Trade Show TalesBlog

Some Days You’re an Artist. Other Days You’re a House Painter.

April 24th, 2015 COMMENTS


Artist or House Painter?

You probably didn’t choose the exhibit industry. It chose you. But you stayed for any number of reasons including the people, the creativity, and the marketing challenges. New projects present themselves, each with a unique personality, each an evolving, moving target.  On your best days, you get to be an artist. It doesn’t matter if you’re in design, production, account management, sales, marketing, or even accounting. You soar on those days. And when the clock hits 5 or 6 or 10 pm, you walk out of the door with a smile.

Then there are days where none of us have the luxury of being artists. We’re house painters. Good house painters mind you, but ones where the colors, the canvas, and the guidelines are chosen by someone else, usually your client. If you’re in sales, account management, or design, you know exactly what I mean. Decisions are made (or not made) that may negatively impact the success of a project. Below are the most common. You’ll recognize each one… like a knife to the heart.

Budget Over Strategy

All clients have budgets. We understand that. It’s our business to maximize their trade show ROI based on that budget. Too often, budget trumps any consideration of a coherent marketing strategy. The client says, “I have $9,000 to spend on a display, exhibit space, travel, and shipping. What can I get for that?” We know that the conversation should be “What do you want to achieve?” But that’s not where the client wants to go. At that point we have a few choices. We steer the conversation back to strategy. We tell them to forgo the trade show until they have a reasonable budget. Or, we grab the big paint brush and show them the options in their budget.

Convenience over Function

How often have you heard a client say, “I need to purchase a display that’s portable and easy-to-assemble”? In fairness to your client, that may be exactly what they need. They may be participating in 20 Chamber of Commerce events, and portability is paramount. Then again, they may be exhibiting at their industry’s largest show where driving new sales is critical. In that case, what does portability and ease-of-assembly have to do with the client’s trade show strategy? We get it. Trade shows are expensive. Drayage and labor make it that much more expensive. However, those decisions should be a part of the larger discussion of the client’s overall goals. But you already know that.

Poor Design over Stunning Design

slackerThis one is always a landmine since everyone thinks they’re a designer. Which would be fine if everyone was a good designer (or even an artist like you). When it comes to display design there’s considerable latitude, so let’s ignore that. Graphic design, however, is fraught with mistakes, dead-ends, and just plain dumb choices on trade show exhibits. Often it’s not the client’s fault. They are relying on a graphic designer who has no experience with trade show graphics. They see it as a magazine ad or website. Sadly, neither of those apply. So you do your best to guide them to make changes. But it’s tough especially if they don’t have a budget for graphic design. In this case, the best teacher is abject, utter failure.

Procrastination over Planning

This is the bane of our existence. We pray for clients who plan months in advance when purchasing a new booth. We revel in delight when they give us time to stage and prep an exhibit for a show. We are happy campers when our clients complete the show forms before the late deadline. Let me know when you meet one of those clients, and I’ll introduce you to Bigfoot.

Sales over Marketing

Calm down! This is not an indictment of sales. We love, love, love sales. Too often, exhibitors hang their hat on the effectiveness of sales at the show to the detriment of pre-show marketing. It’s the “if we build it, they will come” philosophy. You know all too well that those days are long gone. So, you counsel your client to employ every available tool to drive potential customers to their booth space. As an exhibit artist, you tell them to use social media, email marketing, press releases, phone calls, and even snail mail. Do they listen? Maybe a little. But not as much as they should. See previous section — Procrastination over Planning.

If only our clients understood that we’re ARTISTS not HOUSE PAINTERS, DAMN IT! Sigh! … While we wish each and every day we could put on our artist apron and create a masterpiece, on most days we’re donning a Tyvex suit and grabbing a paint roller to start on another house. Yes, it comes with the job. But it doesn’t hurt to dream.

–Mel White


Based in Portland, Oregon, Classic Exhibits Inc. designs and manufacturers portable, modular, and custom-hybrid exhibit solutions. Classic Exhibits products are represented by an extensive distributor network in North America and in select International markets. For more information, contact us at 866-652-2100 or


Exhibits Northwest’s NEW Website

April 22nd, 2015 COMMENTS


Christmas Morning

Launching a new or updated website always feels like Christmas morning. It doesn’t matter if you have been immersed in the details for months. It’s still surprising and uplifting. Last night, we launched the new Exhibits Northwest website ( Exhibits Northwest is a sister company of Classic Exhibits that operates exclusively in the Pacific Northwest.

So why does this launch matter to you, a Classic Exhibits distributor? Three reasons ….

Website Design

The new Exhibits Northwest website was designed to be optimized for full screen, tablet, and mobile devices. This was the goal from the beginning and drove every-single design decision. The announcement from Google last week to prioritize mobile-friendly websites was a coincidence but a happy one for Exhibits Northwest (and the Classic Exhibits website, which is also mobile-friendly). If you haven’t altered your website for mobile devices, it needs to be added to your “To Do” list for this year.


We’re not new to website development, but this time we took a different approach. Instead of listing all the features we wanted the site to include, we defined what we wanted the site to convey. The Exhibits Northwest website had to focus on three goals that spoke to the ENW mission:  Creativity, Capability, and Culture. So, whenever we talked about a feature, it had to be “stress-tested” against those three objectives. In the end, it meant jettisoning quite a few pages from the old site, which had meaningful content but didn’t add to the story. It’s an approach we would recommend to others.

Exhibit Design Search

Anyone who has attended Shared Knowledge University or spoken to Kevin, Jen, Reid, or me knows that Exhibits Northwest serves as a testbed of ideas for Classic Exhibits. We ask them to review new products or new online features before funneling them to the Classic Distributor Network. Some make it to the Network, others don’t based on their feedback. Exhibit Design Search is a perfect example. The new Exhibits Northwest version shows a new approach. The images are larger, less blocky, the menu minimized, and there are clever animations. This approach can’t be achieved on all distributor-branded EDS websites since it’s format specific, but there are elements we will look to add to the next Exhibit Design Search software update.


Last but not least, a special thanks to everyone who made this happen. You’re the BEST!

Should you have any questions, give us a call. We welcome your comments and feedback.

–Mel White


Based in Portland, Oregon, Classic Exhibits Inc. designs and manufacturers portable, modular, and custom-hybrid exhibit solutions. Classic Exhibits products are represented by an extensive distributor network in North America and in select International markets. For more information, contact us at 866-652-2100 or



YOUR Invisible, Inc.: Word on the Street — April 13th thru April 17th

April 17th, 2015 1 COMMENT
Kevin Carty, VP Classic Exhibits

Kevin Carty, VP Classic Exhibits

We recently welcomed several new, very talented employees to the Classic Family. And as is our custom, Mel and I sit down with these employees to check-in and see how things are going after about a week of training and immersion.

During this time, we take the opportunity to talk about “Who Classic is” both internally as well as externally to our customers/partners. In that discussion, we use the term “Invisible Inc” quite often. It’s a phrase that was spawned from our participation in EDPA ACCESS Meetings.

The concept is not new to us, just the name. It’s a tidy, descriptive term that encapsulates our mission, and one that became even more important during the recession as we saw competitors changing their business practices. It’s at the core of our business model. But, like any mission statement or corporate culture, you have to live it and talk about it if you want it to be second nature to every employee. It can’t simply be printed on a poster and hung on a wall.

What does it mean to us? More importantly, what does it mean for you, our trusted and valued partners?

WP_002413You only need to take a 10 minute stroll through our Production Shop, as I did this morning. As I walked the floor, I saw large, very custom, wood-constructed exhibits in various phases of the production process. I saw countless 10 x 10 and 10 x 20 hybrid exhibits being prepped in the Set-up Area. Most of which will be previewed with graphics before being sent to your customers. I saw cart after cart of pre-cut, pre-milled and pre-bent aluminum extrusion waiting to be packaged and sent to exhibit houses that will use the extrusion in their own in-house design-build projects. And, I saw 52 On The Move portable stools with end-user graphics applied to the seats ready to be packed into cases and shipped to a large upcoming consumer event.

So what is unique about that?  You see, most of what I just described will eventually be leaving this building with YOUR brand on the crates . . . or YOUR packing labels on the cases . . . or YOUR branding on the set-up instructions . . . or be used in YOUR final exhibit build that you are working on in your own shop.

Don’t get me wrong. Classic Exhibits is very proud of its Brand. Please know that. But we are even prouder of the opportunities we are given each and every day to boost YOUR BRAND with our products and the hard work of our remarkably talented people.

For years now, you have heard us preach about “Shared Success…Your Success is Our Success.” Through all that, we often joke about how, outside the exhibit industry, we are largest “most unknown” Exhibit Manufacturer in the North America.  :)  It’s a  title we wear proudly.

YOUR Invisible Inc. means that if you are a Custom Builder in your market, you can also be a Pop-up Manufacturer and Hybrid/Modular provider. Or, if you are a Portable/Modular Distributor, you can also be a Custom Exhibit provider.

To all that continue to embrace our odd approach, thanks as always. I hope you have a great and restful weekend with your families.

Be well!



Your Trade Show Booth Staff Sucks!

April 10th, 2015 6 COMMENTS


This shouldn’t surprise you. You know your staff sucks. They are lazy. They don’t know the products. They look like shit after Day 1. And, worst of all, they don’t have a clue why they’re there. Yet, you tolerate it show after show. Why? There shouldn’t be any reason why your staff isn’t spectacular. It’s time to put on your adult pants and do it right.

Who Should Be There

That’s easy. Bring employees who know the products or services, who have charismatic people skills, who are personally invested in results, and who participate in pre-show planning or post-show implementation. Two out of four doesn’t cut it. A trade show isn’t a vacation. It’s a strategic investment.

You’ll often hear that 80% of trade show leads are wasted. Personally, I don’t trust that statistic, but I do know that bringing the right employees to the show solves that problem. They won’t let a lead sit on someone’s desk or be forgotten on a jump drive. They’re relentless about post-show follow-up because they understand how much time, effort, and money went into planning and participating in the trade show.

What Do They Know

What they know is important. What they do with that knowledge is critical. You want the Information Dream Team in your booth. Whatever the question, there’s someone there who has an answer, can get an answer, and lives to share that information.

Just knowing stuff isn’t enough. Each staffer must capture every sweet, savory nugget of information the attendee shares. Everyone thinks they’ll remember that game-changing conversation from Day 1. By Day 3, they couldn’t tell you their spouse’s middle name even if you gave them the first three letters.

Trade shows are exhausting physically and mentally. There is zero chance you’ll remember the details even if you have Sheldon Cooper’s eidetic memory. Honestly, the lead retrieval system doesn’t matter. What matters is having a system your group understands and follows. You can’t be a namby-pamby about this. There should be consequences for not adhering to the information capture process.

teamBoot Camp Mentality

Trade shows are a battlefield with winners and losers. On that battlefield, strategy and implementation trumps raw brute strength every time. What are the goals? Is everyone clear about them? At a minimum, there should be a strategy and planning “booth camp” meeting before the show. Then, there should be an alignment meetings every day before the show opens. Some companies even have meetings after the show hall closes to review leads, answer questions, and prepare for the next day.

More than anything, you have to be flexible. What you thought would be the “go to” product or service at the show may take a backseat based on attendee feedback. Then there’s going to be a wildcard. Often, it’s an evolutionary or transformational new product or service introduced by a competitor. At that point, you have to decide if your show strategy changes.

Tough Love

In any pack, there are always the stragglers, the injured, or the just plain stupid. You can ignore them and allow them to be food for your competitors, or you can deal with the problem. The staffer who arrives late sweating tequila and lime, reeking of three cups of espresso better have a good reason, like entertaining your key client until 4 am. Same with Susie Smartphone or Standing-on-the-Sidelines Sam. This isn’t a soccer tournament for 8 year olds where everyone gets participation ribbons. It’s a competition where sales, money, and jobs are on the line. Everyone has to pull their share. At tough love companies, the Susies and the Sams get sent home via Greyhound with loose change for vending machine sandwiches.

When it comes to trade show staffs, you get what you tolerate. When you expect more, your team will rise to the challenge. So… set clear expectations, communicate your goals, plan your strategy, and manage the environment, the days, and your post-show communication. It’s not easy, but your team (and your boss) will sing your praises when it’s “Go Time!”

–Mel White


Based in Portland, Oregon, Classic Exhibits Inc. designs and manufacturers portable, modular, and custom-hybrid exhibit solutions. Classic Exhibits products are represented by an extensive distributor network in North America and in select International markets. For more information, contact us at 866-652-2100 or


Trade Show Marketing | The Bare Minimum

April 9th, 2015 COMMENTS

4 Basic Trade Show Tips


1. What are some basic tips you would suggest for a business going to their first trade show?

Even if you majored in marketing, you probably learned diddly squat about trade show marketing. Which is sad since trial and error is very, very expensive at a trade show or event. My advice is to work with a professional, or at the very least, consult with colleagues who have gone through the process several times. Trade show success isn’t hard — if you know what you are doing and have done it repeatedly. In the end, it comes down to experience, planning, and flawless execution.

2. What advice would you have for a business that spends a lot of time at trade shows?

Plan. Too often, companies treat trade shows like a last minute vacation. Successful trade show marketing requires pre-show planning and promotion, staff training, and post-show follow-up — at a minimum. Attendees no longer just arrive. They decide who to visit based on research and company needs before they arrive at the show hall. Gone are the days when attendees would meander through the show hall. They identify who they want to see and spend time at those companies. It’s rare that attendees “discover” a new vendor at a show (which is why pre-show marketing is critical).

stk313065rkn3. How can a business with a small budget design an eye-catching display at a trade show?

First, decide on your goals for the show, which can change from show to show. What is your key message? What problem are you solving? What do you need? A large monitor? An iPad? Literature trays? Product shelves? There’s nothing wrong with starting small if your graphic is appealing and the message clear. Finally, ensure the graphic is designed by someone who understands trade show graphics. Trade show graphics are very different from a magazine ad or a website, and most graphic designs are unfamiliar with trade shows. Most importantly, work with an exhibit design professional, i.e., someone with a history of successful clients not just a history of exhibit sales.

Over the long run, the real cost of a trade show is not the display, which is fixed, but everything else — travel, meals, pre-show marketing, booth space, drayage, and salaries. Those costs can be managed with careful planning.

4. How is a trade show different from doing business in a brick-and-mortar location in terms of the way  employees interact with potential customers?

You may find this surprising. Except for the venue, it’s not really different. It’s as simple as having knowledgeable people who have solid sales and customer service skills in your booth, including senior management when possible. Greet visitors, listen, ask open-ended questions, and document the answers. Don’t drink coffee in the booth, eat, or text, or read email. All the things you would tell someone working at a typical retail store.

In the end, it’s about getting to the booth on time, approaching people, and being friendly and honest. Dress appropriately, keep the workspace organized and tidy, and act professional. A trade show is not a vacation. It’s your job so arrive sober, polish your shoes, and iron your clothes. One last suggestion — Never ever check your smartphone in the booth. You might as well be picking your nose. It sends the same message — Go Away!

Have questions? Send me an email or call. I promise to give you more than my “bare minimum.”

-Mel White


Based in Portland, Oregon, Classic Exhibits Inc. designs and manufacturers portable, modular, and custom-hybrid exhibit solutions. Classic Exhibits products are represented by an extensive distributor network in North America and in select International markets. For more information, contact us at 866-652-2100 or