Make it BIG in Birmingham

Franchise Consultant Tony Urwin offers some practical advice for exhibitors at the nation's most important franchise exhibition

In October more than 250 British Franchise Association (bfa) accredited franchisors descend on Birmingham for what has arguably become the most important franchising event in the UK, the National Franchise Exhibition at the NEC. This show is an important part of every exhibitor's marketing mix, and serves as a high-profile complement to their print and online advertising. While every form of marketing activity requires a capital investment, exhibiting demands a significant human investment as well, in the form of time, energy and stage presence. Big brands and expo veterans may feel that they have little left to learn, but most franchisors will appreciate a few proven exhibiting tips and tricks.

The following assumes that you are a bfa-accredited franchisor who has taken a booth at the National Franchise Exhibition. Whether you're reading this before or during the show, I hope the advice below proves useful to you.

Every franchisor is there to raise its profile and to generate leads (contacts with potential franchise buyers). While brand awareness is harder to measure than lead flow, both are vital to the growth of your business. Neither, however, is guaranteed. At every moment, you must actively work to display your brand in a positive light and to attract and welcome visitors. You cannot sit back, and you cannot relax. You have only two days to make a return on your investment. It is vital that you stay focussed.

While you may be anxious to make contacts, never let it show. Don't pounce on visitors. It not only puts people off but can make your business appear unpleasant or, worse, desperate. Greet both approaching and passing visitors warmly, with a natural smile. You want to make people feel welcome at your booth. A smile and eye contact are more effective than most freebies.

Given easy access to bowls or baskets of freebies, most visitors simply take what's on offer and move on. Unless your singular goal is to ensure that every visitor goes home with your branded pen, place your giveaways well within your booth, for the benefit of interested parties.

The Bag Stuffer likes paper as well. The way some visitors walk through the aisles filling their bag with brochures, you have to wonder why they didn't save themselves the £8 parking fee and simply browse the UK Franchise Directory. While seemingly anti-social, Bag Stuffers can be lured into conversation: simply put out only one to two brochures at a time. Common courtesy requires them to ask if they can take one. Once they do, they are ready for conversation.

Unless your pockets are bottomless and you're unmoved by the media's exhortations to save our planet, don't put out brochures. Instead, offer visitors crisp, one-page summaries of your business opportunity. These sheets are more likely to be read, and have greater chance of provoking further enquiries.

Make your booth a welcome area. Booths that have a large, unobstructed entrance and an open centre appear inviting to all. Complement this with equally welcoming body language. Do not 'guard' the entrance or displays - stand with your arms at your sides or in your pockets, but never leave them folded. You wish to appear approachable and alert, not formidable or bored.

You are presenting a valuable business opportunity at a high-quality franchise exhibition, not standing on a high street trying to solicit charitable donations. There is no reason to accost exhibition visitors! Ask passers-by how they are enjoying the show. Ask people about themselves (see below). Introduce yourself. Ask the visitors if they know about your product or company, and if so, how. Explain that you are there to answer any question they may have. Be a person first and foremost, and always treat your visitors like people, too. As I have stressed in this column many times before, franchising is all about relationships and trust. It is never too early to start building both.

During peak hours you can find over a dozen people in front of your booth, all of them with a question to ask. Before the show, develop a set of questions to ask visitors in order to quickly gauge each individual's potential importance to your business. Then, manage your time accordingly. Keep in mind that while potential franchise buyers who express serious interest are worth their weight in gold (or sterling), industry experts, potential business partners, bankers, consultants and other service providers are worth your time as well. If someone is simply interesting to talk to, take their contact details and get together with them after the show. Spending half an hour in leisurely conversation can cost you a great deal of potential business.

Whether deal-making, networking or simply unwinding, the opportunities (and temptation) to drink are many outside exhibition hours. It's fine to enjoy a drink, but you need to look after your health and well-being.

Ensure that you have plenty of water and nourishing, stamina-enhancing foods on hand. Consume sugar and caffeine in moderation! Once you've burned off the sugar, you'll be lower than before, and too much caffeine can make you more anxious than alert. Wear comfortable shoes and bring along a second pair if possible: a change is as good as a rest for the body, as well as the mind. And as your parents might have told you: always go to the washroom when you have the chance!

While you're in the washroom, look at yourself closely in the mirror to see how you appear to visitors. Brush your teeth after every meal, and have plenty of mints to hand (never gum, you're not a football manager). Apply a good, strong deodorant in the morning and avoid strong colognes or perfumes. You want visitors to notice the strength of your business opportunity, not your redolence.

Inform yourself of the centre's access policy and the location of its various facilities. This will not only help you and your staff, but will allow you to be helpful to exhibition visitors.

While things may get hectic, always stick to plan You arrived at the show with pre-determined procedures for capturing and storing data. Don't lose sight of the objective of your conversations with visitors! You have a goal: to collect and record the details of your leads!

You will likely return to your office wrecked and exhausted, craving a day off. But wait: there is important work yet to be done. You must follow up on the leads you collected without delay in order to capitalise on the enthusiasm generated by the exhibition. You worked hard to get these leads... don't let them grow cold!

Exhibitions are an intense, demanding and exhausting experience for franchisors. With skill, energy and aplomb, they can be a rich source of leads and swell the ranks of future franchise classes. If the National Franchise Exhibition in Birmingham is a part of your marketing mix this year, make it a smashing success. I'll see you there, at the Franchise Development Services booth (R80).