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Friday, 29 November 2013


During my international experience I have exhibited at trade shows in the USA, Europe, Middle East and Far East. Whilst the cultures and the business environment may differ, I have found the fundamentals of mounting a good display stand remain the same whatever the local situation. In this short article I will literally concentrate on the stand itself and the people who man it.

I believe the main purpose of your stand is to differentiate your company from competitors and attract attention quickly. Regardless of the stand’s size and location, visitors should be able to immediately recognise your company’s name and logo; your company’s products and/or services; how the company can solve their problems.

These are brief messages in appropriate languages. The more product ranges you have the greater the temptation to display all. This will only confuse – concentrate on the main seller or new offering.

Additionally the stand should be information driven through having the right combination of lighting, open space and graphic presentation. The ‘look’ should reflect your key communication message in all promotional & support material. The name of the game is to attract casual passerby’s to your stand. Remember at most international events there are hundreds of exhibitors all trying to attract visitors, many of whom only come for the day.

However before designing and setting up a stand, the most critical element is its location. Every expert will say ‘location, location, location’ You can have designed the best stand but if it is in the wrong site then arguably it will not be worth exhibiting. Technically there are many considerations such as
·       Most visitors walk to the right on entering an exhibition hall and miss the front exhibits
·       Corner locations draw traffic from two directions
·       Visitors miss dead-end aisles
·       Spaces near exits, toilets and food areas are high traffic but not necessarily good selling positions
·       Spaces by freight/lift doors are usually congested
·       Structures such as columns can obstruct the visibility
·       Locating  near competition is not generally beneficial as they can view who visits your stand
·       Locating close to complementary products can encourage cross-selling opportunities

As a newcomer to any show, prime positions will already have been booked so I always invested time to continually consult with the show organisers to seek upgrading my location. For some international shows the requirement was to demonstrate a commitment by contributing to ancillary activities such as the show catalogue, on-site display features or social events. I always made sure that before I left a show at its conclusion I would meet in person with the organisers to negotiate next year’s site.

·        Having established the best location available, I considered whether to rent or build a stand. As a first time exhibitor, I rented to gain practical experience of both the show, the type of stand and the dynamics of working with visitors.
If, at later stage, I decided to create a custom-built stand I could be more objective in its design. Critical features to consider will be the adaptability, versatility and suitability of the bespoke stand to different trade environments and its ability to be transported & shipped. You will need to consider the stand’s comfort in terms of working space, storage & display of materials and floor coverings ensuring it is carpeted. Any demonstration area must be able to handle at least two visitors at a time

·        Most important of all, the stand must appeal to the target audience by having appropriate displays i.e. for a target of computer technicians they will expect computers running interactive programmes
·        As appropriate, attention getting techniques should be employed such as revolving pictures or running signs. I have found that as a general rule 60% of the stand border should be open so allowing easy access

In the early stages of my exhibiting experience we could only afford a comparatively small stand so exposure was limited even in reasonably good locations. I had to make the best of what I had so employed a number of techniques to raise visibility to the passer-by such as:

  • Using lighting appropriately as it can increase awareness by up to 40%
  • Keeping the displays simple, feature only one to two products
  • Using bold colours
  • Using fewer but larger graphics
  • Using flowchart graphics and designs to depict product solutions
  • Being proportionate, reception counters and other non-productive sales items will clutter space

A sometimes overlooked matter id the staffing of the stand – selection of the right personnel and in the right numbers. I recall once visiting a company stand (not my responsibility!) at a European show where it seemed to me the world and his wife was attending. It appeared traditionally all of the company’s country sales employees would attend plus any associated company personnel. It was a mini United Nations, highly chaotic, disorganised and expensive,

·                  It is recognised that staff will account for 85% of the show’s success, however not all staff are suitable as they will be working a different environment. Key characteristics are for people who are open, warm and friendly; who can talk comfortably to strangers and be good listeners. You certainly need to ensure you include some decision takers. If you know the show will attract buying teams, rather than individuals, ensure your team is staffed with a mix of expertise. A general guide for staffing levels is one per 50 square feet of public exhibit area.

Then finally one of the most overlooked elements of good exhibiting, You may the best stand and location but nobody knows you are there. I spent a good deal of time ensuring existing customers and other interested parties were aware of our presence well in advance of the event. The full list could include existing customers, potential customer, new leads, suppliers, current or potential agents or distributors, media and trade and industry personnel.

There is much planning and thought to be applied if one is to maximise the investment in exhibiting. If one can spare the time walk around the show with a critical eye and rate each exhibit in terms of location, attractiveness and accessibility. You will be no doubt surprised as to how many fail the test.

Friday, 22 November 2013


In a previous Tale I described a three week business trip to the US where I had been booked in to Holiday Inn Hotels for every night of my stay. That experience is what put me off chain hotels. There was nothing fundamentally wrong with the hotels, or the quality of service, or the cleanliness, but those places are a bit formulaic. Since 1993 I have tended to book my own accommodation.

I remember thinking ‘corporate is best’ when I was booked into a New York hotel between a flight from the UK and an onward flight to Vancouver back in 1992. The room door security was ridiculous and I felt like a multi-padlock was the only thing missing, other than maybe a doorlock-activated sub-machine gun! For the most part I have felt safe in the places I have stayed, but there have just been a few instances in the USA where I have felt less than comfortable. A second was in Charlotte, North Carolina when the pizza delivery man refused to bring the pizza into my room as normal. Apparently only a few days beforehand another pizza delivery man had been badly beaten after entering a hotel room, all for the sake of a few dollars.

My quest to book into local, family run establishments led me to some interesting and memorable places. In 1997 I flew with a colleague to Salzburg en route to Villach in Austria, arriving at about 9:30pm to find the place pretty well locked up. After poking our heads around various creaking doors, we were eventually confronted by a formally dressed middle aged man who organised our keys and then told us that the restaurant had closed for the night and that we would not find anywhere open nearby where we could grab a bite to eat. So we ate almost the entire breakfast buffet the following morning! The beds were comfortable although the rooms were stark, and at the time it was a little alien to stay in a place without a television, but that’s something I have become used to, and now prefer.  

I stopped in a similar, much friendlier hotel near Kiel in northern Germany in 1999. Our distributor Thomas Siewert had kindly booked me into a ‘local family run hotel’ where I was to stay for three nights, again without a television. In reality, when I have travelled the only times I have watched TV is to catch up on a few minutes of news. Hotel rooms provide just a bed for the night, and I generally fall into them after a late night with clients, and fall out again for breakfast or to get on the road.

Thomas was an incredibly likeable and hardworking fellow, and became a good friend but he lived, breathed, and dreamed about his work, and days out with Thomas were a nightmare: at least 14 hours including travel, multiple meetings, and then a restaurant meal to talk more about work in the evening. I told his partner Petra that Thomas would drive himself into the ground if he was not careful, and she agreed but said ‘what can I do?’ So one night near Frankfurt I decided to challenge him. Barcelona were playing Manchester United that night in the Champions League, so when the clock struck exactly 9pm I told Thomas that I had had enough of work for the day and that I was going to watch the football. He was incredulous: “But we have not finished our work!” he shrieked. The following morning I explained to Thomas that in order for me to think clearly about my work I needed to have some time away from work that didn’t involve sleeping! I also explained that I felt Petra was becoming concerned for his health, and that perhaps he should have some more quality time with her.

Back to the local family run hotel near Kiel. On the final night of my stay Thomas joined me for an evening meal and to discuss our plans for the German market. At exactly 9pm, he proudly stated “and now, I have had enough of my work John so I will show you my photographs from my holiday in the Seychelles.” I have never seen so many photographs of a man holding a fish in all my life!!

Throughout my travelling years I have stayed in places for the sake of convenience, either to be close to highways for an onward journey, or to be within a short drive of my first meeting the following day. So I have stayed in Campaniles and Toucans and Shoney’s and all kinds of places that would not normally be my first choice, but which are perfectly adequate if a bed for the night is all you need.  However, when you stop in a hotel for several nights running, you don’t want shower heads falling off, chair legs collapsing, damp carpets and the other horrors that can occasionally conspire against you. And when that happened to a group of us in Hannover one year during a five night stay, I swore it would never be allowed to happen again!

The net result was that we stayed for seven consecutive years in a fabulous little artisan hotel in the middle of Hannover and within a five minute walk of the Hauptbahnhof. And each year Mr. Reed stayed there, his room was upgraded until in the fifth year he was in the Presidential suite! In what other hotel would you be greeted by a free shot of schnaps? These hotels are out there and very often you don’t have to look too hard. They allow you interact with real people from the city, who can genuinely tell you the best places to go to eat and drink and be entertained. So live the places you stay, even if you do only need a bed for the night.

Friday, 15 November 2013


Those of us who have been in international trade for many years know the feeling well. We have all walked into a new challenge with a new company and asked ourselves ‘where on earth do I start?’ And after those brief moments of panic subside, we have realised that the answer is incredibly simple: ‘start with what you have got!’ That rule of thumb applies whatever the size of the organisation, but crucially there are still too many companies who have traditionally seen their exporting activity as an ‘add-on’ to their business, rather than an integral part of long term sustainable growth, vital to the company and not to be treated as a business backwater. ‘If it works it works’ is simply not good enough.

It is only by starting with what you have got that you know where the gaps are, where the challenges are, and where the good news is. I can remember walking into one company where they didn’t even have a filing cabinet (remember them?) for exports, just a pile of folders on a desk. But that is what I had to start with, and I found by rummaging through every bit of paper therein that there was some good potential in our selling partners but a lot of dead wood. My first job was to fly to Hamburg to stop our distributor in Kiel from sueing us. My predecessor had failed to keep his promises about the level of marketing support provided to this fabulously hard-working and dedicated distributor, who after 18 months had lost all patience. There was no contract in place, and the threat to sue was more out of frustration than serious intent, but the fact that I had made the effort to visit him and draw up a new plan paid dividends.

My second job was to fly to see our ‘best performing’ distributor, who were based in Dublin and referred to in an earlier Tale. Sure, they had the largest turnover of any of our distributors, but they did not pay their bills and they had exceeded the credit limit we had agreed with our insurers. They also had severe cash flow problems, and I had absolutely no desire to find out why. I just wanted a decent distributor who paid their bills. In the end, I stopped their shipments, and in hindsight that was probably not the greatest idea because the company eventually went bust and I failed to replace them with anything better. On the flip side, we had stopped pretending and it allowed us to move on and locate significantly more valuable and reliable business elsewhere.  

You guessed it. My third job was a problem too. Well partly a problem anyway. Our French distributor was a very nice guy and he had won some interesting and prestigious projects for our company, but he too had been unilaterally stretching his payment terms which were supposed to be 60 days. There were some significant bills that had reached the 180 day point and nobody had challenged them. When I did, the distributor did not immediately have the funds to pay. So we had to put together a plan that would bring him back in synch. It was a struggle but he was worth the effort, he carried on bringing in new business and the plan worked.

Much of the rest of the portfolio I inherited were one-off or sporadic orders and enquiries that had come our way in the previous year or two, where little or no further contact had been made. The guy who gave me the job said at interview that ‘to be better than the last guy you just have to turn up!’ I spent the rest of my first couple of days following up outstanding opportunities, and I can remember being surprised that almost all the people I contacted were grateful to have received my call, and most of the projects were still ‘live’.

So I had started the ball rolling, and now needed to devise a plan to build export turnover from £400,000 to £1 million within two years. It transpired that some of our exports had been achieved via distributors that were common to our sister company, and who had been given the distinct impression that they also had exclusive rights to sell our products. So I had an internal and external battle to bring that to order on the grounds that my sales commissions would then be based wholly on my own efforts. I needed direct relationships with all of the people who were selling our products. It is the only way.

I had started in my new role in mid-August 1997 and by Christmas that year I had visited all of our important selling partners, to learn about their businesses and to put action plans into place. In early November I had spent a week exhibiting at Batimat in Paris where we shared stand costs with our (now compliant) French distributor and generated some good business together. And it’s the word ‘together’ that best explains the way in which our export business was driven forward from that point. We worked closely with our selling partners, agents, distributors, and not just in reacting to their needs. The plans we put into place covered a number of areas: project analysis and timetabling, so that I could forecast sales better; a programme of visits, both to provide product training and to support them with key customer meetings; UK factory visits so that our selling partners saw more of the company than just me; and a marketing programme which included brochure and sample book translations, attendance at exhibitions or a commitment to exhibit.

So the ball had very much started to roll, and in a later Tale, I will summarise some of the strategies that led us to £1 million of export sales by Christmas 1999. The plan worked, so always have a plan!

Friday, 8 November 2013


During the many years that I was practically involved in marketing and selling consumer products overseas I realised there were a number of fundamental issues that always need to be addressed. For my company the core task was to maintain a consistent programme that enhanced brand image and product performance in differing markets throughout the world,

Each of our branded products possessed a value in the mind of the consumer which we wanted to preserve and enhance. We offered a wide range of international products which would be categorised according to the brand profile. Our range would be segmented into International brands – generally high value and imagery and standardised, where possible, across all markets; Regional brands developed to target local consumer preferences and Tactical brands created market by market to satisfy a specific need such as flavour, style or price

Being a consumer product, most were sold to the end purchaser through a retail outlet. .There are, therefore, two distinct forms of planning and activity to be considered.

First the traditional consumer marketing directed at the end user through sales, advertising and promotion. The second and as important, is trade marketing which ensures the right parties in the local supply chain, including the retailers themselves, are handled and directed in the right way.  The key to successful trade marketing is grouping customers into trade channels so as to focus marketing efforts on the special needs and characteristics of each channel.
There is much evidence that trade marketing is either ignored or not followed through by many exporters.

Some of the key elements of trade marketing are channel mapping – how many of each trade type are selling what and where; decisions on channel priorities; assessment of trade pricing and promotional policies; agreement with local partner, agent or distributor, on how best to handle the trade. All of which are carried out to ensure every potential consumer will be able to purchase your products at the right place, at the right time, at the right price, in the right manner in the right quality and in the right manner.

Space prohibits a detailed examination of these activities but to endorse my message let me pose some rhetorical questions.

Select a key market to which you have exported for a number of years. Can you describe the trade through which you sell? How many wholesalers and retailers? Of the wholesalers how many are traditional and how many are of the cash and carry style? What are the main retailer types that should be selling your products and how many are there in each trade sector? The questions could go such as who are they – by name and where are they and how often do they purchase and in what quantities?
Let me briefly describe two examples from my experience – the Middle East and West Africa.
Working with my local distributors I would analyse the breakdown of local trade – remember this is for the sale of consumer products. In the Middle East main sectors would be Wholesalers, Supermarkets, Specialist shops, small shops in the Souk, Horeca outlets and so on. In West Africa there would be a similar breakdown of sectors but with the addition of street side Hawkers who, incidentally, in certain countries accounted for over 60% of the sale of our products.

We would then total or estimate the numbers in each sector and set trade promotional strategies accordingly. For the key sectors we would develop specific advertising and promotional activities including special discounts or rebates. For the literally thousands of souk and hawker outlets we would rely upon the salesman’s word of mouth and giveaway items.

Let’s return to the all important consumer marketing element. Frankly it would take a book to cover most aspects but I will raise a number of issues that we always had to consider. With regard to the product itself there are two broad areas to manage – changes that have to be made to the product and changes that are required to suit the local consumer.

Most exporters are aware of the various factors that could enforce product changes such as legal, governmental, and logistical. Other common issues can include transportation and climate.

Let me provide one example affected by the latter. We marketed semi-perishable products around the world with a six-month sell-by date and normally used a series of protective packings enclosed in a plastic display tub for each individual product. For some of our South American markets we found that these protections were not sufficient. We had analysed the period from manufacture to point of sale and taking into account the shipping time, period from landing to delivery to a retail outlet, the ambient temperatures in local outlets and the time for a consumer to purchase, sell dates were exceeded. The whole package was redesigned and enhanced to ensure the freshest product available to local consumers.

The second critical area is adaptations required to suit the culture and buying habits of the local consumer.  This raises a vast number of considerations including pricing, style, colours and language of product packaging, appropriateness to local lifestyles and so on. One factor that was critical to us was the affordability of the unit of sale.

Our standard unit of sale for our European products was 6 items to one retail pack. However in certain markets both the size and the affordability were too high. This factor had nothing to do with the basic price; it was that consumers locally just did not buy products this way. We therefore provided a four-pack for these markets.

We normally marketed branded products with high perceived value. However in some markets the predominant preference was for local products at a lower price point. To gain both a trade presence for all of our products and provide the local consumer with a choice, we provided a generic product in addition to the premium brands. Tactically we were able to ‘buy’ shelf presence through the value product and gain listings for the higher value brands.

There is, of course, much more that can be discussed by space does not permit it. The main lesson of my international experience is to spend a good proportion of effort marketing to the local trade as well as the end-consumer to ensure a better chance of long term success.

Friday, 1 November 2013


Sounds glib doesn’t it, but it’s true. If you do your preparation well then the act of selling actually becomes the end game in a process, the knot that secures the package. Of course there are many different types of selling and you would use different methods to sell FMCG items than if you were selling construction materials into the specification market, or maybe medical equipment where certification and safety are paramount. However the principle behind the sale remains the same, and the relationships you build long term are the key. You locate your customers, learn what it is they want or provide them with something new and innovative that they need, achieve the necessary standards, market the product or service effectively, create the customer relationship, and then close the sale. And don’t forget you need a reason to go back, the opportunity to win repeat business, and the key to achieving that is the relationships that you build.

Then there is the small matter of getting your selling partners, agents or distributors, to sell your products just as well as you would sell them yourself, and that is where a number of challenges can arise. They may be selling a basket of products from different companies, so you need to do what you can to ensure that yours is at the top of the pile. They need a reason to prioritise your products in their basket, and that may either be because your product provides something unique that others don’t, it may be that it provides more profitability, or it may be that it is easier to sell because you have provided them with product training, technical know-how and above all the confidence to sell the product to its best advantage.

I may have related in a previous Tale a part of the story that follows. I had been collected from Moscow Airport by our excellent distributor to go straight to an important meeting with BP/TNK to whom we were to present our carpet tiles. It was just after the difficult merger between the companies and they were looking to re-fit their offices throughout Russia. En route I learned that my props for this meeting were a single, medium blue, tufted loop pile carpet tile, and whatever presentation material  happened to be in my luggage! This was not my first visit to the distributor, and because I had already delivered a certain amount of product training, I had wrongly assumed that they  would collect me armed to the teeth with a whole range of folders and sample options to present at the meeting. Furthermore there had been no information sent prior to our meeting, so I really was going in blind.

So there we sat, patiently in the lobby with our single blue tile as our competitors seemed to wheel in trolleys full of different options. And of course we were last to be seen, and because I was being introduced as ‘Mr. Carpet Tile Guru’, I simply had to busk it as best I could. It was therefore heartening to hear a Scottish voice from within the room as the previous presenters left after their pitch, and my short presentation achieved three things: first, it presented the qualities of our single blue tile; second the technical sheets and brochures that were in my briefcase helped both to reinforce the technical message and the illustrate colour options; and finally, realising that I had created interest and knowing that there was a second chance to meet the buyers at Sony’s offices and fabulous showroom the following day, I seized the chance to reserve a further five minutes to demonstrate how our various products could worked together cost-effectively and well within budget. Although we did not win the job on that occasion, our modest presentation came second to the pitch made by the sales team of our biggest competitor. I was left feeling that a better presentation would have swung the business our way, and the total amount of time I was exposed to the buyers over the two days was about 20 minutes.

Closer to home, I had a similar experience in the Irish city of Cork where a fifteen minute presentation won 2,000m2 of carpet tile business with RTE. We had sold to RTE in Dublin previously so we already had a track record of supply. The product had worn well and continued to look good. Our distributor therefore set up with glee an appointment for us jointly to visit the RTE specifiers in Cork, and I made my arrangements to fly into Dublin for our onward 3+hour journey by car. However, on arrival at Dublin Airport I found that the glee and enthusiasm which the distributor had expressed in setting up the meeting had turned into a bed-ridden flu bug.

So I hired a car and did the job myself, arriving in good time with my short presentation that provided a range of options and a few photographs of how the Dublin installation had turned out. It was a presentation template I had used for years, adapted to this particular customer. It took fifteen minutes to make the presentation after my long drive, and the architect was pleasantly surprised when I didn’t take up a whole load more of his time! I arrived back at my hotel in Dublin at around 8pm, by which time the 2,000m2 order had been placed. Buoyed at this success, I dropped into Grafton Street to sample a few local pubs, whereupon I bumped into my formerly bed-ridden distributor having a great time with his mates and demonstrating a complete and full recovery from the hideous flu bug that had laid him out that very morning. He didn’t last much longer after that!