Exhibitions: All the fun of the fair

Trade exhibitions can be an ideal arena to target the media and potential customers, finds Stephanie Siegle.

With you and your competitors all vying for media attention, predicting the amount of coverage generated for a product launch at an exhibition can be a challenge.

Your chances of publicity can be maximised, however. Simply getting in touch with the show's comms department or agency before the event can lead to increased exposure before you've even entered the hall.

This has been the approach of Wembley Stadium, which is exhibiting at travel trade show International Confex for the first time next week, to launch the banqueting facilities that will be available at the new stadium.

Following early contact with Confex's PR agency, Fridays Media Group, Wembley is now featured in the media guide that highlights launches, parties, competition draws and interview opportunities, sent out to journalists prior to the show.

Advance PR is crucial for a launch at an exhibition. This year, Confex will run its inaugural purpose-built showcase for new products and services.

'We invited exhibitors to apply to be part of the showcase in the middle of last year and, together with the organisers, we chose those launches that were genuinely new and those that were the most interactive, as these draw the media in,' explains Fridays Media Group director Jill Hawkins.

Children's party organiser Crafty Arty Parties, for example, will launch its Get Stuffed product on the showcase as a result of pre-planning, inviting journalists to stuff their own bespoke toys.

Interactive products

Interaction with the product can be advantageous. Indeed, in the technology sector, it's often easier to show journalists how a new service works rather than simply talk about it. IT Week executive editor Martin Veitch notes: 'The very nature of computer programmes lend themselves to being tried out.'

Yet tempting though it may seem to get all the journalists swarming around the exhibition hall along to a launch or a demonstration, the scatter-gun approach should be avoided.

'It's the same as with any other strand of PR. If you're going to make a product launch at an exhibition work, target the right publications and make sure you've got some strong news,' advises Lewis PR associate director Mark Street, who has worked on launches for clients Siebel and Citrix. 'The more you do ahead of a show, the better. If the MD of a company launching a product is giving a speech, make sure there are interesting soundbites in that speech that will appeal to the media.'

Walking around a colossal exhibition hall all day can be tiring, and with so much for journalists to take in, the best speech in the world can have trouble attracting all the target titles, especially if it's scheduled towards the end of a busy day. Try to schedule a speech early or, depending on what extent you want to demonstrate how a new product works, arranging meetings with journalists in a cafe or pub nearby to chat about a new product can be just as welcome.

Up against so much competition, a new product alone won't guarantee coverage.

For some sectors the challenge lies in the time of year the exhibition runs.

Norton and Company has launched retro toys including Thunderbirds, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Cabbage Patch Kids for client Vivid Imaginations at exhibitions such as the Toy Fair last month. 'January is a notoriously difficult time to launch a toy as the key interest time for journalists is the media lead-up to Christmas. You need a really good hook to get journalists interested this early in the year,' says Norton director Emma Jowitt. For the Thunderbirds launch, for example, the team invited creator Gerry Anderson to the exhibition for a photocall.

Celebrity appearances

Although they can be expensive, celebrity appearances can be a real pull.

For instance, Toshiba marked its re-entry into the mobile phone market at the largest technology exhibition in the world, CeBIT. As the product couldn't be revealed before a certain time, agency Companycare Communications hired German footballer Lothar Matthaus to sign mini footballs at the stand, which created media opportunities before the actual launch.

Holding back key information when inviting journalists to a launch at an exhibition can be equally effective. When the British Tourist Authority relaunched as VisitBritain in 2003, the announcement was saved for the British Travel Trade Fair. 'We knew we had to have a strong corporate news hook too, as that often attracts the national press as well as trade,' says VisitBritain senior press officer Elliott Frisby. 'And the stand needs to be visually attractive to entice the broadcast media too.'

Getting the journalists along to the stand is one thing - making sure they get an interview with the key spokespeople is another. It's crucial to ensure the MD has a block of time booked just for the media, with appointments set up prior to the show. Otherwise the MD can be tempted to meet with a potential paying customer ahead of a journalist.

'Even if the MD can't spare a whole day for journalists, the least PROs should get them to do is set aside a half-hour period to create a mini press conference on the stand,' says Event editor Mike Fletcher. 'And if you do have individual interviews set up, make sure there's a dedicated PRO to orchestrate them so the MD doesn't wander away.'

This approach was adopted by food manufacturer Barilla when it launched its latest range of pasta sauces at the BBC's Good Food Show. Its PR company Wild Card set up ten-minute taste sessions for individual journalists, plus interviews with the UK general manager.

'Alternatively, put samples of food products in the press office to pique journalists' interest,' says Wild Card MD Kate Wild. 'Or find out whether there are opportunities to sponsor the press office.' At the Good Food Show, Magimix did so and was able to display new products for the press to try out without being surrounded by competitors.

It's always worth checking with the venue first what you can and can't do, because some won't allow you to take the launch product off the stand, and if you can create a photo opportunity it is likely to prove more interesting for media across the board.

BRINGING A BRAND TO LIFE

Birmingham's NEC was host to a three-day exhibition during Leisure Industry Week last year. Cabana Soft Drinks chose the event to launch its Vivo-Tec cold beverage machine, which dispenses chilled, Brita-filtered water in still or sparkling varieties, with the option of added fruit flavour using pure fruit juice.

'It was an ideal opportunity for us to grab the attention of caterers, professionals, media and consumers all under one roof,' explains marketing director Nigel Follos.

Cabana also wanted to encourage sampling and secure media coverage in key trade print and online titles.

Retained agency Companycare Communications decided that the way to emphasise that the drinks contain only real fruit was to link to the real thing - three-dimensional fruit. A strawberry, an orange and a green apple were selected to represent the brand, owing to the popularity of these flavours with consumers and the way the fruit colours complement the brand's logo.

Prior to the exhibition, fruit-shaped stress toys were sent to trade and media contacts as part of a pre-launch teaser campaign to introduce the Vivo-Tec brand name.

During the exhibition, the team created three giant Vivo-Tec branded fruit costumes (green apple, strawberry and orange) for the promotions team to wear, both on the stand and while touring the exhibition hall.

In addition to distributing product samples, the giant fruits tried out the exercise machines, took part in an aerobics class, and took turns on the rodeo bull and bouncy slides to emphasise the drinks' health credentials.

On the Cabana stand, real apples and oranges, featuring a Vivo-Tec brand sticker, were available to eat.

The launch achieved coverage in key titles, including Catering Update, Cost Sector Catering, leisure-kit.net and Auto Vending. Sales orders are being met for this summer.

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