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Confessions of a Trade Show Project Manager

Young businesswoman whispering something to her colleague in a meeting roomProblems at trade shows? You aren’t alone!

Every time I try to explain what I do as a Project Manager in the trade show industry I explain my job like this:

“It’s like planning a wedding…for a different bride, in a different city, at a different venue, every day.”

It is no small wonder why when the busy fall and spring trade show seasons hit I spend countless hours poring over emails or restless evenings worrying about things like:

• The panicked call from my client about their sales rep spilling coffee on a graphic, despite their “no drinks in the booth” policy. Could we get someone to clean the graphic after the show closed for the day and before the big client meeting the next day? (We did!)

• Was the broken shelf repaired? (We used a temporary solution for the show, and replaced the shelf before their next event.)

• Did someone find another power strip for the conference room? (Absolutely, if only all problems were this easy!)

Trade shows are very complicated and the people that are in charge of planning these events are entrusted not only with thousands of marketing dollars but with the full weight of expectations from management and coworkers that the shows be successful and come off without a hitch. With responsibilities like this, it is no small wonder that trade show marketers are feeling the pressure to have the elusive “perfect trade show”. As a result I wanted to share some wisdom I’ve learned when it comes to executing trade shows.

The words no one wants to hear on the show floor: We have a problem.

I have been both the maker and recipient of panicked phone calls because of show floor problems. The reality is, much like weddings, there will always be something that pops up unexpectedly. At one time or another I would wager that we have all had issues arise on the show floor. The important thing is to always keep perspective of these problems, use best planning to help avoid them, and set realistic expectations for the solution. The piece of knowledge that will help you keep everything in perspective is understanding the differences between real and fixable problems.

What are “real” problems vs. “fixable” ones?

Here are these two areas defined for the trade show universe:

Real Problems – A problem that results in a failure to exhibit at 100% on day one when the show opens.

Fixable Problems – A problem that can be resolved before the show opens on day one. Even if the resolution is only minutes before the show opens.

In my trade show experience I would estimate about 90% of problems I’ve dealt with on the show floor or with exhibitors are what I would call “fixable.” The most common fixable problems: missing items, broken light bulbs, and stained graphics. Of the remaining 10% of real problems I would say that 5% are broken or missing custom items, and 5% are “other” such as items being held in customs or displays being lost in transit or on the show site.

Wait a second Clarissa, if something is missing (custom or not) that is a REAL problem, right?

I completely understand why you feel that way. However, that is why it is important to develop relationships with your exhibit provider! Partnering with an exhibit provider gives you the ability to respond to missing items faster than you can imagine. Recently, an exhibitor’s graphic came up missing at a large trade show. Instead of spending time trying to search high and low for the graphic, the quick decision was made to produce one locally. We were able to send the art file of the graphic to the nearest production center and have a replacement graphic to the show site, in a span of about 3 hours and the day before the show opened. Purchasing a booth online will save you money, but if your display is damaged or parts are missing, do you have a 24-hr contact to help you? Partnering with an exhibit company can give you peace of mind when it comes to knowing your problems will be addressed (if not resolved) in a timely manner. With Skyline, one of our strongest benefits is a global dealer network and manufacturer with production facilities around the world. Just because your problem is on a weekend or overseas that doesn’t stop us from being able to help!

But you just said that 10% of problems are REAL problems, what about when those happen?

Yes, though I am sorry to say it, real problems happen. So how do we handle these? In these moments I pose two questions to myself.

1. Can I enlist someone to help me work through the problem?

During the install of an event there are many things happening at once. If I am able to enlist someone’s help in getting a resolution in the works I am able to focus my energy elsewhere. Again, partnering with an exhibit company can help here!

Real Life Situation: I received a call from the show floor that shelves were missing for a client’s display cabinets. The cabinets were necessary for the display of their product. When I received the call the client was in a complete panic. The shelves were back in their office and there was no way to get them to the show in time. As soon as the client explained the problem I explained that the shelves were custom but to allow me to make a few phone calls. I asked them to continue working on their display and that I would be in touch.

The shelves were custom so all hope was lost, right? Not quite. That brings us to the second question:

2. Is there an acceptable solution to get through this particular show?

In the example above because I had worked with the client previously I knew what the custom shelves looked like. There was no way I was going to be able to get them custom shelves before the show opened the next day. However, I also knew that with some time, a local dealer office, and a trip to a home improvement store we could come up with a temporary solution that would look very similar and get the client through the show.

Real Life Solution: I was able to enlist the help of our local Skyline dealer office to have one of their staff make a trip to a local hardware store, purchase some materials and create temporary shelves to get my client back on track for the show. My client was thrilled that we were able to come up with something that, while not perfect, achieved what the client needed for their display. The cost of the temporary solution was much less than the cost of overnighting the needed shelves. Plus, because the client was able to delegate this problem to me they were able to spend their time and energy into getting the rest of their display assembled and ready to go.

Keep Calm and Trade Show On

The ability to keep calm and collected under pressure on the show floor is a key asset in dealing with trade shows. It shows the people around you that you are running the show and the show isn’t running you and that there is no need for them to panic. Always remember the following:

3. Ask for help! – When problems arise, enlist the aid of someone that can help solve them. In most cases this will be your trade show exhibit supplier or trade show asset management company. Make sure to have a contact number for at least two folks there that can help. No one wants you to have a bad show experience. Work with your exhibiting professionals to turn sticky situations into successes.

4. Set REALISTIC Expectations – All booths will have their own nuances and no two shows will ever be the same. The key is to NOT get hung up on the problem, but to work towards a solution that will work for your event. A good trade show partner will always want you to succeed and will move immediately to find a solution, realize this as you are still in a state of panic.

5. “The best laid plans of mice and men, often go awry” – Prepare for the unexpected and roll with the punches. Issues that can be resolved before the show opens aren’t really issues. Items that CAN’T be resolved are the ones to worry about finding acceptable solutions for.

Despite all the planning that goes into trade shows, there will always be surprises that no one knew to look for. I have been working with trade shows for 10 years. I use my experience to make sure every event I work on comes off as close to perfect as I can get it. However, I still find myself learning something new or experiencing show nuances every day. Trade shows are always evolving and it never ceases to amaze me how complex planning and executing these events are. So, if you are a trade show planner, give yourself a pat on the back. You’ve earned it.

WWE Now that you are prepared to problem-solve at your trade show, get your hands on What’s Working in Exhibiting.” This free white paper, equipped with research-based reports, will assist you with your overall event marketing approach to put your best practices on the floor. Click here for your free copy.

About the Author

Clarissa was a Project Manager at Skyline Exhibits of Central Ohio, located in Columbus, Ohio.

5 responses to “Confessions of a Trade Show Project Manager

  1. Hello Clarissa, You did a great job writing this article. I am just coming back from a Show in Las Vegas and can feel your words as my own. After 9 years exhibiting internationally I can´t agree more with you. I am the Skyline Dealer for Costa Rica and Nicaragua. I am posting your article in our facebook link and in my linkedln. Thanks so much.

    1. Hi Francisco,

      Thank you for the wonderful compliment. I hope that your clients and contacts find this information useful.

      The tradeshow floor can be one of the most stressful professional environments, it’s important to always remember to keep perspective as we deal with issues on the show floor.

      Happy Exhibiting!

  2. I love your advice to prepare for the unexpected and roll with the punches. It makes a lot of sense to spend your time focusing on the “real” problems you talked about, since those will be the ones that are most important to fix. I imagine having good competent staff to help manage and operate the show would be a must in order to focus on those things.

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