Has the art of exhibition selling died?

They say that you have to speculate to accumulate, and that those that stand still only go backwards in the business world. So how has selling developed over the years?

I’ve been in business quite a long time, more years than some of my readers maybe able to request candles for their birthday cakes. I started out selling before the mobile phone was available, infact even prior to the telex machine for those who can remember that far back. I was on the road as a company representative at the age of 19 and had even tried selling brushes and brooms door to door at the age of 16 while still at school.

In those days to get new business we had three main sources, physically cold calling at potential clients premises, exhibitions and the office phone with the help of directories like yellow pages. Today we hold up the god of networking as our goal.

The phone option was by far the least costly for a first contact and at the time much easier than today to be put through to the correct person to deal with your enquiry. Back then receptionists and company switchboard operators were not the gate keepers sworn to national secrecy to the names of people working in their companies! It was much easier when actually speaking to the person in the know to actually find out if that company had a need for your services and build a relationship via arranging a physical meeting. Or in the case of a negative result move on quickly to another potential contact.

Physical cold calling wasn’t the wasteful expenditure of time that it might be considered now, first there was less traffic on the road than today, the cost of fuel was nowhere near it’s relative prices today and a representative who cold called an industrial estate at a time (I was in the packaging industry back then) could gain valuable information on a companies size, products and potential requirements from a quick walk around the perimeter of a factory.

The third option of trade exhibitions hasn’t really fundamentally changed, the opportunity to gather all the likely clients and suppliers of one sector of industry in one place at one time is still a model that appeals to many companies enough that they are willing to pay for the space.

So that was then and what about now? Social media, email as a requested form of contact by many buyers, often to a nonspecific mail box. Receptionists that refuse to give a contact name because it isn’t company policy. Switchboard operators that won’t even confirm they have a department in the company that might deal with your product! When did we all become so paranoid? Why has business become so scared of being recognized? Is the blame culture to blame?

I’m taking a stand at an exhibition next month, because I want to meet new clients.  Because I’ve been around for a while I’ve actually been trained on how to man an exhibition stand. It was considered important enough back in my early days that people were actually sent on courses to man a stand, probably because the relative cost then was so great. I doubt many companies do that today.

In my job as a photographer I get to witness a lot of sales people on stands these days. Many a conference will have an exhibition attached for delegates to peruse in coffee breaks and lunchtimes. It always amazes me at the lack of professionalism displayed by many sales staff in these situations. Is it because the cost has become so minimal both to produce the material for a stand and the cost of the space that the exhibiting management don’t consider it requires skilled sales staff?


Good sales staff at work
Good sales staff at work?

Without exaggeration somewhere between 25%- 50% of stands I see seem to be manned by office staff culled from the marketing office or perhaps PR departments. Are these people trained in stand selling? It doesn’t look like it. If you have been to a trade show you’ll recognize these scenarios.

A stand, with good visual displays which is manned by a young lady or gent sat behind a desk with their head firmly planted in their phone screen. The two suited figures standing with their arms crossed deep in conversation with each other about something happening in their office. The stand staff member arranging company literature on display in neat little bundles so they look like they should never be touched.


Do these look like trained sale staff?


Are we all so scared of social interaction these days that we have forgotten the art of making conversation? Are our sales staff so badly trained that they don’t know how to start a conversation with a stranger? Is the gaining of new contacts of so little importance to companies that it isn’t worth investing the time and effort into our staff to make them equipped to man a stand?

Next month I will be manning my stand at Olympia, selling, that if done correctly can generate more real, live and interested contacts per hour than any amount of social media. So how’s it done?


1)   Body language – stand staff need to be at all times displaying interest in the potential clients. No crossed arms, no faces in phones, no eye avoidance with people looking at your display.

2)   Verbal approach to passers by must be positive with open ended questions to show an interest in the prospective client. Engaging a potential client in conversation needs to be light, friendly and positive.

3)   Know your product when asked, but ask questions as to what interests your potential client rather than firing off like a machine gun all the products that you offer. Hunt the interest then home in and match your company’s product.

4)   Be happy to be there! – Manning your stand with staff who drew the short straw is the best waste of time and effort you can achieve. Treasure your sales staff and make sure they have an incentive to be proactive. Positive motivation is a must.

5)   Follow up – have a plan of attack to turn an interested potential client into a real client. This could be anything from arranging appointments while still at the display to taking contact details and agreeing a further conversation or meeting after the show.


Which stand isn’t making full use of the sales opportunity?



All the above is old school logic and really doesn’t deserve to get lost in the mists of past practices. Social media is a great new platform but it’s not a replacement for direct contact. For many it has little more value than display advertising. Networking is just another name for getting out there and making people aware of your products, it’s old school selling wrapped up in new cloths, the reinvention of the wheel. Make sure your staff are trained in the old techniques so they know the basics, however the technique is dressed.

Now I really must get on and ring a client, office hours have started!


Brian Russell

Copyright 2014.