CONSUMER SHOWS: The Exhibitionists - Consumer lifestyle shows are a fertile ground for new supporters and PR opportunities. But, as Justin Hunt finds, getting the presentation right is key to making an event a success

JUSTIN HUNT

"You have to have your objectives clearly staked out so you can go back and review them,

McDowell explains.

"I'm constantly being bombarded with invitations to shows. We go to very few because they are a huge cost and they are very time-consuming.

At the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show earlier this month, Christian Aid grabbed the attention of visitors with a garden that took the form of a giant game of snakes and ladders. The aim was to highlight the plight of Brazilian farmers and show how international trade rules are aggravating their situation. Visitors were invited to walk around the board to discover how the unfairness of the rules damages the farmers' prosperity.

Opportunities to communicate complex ideas in a memorable way such as this, face-to-face with large numbers of people, don't come along often, or cheaply. But there are plenty of reasons why charities have been regulars at consumer lifestyle shows for decades.

"It gives us an opportunity to raise our profile in a way that is engaging and interesting,

says Christian Aid's PR manager, Sarah Pinch, who adds that not everyone can be expected to wade through a long policy document about Brazilian farmers. "We know from research that a lot of Christian Aid supporters have a big interest in gardening. Having a garden gives us the opportunity to get across a series of messages in an innovative way."

Charities are going to consumer shows largely because of the numbers of visitors they generate and the PR opportunities that go with them.

More than 180,000 visitors attended the Hampton Court show in a week and Christian Aid gained extensive coverage on BBC TV and in the press. "We cannot pay for that level of advertising. We cannot pay for that level of awareness,

says Pinch.

Help the Aged has designed message-carrying gardens at the Chelsea Flower Show for the past 17 years. With an eye on the potential media opportunities, Help the Aged usually calls on sympathetic celebrities for garden photocalls.

This year the garden celebrated the Queen's Golden Jubilee and the achievements of elderly people with golden roses and golden yew trees. "We don't advertise, yet there were more than 60 million opportunities for people to see our name on the web, on television and in newspapers and magazines,

says Pat Baron, Help the Aged's liaison manager for celebrities and garden events.

Help the Aged gets the space free and tries to cover the costs of design and production of the garden as well as staff costs through donations.

Bricks are donated for free, for example, and at the end of the show, the charity sells off plants to generate funds. But, despite the hard work and difficulties associated with co-ordinating a garden at the Chelsea Flower Show, Baron believes it is a more effective channel than a traditional exhibition stand.

"It is costly and much more trouble. You're standing in the open air and it can be pouring with rain. But you can't be sure you're going to get the people to your stand at an exhibition. At the Chelsea Flower Show people pay to come in and see every bit."

Any charity that exhibits at next year's Daily Telegraph Adventure Travel and Sports show at Olympia can expect large numbers to come to the show.

However, that in itself is no guarantee of success. "A lot of visitors in one place is an advantage as long as you have a product which is relevant to the audience,

says Martin Anslow, the show's director.

The performance of staff at a charity's stand is an important factor in the success of any consumer show, says Anslow. "One of the most important things is to have enthusiastic people at your stand. You do get people who sit down and read a book when a show is quiet. You have to be standing up and welcoming people or approaching them. You cannot expect them to come to you,

he says.

From Anslow's perspective as an organiser, he is always looking for interesting stories which will help generate column inches in the press in advance of a show opening its doors to the public. And as far as Anslow is concerned, there is no beating the power of celebrity endorsements. "Organisers are always looking for an interesting story to send to the media beforehand, so they write about the show. Personalities are the way to do it,

he says.

The National Trust recommends that charities have a way of measuring the effectiveness of exhibiting at a consumer show. This year the National Trust went to the Chelsea Flower Show. "We are well-known but we have to be seen to be active. It's an opportunity to give information face-to-face to people who we know are interested. We talk them through the latest things we are doing,

says David Yard, a marketing officer for the charity.

"Every year you ask the question, 'What did we get out of it?' You have to have a target for how much the shop will take and the numbers of new members you are going to sign up. With every consumer show, you need a way of measuring it and you have to decide that yourself."

Yard says the cost of shows means measuring the return on investment is important. "The costs of being there can be high. We have some financial clout and we can afford to try something out one year.

But the National Trust cannot compete with the budgets of privately backed exhibitors with large stands and lots of expensive free giveaways.

"We cannot afford to do that. As a charity, you don't want to look like you're splashing out thousands of pounds on a stand. That is not what we're here for. We already have a strong name and people often look out for us. We want to look professional and give information out."

The National Trust has embarked upon a major review of its operations to look at ways in which it can widen its appeal. So will consumer shows form part of the new-look National Trust? "We will be looking at maintaining our core membership but trying to widen the appeal as well.

Yard says that it is important for the National Trust to develop one-to-one relationships with its supporters and he believes that consumer shows can be a good opportunity for collecting data.

Many charities such as organic group the Henry Doubleday Research Organisation (HDRA) depend upon the goodwill of major consumer show organisers. "We can only go to shows where people donate the space for free,

says Sarah Lindsay, the charity's events and conference manager. HDRA estimates that it costs them about £2,500 per show including the production of textboards, transportation of the stand and accommodation and travel costs for volunteers.

When HDRA first started attending shows such as the Royal Agricultural Show and the Chelsea Flower Show, the whole idea of organics was treated with suspicion. However, a combination of high-profile health scares and meeting people face-to-face has helped to remove barriers. "It's an opportunity for people to talk to someone about their organic concerns. We are not the only ones anymore. Before we were considered cranks."

A GUIDE TO GETTING THE MOST FROM A CONSUMER SHOW

1 Make sure your staff are fully briefed before the show and have targets of what they are trying to achieve.

2 Establish in advance how to to measure the success of the show. Take account of the press coverage, the number of visitors, retail sales, new members recruited and feedback from staff and volunteers.

3 Position at a consumer show is important. Some charities argue that being in front of the door is not as effective as being just to the left or the right as people come in.

4 Make sure visitors can clearly see the board identifying your stand.

For textboards, remember that less is more. 5 Avoid promotional literature that weighs a lot and is difficult to carry. HDRA, an organic organisation, says that visitors prefer material which is simple and as light as possible.

6 Put the free literature to the front of the stand. Sometimes people are quite reserved and if it's all at the back they might not venture in that far.

7 Try to have a table and chair for people to sit at. Walking around a consumer exhibition can be very tiring.

8 There is nothing worse than a stand which looks as if it was put together at the last minute. Make sure the boards are clean and at the right height, and the colours of the stand are co-ordinated.

9 Carrier bags with your logos on them are a good way to raise awareness at a consumer show and a way of letting people know you are there.

10 Be selective about which consumer shows you go to and do some research to be certain that the visitors are likely to be interested in what you have to offer.

CASE STUDY: RSPB USES SHOWS TO ENGAGE NEW SUPPORTER GROUPS

While people may spot birds in their gardens, the RSPB is keen to get across the message that many species are still under serious threat. In the past few decades, skylark numbers, for example, are estimated to have plunged by more than three million.

The RSPB aims to conserve and protect the places where wild birds live but it knows that its voice can only get stronger if it can successfully get its message across to mainstream consumers.

This year the RSPB went to the Ideal Home Exhibition in a move to broaden its appeal and spell out how demands on the environment are taking their toll on the countryside and many bird habitats. "The main purpose is to recruit new members and supporters. We talk to them about the RSPB and sign them up and give them the membership pack,

says Shane Cormie, the RSPB's marketing co-ordinator. There are a large number of shows that the RSPB could go to and selecting the right one is always an issue. "We soon drop them if they aren't successful. It's based on the number of members we recruit at the show and how much we take in retail sales."

The RSPB has a dedicated core of bird lovers and feels consumer shows can help the charity to reach new audiences. "People who would not necessarily think about the RSPB walk past the stand. It's a good way of reaching new audience segments. Those people who are not so interested in birds but wildlife in general."

Cormie says that consumer shows do not deliver the quantity of responses that the RSPB gets from its direct-mail shots. But the ability to attract new types of members including children make consumer shows an effective marketing channel for the charity.

At the BBC Gardeners' World Show this year, the RSPB knew it was likely to find a sympathetic audience. "People are interested in developing their gardens in a more sustainable way. We can encourage people to have their patch of garden growing plants which are good for birds. We had lots of clear messages about feeding birds and having water in the garden,

says Christine McDowell, the RSPB's events manager.

For each show, the RSPB establishes priority objectives. It's not always about membership recruitment. At the recent Royal Agricultural Show, which consumers also attend, the chief priority was to encourage farmers to help protect lapwings on their farmland.

It cost the RSPB about £5,000 to attend the show and matters such as profile-raising and membership recruitment were further down the charity's agenda.

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