Tuesday, March 18, 2014

15 Questions to Find Your Perfect (Exhibit Vendor) Match

Just as marrying someone you hardly know is usually a recipe for disaster, it's equally "cray cray" to enter a long-term relationship with a new exhibit house before you determine if its strengths and weaknesses mesh with your program's requirements.

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." 
Independent industry consultant Bob Milam, concurs. "I usually ask candidates whether they're driven by design, service, or cost," he says. "Most firms will claim to deliver all three. But ask about the number of exhibits they design each year for existing clients. This can tell you whether customers are happy enough with their first designs to come back for seconds." Armed with this information you can quickly make your own conclusions about each company's strengths and decide if it's a good match.

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.
Often, however, a firm's early beginnings affect its current expertise, Tamburrino says. "Did the firm start out making cabinets or selling graphics? Or did it originally offer labor and installation services? Maybe it was an exhibit house that now does events. Past experience can often predict current strengths and weaknesses."
For instance, a labor company that evolved into an exhibit house will likely have access to a huge pool of skilled workers and will understand the installation process better than, perhaps, a cabinet maker turned exhibit house. In the same vein, that labor-savvy firm may not have as much expertise in design or structural engineering.
Again, no one scenario is necessarily better than any other. But understanding the direction a company has taken over time can help you identify the right partner for your program based on your unique needs.

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."
Similarly, if you exhibit internationally, ask about the firm's international offerings. "You can't expect an exhibit house to have offices in every corner of the globe," Milam says. "But it should at least have partners in locations where you exhibit regularly."

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.
"Many firms claim to have rental capabilities," Cook says. "But 'capabilities' could mean anything from an extensive rental inventory that is refurbished regularly to a few back walls or kiosks that are loaned out to people in a pinch. And the rental properties you want may be in a warehouse in Timbuktu." So if you rent, understand what's available and where it's located.
Keep in mind, though, that just because a company has a lot of rental inventory doesn't make it the perfect fit. This rental-focused firm may excel in custom design and construction, or it may steer clients toward rental whenever possible. There's no correct answer, so investigate the role that rental properties play in the company's overall business and how this situation might impact your program.

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.
"Whatever your requirements, it's important to know where your exhibit will be built and stored, and even what warehouse and partner facilities are available for storage throughout the year," says Patricia Coleman, director of exhibits at Hargrove Inc.
"Maybe you prefer to store your booth near your office for the majority of the year. But then from January to May you want to keep it on the West Coast where most of your shows are located during that time frame," Coleman says. "So before you sign on the dotted line, determine if the company has multiple facilities to accommodate your needs."

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."
Certainly, given the variables involved in this process – and the fact that some exhibit managers won't even reveal their budgets until designers have obliterated them (and wasted their time in the process) – you can't expect builders to hit the nail on the head 100 percent of the time. "But they should at least be willing to discuss the topic at length, and show you examples and figures," Tamburrino says. "If an exhibit house can't manage costs on your first build, you can likely expect years of overages."

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?"
Depending on myriad variables, including your time and budget, the amount of service you require, etc., you may prefer a one-stop shop. Or, you might want to contract some line items yourself and bypass the markups. But know where your dollars are going, and exactly which firms will be fulfilling your requests. To learn more about six average exhibit-house markups, see "Budgeting for Dummies (and Time-Strapped Smart People)" at www.ExhibitorOnline.com/Mar14.

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. 
"Also, if you're contracting labor through your exhibit house, ask if it's unionized, as this fact could significantly impact labor costs over the life of the booth," Milam says. "And since you'll likely be spending countless hours with your account exec (AE) and possibly with a designer, determine if you're being billed hourly, on a flat fee, or via a combination of the two."
Deadline-related fees can also eat up your cash. "Almost all firms assess fees associated with revising designs, switching materials, and changes made outside of the agreed-upon timelines," Coleman says. "But even though these fees are commonplace, they should still be in line with your expectations, and your company's propensity to regularly miss deadlines and significantly alter designs."

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.
"When you're soliciting proposals, pricing from each competitor should be itemized the same way," Coleman says. "You want to be able to compare apples to apples in terms of materials, design, transportation, crates, labor, lighting costs, equipment, etc."
Give every potential firm a list of main elements that you want itemized, with a brief description of each. There may be minor discrepancies in the way each firm costs out the elements, but this method allows you to easily and fairly compare one proposal to another. And if a firm refuses to provide a quote in the format you request, this might suggest that it will be equally unwilling to accommodate your requests down the road.

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? 
Perhaps even more importantly, consider the type of response this question elicits from the firm. Do representatives take a positive "We're in this together, so let's get going!" approach? Or are they downtrodden and dumbfounded? You'll get a broad range of answers, but the company's approach to cost cutting should mesh with yours, and representatives should approach the task with willingness not wariness.

"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."
That said, if your exhibit program requires very little service from your builder, then low totem-pole position isn't an issue. However, if your program requires a lot of attention, you need to ensure the firms you're considering are willing to accommodate that level of service. The key is to be comfortable with the builder's level of commitment to you, and confident that it's not going to leave you hanging when an A-list client wants help.

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."
Second, this question will tell you how time strapped this firm will be during your most important events. If it has several large clients exhibiting at the same show, you could end up fighting for the attention of your AE leading up to and during each of these events. "On the other hand, if your exhibit house has multiple clients at the same show, you could score some cost efficiencies," Milam says. "The firm might be able to consolidate shipments onto fewer trucks, and you and the other clients could share some of the costs of labor, AE time, etc."

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. 
The second part of this question gives you insight into the level or amount of service you can expect. If your exhibit strategy is complex and you're relatively new to the game, you'll likely want a considerable amount of your AE's time. But if it's relatively simple or you and your internal team are resourceful, you probably don't need much hand holding throughout the year. So make sure your requirements match your AE's devotion, as you shouldn't be left wanting for attention.

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.
"To ensure that there are no misunderstandings – or costly errors – along the way, you must have a clear understanding of the design and build stages, and how the exhibit house will proactively engage you in them," Coleman says. "Within those stages, designers should be able to give you approximate timelines for everything from design meetings and approval dates to graphics-review windows and full-team conference calls."
Also request an estimate in terms of how much time you'll be required to devote to the process as your exhibit moves from the design stage through to fabrication and install. Everyone must be on the same page, and the entire new-build operation with this particular firm can't require more time than you and your team can spare.

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.
"The client/builder relationship should work for both of you," Coleman says. "Just as every exhibit house isn't right for your program, every client isn't a fit for every builder. For example, a particular builder may not be able to handle the complexities of a client with 200-plus shows across the globe. Or a firm's business model might be geared toward a specific industry. The point is, exhibit reps should have some questions to help clarify points you've made, to better suss out your needs, or to simply help determine if this is could be a long-term relationship that's beneficial to everyone involved."
So before you tie the knot with a new exhibit house, do your own due diligence by posing these 15 questions. Sure, these first-date queries might add a smidge more time to the proceedings, but they'll ultimately help you find a match made in heaven – and avoid a messy exhibit-design divorce.


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