Every year I get several emails asking me to repost the “HIMSS vendor rules” that I’ve rattled off a few times over several years. The problem is that I’ve never made an exhaustive list or committed to maintaining it – it was just a series of stream of consciousness complaints about sloppy exhibitor practices that frustrated me as an attendee. I often called out undisciplined booth staffers who turned an expensive HIMSS exhibit into “the world’s most expensive telephone booth.”
I decided to try to recapture some of those thoughts in one place after I received recent requests for “the list” now that HIMSS is fast approaching. Here’s what I came up with. Send me your additions, especially if you – unlike me – have worked a booth and have a non-attendee viewpoint that I lack.
My conclusion is this. HIMSS exhibition costs are among a company’s most significant investments (especially for small companies) and the cost/revenue meters are running every minute that the exhibit hall is open. Don’t spend a fortune on exhibiting without a plan.
Define success goals. What is your company trying to get out of exhibiting? Is it X number of leads or contacts per hour? Doing X number of demos? Just staying hello to existing customers? Getting rid of all the optimistically ordered crappy swag and going to parties? Everyone working the booth should know what the company hopes to gain from their exhibit hall presence and how their contribution to those outcomes will be measured.
Develop two conversations that every booth staffer must demonstrate: a 10-second elevator pitch covering the problem the company solves and a two-minute version for those who seem interested after hearing the shorter spiel. The wording is as important as any marketing message since it will be repeated hundreds of times in the high-stakes exhibitor game, so get it right and make sure everyone can deliver it well. Trade show messaging is different than any other form of contact with customers and prospects, so don’t let staffers – even the salespeople – wing it.
Define how to qualify a visitor as a prospect and the actions that will ensue – disengagement if they aren’t, deeper engagement if they are. It’s OK to break off a conversation with sincere thanks for stopping by and a goodbye handshake. For chattier non-prospects who don’t take the hint, define a “rescue me” hand signal triggers the appearance of a profusely apologizing co-worker who reminds you that you have a fictitious previously scheduled visitor waiting.
Create a plan for getting even hot prospects in and out of the booth within 10 minutes of saying hello. Don’t waste their time and yours by trying to wear them down into signing a contract right there on the show floor. It’s fine if they want to stick around afterward, but the plan should address what needs to happen within that 10-minute window to make it a success. Then move on to other prospects.
The 10-minute model visit should include who else needs to be brought in or how handoff to another booth staffer with specific knowledge or skills will take place. Nobody likes being walked all over the booth while you’re hunting for someone who turns out to be in an impromptu company meeting.
Perform role-playing to make sure everyone is on the same page for all likely situations (snooping competitors, reporters looking for a story, loudly complaining customers, newly sold customers looking for validation, or attendees asking about job opportunities). Don’t use the “X number of dollars per hour” booth time stage for rehearsal.
Define dress expectations. Company shirts? Suits? Specific colors? Don’t leave it up to the discretion of staffers. Casual is fine unless the company sells abstract services rather than a physical product, in which case more formal dress might be appropriate in conveying success and strength.
Define clearly what your company does on your booth. Second- and third-tier vendors sometimes don’t realize that most of us don’t know who they are or what they do. Say so clearly on booth materials so encourage attendees to veer off their determined path to check your booth out.
Set up a quiet cocktail party or dinner – at the appropriate cost level for your intended audience and potential benefit – and offer promising prospects who drop by the booth an invitation. Don’t just hand them out en masse or try to arrange something at the last minute. The only negative is that attendees come with fully-loaded schedules, so maybe a nearby lunch would be a good substitute. HIMSS Bistro works great, is inexpensive, offers healthy options, and is located just off the show floor.
If you plan to offer giveaways, consider fun items for the attendee to bring home to their children.
Use high-top tables and stools that encourage qualified prospects to move into one-on-one conversations, but not so comfortable that visitors and booth staff sprawl on them because their feet are tired.
Instead of swag giveaways that encourage trick-or-treat behavior from people who aren’t really prospects anyway, offer coffee, juice, soda, and water. Place it in a comfortable seating area free of barriers, but assign someone to work that area and strike up conversations, giving the evil eye to people from other companies trying to freeload.
Bring enough people to handle, but not overwhelm, visitors. That’s based on booth size and in-booth activities. A 10×10 booth will seem overloaded if there’s more than a couple of people working since the visitor might not have a place to stand or sit, while an oversized but understaffed exhibit feels dead or leaves visitors unacknowledged. Have backups readily available that can be summoned when needed but free to do other work nearby while waiting.
Choosing Booth Staff
Don’t assign booth duty as reward or punishment. Define the individual roles and choose for them the best people who actually want to work the show. Enthusiasm wins.
Rotate booth staff frequently to keep energy levels up.
Strive for diversity and make sure the male and female staffers don’t huddle around each other like a middle school dance.
Assign some non-management technologists or non-sales subject matter experts to be available for bonding with their prospect peers and for answering questions without resorting to salesperson bluffing. However, don’t let them interact with visitors without having a more people-facing handler managing the process.
Don’t choose smokers. The inevitable scent will turn off many attendees and those folks will require frequent smoke breaks that someone else will have to cover.
It is perfectly fine for a small company to hire contract booth staff, even if they are chosen primarily because of appearance (rightly or wrongly, attractive booth staff often deliver better results). However, those contractors should be educated in advance about the company, its solutions, and how to make a quick handoff to an expert after the initial contact. Obviously they should dress appropriately and be prepared to interact professionally with high-level visitors. Provocatively-clad “booth babes” are never, ever a good idea for the HIMSS conference.
Assign a single person to be in charge of the entire booth and the people working in it at all times. Like the on-duty restaurant manager, their job is to keep staffers motivated, make sure they follow the plan, provide help when needed, and intervene in a “good cop” kind of way when needed. That person is the boss of everyone during exhibit hall hours, even of other employees who outrank them.
The CEO should be present in the booth for at least part of the time, and not just chatting with cronies on an isolated couch. Assign them a handler who will facilitate an introduction to good prospects but who will protect them from being bothered otherwise. Unlike other booth staff, the CEO should be in full-out executive suit/dress mode to convey their position of authority and to make a good impression on prospects and passersby. The CEO may well be the company’s best relationship builder and closer, so use them wisely. Admit it – when you walk by the booths of Epic or Athenahealth, you are slyly looking around to see if Judy Faulkner or Jonathan Bush are there.
Preparing the Booth Staff
Put out a specific schedule with who will be where, including breaks off the show floor for bathroom visits, lunch, checking voice mail, etc.
Map out who will stand where and what responsibilities they have.
Put friendly, gregarious people on the booth’s perimeter. They don’t have to be experts – they are like a barker whose job it is to get people comfortable enough to cross into the carpeted space. They should be quick to make eye contact, greet the person by name, and move them into the next phase (watching a demo, getting literature, etc.) The aisles around the booth are the most important real estate in the exhibit hall and getting prospects to leave them to enter the booth is the most important objective.
Give everyone a list of known customer attendees (culled from the HIMSS registration list) so they can be greeted warmly and personally instead of being pitched unknowingly as a stranger.
Before the Hall Opens
Relieve booth staffers of all other responsibilities. Leave them free and energized to complete the expensive project you started when you bought a booth.
Confiscate the phones of everyone who is working the booth.
Do a booth staffer huddle 10 minutes before the hall opens to make sure that everyone is dressed neatly (no bagel debris lodged between their teeth), their phones have been surrendered, everybody knows about the day’s special activities or presentations, and their energy level has been elevated just before the doors open. It’s really embarrassing to have your people sitting around drinking wake-up coffee and comparing notes about last night’s wild party as prospects are walking by.
When the Show Floor Is Open
Make it an inviolable rule – enforced by the booth manager — that people working in the booth cannot sit, talk to each other (unless trying to get a visitor’s question answered), use their phones, or eat. Do those things away from the booth. Prospects will move on if they feel they’re invading the space of those on duty. No exceptions, and if you didn’t free up their time so they can focus on visitors, shame on you.
Keep the trash cans emptied and handbags and luggage out of sight. That seems minor, but it makes an impression.
Always have a greeter working the aisle. They need to hand off quickly and get back to their greeting job.
Remember that even when booth staffers are away from the booth, they’re still wearing a nametag identifying their employer, so business-appropriate behavior is mandatory. Save the swearing, romantic recruitment, calls to headhunters, and product and co-worker gripes for a different setting. Or, at least tell them to flip their badges over so nobody who is overhearing knows who they are.
Resist the urge to let folks bail out early because there’s no foot traffic. Some C-level decision-makers intentionally use slow exhibit hall hours to seek information without the frenzy.
Use the time before the exhibit hall opens and closes, as well as the slow last day of the exhibits, to cruise the hall looking for opportunities to partner, acquire, or hire. Many companies find that they get more value from their interactions with other vendors than with prospects, often outside of their own booth.
As the show winds down, find similar but non-competing vendors and offer to share leads.
Managing the Visitor Encounter
The greeter should turn the visitor over quickly and smoothly to someone else so they can keep working the perimeter.
Ask the visitor if it’s OK to scan their badge. Not only to capture their information, but to keep them in the booth a few seconds longer while both parties decide how interested they are.
Engage in a friendly manner with demo shoulder-surfers. They probably aren’t trying to steal trade secrets but rather are just avoiding wasting their time and yours with premature engagement. It’s certainly OK to say hello and ask if they need any help.
Don’t disparage competitors. It will sound like sour grapes.
Define the documentation that should result from a visitor visit – badge scan, business card, or information sheet? Capture the conversation so that any follow-up is seamless – what are their organization’s problems or who should follow up?
Don’t assume that a visitor’s job title disqualifies them as a decision-maker. Provider organizations often make decisions that start with a lower-level department employee who is sent out to fact-find.
Don’t assume that consulting company attendees aren’t worth talking to. They are probably looking for products they can recommend to their clients or looking for partnership opportunities.