How to gear up for German Trade Shows: Five Commandments

How you present yourself at a trade fair greatly depends on your corporate identity and what you want to achieve; still, there are some general rules I believe one should follow when it comes to gaining attention and increasing brand awareness. Let’s cast a light on what is often overlooked when, for example, exhibitors choose stand location or select their team. As always, I also highlight what I find especially important when the show you attend takes place in Germany.

1st Commandment: “You shall always try to get a good location for your stand!”

“Good location” in this context means the best place to achieve your trade fair objectives. If your aim is to boost the sales of active components, do not join a trade association’s booth placed in the hall dedicated to electromechanical components. If your objective is to promote your latest software release, targeting C-level executives, do not hide in a hall where people would expect c-class components.

Make sure visitors can find you! E.g. position yourself in the appropriate hall.

“Good location” also means trying to grab an attractive position within a suitable hall. In general, the stands close to the hall entrance are very popular. The more isolated the booth, the more expensive. This means that if you are in a row and in between other stands (with neighbours to your right and to your left), usually floor space will be less costly. You need to pay more for a booth that can be accessed from two, three or even four sides. However, you might have other priorities and considerations, like proximity to your most important competitor. One of my ex-bosses always insisted on having our booth located close to the toilets. He was convinced that traffic was especially high there, and that people would be relaxed and open to new impressions when they came back out.

Many event organisers offer “early bird” prices and special packages; it will not harm you to get in touch with the trade fair representative well in advance and ask what benefits you gain from booking your booth early. Please, don’t play the waiting game – it might not end in your favour. Next time we meet, don’t forget to ask me about the world-leading trade show I attended some years ago, when a top market player ended up in a row stand, 20 square metres at a max, because they waited too long; or maybe thought they could negotiate with the organiser. They were our stand neighbours, really nice guys! What a pity they could only squeeze three or four of them and a football table into that little booth.

2nd Commandment: “You shall always use the official (!) trade fair media!”

Ensure that your company name is listed correctly in the official trade fair media (online catalogues, apps, show guides and/or print catalogues). If the feature is not included in the standard (obligatory) advertising, hopefully you have allocated some budget to add your logo – at the very least. Your company URL should be linked to your website, and don’t forget to update your online presence (professional and social media accounts) with the special occasion.

Something I see quite often these days when checking the exhibitor profiles in the online directories, like I recently did for the upcoming EMO: utter nonsense or embarrassing computer-translated texts that apparently nobody checks. Please, do me a favour and get that reviewed and corrected by a native speaker!

There are bad guys out there! Don’t let them trick you!

Try to understand how much is included in the mandatory media packages. In many cases, you can tick a certain number of boxes under “products” or “applications” during the registration process. This is how the organiser will gain a better understanding of the exhibitors’ portfolio ‘on stage.’ Quite often, the fair will also use this information to compile a comprehensive exhibitor list. Visitors can then conduct their search according to this nomenclature. So, you’d better be accurate! Do not waste the opportunity to be found because you haven’t completed the respective form correctly. But, even if you can tick all the “free-of-charge” boxes, concentrate on what you are good at.

However, don’t fall for untrustworthy exhibitor directory offers! There are some companies (who are not related to the fair organisers!) in the market that target exhibitors and try to sell entries in inferior, sub-standard, online directories. Their conditions often stipulate long-term obligations to pay several thousand euros. They are fully aware that people rarely read their toxic terms concealed in the fine print. I have come across numerous complaints from exhibitors who have been harassed by letterbox companies.

3rd Commandment: “Don’t keep what you have to offer a secret!”

Unless you attend a show to entertain only a hand-selected number of VIP contacts (appointing a bouncer to turn away unwanted guests), your ambition is, most likely, to attract as many relevant visitors as possible. And, if your goal is to present new products, then attention needs to be drawn to these.

You need to display the items in an attractive and prominent manner, highlighting the product’s advantages. Shipping the goods back and forth might be expensive, but only displaying a poster of what you intend to sell will not do the job. What you can showcase on a poster are product specifications and advantages. Don’t forget that if you are not yet known on the market, you very often first need to convince people that the items on display are more than just cheap copies.

A friend of mine purchases electromechanical components. He says that, for him, it is crucial that he can weigh the parts he is considering in his hands; to be able to touch and feel the goods. The staff should be prepared to answer his detailed questions, to his full satisfaction. Like most Germans, he would expect to communicate with international exhibitors in English.

4th Commandment: “…however, don’t go overboard and adjust to your audience!”

Unless you are talking to a fellow-countryman and subject-matter expert in your field, my advice is that you try to speak slowly, show product samples, and illustrate/demonstrate complex concepts.

Be aware that cross-cultural body language can easily be misinterpreted (for example, the Indian head wobble is often taken as a “no”). Also, keep in mind that some people generally prefer a bit more personal space than others. When a German visitor adjusts his or her chair during your product demonstration, moving it a bit further away from where you are sitting, do not try to regain proximity; your guest – being used to keeping others at greater distance – might start feeling very uncomfortable. If you are from the United States, you might experience just the opposite and feel that Germans come way too close. It is better to avoid touching the other person’s arm or other parts of the body when talking. Don’t slap a German on the shoulder, unless you already know him very well. When it comes to women, avoid this habit completely.

If you are indeed especially targeting German buyers, and you are new to the market, or wonder why things never work out as expected, better read up on how Germans like to handle things. Grab a copy of my latest book, Doing Business in Germany: A Concise Guide to Understanding Germans and Their Business Practices, or download the eBook on amazon.

What else? If you get the chance to talk to journalists, they will be eager to learn about the latest developments on the market, so tell them what’s new and don’t bore them with your wide range of standard products. In publishing, where agents look out for promising titles to license during Frankfurter Buchmesse (Frankfurt Book Fair), you should emphasise your bestselling products and carry short pitches to promote your titles.

5th Commandment: “Select your team carefully and don’t forget to brief them properly!”

Make yourself understood regarding what you expect from your team, including when to show up in the morning and what to wear.

Don’t leave your team in doubt about the company’s trade fair objectives. Make yourself understood regarding what you expect from each of them, including when to show up in the morning and what to wear. I once had an Indian client who, every year, granted his staff a budget for new Western-style business suits.

If language is an issue, make sure there is at least one person who can help out by interpreting. You and your team should always be able to communicate with visitors; over here in Germany either in English or German. If you cannot respond to questions in one of these languages, Germans will not trust that “discussing” business with you will make any sense – unless maybe they are fluent in your mother tongue. Basic French and Spanish skills are quite common, however, you would rarely meet a German who has gone to the effort to learn Mandarin or any Chinese dialect.

German Sales Trainer, Dirk Kreuter, in one of his bestselling books, Erfolgreich akquirieren auf Messen : In fünf Schritten zu neuen Kunden, recommends (mentally) dividing the team into “hunters” and “farmers”. Hunters enjoy cold calling and approaching people; farmers are the guys who like to take care of customers over a long period and know all the details and stuff. Depending on your trade fair goals, Kreuter recommends you should bring along enough people with the “hunting” spirit to approach the visitors passing by.

 Nichola Reeder and Steve Reeder, also bestselling authors and trade fair experts, take a closer and maybe more down-to-earth look at who else is needed, apart from the sales guys. They also acknowledge that not everybody is all “hurrah!” when it comes to participating in a show, and that when building your dream team, you’d typically need to live both with your colleagues’ strengths and weaknesses.

In their brand-new publication The Exhibitionist: Inspiring trade show excellence, they describe typical behaviours (personas) and provide advice on how peoples’ skills and traits are best used in a trade show context; no matter if you got Jack the Lado n your team – the chatty party animal who tends to show up late and who you’d better remind of the trade show objectives, but who is great at evening networking events –, shy and nervous Wallflower Wilma, or Hard-sell Hank, a sales-driven character who, however, “might struggle in an environment where he’s working towards a corporate goal rather than his own individual targets, or where he’s not directly selling,” as the trade show veterans explain.

If you have prepared lead registration forms, demonstrate how to complete them and give instructions on where to put them. Explain “Scan2Lead-Apps” or whatever tools or tracking software the organiser offers and that you want to use. Consider providing a sales training session (“refresher”) and have your staff practice product demonstrations. Brief them about the dos and don’ts, and think about hiring a consultant who can help you avoid the common pitfalls that typically result from intercultural misunderstandings. If your focus is on German buyers, you can always get in touch with me!

When drafting your sales pitch, think customer-oriented: what is the (typical) customer problem, and how can you (help) solve it? I once had a client whose claim included something about their contribution to helping China achieve technological supremacy in the world; while I would not begrudge China their attempt to take a world-leading position in that, it is not what your German target audience would find especially persuasive.

Make sure your staff knows what the booth will look like and how it will be equipped. Ask them if they would like to add or change anything in terms of the space utilisation, product layout, materials used, and so on – especially when you bring along people from various disciplines and backgrounds, their perception of “requirements” might differ. Plan short debriefing sessions for each trade fair day: what went well? What can be improved?

You might need an extra person to coordinate the staff, serve food and drinks, and run errands. Ask the trade fair organiser in the event that you would like to hire a host or hostess; they’ll be happy to recommend someone if you ask them well in advance.

You have more questions? Please don’t hesitate to get in touch (you can also send me a message on LinkedIn). You should talk to me if you want to gain a better understanding of your opportunities, and you value a local’s help in finding buyers and potential business partners.

Learn more about some past projects and what I can do for you: You’ll make it in Germany!