Top tips for making the most of your first business event

Relationship building in the early days of your business venture is invaluable. Events provide a fantastic opportunity to do just that, to meet new potential clients or customers that can help your startup flourish. But not only that, events are also great way to see what the competition is up to and for you to gauge how your brand relates to the wider market.

Signing up to your first ever business event may sound daunting, but we've broken it down into things you need to consider before, during and after the day. Remember: the key is in the preparation, you should never just 'turn up' to an event. As the famous saying goes, it's true that the more you put into it, the more you'll get out of it.

Before the event

Once you've booked on to an event it's time to consider the logistics. Here are a few basic things you need to know:

● Whether the event is indoor or outdoor
● Where your stand will be located in regards to the larger show plan
● How much space you will have have to play with
● How many people are expected to attend
● What the arrangements are in terms of electrical equipment (electricity may be an extra cost)

Asking yourself these top level questions will help you think of more, for example, if you know the event you're going to be attending is outdoor only then you'll need to start thinking about the challenges you may face (namely the unpredictable British weather!). Do you want your stand to be sheltered, or not? Do you want it to provide cover just for staff and equipment, or customers too? How will it be securely fitted to the ground?

When you've answered the basics you can move on to the fun stuff, such as coming up with an eye-catching design for your stand and deciding on what freebies to give out to passing visitors. Marketing material and banners should also be considered - just make sure you get them prepared and printed in time for the day!

Now is also the time to start preparing a competitor intelligence strategy too. Mark out on the floor plan where your competitors' stands are and do some research on the companies you've identified - is there a good mix of startups, SMEs and large enterprises? Are you familiar with them all or are there names you don't recognise?

Have a look at whether any of your competitors are sponsoring a part of the event, or are speaking at it too. If your biggest competitor is running a seminar on the day then plan time in your day to go to it - and take plenty of notes. If, on the day, you see the seminar is full then it may be worth considering getting involved at the next event - guest speaking and workshops are a great way to boost brand awareness.

How many people you take will depend on how big your space is and how many people are expected to event. Make sure there is at least one person manning the stand at all times so not to miss out on those all important face-to-face conversations. Have another one or two people scouting out and reporting back on the competition.

During the event

As a business owner it's up to you to ensure everyone has a clear job to do on the day. You should also check in with your team at regular intervals to see how everything is going and to report on progress in order to keep motivation high. You may even want to encourage some friendly competition among your staff by giving a prize to the person who has captured the most leads.

At least one team member should be in charge of updating social media throughout the event. It's always a good idea to use the event hashtag on Twitter, if there is one, and don't be afraid to make use of photos and videos too. If there is a buzz on social media then get involved, it's a great way to engage with other attendees.

When it comes to competitor analysis it's important to stay ethical. Don't lie about who you are or pose as a customer because this is considered an underhand practice. You can get plenty of information from just being yourself, and a lot of the time you won't even need to speak to a competitor in order to gather intelligence.

Here are some questions you should ask yourself as you're looking around the venue:

- How do my competitors' stands look and how do they compare to mine?
- How many members of staff do they have and how are they drawing in the crowds?
- How busy (or empty) do their stands look?
- What makes them stand out? Are they offering freebies or running a competition in order to gather contact details?
- Are they trying to promote one specific service or product the most? Is their product new to market?
- What are people saying about the competition? (sometimes you can get great insight just by listening).

Top tip: Make mental notes as you're going around but turn these into written notes when you get back to your stand so you don't forget anything!

After the event

Once the event is over, it's time to arrange a debrief with the team. Talk about how many contact details/leads you gathered and go through each competitor one by one - what did you find? What worked well? What didn't work well? Don't forget to reflect on your own experience too, and be honest about where you fell short. It may be that you had too few staff to deal with all the enquiries, which is a learning point for next time.

By Craig Pannozzo, general manager of Gazeboshop, a supplier of gazebos and marquees. Since its beginnings in 2005 the company has helped hundreds of businesses prepare their stands for indoor and outdoor events.

Craig Pannozzo