
Given the high costs of trade show transportation, some exhibit managers prefer to store their exhibits in central locations within the United States (so the exhibit never makes an expensive coast-to-coast trip) or in locales near most of their shows. Others, however, want their exhibits stored near their offices so they can access them for pre-show previews or to assess or inventory them as needed. And some people want to regularly check the progress on a new build, so they want the exhibit built in one city but then stored in another.
Before you select an exhibit house, get a sense of its track record with regard to the budget parameters of past projects. If the firm routinely goes 30 percent over budget, you can expect its estimate to be lower than what you'll likely end up paying. "In defense of exhibit builders, it's very common for exhibit managers to ask for things they can't afford," Tamburrino says. "But most of the time, exhibit builders ought to be able to deliver an acceptable design within the allocated budget. And if an exhibit manager asks them to build the moon with a Pluto-size budget, the builder should explain what is and isn't financially reasonable before a design is presented."
Finding an exhibit house you trust is important. But if that exhibit house then subcontracts the majority of your project to other partners, you may not receive the quality and attention you expect. What's more, you could pay additional fees due to exhibit-house markups on the subcontracted services. "Some firms subcontract everything from exhibit design and graphics production to lighting plans and audiovisual creation," Cook says. "While there's nothing wrong with that, you should know up front whether you're going to be dealing with one company or if other companies, perhaps with different quality standards and work philosophies, will be part of this relationship. Plus, how much of a markup will you be paying for those services?"
Unexpected, additional fees can wreak havoc on your budget. So ask each firm for a list of fees that are typically tacked on over and above the base price of a new build and any costs that tend to pop up after the build has been completed. You might not be able to avoid them all, but with planning you should be able to sidestep many of them. Plus, a huge laundry list of add-ons should probably make you think twice before you hook up with that particular firm.
After you've selected a handful of potential exhibit houses with which you might want to do business, you'll likely enter into the RFP stage with each one. This is when you'll really start to scrutinize how one firm stacks up to another. And you can't compare an apple to a turnip. That is, you need the RFPs to look somewhat similar in terms of line-item breakdowns and formats. Thus, before you get to the RFP stage, ensure that each potential exhibit house can deliver the kind of formatting and breakdowns you need.
Almost all exhibit managers have to cut costs from time to time, so Milam suggests asking firms for their most common cost-cutting strategies. The answer to the question will tell you a lot about the company's cost-cutting philosophies and its abilities to trim the fat, Tamburrino says. For example, does it prefer to eliminate large line items and generate a significant cost savings all at once? If so, pay attention to what elements it wants to trim. Are they critical to your program's success, or truly ancillary items that could go away unnoticed? Instead, the company may suggest you make a series of small snips here and there across the board to help decrease overall costs. Are these suggestions logical? Do any of them elicit "Why didn't I think of that?" reactions from you?
"One of the biggest mistakes exhibitors make is falling in love with an exhibit house that's too large for them," Tamburrino says. "Generally speaking, your account should be at least half the size of the builder's largest accounts. If you're significantly smaller than the big guys, carefully consider whether you'll really be given the level of service you deserve when the builder has clients that bring in 10, 20, or even 100 times more revenue than your account. Of course, the builder will tell you that every client is equally important, but when push comes to shove and it has to choose between a rush fix-it job on your 10-by-20-foot back wall and creating 40 new graphics panels for its largest client, you can bet that your project will be coming in second."
Make sure your exhibit house knows which shows on your calendar represent your most important investments. Then ask how many of their other clients also exhibit at those shows. This question will tell you a couple of important things. First, it'll provide insight into the level of experience the firm has with your particular industry. "Your exhibit builder wants you to think it can translate your goals into a great exhibit no matter the industry, and it may try to sell you on the fact that it's coming at the design with a fresh perspective," Tamburrino says. "But knowledge of your industry is critical to the success of your program, and the road to ruin is littered with fresh perspectives."
You don't need to be best friends with your AE. But anyone who has worked with someone whose personality is incompatible with his or her own knows how significantly toxic relationships can impact a project. "Since you'll be working hand in hand with an exhibit-house rep, it's important to find out just who this person is, what type of authority he or she holds within the organization, and perhaps even more importantly, whether your work styles dovetail one another," Cook says. You might not think that personalities matter all that much in a professional working relationship. But something as simple as the fact that you're deadline driven and your AE has a more lackadaisical approach could create major friction that impacts your program.
While the basic steps for building and maintaining an exhibit are pretty much the same across the board, every exhibit house approaches the process a bit differently, and each one requires different levels of participation from you. So just because you've built more booths than a carnival worker doesn't mean you can successfully maneuver the process with every exhibit firm.
In one sense, hunting for an exhibit house is like interviewing potential employees. Just as you'd expect job candidates to have done enough research on your company to pose a few logical questions, an exhibit house should have a few logical queries of its own.