Don't just sit on the stand and look bored. Food fairs will really pay off if you pump all the energy you have into the serious business of appealing to buyers says Belinda Gannaway Want to know what tantalises a buyer? Talk to their senses. All five of them. And where do you find all five of them in the same place at the same time? On the exhibition floor. And with at least 300 international food fairs in any one year, there are plenty to choose from. For many companies, both small and large, food exhibitions act as a primary driver of new business as well as reinforcer of established contacts. For those that get it right, an exhibition presence is a critical strategic as well as tactical marketing tool. But making it work is not a simple affair. And the events market should not be reduced to a mere tack on to existing marketing strategies. Sandra Sullivan, head of exhibitions and events at Food from Britain, says: "Exhibitions have got to be right in there at the beginning of the planning stages of the marketing mix for any company or product. If exhibiting is going to work for you, it has to be part of the planned strategy. Top management has to be involved. It's not enough to leave it all to the export or sales manager." But when it's done right, exhibiting is a real winner. Sullivan says: "You can't beat that visual and sensory appeal. And that one to one contact really counts." The key for a successful exhibition lies in the planning. FFB begins work on its pavilions 18 months in advance, and encourages companies to sign up as soon as possible. But for starters, companies need to calculate the full costs involved, including the cost of having senior teams out of the office. They also need to ensure a particular show is right for them and their products. Just because you're aiming for the Portuguese market doesn't necessarily mean a Lisbon fair is the best way in. And even when you do get there, buyers are notoriously busy, and can't be expected to turn up on demand ­ no matter how beautiful a stand has been put together for their benefit. So arrange meetings ­ usually three weeks' notice is about right. And once you're there, make sure your stand is staffed as effectively, professionally and slickly as the md's office. New products should be to the fore and it should be a clear reflection of your company image. You only have three seconds to attract passing visitors. Sullivan says: "We say you should take the view you've moved your company for a few days. It should say everything that needs saying about a company. "You should have the attitude that you are living the marketing process. There's a huge danger in just viewing it as a routine part of the cycle." So beware of using international exhibitions as a sales conference. That's not what it's about and will not reflect well on the company. It might be big in some European circles, but smoking on the stand is out. And there is a growing move away from stand totty ­ of the male as well as female variety. If the best you have to attract buyers is a bit of eye candy, perhaps you should invest in new product development, before thinking about spending on exhibitions. Professionals want to talk to professionals, not out of work models. If a chairman of a retail organisation is doing the rounds, he or she wants to meet someone with whom he can have an intelligent and fruitful conversation. So do your homework and make sure the right people are on the stand. So, you've invested, put in the groundwork, worked your socks off at the event, and get back to the office to pat yourself on the back and wait for the orders to roll in, right? Wrong. Ninety per cent of the success of an exhibition is achieved in the aftermath. Some operators are so slick they kick off their follow up before they've left the hall. Why not e-mail a "good to have met you" with product details so it's waiting for the buyers when they return to their desks? FFB also believes it is good for food and drink exporters to network among themselves and organises first night get togethers. It might sound glib to someone who has spent days, even weeks, on a stand in one or another foreign city, but exhibitions really can be fun. At the same time, stand managers need to have a work hard play hard mentality. If they don't they might not be the best person for the job. n For further details of FFB's exhibition programme and seminars about successful exhibiting, on April 18 and June 27, e-mail {{MANAGEMENT FEATURE }}