Exhibiting your strengths Exhibiting your strengths

For SMEs looking to extend their reach, exhibitions are of critical importance. Dr. Ashraf Mahate shares his tips for selecting the best exhibition for your company.

Exhibitions provide a platform to increase business while at the same time there are peripheral benefits such as the ability to improve relationships with existing clients, develop relationships with new or potential clients, raise the organisation’s profile or image, launch a new product or service or simply gain information regarding a potential target market. In a short space of time, an SME can show its products and services to a large pool of buyers eager to make a purchase while understanding the trends and prices in the global marketplace. However, if these objectives or aims of participating in an exhibition are to be achieved then they should be carried out in a well-planned manner and executed with the highest level of precision.

It is important to note that the visitors at an exhibition not only take away positive impressions of a company but also negative ones. More importantly, well-planned and executed exhibitions will receive favourable media coverage. Therefore, participating in an exhibition can increase business substantially while at the same time it can also risk the loss of future business. Due to the risks and opportunity attached to each event and not to mention the cost, it is very important that SMEs are careful in selecting the most appropriate events.

In the first instance, SMEs need to find out about the various exhibitions that are currently taking place in the region as well as globally. In the modern electronic age, the Internet is the first channel to obtain information or listing of the various exhibitions in the selected product or service group. Secondly, the various export promotion agencies, such as Dubai Exports, have a list of exhibitions in various sectors. Then one has industry groups which promote the various exhibitions in their sector. Finally, there is nothing like actually talking to customers and finding out which regional and global exhibitions that they attend. This provides and insight into the type of exhibitions that existing customers attend and hence forms a basis to attract new buyers.

Once the list of regional and global exhibitions has been compiled, SMEs need to judge each event on its own merits using an objective criteria that seeks to ensure that it adds value to its overseas and to some extent domestic activities through its participation. First, the company should check to ensure that an event complements its core activities in that it should match the list of products and services that it currently offers. There is very little logic in attending an exhibition in a totally unrelated area. Having said that, many exhibitions also include associated sectors, for instance, in the case food exhibitions these usually include food packaging, food production, equipment and so on.

For a higher probability of a successful outcome, an exhibition needs to have sufficient footfall as well as a large concentration of senior decision makers who are actually intending to make a purchase. SMEs should consider the following factors before selecting an exhibition:

i)                     Geographical reach

This refers to the appeal that an exhibition has in terms of visitor countries. Of course, the more broad an appeal of an exhibition the greater its geographical reach. Of course most exhibitions claim that they tend to have visitors from a large number of countries. However, in reality it appears that only one or two visitors come from these locations. For geographical reach to be effective a significant number of visitors should come from a particular location. A simple metric to assess the geographical reach of an exhibition is that a reasonable number of the visitors should originate from a single country for it to be counted.  The usual rule of thumb that is used is to assume that 40% to 60% of the visitors to an exhibition will come from a 200 mile radius. The geographical reach of the exhibition also needs to be similar to the countries that the SME intends on entering or targeting.

ii) Quality of visitors

For effective importer awareness, an exhibition needs to have a significant number of senior decision makers. The concept of a decision maker is broad enough to encompass the differences in sectors and cultures. For example, in retailing it is common for the product buyer to make the final decision without it going to the CEO. However, in other sectors or cultures, the CEO’s involvement is important in the buying decision. Whereas junior staff can bring products and services to the attention of senior management it tends to be a rather long and less effective a process.  However, junior staff can be effective in providing leads or buyer information and therefore they should not be totally dismissed.

iii) Diversity of exhibitors

In most cases, visitors tend to prefer exhibitions which are focused on a particular product or service group rather than being too general in nature. The simple reason is that most visitors have certain product purchases in mind and hence are looking to fulfill these requirements. More importantly, senior decision makers tend not to be window shoppers and need to use their limited time in an effective manner.

iv) Level of repeat exhibitors

A commonly used real measure of the return of participating in an exhibition is whether the exhibitors repeat their involvement. If an exhibition leads to genuine business whether in the short or medium term, then exhibitors are likely to attend. However, if an exhibition is less than effective in generating business, exhibitors are more likely to participate in other events.

v) Reputation and experience

It is generally recognised that new exhibitions take time to establish and create awareness among the target audience. From the point of view of exhibitors, new exhibitions tend to have a higher risk factor as their past performance does not provide them with adequate information regarding the likely benefits or strategies to use. So, most exhibitors tend to prefer well-established exhibitions with a firm track record of the type of visitors and the level of business conducted.

vi) Production capacity

Although participation in an exhibition may increase international awareness of domestic products and services, it can only be effective if matched by a corresponding ability to meet the demand requirements. Therefore, it is important for the SME to participate only in exhibitions where there is an ability to supply and meet the needs of foreign buyers.

vii) Import regulations

An important export impediment is trade restriction, whether they be tariff or non- tariff based. In the case of the former, the importing country simply adds tax or duty on imports thereby increasing their price. In the case of tariffs exporters either need to have a price advantage or differentiate their product so that the buyer is prepared to pay a premium. More difficult are non-tariff barriers because they can be in various forms ranging from quotas to simply not allowing certain imports. So, the SME needs to participate in exhibitions in countries where the tariffs do not impose a considerable market disadvantage or where the impediments can be dealt with by the firm.

viii)National pavilions

Usually SMEs may not get the same level of attention as larger firms and this is more so the case in overseas markets. An effective manner to overcome this problem is to participate in national pavilions. The key advantage of these is the fact that they bring together exporters from the same country under a national umbrella. In doing so, they tend to increase the footfall to the stand through national branding, media activities such as advertising. More importantly, the national pavilions usually provide a turn-key solution whereby they arrange all the aspects of the exhibition from booking the space and dealing with the stand builder to shipping the samples. This is a convenient manner for first time exhibitors to participate and benefit from exhibitions. More importantly, in very large exhibitions a national pavilion helps the SME keep its focus while learning from co-exhibitors.

i) Risk management

Any event that an SME participates in should not pose a risk to any of its stakeholders. Risk in this context includes a whole array of aspects such reputation, employee safety, and so on.

The fixed costs in terms of resources, effort, cost etc. are almost the same regardless of the type of exhibition that an SME participates in. In order to ease the selection process the matrix below has been developed.

Exhibition Selection Matrix





Demand Side Factors

Geographical reach






Low priority







Participation to take place if there are additional factors involved such as prior interest from potential buyers or agents/distributors etc.





High priority


Percentage of decision makers


Diversity of exhibitors


Level of repeat exhibitors


Reputation and experience


Supply Side Factors Domestic Production Capacity
Import Regulations
National Pavilion
Risk Management


Once the exhibition has been selected, a new set of challenges arise from selecting the right space at the event, the stand design to which samples should be taken. If an SME participates in a national pavilion, then the decision of selecting the space as well as the stand design is taken care of and the SME simply needs to concentrate on the samples and marketing collateral. If that company needs to select its own space then there are various strategies that it can follow such as to be close to the main attractions such as networking lunges, seminar room, key players in the industry even competitors or entrances, exits and escalators, as well as lifts. SMEs should avoid areas with obstructing columns, low ceilings, dead-end aisles and poorly lit spaces.

In the sample of exhibits, the SME needs to follow the three basic rules namely to target the audience, to differentiate themselves from the crowd and to appropriate represent the firm. First, in the case of targeting the audience the exhibits should be consistent with the profile of the exhibition. There is little point in taking up exhibit space if the company’s products don’t fit the profile of the exhibition. Space at these type of events is limited and it has to be used wisely. Secondly, the exhibits need to be differentiated from those of the competitors so that they appeal to the target audience. Usually a visitor spends two to three minutes at a particular exhibition stand, so it is very important to capture the attention of the potential buyer quickly. Third, the exhibits should adequately and appropriately reflect the qualities and capabilities of the company.

One key feature that is often overlooked is the staff at the exhibition who should be knowledgeable of the products or

Dr. Ashraf Mahate

services. It is important to note that the staff at the exhibition make the initial impact with the potential buyer and are its ambassadors. It is vital that both existing and temporary staff (those recruited especially for the exhibition) are well-trained regarding the products and services.

Like all things in life, a first experience is always the most difficult one. Once a company has participated in a few exhibitions their value will then be realised. Therefore, it is important for SMEs to capitalise on these events in order to grow their business.


Dr. Ashraf Mahate is the Head of Export Market Intelligence at Dubai Exports (formerly known as the Dubai Export Development Corporation), which is an agency of the Dubai Economic Department. Dr. Mahate is also the Vice Chair of the Economic Policy Committee with the Dubai Economic Committee with the Dubai Economic Department. He has written a number of journal articles, chapters in books and edited books in the areas of economics, finance and banking. He has also presented papers at major international conferences. Dr. Mahate has provided extensive consultancy services to various organisations in the areas of banking, economics and finance. He has been a director of a number of companies including a venture capital company and a private equity fund.

Dr. Mahate received his doctorate from Cass City University Business School in London (UK) which was ranked by the Financial Times newspaper as the 12th best university in the world for finance. He read Economics at University College London, followed by a Masters in International Economics and Banking at the University of Wales in Cardiff. Dr. Mahate is a professional educator and received his training at the Institution of Commercial Management (UK). He is also a member of the Association of Certified Anti-Money Laundering Specialists. (ACAMS)


Rushika Bhatia Editor

Rushika Bhatia is one of the region’s leading commentators on business and current affairs issues. She is the Editor of SME Advisor magazine - the flagship title of CPI Business. She is passionate about infographics – with special emphasis on data, research and statistics. Rushika has a Bachelor’s Degree from Indiana University, USA and is also CIMA qualified.

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