The meeting planning industry relies on the expertise of and effective communication within a network of professionals representing both the “supply” side (conference centers, hotels, convention centers, hosting campuses, service contractors, etc.) and the “planning” side (corporate meeting planners, trainers, independent meeting planners, association volunteer meeting planners, trade show organizers, etc.). It is imperative that each side understands the motives, capabilities and challenges of the other to work cooperatively to produce successful conferences, seminars, exhibitions, meetings, and events.
What follows are some observations on the functionality of the network, and tasks, necessary to plan a conference exhibition in a conference center or host campus setting. The author claims not to have become an expert on the topic, but hopes to share insight derived from collegiate experience as both an association volunteer planner and a host campus facility supplier.
Why Provide a Conference Exhibit Area?
Adding an exposition, trade show or exhibition (the terms may be interchangeable) to an educational conference or meeting creates a viable marketplace for buyer to meet seller. A well-planned commercial exhibit area can supply a substantial source of revenue for the sponsoring association/organization. It provides a comparison shopping market and represents a valuable opportunity for conferees who may be buyers of products and services, who may utilize those products in the workplace (and seek to influence those who make decisions to purchase products), or who may one day become buyers.
Besides these benefits, it can help stimulate attendee participation in the overall event and attract some organizational constituents who may not otherwise attend. The exhibition portion of the event provides a “hands-on” educational experience for attendees to maintain awareness of new developments and learn how exhibitor products and services can support their organization’s mission and enhance client/customer satisfaction. At the same time it stimulates dialogue between vendors and consumers which can lead to product enhancements or new products to better satisfy market needs.
Exhibitors view expositions as a cost-effective marketing opportunity when compared to the costs of reaching the same numbers of potential customers through direct sales. Trade shows are also ranked as better than advertising, direct mail, and telemarketing when it comes to generating sales leads, introducing new products, taking orders and entering new markets according to a recent study by The Center for Exhibition Industry Research.
Selecting the facility that will best suit the needs of the organization, the attendees and the exhibitors is critically important, and may, in itself, predict the success or failure of the exhibits portion of a conference.
A conference exhibition is an event within an event. It has its own invitees (the vendor exhibitors) and is planned on a parallel track with the educational meetings portion of a conference. The sponsoring organization’s volunteer conference host committee, the organization’s conference program committee volunteers, and its exhibits committee have to communicate and, sometimes, negotiate well with one another to assure that each committee’s needs are well met by the site which is ultimately selected. It is equally important for host site professionals (hotel, conference center or campus conference services staff for example) to understand the priorities of each of these three groups, and suggest ways and means their site can best accommodate the organization’s objectives.
The opportunity for conference services staff to work with one meeting planning professional acting on behalf of a client organization can simplify the site selection process since this person tends to be more experienced, objective and best able to articulate and synthesize the various components of the conference.
The ideal venue should have adequate space to house both the meetings and exhibits under one roof. Many hotels and convention centers have these facilities. Many conference centers and campuses do not, however these facilities are often adequate for smaller shows (up to 35 booths) or have adequate space somewhere else on campus. Keeping the exhibits close to the meetings makes it easier for attendees to visit the exhibits which is critical for exhibitor satisfaction which is almost always derived from the number of visitors and the amount of “traffic” at the show.
One final note regarding site selection is to consider geography. The geographic location of the exhibition will significantly contribute to its success. Hosting a show in a city or town that is attractive and accessible to the conferees and vendors who will attend is very important.
There needs to be adequate access to the exhibit area for freight, booth hardware, vendor products, etc. Be sure the width of doorways, number and location of loading docks and presence of freight elevators can sufficiently expedite the movement of freight into the show. Advise exhibitors in advance regarding these arrangements. This can be especially important when there is limited access, and careful scheduling of loading dock/doorway access is the only way “logjams” at the exhibit area access points can be avoided.
Regardless of the facility you use, the law requires that it comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Be sure your facility has convenient signs indicating where wheelchair ramps are located, has properly equipped lavatory accommodations, telephone accessibility, etc.
In order to safely estimate the total amount of square footage needed for the exhibition; first estimate the net square footage necessary for the number of booths you expect to accommodate. Standard size exhibit booths are either 10 feet by 10 feet (100 sq.ft.) or 10 feet wide by 8 feet deep (80 sq.ft). If you plan to have an exhibitor registration area, you must add that space after determining gross square footage.
As a general rule of thumb, you would double the net square footage needs (for the booths) to learn the gross square footage (which will account for aisle space). Then, add any square footage needed for exhibitor registration, association displays, lounge areas, concession areas, special feature exhibits, etc.
A general services/exhibit services contractor (see later, Producing the Exhibition) can be your best resource in exhibition space planning. The company will rent the pipe and drape for the booths and will draw a floor plan to incorporate the space needs of the show along with the subtleties of the exhibit hall. The facility may have columns and obstructions to deal with necessitating creative ways to maximize the available space. Also, fire regulations can vary from city to city, and the local fire marshal may need to approve the aisle width for the show, which could lead to a space dilemma. Having a professional map out the space is a good idea along with making sure the local fire marshal approves of your exhibit floor plan arrangement.
Finally, as regards space, you can research other past shows of your type. You can also survey potential exhibitors. This is best accomplished through consultation with an Exhibitor Advisory Committee. If your sponsoring organization has such a committee (or even a few long time exhibitor attendees), it/they can serve as a vehicle for communicating a variety of exhibitor needs and suggestions. This will aid in the marketing of the show, too, since potential vendors will identify with people and companies they know who contributed to planning the show and will be more likely to attend.
In any case, you will want to have enough space to accommodate an exposition that exceeds expectations. A word of caution, however, be careful not to place a smaller exhibition in a hall that is too large. The space will dwarf the show and make it appear smaller and less significant.
The manner in which you contract for a conference/exhibition can vary from host location to location. There are some items listed below that should be examined in a rental agreement for exhibition space.
• Is the lease agreement for the entire term of the show (load in to load out) or by the day?
• Specify move in/move out days and times
• What will your lease rate include?
• Are there extended use charges for the client’s failure to return the area, in good condition, at the end of the lease term?
• Will you require a security/damage deposit?
• What will/won’t you allow to be altered in the facility (posting signs, hanging banners, moving fixtures, etc.) in the set up of the trade show?
• What is the payment schedule?
• Who is to do what labor, and are there union regulations involved?
Booth Utilities and Accommodations
Basic utility requirements for an exhibition will usually include lighting and electricity, though each exhibitor may not need power or special lighting in their booth. In addition, exhibitors may request compressed air, specialized power, hot/cold water, steam, drainage, gases, telecommunication, Internet access, and cable TV. It is a must to obtain utility needs information in advance of the assignment of specific booth locations since your facility may not be designed to provide this access throughout the different sections of the show floor. Special physical preparations may be necessary for utilities to reach all sections of the show floor, or certain vendors will need assignment to those sections of the show floor with access to the utilities they require.
Be sure to make the facility rules and regulations clear to the conference client organization. Union labor regulations, fire regulations and rules where you may require use of exclusive in-house (on-campus) services need to be fully understood before anyone signs a contract. Publish the rules in the exhibitor services kit sent to each exhibitor, whether you (conference services staff), the exhibit services contractor or the client organization sends it.
The campus/conference center Facilities Department and exhibit services contractor working the show must each understand their role(s) in these regards, too. It is wise for Conference Services staff to introduce the exhibit services contractor to the appropriate campus Facilities staff since their coordinated effort is vital to the set up and break down of a campus-based show. Conference Services staff should create a facilities arrangements agenda for the contractor and Facilities personnel to discuss and determine lines of responsibility and cooperation.
Final Thoughts to Close Part 1
So, now you have all the preliminary information you need to produce a conference exhibition.
Part 2 of this article, that deals with producing the exhibition, follows…
Submitted by Ronald C. Diment, M.Ed., Director of Conference Services, Villanova University (PA)