Does your exhibit staff balk at the idea of training? Maybe you need a new approach.


What exhibit manager hasn’t heard, “I don’t need training; I’ve been working at shows for years?”  “Don’t we get enough training?” “Come in early for training? Are you kidding me?”

Why the resistance? One thought is that the booth staff—usually sales people—sell in the field, day in, day out, they’re successful in what they do, and there is usually quantifiable evidence that they know how to sell. Another answer might be simply an immediate response against being told what to do by you, the exhibit manager. Often, if sales leaders and product managers aren’t brought in as your allies, you won’t get the support you need to counteract this attitude.

And you know that when staff members say, “I’ve been working at shows for years,” you are probably inheriting years of bad habits.

What to do?

If you are using an internal trainer or training the staff yourself, you can almost bet on the fact that your staff will be pleasant but inattentive. If you are taking the recommended path of hiring a trainer who specializes in exhibit staff training and you make the investment in a dedicated training room, AV, and snacks for your session, you run into another set of problems, problems which might mirror the above-mentioned backlash. But another possibility is that you might be missing the mark on training if you don’t assert yourself and give the trainer some directions.

Let’s do some soul searching. What outcomes do you really want from the training? Would it be too far off the mark to say you want the training to generate enthusiasm and to give the staff a level of comfort in working in an exhibit, a radically different activity from their day-to-day?

Your training needs to focus not on how to sell but on how to sell in an exhibit. If at the outset you make this distinction clear by describing the exhibit environment, you can immediately counteract a lot of the snarky remarks coming your way. Probably, to avoid the reaction to the word “training,” the session should be called “how to work in the exhibit environment.” But for now, we’ll stick with “training.”

Do you have the right trainer for your group?

When deciding on a trainer, assess the way they mesh with the personality of your group. Most salespeople do not like authoritarian figures who give them a list of thou-shalt-nots. The best salespeople are independent and have their own style. If a trainer tries to negate what works for them, not only will you have pushback, but the atmosphere becomes toxic, leading to a lot of nudging and not very quiet whispers about what a waste of time this is. The idea is to make field sales skills transferrable to the exhibit environment.

Your trainer should communicate in a style that is authentic and non-threatening. After all, everyone is an adult. Not all exhibit staff trainers are created equal. Conduct your due diligence. Get referrals from colleagues, interview several trainers. Ask yourself: Would I like to sit through this person’s session?

It’s all theater

Working in the exhibit environment is more like theater than anything else: your basic island exhibit is a theater in the round; an in-line, a proscenium stage. Your staff, like actors in a play, are always “on.” While they are in the exhibit, their focus should be on what attracts attendees and keeps them long enough to engage.

Attendees at trade shows are self-directed. Either that, or they travel in a herd with their colleagues, friends, and people they’ve met along the way. Attendees may or may not have an agenda, a list of exhibitors they want to visit. What really determines where they stop to talk, all agendas aside, is how they perceive your staff. Friendly? People I want to talk to? Smiling? Alert? Approachable? I think I’ll stop in THAT exhibit.

85% of the memorability of an exhibit hinges on staff behavior. Did the staff make the visitor feel valued, important? Did they pay attention to what the visitor had to say? And was the staff responsive when the visitor entered the space? Being ignored is one of the biggest complaints attendees have.

Building on that: most visitors are hesitant to make the first move. They are not used to doing so. They are used to being the customer who is visited by a salesperson. And here, the customer is peripatetic while the salesperson is confined to one piece of show floor real estate for hours. Role reversal? Absolutely! And for the encounter to be successful, at least one half of this scenario needs to be comfortable with this reversal. That would be the half that is within your control: your exhibit staff.

Or consider this: the actor who tries to evoke audience participation. Definitely awkward at first. How does that person manage to engage the audience, to get them to participate? This is the skill you want your staff to have.

What don’t you want in a trainer?

You don’t want a trainer who is going to tell your staff how to sell. An external trainer, more than likely, doesn’t know your industry—and definitely not your products and services—as well as your staff does. Your salespeople are the experts in that department. You want training that focuses on the physical demands of working in an exhibit for four to eight hours a day.

And you don’t want a trainer who is authoritarian (there’s that word again) about what to do and what not to do. You want a trainer who is like a stage director, who tells your team what works and what doesn’t work as they engage with the target audience.

Body language sounds like such an old-school term, but it is the only term that adequately describes what needs to be a major focus of your training. Most of us are unaware of how our body language communicates our feelings and our attitudes, either accurately or not. For example, when people are fatigued, as staff members often are, having them leave the exhibit, take a break, and recharge is preferable to their standing in the exhibit looking tired, and dare we say it, crabby.

Another caveat: you don’t want a trainer who will embarrass your staff members in front of their peers. For this reason, random role playing doesn’t really work well. Some people are naturally at ease in front of the group, but many others are not—and there is no way to tell one from the other by looking at your staff.

And finally, remember a little humor goes a long way to winning the minds and hearts of your staff members. A little, not an overload. Your training session is focusing on interpersonal skills with emphasis on “inter.” The staff interactions with attendees need to be dialogues, not product monologues—and the training session should reflect that. Training itself should be an example of a fluent, satisfying encounter.

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