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Tips for exhibitors in a post-COVID world – What we’ve learned from SaaStr Annual 2021

Maja and Aleks presenting CKEditor 5 on a SaaStr event

In-person events, conferences and exhibitions are slowly coming back since the COVID-19 pandemic started. But like everything else, effects of the pandemic can still be felt at events, with a focus on health, personal space and the current post-pandemic mindset. It’s been a month since we came back to Europe after exhibiting at SaaStr Annual 2021 in the ocean-breezed, sunny Bay Area and we have brewed our thoughts on it. We learned many things during this trip, both as the first in-person event we attended in the post-pandemic world, and as the first-time exhibitors at the SaaStr Annual. So here are some tips for being exhibitors in such post-pandemic events, and specifically the SaaStr Annual.

# Health

You should put your and your team’s health at the utmost importance before all other considerations. Conferences, including SaaStr Annual, require attendees to be vaccinated these days, tested negative for COVID-19 as well as requiring guests to pass temperature checks at the entrance. So always have backups of backup plans in mind, which is due to such situations like one of your teammates waking up the day of the event with a fever or showing other signs of illness throughout the day.

It’s advisable to check the local climate beforehand and be prepared for any weather changes, especially if you’re not accustomed to the area in which the event is taking place. But in order to avoid being denied entry to the event, where any last minute cold could lead to such a situation, it is a must to check the climate beforehand. Weather tends to be fickle, as it was in the case of SaaStr Annual, which was held in San Mateo County Center this year. So layered clothing, proper hydration and enough rest are your best friends!

# The booth

Let’s talk about the place that will be your “home” for the course of the event. There are three factors that will impact how much traffic you get to your booth:

  • Location
  • Size and design of the booth
  • Activations

Keep in mind that these things might change depending on how the event is organized. In the case of SaaStr Annual, the exhibition is the literal heart of the conference. The venue is designed in a way that attendees will simply find it impossible to skip the exhibition area and the traffic will be distributed well. However in other events, exhibitions may be an addition to the event rather than being the central attraction. In any case, the location matters and other factors may not be as important if it is ideal.

When deciding the size of the booth, remember it usually means that bigger sizes come with higher levels of sponsorships and better locations are usually reserved for those. How you will design your booth also depends on the size. For example, whether you would like a place where you can sit down which allows for longer chats with the visitors right in your booth or give more personal space and comfort to everyone in a COVID-19 vigilant world.

Branding your booth is easy once you decide on the approach you would like to take. But when making color and prop choices, do not forget to consider the environment and design your booth in a way where it would not blend with the background easily or be indistinguishable from other booths. Visualize the environment, take a look at pictures from previous events and ask the organizers for all of the details related to the general design and the color scheme of the event and the venue.

Activations are unique experiences you can offer to attendees that will nudge them in the positive action you would like them to take, let this be visiting your booth, signing up for trial or something else. They are another factor to consider when making decisions about the booth since they really set booths apart. Activations can be offering food, beverages or swag, organizing raffles and give-aways or more. Usually a bigger size booth means more space for more hands-on activations, say a print your own t-shirt station. But with activations, you can really put your imagination to work; you can create something that will spread like wildfire among the attendees and generate exceptional traffic, even if you have a small booth in a low traffic area. At SaaStr 2021, my favorite activation was petting dogs! It started with a single booth on the first day, but by the third day many more exhibitors brought their four-legged friends along to attract people to their booths. And of course, it was also nice to have a furry buddy along for the ride which was one of the perks of having an outdoor conference!

# The people

Usually getting to know the overall attendee profile happens before you even decide to go to the event. But after your decision is final, dive deeper into previous attendee and exhibitor profiles to make sure you will design your booth, prepare your company’s resources and offer the perfect swag to match the audience. By going over the exhibitor list ahead of time, you can also make sure, if there’s any company that would be a perfect fit for benefiting from your products.

There are also your colleagues to consider or your exhibition team. The more is always the merrier, but at least two are recommended. Depending on the size of your booth, you can decide on how many colleagues should be there at all times. The rest of the team can focus on activities outside the booth that might bring in new traffic. Some of these activities can include visiting other booths, signing up for pop-up talks to give a quick glimpse into your product offer, or simply attending talks to socialize with attendees outside the booth.

Your collective dress code is another way to create an image of your company and brand. Considering some of your team may spend time outside the booth, it gives the dress code even more importance. Consider the culture of the event when choosing the dress code. If the event is more corporate where attendees tend to prefer business or business-casual attire, choosing simple and matching polo shirts or suits will be your best bet. But if it’s like SaaStr, the Coachealla of SaaS events, where the dress code is quite relaxed, be colorful, and be yourself.

# Information materials

A very vital part of exhibiting are the resources you prepare, to both inform the exhibitors and help down the sales funnel. These are usually classics like catalogues, booklets, flyers, leaflets, introduction videos, demos etc. For most events many of these resources are prepared on paper, and flyers and leaflets are good examples of this. However, the important thing to consider is that every event has its own culture and some events are simply paper-free.

This can be because of an environmentally-friendly approach and not supporting production of any materials that will end up in the trash bin soon enough or it can simply mean that attendees don’t want to carry around the extra weight on them. This is especially true with catalogues, as they tend to come in heavy, and in the case of say 200 exhibitors it simply is not possible for an attendee to pick up a catalogue from every single exhibitor. So before you exhibit at an event for the first-time, make sure to check paper-friendliness with organizers and observe during the event for future reference. Taking less material also makes sense for reducing the shipping costs, but it’s up to you to consider the event, your goals and decide on whether to do a completely paper-free approach or simply adjust the number of items you would like to take with you.

Since catalogues can also be created and shared digitally or prepared in the form of a special landing page dedicated to the event, a good solution would be to focus on flyers and leaflets. They are less bulky to take along and would allow attendees to take a quick glance at your overall offer.

If you are planning to have a TV in your booth, then showing a well designed product tour or introduction will be enough in most cases. It is a better option in general than showing off flashy, and heavy on motion effects, videos with marketing text. You will have plenty of chances to add slogans in the design of your booth, so the TV will be a good chance for attendees to actually see your product or show examples while you’re chatting in a visual format. Apart from the TV display, having at least one tablet at your booth will help you quickly check and show the specific features attendees might be interested in.

# Swag

Of course there is the stuff we all get, or in this case give. There are always the classics like t-shirts, stickers, laptop covers, bags, socks, cute stuffed toys etc. Try to make not only creative designs but wild ones! Checklist for designing your swag may look like this:

  • Create things people would need and use, preferably as part of their daily activities.
  • Do not turn the swag into a tiny billboard but also do not forget about branding the swag.
  • And last, but not least, try to create stuff that would make people ask “OMG where did you get that?”

Creating crazy cool, useful and on-brand swag is challenging, and sometimes requires you to pick your battles. But if you get them just right, they may lead to some traffic coming your way. This can be right away during the event, but what swag actually does is, spread your brand into a broader space, and may even lead some new clicks your way! Considering the environment, the venue, the hypes, the zeitgeist will help you make a better decision.

To give some examples of swag that checked all the boxes for me during SaaStr 2021, was a hand sanitizer, a fidget/sensory toy and sunscreen. The keychain-type design of the sanitizer was very useful and it is travelling everywhere with me. Fidget, sensory or stress toys are also gaining a wider popularity. And as a person who loves them, I can attest that there is no such a thing as too many fidget or sensory toys one can have, so you cannot go wrong with them. And when it comes to sunscreen, if the event you’re going to attend is outdoors, keep in mind that outdoors can’t be imagined without sunscreen. Fun fact, I actually didn’t visit some of the booths and simply came upon the swag, by chance, and only after the event I said, “Let’s finally check who made this cool swag.” And now I know about their products!

Honorable mentions of swag include, cozy soft socks and scented candles that Blissfully gave away that g balance between good branding and usefulness perfectly as well as astro-cat stickers by Rocketlane because, cats! And who doesn’t love cats?

# Final tips

As you may realize, this blog post does not extensively cover the planning and preparing for exhibiting as a step-by-step process, but looks at it from a “what awaits you at the venue” perspective. So let’s close with some tips that don’t fit in any of the above suggestions, but should be considered in all levels of planning and preparing.

  • Ask questions. Preferably, as many of them as possible - especially for an event you are attending for the first time. This is because trying to plan out everything without outside inquiry, down to every detail may be difficult as there may be some things to clarify about the event. Organizers are there, exactly for this reason, and they spent months preparing the event. Thus, even though your contact person might not know all the details right away, they can get in touch with the right person and provide you with the information you need.

  • Create your theme. It is briefly mentioned within swag, but you can actually pick a theme and choose and design everything around it. Your booth, information materials, dress code and the swag can all revolve around a single theme. In the case of the event also having a theme, you can choose an accompanying one as an exhibitor, and have a framework to help you with design decisions.

  • Get the most out of it. ure, exhibiting in its purest form is done by having a booth and waiting for attendees to come to you, but there is always room for more opportunities. While some events have dedicated time slots and places for five-minute short pitches, which anyone can sign up for, others have knowledge-sharing opportunities like Braindates, where anyone can create their own topic and share it with attendees who sign up for them.

  • Don’t give up on in-person events. Finding in-person events these days is quite a tough task. Some conferences switched to being done entirely online on a permanent basis, and some were permanently canceled. But one thing is certain, from an exhibitor point of view, there is still a lot of time for online events to be able to catch up with the in-person events. So, do not give up hope on joining events just yet and when you find your perfect fit make sure to consider the post-COVID realities every step of the way.

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