There used to be a school of thought that if you offered a small lake of alcohol and enough exotic canapes to keep Homer Simpson happy, then journalists would not only flock to your client's stand, but provide riveting copy about them, too.
But it seems all the stereotypes have gone out of the window. The exhibition industry attracts more than nine million visitors across 855 exhibitions, according to the latest figures available from the NEC Group. It also generates £2bn - before you count the value of any deals transacted within their four walls - and, with fewer staff journalists to woo, there's a lot more competition among clients to get them to their stands.
Of course, no-one is going to turn down a free drink and a nibble, but if you want to provide clients with a better guarantee of coverage, you're going to have to be more creative.
'At the end of the day, journalists want a story - so the client must have something different to say or something new to offer,' says Friday's Media Group director Jill Hawkins, whose clients include International Confex.
Confex is the largest exhibition forum in the UK - the exhibition industry's exhibition. This year it takes place at Earl's Court at the end of February and, with 1,200 exhibitors due to attend, the competition is fierce.
For the past four years the event's PR has been handled by Friday's, which has found that the relationship between an event's PROs and the many different agencies there to represent individual exhibitors is central to everyone's success. Hawkins' advice is to co-ordinate with each other.
'It's really important for us to get to know the exhibitors' PROs as early as possible,' she says. 'Not only can we help them maximise their own publicity but, if we know what they are doing, we can include it in our own press material, in effect giving them free publicity.'
Among the exhibitors at this year's Confex is De Vere Hotels, which uses Synergy PR to look after its media relations. Associate director Anthea Yabsley agrees that a good working relationship with an exhibition's own PR is vital. 'Some seven months before the show we will meet with Friday's to discuss subjects like who else is appearing, any themes that may be used, and anything else of interest,' she says. 'They can keep us updated on any potential media opportunities that may suit us, and vice versa.
It's in everyone's interest to keep abreast of what's going on.'
This year, PROs for clients exhibiting at Confex are certainly going to town with creativity in a bid to draw both buyers and the media to their stands. The Netherlands Convention Bureau is giving away a diamond, while there is a new Mini to be won at the Moyne Exhibition Services stand.
Celebrity endorsement is also big business this year - chef Ken Hom will be signing copies of his book at the Noble Houses stand, event company The Brilliant Company has enlisted the help of former Coronation Street actor Brian Capron, who played murderer Richard Hillman, to flag up its murder mystery package, footballer Matt Le Tissier will be on the Southampton Football Club stand, and Hustyns PROs hope comedian Bobby Davro will encourage visits to its stand.
Of course, all this comes at a price. Hiring a celebrity to jazz up your client's stand will cost more than giving away a few branded pens, though the price depends on the celebrity you bring in. The Ideal Home Exhibition, for example, featured four lifesize houses with six different room sets designed by celebrity designers including Linda Barker - which must have been slightly more costly than handing out a few badges.
Events become more intensive
While a lot of fun can be had in the bid to attract the most visitors to a stand, there has been a change in the way businesses approach events, which has been mirrored in the role played by PR. The past few years have seen events become more intensive and business-focused, so, as a result, the PR has become a great deal more proactive.
Working in tandem with an exhibition's own PR operation can be of particular help to small exhibitors. At last year's Daily Mail Ski & Snowboard Show one exhibitor had invented a foldaway workbench, which proved highly attractive in terms of media presence. 'We managed to get him on to GMTV, which is something that he could have never done on his own,' says exhibition PR manager Tania Wright.
Events that have a large number of exhibitors with similar offerings have to be careful not to overdo the gimmicks, however. The Daily Telegraph Destinations 2003: The Travel Show featured more than 400 stands of tour operators and tourist boards last year. Energy PR account director Tammy Winsley, who works on the show, believes news coverage doesn't need dressing up; a product launch or new research are the way forward.
Whatever the draw, evaluation is often a long-term affair, because exhibitions and conferences offer an unparalleled opportunity for clients to meet journalists face to face. 'It's not what's written in the immediate aftermath of an event, but five or six months down the line,' says Winsley. Look for ways to foster long-term relationships between clients and journalists, as this can often result in a number of good pieces being written well after the event.
However, it must be said that everyone likes a freebie, and this probably counts for journalists more than most. Which is why many who work in the event PR field are more than happy to admit using them to attract journalistic attention. Recent highlights to feature in media strategies include a competition with a prize of a free skiing holiday, a prize draw to win an £8,000 jacuzzi and a chance to enjoy a flight simulator.
'Nothing beats a good story, though,' says Hawkins. 'You can give journalists all kinds of treats, but it won't result in good, targeted coverage. For that, you need to say something interesting.'
If the industry takes that on board, it could well spell the end of the endless glasses of warm wine.
HOW TO MAXIMISE EXHIBITION PUBLICITY
1 Contact the event organiser and its PR agency as soon as you can to find out what they can do to help. Generating publicity for the show as a whole is often reliant on producing coverage for individual exhibitors.
2 Ensure that you have read the show's PR and marketing guide. Always follow its advice, especially when it comes to filling out publicity forms by set deadlines.
3 Most exhibitions work with their sector's key publications to secure previews. Ask for this list and approach them with news of your client.
Good photos are always in short supply: if you can provide them, you have an edge.
4 If you don't know the industry well, try to research what will be of interest to visiting journalists.
5 Press packs should be light and easy to transport. Journalists don't like carrying heavy and bulky brochures.
6 The press attends exhibitions to pick up news stories and feature ideas, so an appealing pack will be one that contains a real story for them - statistics, new research or trend notes, for example.
7 Do not include photographs with every pack - it is a costly practice. Simply state on the release that images are available on request.
8 Decide what your PR activity is expected to deliver. If you're launching a new product or introducing a new CEO, is it enough to have this covered in key publications?
9 Remember that some targets can be long-term. Meeting a key journalist may not produce immediate coverage, but may result in an ongoing relationship that bears fruit later.
10 Review the show immediately after it closes, and then three and six months later.