What to Do When Things Go Wrong at Trade Shows
How to Keep Murphy—and His Law—from Visiting Your B2B Tech Trade Show
Since 1866, many people—including an aerospace engineer named Edward Murphy—have opined, “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.” Murphy must have attended a few trade shows in his time because his law will come to pass at your trade show. However, there are many ways you can keep him from causing too much damage or bringing too much chaos to your experience.
Trade Show Season Planning
Create a Murphy Fund
Once you determine your trade show budget for the year and break it down into budgets for each trade show, add 15% to the budget for emergencies. Hopefully, you will be able to return this cash to the general fund, count it as found revenue, or roll it over into next year’s budget (depending on how your company handles such things). Without an emergency fund, when something goes wrong, you could invest hours in seeking approval, having funds wired, or expanding the limit on your business credit card. This can delay setting up your exhibit, which can end up costing way more than the 15% you set aside just in case. The stress on your team will heat up. Other expenses not even related to what went wrong will increase. Plus, if the problem happens prior to the show, you run the risk of not being able to finish your setup.
Read the Fine Print
No two trade shows are alike. No two trade show contracts are alike. You will find clauses, deadlines, fees, penalties, and hoops to jump through for each trade show on your schedule. Have more than one person on your team go through the contracts to highlight any of these money and policy traps. Make sure your legal department can do a quick review of the contracts, too. When dates are involved, put them on your calendar with appropriate lead times to be sure you don’t overlook any, which keeps you from incurring budget changes, or worse, missing the show. Create and keep a list of quirks for each trade show so that you won’t be surprised by a convention center manager or exhibit company inspector when you’re on site.
Don’t Assume the Paperwork is 100%
Sure, you spent hours filling out online forms, printing out policy manuals, asking accounting to cut checks, and sending authorizations in triplicate. And even in this digital age, you might have to send a fax or two. Schedule some time the week before you leave to call exhibit management, construction and A/V contractors, or other non-company entities you’ve engaged for the trade show. You might be blown away by payments not processed because of inverted digits in credit card numbers, lost emails (or faxes), mailing problems, and more.
Assign Your Designated Survivor
When things go wrong at the trade show, you will be much more successful at solving the problem if you have a trusted team member back at the office. Treat this person as a full member of the team and invite them to all meetings. Make sure they get any clothing or swag those on site receive. Keep them fully up to speed on policies and procedures, swag and collaterals, and all travel plans. If something goes wrong and you don’t have the proper paperwork or something was forgotten back home, your designated survivor will become your team’s rescuer. (And since your team will come home with freebies and other goodies, collect a few for them as a thank you for holding down the fort.)
On Site Before the Show
Keep Calm and Trade Show On
Trade shows are stressful. The entire event rests on your shoulders and your job may be riding on its success, too. So, you may be tempted to lose your cool and give someone a piece of your mind you can’t afford to lose. Your ire may be justified when the electricity isn’t dropped in your booth, your collaterals were delivered to the other convention center in town, or the booth installers dropped and shattered your new booth graphic. Take a deep breath. Count to ten. Or 100. Then, speak calmly, politely, and respectfully to the contractors, laborers, and management. We’ve seen exhibit staff bend over backwards to rescue a company in need when treated well. These men and women are, at best, the objects of wrath most days or overlooked in general. When you notice them, treat them as human beings, and expect a positive outcome, you’ll be amazed at the response. This is not an instruction to wimp out or allow your company to be walked over; it’s seasoned advice for the best results.
Don’t Go to Trade Show Jail
“Stop! You can’t do that! You’re not allowed to set that up by yourself.”
That’s just one of 100 infractions you might break in the process of getting your booth from boxes to beautiful. You don’t want to incur any fines or delays. This is where reading the fine print mentioned above comes in handy. In your team meetings, educate the booth staff on what is allowed and what is not. Know the limits of what you can do, where you can stand, what you can give away, and when you’re allowed on the floor.
Be Flexible with Flight Schedule Challenges
If you or the advance person arriving early has a flight canceled, or worse, misses a flight, hop on the phone with the exhibit company and go over your expectations and their latest schedule. Things should run fine without you there, but touch base in case they have questions. You don’t want them waiting on you to arrive to begin their work.
If you’re building your booth yourself or with others on an advance team and you arrive late, you could use your Murphy fund to hire an hourly contractor to give you extra hands. The convention center may also allow contingencies (for a price) for you to stay late.
Seek Help with Missing Supplies
Even if you tracked your packages and pallets, parts or entire shipments could have ended up at the wrong spot. Freight companies may be able to report delivery and destination, but not the staging area. Some convention centers are so large your pallet or box could be on site, but 3/4 mile away in another staging area for another show happening simultaneously. The onsite folks in the shipping office or on the receiving dock can be very helpful to you when finding lost shipments. Be prepared to use some of your Murphy fund to expedite materials if need be.
Improvise with a Damaged Display
Duct tape can do wonders. Get creative and get to work doing the best you can and, if all else fails, remember: there are local sign shops with quick turnaround times and even rental booths and parts available on site.
During the Show
Expect Technology to Fail
Video is a prominent part of many trade show booths. There are multiple parts to the signal chain, the technical term for every piece of equipment, cable, and connector used to get video content from a source all the way to the screen. Any one of them—or worse more than one—could be damaged in the shipping and setup process or could go bad without fanfare. Don’t fret. If you have an A/V contractor, they will be ready and equipped to help. If you’re doing it yourself, go step by step from the source to the screen. If you talk to live audio and video technicians, they will tell you that 90% of problems are related to cables or connectors. Pack extras in your trade show kit just in case. Your problem is probably a quick fix.
In the case of a large technology failure, your solution might be more complicated. At a trade show in New Orleans, a company was displaying a motorized lift to assist physical therapists. It made their jobs much easier when teaching patients how to balance and walk again. During setup, the motor failed. They had to have a different one shipped from their home office (calling their designated survivor and tapping their Murphy fund). To make up for the missing demonstration, they rented a TV on a cart and looped a video showing the lift in use at a PT clinic.
Check the Weather
You can’t predict the weather on site at a trade show when booking the event months in advance or training weeks in advance. Rain or snow will slow down hotel shuttles, cause bad hair days, wilt uniforms, curl printed materials, delay appointments, and more. Within a week of the show, communicate the weather forecast to your team so each member can prepare to protect against the elements. Then, be flexible, understanding, and manage. Your team is not the only one affected by the weather. Roll with it, and your booth and hospitality suite visitors will appreciate the peaceable manner you display.
Some companies get creative during bad weather. One booth near the main entrance of a winter show set up a shoe scraping station to clean all the gunk getting caked on shoes in the journey from the shuttle to the show. One staff member had brought along a shoe shine kit and put it to use with an ample supply of hotel towels.
Another company ran to a big box store, bought a ton of umbrellas, and created specialty luggage tags at the print shop. They handed out the umbrellas to trade show guests and encouraged them to pay it forward. When someone new received the umbrella, they discovered an offer on the luggage tag. They could return the umbrella to the booth for a free gift or pay it forward again but stop by the booth to share their story and receive the same gift. This idea ended up boosting the morale of the entire booth team and everyone who used one of their umbrellas.
Having a sneezing, coughing, contagious team member in your booth will probably hurt lead generation—and won’t do much physically or morale-wise for the entire team. Sometimes, a booth staffer will get sick during the show. Send the person to bed with ibuprofen and if your team is sharing rooms to save on hotel expenses, consider moving a roommate to keep cross-contamination from depleting your team further.
If the illness is more serious, facilitate a quick trip to a clinic or the ER. Be sure to check your company’s health insurance policies for out-of-state visits to make sure the trip doesn’t break the bank.
If you have cross-trained your team and are properly staffed numbers-wise, having one team member down won’t hurt too bad and will allow the sick team member to not feel disrespected.
Make the Most of Spotty WiFi
Trade shows run on WiFi now. Parts of the display, lead capture tools, and communication all rely on WiFi. We live on the Internet and use many tools all day that are connected. The IoT is heavy in our industries.
But, even though it has improved a lot, convention center WiFi is often spotty or can crash—especially in the busiest times of the show. The simplest backup is using a smartphone’s hotspot. Consider dedicating one phone to this task in your preparation or have everyone on standby to use theirs. Keep the phones charged and ready to go. Connect your computer(s) to the phone ahead of time and save the settings and passwords so the connection is quick in a pinch. A word of caution: cell coverage is often difficult in the cavern of a convention center. The hotspot may not be any more reliable than the trade show WiFi. Gotta love Murphy.
Find a Quick Print Fix
No matter how many times your collaterals were proofread, a typo is very possible. First, you need to decide if it’s a critical typo or not. Can you live with the mistake? Critical errors would include problems with a URL, a phone number, a statistic, or a factual claim. In the case of a critical error, use your Murphy fund to reprint or perhaps print a label that could cover it. If not critical, let it go and agree as a team to not point out the mistake to every customer. A typo could afford you an opportunity for an additional follow up with some customers if you offer to send them a corrected PDF via email.
Like most matters in life and business, trade shows can be complicated. They are one of your biggest marketing expenditures of the year, so be as proactive as you can to prevent frustration and stay focused on the most important thing: recruiting new customers.