Last year, basing its stand on the theme of disenfranchised young people, NCH built a huge mobile phone on to which text messages from young people were pasted.
Another year it ran an interactive computer quiz, asking MPs questions about youth culture, which revealed how out of touch they can be.
But instead of spending lots of money on their stands, Zeital and his team try to do most of the work in-house. They come up with the ideas, the graphics are designed in-house and he's often the one that can be found on site nailing boards together on the day of the conference.
"We know that we save about 40 or 50 per cent on what it would cost another organisation as a new-build," he says.
MAKE THE MOST OF YOUR EXHIBITION STAND
- Plug your presence at the exhibition in any mailings you send out in the weeks before
- Look at the weather and facilities. Providing free cold water during a heatwave, or food if there's no cafe, will bring people to your stand
- Arrange to have a speaker or seminar at the show, which can then be used to point people towards your stand
- Provide sweets and balloons for the children - their parents are never far behind
- Striking images on your stand are worth a thousand words
- Ask passers-by for help to fill a large jar with £1 coins. It raises money and engages them in conversation
- Use the exhibition to see what other organisations in your sector are doing, and as an opportunity for networking.
Raising a charity's profile is about more than just turning up at an exhibition. Choosing the right show, having an eye-catching stand and knowledgeable staff manning it are all vital to achieving success, writes Gideon Burrows.
Wouldn't it be great if, rather than sitting at home waiting for charities to cold call or send direct mailings, total strangers came and asked charities for more information? If selected carefully, and planned for wisely, any one of the hundreds of exhibitions and shows that take place each year could fulfil this marketing department's dream.
Whether a business-to-business trade fair, a specialist conference, a local community event or a flower show, people visit shows and exhibitions with one thing in mind: collecting information. With a decent stall at a show attended by your target audience, whether potential supporters or corporate partners, politicians with minds to change or professionals with knowledge to impart, charities can communicate directly with the people they are trying to reach.
"Exhibitions give charities a chance to make face-to-face rather than written contact, and human communication is always better," says Gospatric Home, founder of the Christian Resources Exhibition, a series of shows attended by hundreds of charities each year. "Charities have a chance to explain directly to the visitor what they are doing, where the need is and what they can do in response."
Or, as Deborah Hockham, project director of the charities recruitment exhibition Forum3 says: "Exhibitions are not only profile-raising for campaigns, general work and mission of organisations, but they can be highly cost effective. One exhibition space is broadly equivalent to a small ad in the national press."
Charities should take the same approach to exhibitions as they do to selecting the publication in which they place their advert: choosing the right one according to what they want to achieve. With hundreds to choose from, the question is not if charities should make an appearance at exhibitions, but which ones they should attend.
Charities often make the mistake of buying space at exhibitions simply because the word 'charity' is in the title, says Michael Webb, managing director of Conference House, which runs exhibitions for businesses supplying not-for-profit organisations. He says many charities try to book space at the Charities and Associations Exhibition even though it has no relevance to them.
Richard John, director of RJA GB, a consultancy that trains charities and businesses on how to make the most of face-to-face communications, says random selection of shows can be a pitfall.
"Charities often go to exhibitions without a clear objective about why they are there," he says. Instead, John advises, they should look at exactly what they want to achieve, and who their target audience is, and then pick a relevant exhibition.
The church action team at aid agency World Vision takes those decisions so seriously that a member of staff was sent to dozens of exhibitions last year to choose which ones to buy space at.
Nicky Paterson, church relations developer, told Third Sector she was looking for the opportunity to raise awareness of the agency's work and its brand name, but also to offer Christians an opportunity to become more active with the charity. "One focus is always on raising name awareness, but first and foremost, we wanted to ask the question: 'what can you do in your own churches?'"
Choosing your exhibition is only half the job. Getting your organisation noticed and then making the right impression is vital. At open-space events such as outdoor fairs and festivals, organisations can negotiate bigger spaces in relevant spots. At the Glastonbury festival this summer, Greenpeace had enough space to bring its own climbing wall - a move which ensured a steady stream of visitors.
But at more traditional exhibitions each organisation is given a similar 2mx4m box, called a shell. Charities need to do something special with their shell if they want it to stand out.
"In a shell scheme, most organisations will have very similar spaces, using them in the same way," says Alan Jenkins, managing director of exhibition design company Exhibit UK. "So taking simple measures such as changing the carpet colour can have a massive effect."
Hiring interesting furniture and changing the lighting are other ways charities can make their little box more noticeable. Many charities also decide to buy in exhibition stands featuring their promotional material.
"All charities now know they have to put across what they do in the same way that a company's product might be marketed," says Gospatric Home of the Christian Resources Exhibition. "If you have a wonderful cause, but then put up a tacky old stand, people are going to think the charity doesn't look serious enough."
Stand designers and manufacturers Third Sector spoke to said most charities opt for a combination of different types of display which have their copy and graphics built in. The simplest is the roller-blind display, costing around £300, which operates like a projector screen, rolling up from a unit which is attached to a pole. Second is the shell scheme. Each display section costs around £175 and is specially designed to attach to the walls of the shell. Finally, charities can opt for the Pop-Up display, a series of lightweight scaffolds and panels that erect into a self-supporting display stand. These can cost anything from £1,200 to £2,000.
With such expense, it's important that displays get a timeless message across, simply and plainly, and if the boards are to be re-used, that they are easy to erect and pull down as well as being easy to carry.
David Bridge, managing director of Pep, a display-stand company with high-profile charity clients, says: "We've done work where charities have so much information that it's absolutely pointless putting it all on to the stand. The key is to make sure your stand is relevant physically, but also in what it displays."
Or, as Paterson says: "Exhibitions have to pay off in terms of furthering the organisation's aims. We know churches want to get more young people involved, so we brand heavily with our 24-hour famine event, because it grabs people's attention."
RJA GB's Richard John estimates that it takes less than three seconds for someone to walk past a stand. As a result, he argues, it's not so much what the stand says, or even how it looks, but how the people staffing the stand behave.
"A real failing is when companies and charities spend a lot of money on their stand and don't give any thought to their staff. The team you pick shouldn't have any qualms about talking to people."
Paterson always makes sure energetic people staff her stalls, and that they are relevant to the show they are attending. "We use full-time employees, who are briefed and trained about our policies," she says. "That's effective because they can speak from vast experience and have a passion for what they are doing."
Using relevant staff at exhibitions also allows them to deal with any of those awkward questions about ethical policies or fundraising costs.
Finally, the people staffing the stall must have a way of engaging people walking past, either by providing leaflets or information or using something more gimmicky (see panel, left). The thing to remember is that exhibitions should be about talking to people, and, if possible, collecting their details for follow-ups.
"At the end of a three-day exhibition, every person will have a bag-full of leaflets, which invariably ends up in the bin," says John, "Handing someone a leaflet gives them an excuse not to talk to you. It's important to get their details and follow up any leads." John believes 70 per cent of contacts made at exhibitions are not followed up.
Charities should see their attendance at exhibitions not as a one-off or something extra, but as part of a planned marketing strategy. A proportionate amount of cash needs to be allocated to shows, just as funds are allocated to direct mail or the press office. That's especially true when launching a new brand or message, or beginning a new campaign.
CASE STUDY: TERRENCE HIGGINS TRUST
At an international Aids conference last year in Barcelona, Terrence Higgins Trust marketing manager Dominic Edwardes, was surprised to notice his agency's brand was among the most recognisable in the HIV/Aids sector.
As a campaigning organisation, advocacy group and service provider, the trust attends a variety of shows and events each year, and the type of presence it has depends on the event. At a medical conference for HIV/Aids practitioners, for example, THT runs a stand geared towards service provision and medicines, while at gay rights festival Pride, its presence is more flamboyant and fundraising in outlook. Employees or volunteers are selected to staff the stand accordingly.
Last year the trust reached its 25th birthday, and commissioned a series of banners and exhibition stands, costing £10,000, to celebrate it. "We wanted to reflect that we've have been part of the response to HIV/Aids right from the beginning," says Edwardes.
When the trust attends exhibitions and shows, Edwardes says he tries to make sure there is some tie-in to raise the profile of the organisation even further.
At conferences THT supplies a range of expert speakers, but at other events it can be more creative.
At this year's Pride, for example, the trust persuaded car manufacturer Ford to pay for a series of floats and stands, as well as to supply a car for THT to give away. That kind of presence at Pride would have cost thousands of pounds without corporate support.
CASE STUDY: NCH
NCH regards attending exhibitions and conferences as central to building the brand, as well as influencing policy makers and decision makers.
In a typical year, the marketing department will take stands to charity recruitment exhibitions, social services shows, music festivals and the political party conferences, where they maximise their presence by also hosting fringe meetings.
"It's quite a diverse mix, which is part strategy and partly opportunistic," says Craig Zeital, head of events and multi-media. "At the party conferences and social services shows it's about supporting our public policy team to create opportunities to speak to opinion formers."
NCH always tries to do something new and creative at the Labour conference in particular, and won the Best Stand award in 2000.