International Trade Shows: The Comprehensive Guide

Johnny Marx
July 29, 2015

Whether you are entering a particular overseas market or looking to expand your brand’s global footprint in general, exhibiting well at international trade shows can be a critical factor in your success. Fortunately, what works at American trade shows will also work, generally speaking, at trade shows in China, India, or wherever the developing market of tomorrow may be. (You can find a good primer on trade show tactics and strategies here on this blog. So far we’ve given pointers on pre-show marketingpreparation, booth staff training, lead generation, guerrilla marketing, and booth design.) At the same time, international trade shows have a specific set of challenges that you are not likely to encounter stateside. Here are a set of best practices for taking them in stride and making your exhibit a success.

Choose Your International Trade Shows Wisely

Every year, there are multiple trade shows in any given sector in any given country. Which one is right for you? In a new or unfamiliar market, especially, it can be a tough call and there aren’t any shortcuts. You need to put in the time to do the research. Word-of-mouth is the best way to identify trade shows where “everybody who’s anybody” in a particular market attends. You can also look for information from the U.S. Commercial Service, banks, trade associations, foreign embassies, chambers of commerce and online directories like 10times. Once you have chosen a trade show for your exhibit, remember that if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. We’ll get into what doing it well means in the next few sections, but for now just know that we recommend a quality-over-quantity approach. That means attending one trade show and treating it as an investment instead of attending three trade shows and treating them as expenditures.

Budget More Planning Time Than for a Domestic Trade Show

Any trade show organizer can tell you that there will always be wrinkles in the plan; it is just a question is how big they will be. Going international can make for some massive wrinkles, and time will be either your greatest ally or worst enemy for ironing them out. If you have enough of it you can handle almost any surprise. But leaving things to the last minute could spell trouble. A good rule of thumb for international trade shows is to plan to spend 30% more time planning than you would have on a domestic trade show and perhaps even more if it will be your first exhibit overseas. Here are three important reasons why:

  • Getting visas and/or passports for booth staff can take a few weeks at minimum. China and Brazil, for example, both require business visas for U.S. citizens attending trade shows. Those attending E.U. trade shows need only passports.
  • Organizing flights, accommodation, and local transport will likely be more complex than you may be used to for domestic trade shows. A good international trade show will attract large numbers of attendees (one of the main reasons why you’d be attending it) and hotel rooms in the vicinity of the exhibition center may be in short supply. If booth staff wind up staying outside the trade show city, you will need to get them in every morning via a rental car or other form of transport.
  • Some (if not the majority) of the stakeholders in your international trade show preparation project will be in a different time zone. You will be able to get your exhibition just the way you want it eventually but reaching the finish line will take longer.

One tip to keep your schedule on track is to ask early (and often) for timelines, guidelines, and deadlines from trade show organizers. If you don’t have detailed documentation shortly after registering, don’t be shy about chasing them until you get it.

Tackle the “Rent vs. Ship” Question for Your Booth Early

Once you’ve decided which international trade show to attend, your next big decision (which is likely to be most difficult of the preparation process) will be whether to customize a rental booth from a local exhibit house or to ship in a booth that you have already designed and built. (It’s probably best to avoid an un-customized “plain vanilla” booth from any source, foreign or domestic. Standing out with a well designed booth is too important.) Every scenario is different, and there are too many variables involved to give a single, definitive recommendation. What we will suggest, though, is that is renting is a safer while shipping is better. Renting is safer because you will have your hand held through the planning process and avoid last minute sticker shock. Shipping is better because you will be able to use the booth you invested in earlier with designers and builders with whom you have pre-existing relationships. Here are some important points to keep in mind for both options:

Customizing a local rental booth:

  • Try to negotiate an all-inclusive price from a local exhibit house or the local branch of your American exhibit house. Doing so will reduce your risk of getting nickel and dimed for design modifications, electrical wiring issues, or other last minute surprises that are not possible to predict until just before the opening day.
  • Allow extra time to explain booth customizations and graphics. While American suppliers might answer emails about design modifications on the same day and have the process complete the next day, suppliers on the other side of the globe may take longer due to time zone differences.
  • Opt for simple language over complicated language when communicating with suppliers who are not native speakers. Also try to use pictures or diagrams instead of words wherever possible. Doing so will help suppliers understand your ideas the first time and increase the efficiency of your customization process.
  • Make sure your suppliers know you are planning with American-style deadlines, i.e., deadlines that are deadlines and not suggestions, as they are sometimes treated in other cultures. At the same time, taking a balanced view towards foreign business practices goes with the territory, so to speak. Your best bet is to allow extra time for potential delays.
  • Be ready to ship highly customized components of your existing booth to the foreign exhibit house you work with. A freight forwarder (a service provider who arranges transport using any available means) can help.

Shipping your own booth:

  • Allow extra time for customs clearance and other potential formalities like VAT. Freight forwarders can typically handle these processes on your behalf.
  • Allow extra time for ground transport. Your booth is likely to be at sea for a relatively short period of time. Most of the time in transit is associated with moving the booth between modes of ground transport e.g. from a container to a train and then from a train to a truck. Again, freight forwarders can help, especially those with expertise in shipping exhibition booths.
  • Allow extra time for sourcing and cooperating with a local booth assembly crew. The trade show organizer will likely be able to recommend a company if they do not provide the service themselves. Be aware that the crew may be unionized and you may need to work with them under certain terms and conditions that need to be agreed upon in advance. The crew may need extra oversight if they are not familiar with the materials or design of your booth.
  • Allow extra time to ensure that your booth is compliant with local safety codes. The company helping you assemble your booth will likely be able to assist you directly with this issue or at least make a referral to someone who can.

In sum, both renting and shipping have pluses and minuses. If you can devote management resources to shipping (or financial resources for a specialist freight forwarder) you can lock in returns from your investment in your existing booth. If you have limited resources or are relatively new to international trade shows, it may be prudent to take the safer rental option while you are on the learning curve.

Select and Train Your International Trade Show Team

We’ve saved the most important piece of the international trade show puzzle for last. While it is easy to get wrapped up in details about your booth or travel logistics, don’t lose sight of the fact that the trade show will be primarily about people. Here are some human resources tips for international trade shows:

  • Plan to have at least one bilingual person manning the booth at any given time. If you have a bilingual employee then he or she is an obvious candidate for the team. Otherwise, hiring a professional translator for the trade show is a smart move. English is widely spoken in international business circles today, but opening up the possibility of using a client’s native tongue is a professional courtesy and can help you make connections faster.
  • Put your team through a crash course in local business etiquette.
  • Do your homework and have your team ready to give accurate price quotes for your products including CIF (customs, insurance, and freight) for the local market.
  • In addition to product samples you ship via traditional methods like couriers, have your team pack product samples in their luggage in case of emergency. It may seem like an extreme precaution but your team will be an in extreme predicament if they are stuck in the booth without any samples at all, regardless of how it may have happened. (Depending on your product, though, you may need to double check airline transport regulations and customs laws beforehand.)

To conclude, we emphasize that when planning for an international trade show, keep your eyes mainly on the clock and not so much on the calculator. Overspending is never a good idea, but there will be predictably unpredictable costs due to factors like currency exchange rate fluctuations, for example, that make aggressive cost cutting a losing battle. Instead, treat your exhibit as an investment from which to extract value with the best practices outlined here.