By Linda Armstrong
Often disregarded as insignificant bits of fluff, tabletops have just as much as heart and chutzpah as big dogs twice their size. But to make the most of these agile little fellas, you need to understand both the breed and proper handling. Here, then, are 12 tricks and techniques to turn your potent powerhouse into a top performer.
Tabletop exhibits are the Yorkshire Terriers of the trade show industry. Like Yorkies, who are just as attractive (if not more so) as their canine counterparts, tabletops are nimble, lightweight, and practically small enough to slip into your pocket. And since they weigh merely 10 to 60 pounds on average, you can take these cute little guys with you just about anywhere, from trade shows and events to offices and showrooms.
But similar to their fluffy equivalents, tabletops have a few identity issues. When they're stuck amid a pack of Saint Bernard-sized booths that have enough kibble behind them to bark up some serious attention, trying to be seen and heard becomes a Pyrenees-sized problem. To fetch more than a sideways glance in this kind of dog-eat-dog world, tabletops need to be carefully groomed, perfectly positioned, and expertly handled by someone with more than novice-level knowledge of the breed.
So to make sure your tabletop is more pedigreed pooch than messed-up mongrel, EXHIBITOR asked five marketing experts how to create and manage an effective tabletop exhibit. Covering everything from graphics and staffing to technology and promotions, their 12 tips will help you create a champion tabletop exhibit with a return on investment that's Best in Show.
1. Incorporate one big image.
At their core, tabletop exhibits are little more than a series of graphics panels, which means designing those graphics is your first step in creating a successful display.
Keep in mind, however, you've only got a fraction of the display area of a 10-by-10-foot exhibit, so powerful, succinct communication is key. Our tabletop experts suggest you start the design process by selecting one – and only one – large image.
"On a trade show floor filled with parading attendees who usually only offer an exhibit a two-second glance, you need a single impactful image that communicates the essence of who you are and what you do," says Terry Moore, marketing team leader at Expogo Displays & Graphics Inc. "This image is your golden ticket to pull passersby in off the aisles."
A president and CEO of a GA-based exhibit provider offers a visual cue to drive home the point. "Think billboard, not brochure," he says. "If you pepper your graphics with a bunch of text and images, your tabletop exhibit will look more like an eighth-grade science-fair project than a professional marketing medium."
But just how big is big? It depends on where you intend to position your tabletop in relation to attendees, says Susanne Prax, president of Vispronet LLC, a provider of advertising-display and print products in Harrisburg, PA. "Figure out how far attendees will be from your display, and then make sure the image is large enough to be easily understood from the aisle."
A president and CEO of a portable-display provider in Portland, OR, insists that quality is a major concern for photos and graphics. "Just because your exhibit is more Chihuahua than Chow Chow doesn't mean you can scrimp on quality," he says. "Given that attendees are typically much closer to your graphics than they are in a larger booth, a high-resolution image and high-quality graphics are a must."
2. Abandon all unnecessary text.
Once you've identified an image, your next step is to determine what text will accompany it. But the burr in the fur here isn't trying to find enough text to fill the space; it's making sure you have reduced your text to the bare minimum that will still communicate your message.
"The only thing your exhibit graphics should do is effectively communicate your brand or offering, and provide one or two benefit-related messages in bullet-point form," says Randall Harju, principal of 3DL Design, a Kenosha, WI, marketing firm. "Add anything more than that, and you're swimming upstream."
Despite his last name, Moore thinks less is more. "The difference between text on a tabletop and text in a 10-by-10-foot booth is the difference between 'Moby Dick' and a sticky note," he says. "You want the Post-it Note version. Graphics need to say just enough to make people look, stop, and then listen to the rest of your story. Your booth staffer – or an iPad, some literature, a DVD, etc. – tells the story, not your graphics."
Ultimately, then, experts assert that your tabletop graphics should feature roughly 10 words along with your company's name and/or logo, assuming one or both aren't already present in your image. The words should also identify a benefit your product offers attendees. Don't waste your word allotment on detailed product specs; tell people how your product saves them time, earns them money, and increases effectiveness.
3. Drop the artsy fonts.
If fonts, colors, and the level of contrast prevent attendees from reading your text, you're giving them a mishmash of letters – not a message. And adding artsy accoutrements is like putting a service dog in a pink tutu. It's unnecessary, distracting, and kind of embarrassing.
"Select a simple, readable font – such as a san serif option like Arial, Helvetica, or Futura – and stay away from script or ornamental fonts," Prax says. "And of course, ensure that the text is large enough to be read from the position you intend to place it within your exhibit." To give you some context regarding size, experts indicate that a good rule of thumb for 10-by-10 exhibit graphics is that your headline must be 4 inches tall to be seen from the aisle, and body text should be 2 inches tall. So adapt either your tabletop's position or its text size to foster readability.
When it comes to the color of your text versus the graphics background, it's time to dust off and roll out the old color wheel to identify the hues with the highest contrast for best readability. Colors that are close to each other on the color wheel have low contrast, and those opposite each other have high contrast. Opt for high-contrast combos – or neutral colors such as black or white on a high-contrast background – as opposed to low-contrast colors, which are side by side on the wheel.
"A good visual example of high-contrast colors can be found on road signs," Moore says. "Stop signs are white letters over a red background because that combination is one of the easiest for the eye to read instantly, day or night, in any condition. Likewise, road-information signs are often black on yellow because that, too, offers high contrast that's easy to read."
Prax also asserts that for the sake of readability, your image and your text should be two completely separate animals. "Don't overlay your image with text. Mixing the two creates a jumbled mess of both."
4. Stay current with technology.
In today's high-tech world, electronic communication mediums are more pervasive than ticks on a Coonhound. So incorporate some technology and tell your story in a manner that is appropriate for today's attendees.
"Tablets are a godsend for tabletop exhibitors," Axelberd says. "Tablets are inexpensive, small, and portable – and they offer seemingly unlimited capabilities. They are the perfect addition to just about any exhibit. They allow you to show videos of your service in action and pics of your product in the field. And they can function as lead-retrieval systems, offer online product info, and even provide lead-fulfillment and lead-management capabilities. But best of all, they fit in your briefcase and take up less space in your exhibit than a stack of brochures."
Harju also believes that tablets should be standard equipment for tabletops. "I'm a huge iPad advocate," he says. "A good app can blow away any PowerPoint presentation, and one iPad can offer attendees your entire product catalog, making literature obsolete. So I'd toss out that literature rack and integrate an iPad stand instead."
Also consider adding a Bluetooth-enabled speaker, Prax says. "Given the noise and volume on the show floor, it's difficult to hear your phone pressed to your ear much less an iPad resting in your hands, so a Bluetooth speaker might come in handy. Or, better yet, make sure your staffers can do the talking for any videos or demonstrations (it's face-to-face marketing, after all) and rely on the tablet's sound capabilities as background music only."
Experts caution, however, that while most venues offer Wi-Fi and/or network coverage sufficient for tablet operation, exhibitors should always have a backup plan in place. For example, if online product videos and brochures are a key part of your in-booth experience, save them to your tablet as opposed to relying on network connections.
5. Incorporate a table throw.
"One of the best ways to crank up your tabletop's effectiveness is to add a custom-printed table cover," Axelberd says. "Attendees can tell in a second when you've used the show-provided table skirt, and doing so doesn't say much about your company's attention to detail or the effort you've put into the show."
A custom-printed table cover, perhaps in a solid color that matches your display or with your logo across the front, can create the illusion of a much bigger exhibit and increase your impact. "The price of dye-sub printing has come down considerably over the last four years," Axelberd says. "So you can produce an eye-popping, four-color table cover with minimal expense."
Keep in mind, however, that table covers aren't reliable message-delivery mediums. Since all text, logos, and images on a table skirt are below eye level, even one person standing in your space can completely block your table skirt's message from view. The role of a table cover is merely to create a polished look and the illusion of a larger display.
"Also remember that if you choose to coordinate your tabletop to your throw, color matching is critical," Prax says. "To make sure you have the perfect match, purchase your tabletop and throw from the same supplier if possible, and ensure that both pieces are produced using identical PMS numbers."
6. Explore different positions.
Most exhibitors assume that tabletop displays should be positioned at the very back of the exhibit space. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this option, experts propose that you match your position to your purpose.
"Before you decide where to put your tabletop display, consider what you want attendees to do and then place your table accordingly," Axelberd says. For example, if you want attendees to linger for long conversations, as opposed to quickly popping in and out of the booth, make sure you leave room for your staff and a couple of attendees to stand in your space (not the aisle) without blocking the view of the display. Or if you want people to literally grab a brochure and go, trot your table out next to the aisle for easy accessibility.
Prax is fond of aisle-side placement for other reasons as well. "Remember that people need to be able to read your display easily as they stroll by in the aisle, so unless you've adjusted your text for 'long-distance' viewing, a center or aisle-side placement might be optimal," she says. "Also, some people see the booth/aisle line as a psychological barrier, which prevents them from entering a 10-by-10 space. So moving the booth closer to the aisle often eliminates this obstacle."
Moore offers one more tip: Stay flexible. "It's important to adapt to each situation as it presents itself," he says. "For example, if you're shadowed on each side by large neighboring booths, move your exhibit close to the aisle to increase its perceived size and presence. Or if you realize that traffic flow is dominant in one direction, angle the display to generate more eyeball time on it. Maximize your presence in each circumstance, don't just keep jumping through the same hoop no matter its size or position."
7. Train staff to interact.
Unfortunately, staff training is usually an afterthought for tabletop exhibitors. Plus, more often than not, staffers are local or regional sales reps that only man the table once every blue moon. This breeds an environment where staffers have no ownership in the success of the program, no understanding of what good staffing looks like, and no idea how to properly care for the booth. It's like hiring a tween with zero pet-sitting experience to babysit your two show-quality Shih Tzus over spring break. That's a hot, matted mess waiting to happen.
But aside from your graphics and maybe an iPad or two, your staff is all you've got to capture attendees' attention – and their business. So exhibit managers must not only select staffers that understand their mission but also train them about everything from how to open a conversation and qualify leads to how to pack and transport the booth.
"Training a single tabletop staffer is just as important, if not more so, than training 30 staffers for a 1,000-square-foot booth," Prax says. In addition to explaining the aforementioned basics, Prax proposes that training also cover a few other topics. "Staffers need to greet attendees but then guide them away from the front of the table so passersby can view your display. Also, staffers should get out from behind the table and interact with attendees; they're selling products and services, not tabletops.
And finally, staffers have to keep their faces, not their backsides to the aisle, which means walking behind the table to retrieve materials stored underneath as opposed to crouching down and crawling under the table with their derrieres to the sky."
8. Kick out the clutter.
"Clutter looks like garbage," Harju says. "You only get one chance to make a first impression, and you don't want attendees to think you're offering landfill services. So eliminate anything that's not absolutely necessary in your space, keep the top of your table spotless, and store ancillary items neatly under the table."
This means that your tabletop should only include some kind of takeaway with your contact information (e.g., business cards or literature) and perhaps a stand to hold these items, along with a lead-collection system – the latter of which is most effectively offered via a tablet, which as previously mentioned has a plethora of other benefits. So get rid of the coffee cups, cellphones, show-services forms, etc. "Your booth reflects the way in which your company does business, so especially in a tabletop exhibit, every item should have its place," Prax says. "Personal items, extra brochures, tchotchkes, etc. should be out of sight."
Also remember that cleanliness and the condition of your materials is just as important as a clutter-free space. "Worn or frayed exhibit properties hurt your image," Harju says. "This is a professional marketing experience, not a flea market." Also, consider bringing cleaning tools and supplies with you to the show to remove fingerprints, lift stains, and maybe even vacuum your carpet.
9. Promote your booth.
When it comes to overlooked elements, tabletop promotions rank right up there with staff training. But as our experts explain, tabletop exhibitors that pooh-pooh promotions are missing a golden opportunity.
"Whether you're talking tabletops or 1,200-square-foot monsters, lighting is an absolute must."
"While tabletops may be tiny, they can pack just as much promotional punch as exhibits 10 times their size," Rigby says. "That's because nobody knows how big (or small) your booth is unless they actually visit it on the trade show floor. So you, too, can generate show-wide awareness and worldwide press through press conferences, hospitality events, sponsorships, etc." And of course, don't forget about pre-show mailers. An effective mailer can draw hundreds of attendees to your space no matter what size exhibit you're using. But be sure you have enough booth staff on hand to effectively handle the potential onslaught.
"Just because you have a small booth space doesn't mean attendees have to walk away empty-handed," Rigby says. "Consider giving away tchotchkes that are appropriate to your target audience, or incorporate a tiered program where high-dollar items go to VIP clients, and lower-dollar gifts go to the masses." The point is, a West Highland White Terrier deserves just as much promotion as an Irish Wolfhound.
10. Incorporate lighting.
Moore concurs and adds, "A well-lit graphic is a good way to attract roving eyeballs on the show floor. That's because the convention center's overhead lighting is typically cool in nature and not especially inviting, which means that warm, illuminated graphics catch people's eyes and make the space more exciting and inviting."
Our experts recommend two 100- or 200-watt lights spaced to 2 to 3 feet apart, and with the fixture placed roughly 2 feet out from the graphic. While most tabletop providers stock lights that simply clip on to the top of your display, you should also look into "uplighting." According to Axelberd, a few small lights clipped onto your table and pointed upward at the display can create a truly unique, eye-catching effect.
When choosing light fixtures, Prax cautions, always check with show management and/or the event venue to determine which types of fixtures are prohibited, as many venues have banned halogen fixtures. "And don't forget about cable management," Prax says. "Even in a tabletop booth, your cables and wires should be hidden from view and secured so you don't create a tripping hazard."
11. Apply appropriate additions.
Certainly, simplicity and a clutter-free space are paramount to the success of your tabletop exhibit. But you might want to consider one or two additional components to enhance your presence if, and only if, you can still maintain a clean, tidy display.
"Consider adding a simple, lighted header to the top of your booth to add a bit of height and increase visibility," Harju says. A header, i.e., a graphics panel attached across the top of the exhibit, should contain little more than the name of your company, a logo, or a benefit statement, but not all three. Adding a few more inches to the display can increase the chances that attendees will spot your exhibit and offer a bit more space to relay your message.
Experts also propose that you peruse the tabletop attachments your exhibit supplier has available, such as attachable shelving systems and literature racks. As long as they don't detract from your message, these types of accoutrements might be valuable additions that can free up some extra space.
12. Reuse it at myriad events.
While most sources agree that tabletops are ideal marketing mediums for the trade show floor, they also urge you to extend your tabletop's reach to various other marketing opportunities to get more bang for your buck.
"Tabletop exhibits are outstanding, multitalented performers," Moore says. "You can show them at civic events and various types of fairs and festivals, and maybe even use them in your company's showroom. And of course, don't forget that tabletops can pack a considerable punch as one-on-one demonstration tools in the field."
"For the right target market, tabletop displays are a good fit for sporting events and sponsorships, shopping mall and airport kiosks, and tons of other retail-based settings," Axelberd adds.
Along these same lines, Prax says you might consider tabletops for point-of-purchase displays or service counters. "When it's not on the road, your tabletop can also be set up in corporate conference rooms and anywhere a customer might need to see a presentation."
Finally, Rigby also reminds us that some tabletops can be enlarged or adapted to become 10-by-10-foot exhibits or components within larger exhibit spaces. For example, his company offers a 10-foot display that can be converted to a tabletop, and vice versa.
Armed with the aforementioned tricks and techniques, you can turn a mess of a marketing vehicle into man's (and woman's) best friend. And more likely than not, your tabletop will scare up enough results to make it Best in Show at your next event.
Tabletops are available in three basic varieties: panel systems, pop-ups, and briefcases. However, custom displays, banner stands, and 10-by-10 exhibits that convert to tabletops are also available. Tabletops range in size from 4-by-3 feet to 8-by-5 feet, and cost between $250 and $2,000, not including optional accessories. Here's a guide to the most common types of tabletops.
Usually constructed of hard-surface squares or rectangles connected by hinges, panel systems offer the ultimate solution for last-minute setup, as most allow you to simply unfold the panels and stand the unit upright. Typically, three to five panels are hinged together and covered with fabric, and the graphics are attached via hook-and-loop fastener.
Banner Stands, Custom Exhibits, etc.
Exhibit companies offer a range of custom tabletop options, from 3-D displays (which use custom frames to create geometric shapes) and combinations featuring fabric graphics and pop-up stands, to extra-wide custom banner stands and even 10-by-10-foot or larger exhibits that can be scaled down to tabletop size.
Pop-up tabletops are almost identical to their 10-by-10 brethren, except for their size, of course. The frame, which is often housed in a canvas carrying case, is typically a lightweight material comprising flexible tubes and connecting joints. Graphics are applied directly to the frame using magnetic strips or plastic connectors, or a fabric cover goes on first and graphics are then attached to the fabric via gasket-based or hook-and-loop fasteners.
Briefcase tabletops resemble a briefcase (only they're slightly larger). Graphics are housed within the case, which is then opened and simply set atop a table for display. Equipped with handles for easy transport, briefcase tabletops are often used at small regional or local shows and/or to augment sales calls.