Three is the magic number

Stephen Murtagh

EW reporter Catie Owen spoke to Stephen Murtagh, otherwise known as The Exhibition Guy, to get his insight on how exhibitors should create realistic ROI objectives

Stephen Murtagh has spent a lifetime working in the exhibitions industry. In 2017 he set up a training organisation called The Exhibition Guy. Based in Dublin, Ireland, Murtagh has travelled the world training and forming strategy with stakeholders at every level of the industry.

He has helped organisers to launch new shows and grow existing ones, has worked with stand contractors to help them better understand their client needs and, arguably most importantly, helps exhibitors get the most out of their investments.

All too often, those exhibiting at shows fail to adequately prepare, be that through misunderstanding, underestimating the opportunity, or most commonly, not setting realistic, tangible objectives. How, then, can you make a trade show or exhibition work for your business?

Catie Owen: What do realistic ROI objectives for exhibitors look like?

Stephen Murtagh: When I talk to a client, I ask: ‘what’s your objective for exhibiting?’ They either have one, or they have 25. Having lots of objectives sounds like a good plan but it’s not in reality, because you’re spreading yourself too thin.

The key thing I say with regards to what an objective is: three is the key number. In the trade show industry, you don’t normally see a return on your investment for six to 18 months. If you just set revenue as your objective, chances are you are going to leave the event and say, ‘it didn’t work, I didn’t get the business I wanted and it was a failure.’

When we start focusing on three objectives, we may achieve two of them at the show and the other one, which could be revenue, will come later.

One objective could be meeting 10 new customers, and another could be meeting a new distributor of your products or brands. When we do this, the thinking shifts from the mindset of ROI to ROO – return on objectives.

CO: What should exhibitors be doing before and during the show to maximise ROI?

SM: First, you need to have a one to two-page written plan for exhibiting that should cover sales, marketing, and operations.

For sales, it’ll cover: what are we selling? How many sales will you aim for each day? For marketing it’ll ask how you’re going to promote yourselves both online and offline. For operations, it’ll cover who is bringing what items, and who is building the stand. When we do that, we have a plan for exhibiting.

At a show, people will decide within four seconds if they’re going to stop on your stand. So, the next part we look at is engaging visitors. On the day, it’s not about the sales piece, people come to exhibitions to buy, they don’t necessarily come to be sold to.

When a person walks on a stand, we’ve no idea who they are. No idea about their budget or anything like that. During the show we need to build relationships much quicker to maximise ROI afterwards.

Graphic businessCO: Which key metric should exhibitors focus on to calculate ROI post-show?

SM: You should be looking at somewhere between a five-to-six-times return from exhibiting. When you take average sales and say, ‘I need to talk to 10 people at the show, and if I talk to 10 people, I’ll get two new clients,’ that’s 20% conversion rate.

Therefore, because the number of hours that you’re at an exhibition is finite, the most important metric is the number of meaningful conversations that we have. This is because 30% of the average show’s visitors will never buy from an exhibitor.

We also need to have a metric for how many existing customers we talk to. It’ll be an objective that says something along the lines of: ‘I am going to talk to 10 existing customers a day.’ I know this all sounds very clinical, but it has to be. We are investing a lot of money to get our return.

Of course, we’re trying to achieve something financially, that’s the Holy Grail. But, if we omit meaningful conversations in favour of revenue, then we are really taking a chance by relying on one number to make the show a success.

CO: In your experience, what do informed exhibitors look for when selecting suppliers?

SM: The credibility of the supplier is hugely important. The key thing that exhibitors are looking for is to work with suppliers who understand the exhibition industry. They understand the pressure of the time, and the importance of suppliers solving problems before they happen.

When it comes to building up our show or building our stand, there’s a lot of pressure on. The last thing we need is the supplier to let us down, or to not be there on time, because that puts everyone else on the back foot.

CO: When deciding which shows to attend and which to skip, what should exhibitors keep in mind?

SM: As with every industry, there are gangsters or cowboys who think that putting on a show is an easy way to make money. All they see is the dollar or pound sign because exhibiting is expensive.

The first thing I would say to an exhibitor is: look for the organiser’s credibility. What shows have they run before? A very important question to also ask is: what associations do they have? Additionally, the magazines marketing the show are a good indicator of credibility to the exhibitor.

Exhibitor lists are also vital. Go to the organiser and ask: ‘who is on your exhibitor list and who are the competitors?’ Many shows won’t give you an exhibitor list, and that’s a red flag for me. Because, they don’t have credibility in what they’re doing, or they don’t have any exhibitors.

CO: What advice would you give to exhibitors who are weighing up exhibiting in-person or virtually?

SM: You have got to look at the virtual versus live debate purely from an ROI point of view, by looking at the reality of you actually building a strong relationship with somebody online.

What you must ask is why you’re exhibiting virtually. Is it purely because of money or Covid-19? Or is it just it’s easier to do? Yes, you will ‘meet’ a lot more people virtually. But success is not about the number of people that you meet. It’s about meeting the right people.

The key question I would ask is of a potential exhibitor who is trying to decide between live and in virtual is: what exactly are you trying to achieve? If you’re trying to achieve brand recognition to a global audience virtual is an option.

But, if you’re looking for more solid relationships, business, and potential clients for your business, then live is better. You’ll get a higher and faster return in-person and a higher conversion rate.