How to maximise efficiency and attract prospective partners?

Exhibitions for an inexperienced start-up can be overwhelming. How do I choose the right trade shows to attend? Is it worth the financial investment? How do I approach prospective clients? To break it down, we sat down with Anastasia Zencika, Head of Marketing & Events at ECommPay. Though proud of their humble beginnings working on the floor of a tiny flat, payment service provider ECommPay have now been in business for over five years and are keen to share the experience accumulated on the journey from start-up to an established company.

What was your first experience of exhibiting and what would you do differently, knowing what you know now?

Anastasia: We’d actually been in business for almost two years before exhibiting for the first time. The experience itself was hectic. First of all, we almost missed all the deadlines, because we signed up last minute. Our lack of familiarity with the event we chose meant that we sent 10 people to a small conference, leading to overcrowding at our booth. Thankfully, the show’s size meant that each attendee passed by our stand, at which point our positive attitude and approachability helped hide our unpreparedness. Since then, we’ve developed a more holistic approach. We have a checklist of all exhibition-related activities, which begins six months in advance and summarises the responsibilities of all departments.

How has your exhibition strategy changed over the years?

A: When you first begin exhibiting, you want to establish a presence. Your first show acts as an introduction to the company. Though we’d already been around for some time and had built up a portfolio of clients, our first exhibition set the bar for how we’d be perceived in the future. Of course, your goal is always to attract clients, but in all practicality, there’s no guarantee that you will. At the beginning, we wanted to loudly announce our presence, whereas now we’re focused on maintaining our image, introducing ourselves to new market players, and networking within the industry.

What is your strategy for approaching prospects at events?

A: Several months prior to the event, we analyse attendance. Identifying which companies interest us as prospective clients, we research who will be attending as representatives, reaching out in advance to set up meetings. At the event itself, we will make our presence known, walking around and inviting prospects to our stand for a meeting or even a casual drink. Once the event has finished, we immediately follow up with prospects and with new contacts. We’re very aware that everyone we talk to is also talking to competition, so we take a personal approach, sending concise, targeted emails summarising our discussion points.

How do you attract visitors to your stand, and how do you engage them once they’re there?

A: It’s about providing entertainment – a reason for people to stop by. This could be something as basic as a selfie mirror or as complicated as an F1 simulation car. We always feature something interactive at our stand. Now that we have the budget, we also ensure that we include a lounge zone. Exhibitions are busy, and visitors are often looking for somewhere to relax. It’s the perfect environment to build relationships, regardless of whether the visitor in question will become a client. A casual, friendly conversation in a relaxed atmosphere can generate leads, inspire ideas, and establish partnerships.

Recommendations

No matter how much advertising the organisers do and how promising their offer sounds, make sure you attend an event as a visitor prior to exhibiting.

At every exhibition, there are two parties involved: the buyer and the seller. If you’re going to act as seller, you need to ensure that there is enough interest on behalf of the buyer to attend. Identify the events your target audience attends by signing up to industry newsletters, following thought leaders on social media, joining trade organisations, and engaging in forum discussions. You’ll quickly get a sense of what’s relevant.

Once you’ve established an event’s relevance to your business, decide how much you’re willing to spend.

As a start-up, you have multiple funding options available to you. Trade organisations rent out exhibition booths to members at discounted rates. Public (or private) initiatives offer funding to entrepreneurs. Event organisers will often give discounts on everything from sponsorship opportunities to visitor badges. Do your research and don’t be afraid to ask! Remember, you’ve only got a few chances to make an impression, so maybe it’s worth spending a bit more on events to make sure people will remember you.

However much you spend on your first event, it’s unlikely that you’ll attract enough interest to cover costs.

Exhibiting at events is unlikely to attract clients for the first few years. It’s about developing the relationship, building credibility, and reminding the industry that you’re doing something innovative. If you’re still around after a few exhibitions, prospects will begin to seek you out. You’ve stood the test of time and they’ll be interested in what you have to offer.

Start-ups use innovation to disrupt established processes. Tap into that same creativity to design your exhibition stand.

Register early, allowing you to choose the optimal spot in which to position your stand. Ideally, this should be a busy area, close to prospects and away from competition. Once you move on to design, research your competitors. You want your stand to be eye-catching and unique, which won’t be possible if your design too closely resembles other industry players. Identifying the reasons why prospective clients would be interested in your products or services, design your stand to convey that message.

Your first exhibition will be a learning curve. As you grow your business, you’ll learn what works for your industry and how to make the most of the experience.

Once you’ve established yourself as a player at key industry events by exhibiting, the next steps should be to take more active participation. Consider registering as a speaker or participating in a panel discussion. Your stand becomes a demonstration of your continued success. In addition to maintaining a certain image – after all, you can’t just disappear after spending time and effort establishing yourself – events act as meeting points, where you can engage with current and prospective clients, catch up on industry trends, and generate ideas to meet the everchanging needs of your target audience.

Good luck!

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