How to Train Your Exhibit Staff

EXHIBITING 101 – How to Train Your Exhibit Staff

Ten topics to cover in your pre-show meeting.


When exhibit managers ask me, “What’s your best secret weapon at a trade show?” my answer is always the same: “A well-trained exhibit staff.”

As exhibit managers, we are consumed by the broad scope of the exhibiting experience, and we often forget that our staff doesn’t have the same level of involvement and knowledge. However, if we effectively communicate with our exhibit staff, their comfort level will be high and they’ll help us achieve our objectives. Excluding very large companies with deep pockets, less than 5 percent of exhibitors have formal staff-training meetings. If your staff is well trained you will have a competitive advantage and you will create a better experience for your attendees.

In a perfect world, exhibit training begins with a pre-show meeting held up to a month before the show at the corporate office. But a pre-show meeting can also be held the day before the show, or even at breakfast the first day of the show.

If you hold the pre-show meeting in your exhibit, remember that walls have ears. I’ve learned some of my best competitive intelligence from my competition’s pre-show product-training meeting held in the neighboring exhibit. Hold your product training in a meeting room in the convention center, a local restaurant with private meeting rooms, or at your hotel.

The elements you include and the extent to which you cover them in your pre-show meeting depends on a number of criteria. Consider the amount of time available for training, the experience level of the team, the size of the staff and their familiarity with one another and the company’s products, the number and intricacy of products on display, the size and complexity of your exhibit, and your promotional program.

Keep the pre-show meeting short — no more than to two hours. Think of your meeting as the “Reader’s Digest” version of what you’d really like to do if you had unlimited time.

Promote it as a show preview rather training, so veteran staffers who think they know it all will be encouraged to attend. Here are 10 topics to cover in your pre-show meeting to prepare your staff for the show.

1. The Show’s Value and Corporate Investment
Ideally, your company’s management team should open the meeting, emphasize its support of the exhibit program as part of the overall marketing mix, and relay the corporate commitment to the show and its importance to the company’s success.

Share any results from last year’s show with your staff and use it to challenge improvement. Share data on the cost to exhibit — average cost per employee, cost per lead, cost per qualified lead, or cost per sale. Letting staff know the costs associated with exhibiting at the show can open their eyes to the value of the show to the company and the importance of their job at the show.

2. Target Audience
Review the profile of your target audience, including job title(s), type and size of company, budget size, and the problems your “perfect prospect” typically encounters. Remind staff that not all targeted contacts are prospects. Let them know what customers, VIPs, press, and analysts may be stopping by, as well as the badge color your target audience will be wearing.

3. Goals and Objectives
Review the company’s show strategy and key messages. Personalize the goals for individual staff members and get their commitment to achieve them. For example, if you have 10 exhibit staffers and your goal is to obtain 300 qualified leads during a 15-hour show, each staffer needs to get 30 qualified leads, or an average of two leads per hour.

4. The Power of Attitude
Explain to staff that their interaction with attendees will be the most memorable part of their visit to your exhibit. Stress the value of a positive first impression, good listening skills, confident body language, and the use of phrases like “Tell me about…” to draw information from attendees. Remind staff that unless they’re behind the closed door of their hotel room, they’re “on stage” and they represent the company.

5. Sales Review
Talk about why selling from an exhibit is different than field sales — the compressed time frame for interaction, the sensory overload, the instant comparison to your competition. Give staffers the specific structured components of interaction with attendees: a greeting to engage attendees; a brief elevator speech; three to five open-ended, qualifying questions; consensus on a future interaction; and a comfortable dismissal. Specify how you’d like the staff to record the information taken during the conversation.

6. Boothmanship Rules
Tell your staff that every booth visitor is a VIP guest and should be treated as such. Ask staff to help you compile a list of the dozen worst exhibit faux pas — such as talking on their cell phones, eating in the booth, chewing gum, ignoring attendees, and talking in closed groups. Then deputize them to help you police offenders.

7. Exhibit Tour
You know your exhibit inside out, but your staff doesn’t know the storage closet from the meeting room. Review your booth layout, including all demo stations, information counters, and lead-gathering systems. Point out the locations of the nearest entrance and exit, restroom, concession stand, luggage and coat-check area, cyber café, and fire apparatus. If time allows, run through the demos and presentations.

8. Tool Kit
The pre-show meeting is also a good time to provide staff with tools to help them be star performers. Do they know what products you have in the booth and how to demonstrate them? Do they need to familiarize themselves with pocket-sized product “cheat sheets” and show-special pricing? Are there any issues, such as product-delivery delays or negative PR, for which they need to know the corporate party line?

To get the most complete and concise lead information, review your lead-gathering system, whether you’re using pre-printed, manual lead forms or an electronic lead system that reads attendee badges. Also, orient staffers to any promotions or giveaways you’re distributing and the qualification process involved.

9. Housekeeping Details
This part of the meeting can cover everything from the distribution of show shirts and badges to where you keep show reference material and press kits in the booth. Explain your expectations: to arrive at the show at least a half hour before their shift starts and to plan on transportation delays and lines to get through show security. Reiterate the dress code (including ironed shirts) and what personal items can be stored in the booth.

10. Fun and Games
Add some spice to your pre-show meeting by giving out trade show survival kits. These can include items such as foam insoles, Altoids, and T-shirts imprinted with “Trade Show Warrior.” You can also give crisp $2 or $5 bills or small-denomination gift cards as prizes for participation in role plays, correct answers to “skill-test questions,” or the best qualifying question or 30-second elevator speech.

Professional athletes don’t play the big game without a warm-up. And actors don’t skip their dress rehearsal. So don’t mess with your show’s success — prepare your staff to be your secret weapon.

By Candy Adams – March 2005