The Internet may be the fastest way for a company to pitch its products or services to customers worldwide, but sometimes, your customers need to feel, touch, watch or taste your product before they actually cut that check.

"People want high-tech, high-touch service, and exhibiting at trade shows is the best way to provide that," said Dick Wheeler, owner of Professional Exhibits and Graphics, an exhibit company based in Sunnyvale.

In today's high-tech world, trade shows are still the second most popular form of marketing, according to the Tradeshow Week's Databook.

In 1998, the percentage of marketing dollars spent on exhibitions was 14 percent, second only to direct field sales (47 percent). Trade-show marketing was ahead of advertising (11.5 percent), direct mail (9 percent), public relations (6.5 percent) and telemarketing (5 percent).

"Much like any other advertising medium, a trade show lets people know who you are and what you do," said Wheeler.

A lively trade-show exhibit can quickly build a buzz around a new product. It can also make your small company look bigger and like it's doing a lot more business. Having a strong presence at a show opens the doors to contacts, and lets you check out your competition by visiting their booth.

"Manufacturers are there, looking for new distributors, some are selling product to the end user, others are there just to create an image it's brand marketing," said Wheeler.

In addition to generating publicity and networking opportunities, trade shows give business people a place to do deals and sign contracts face to face.

"Very often, people will rent a suite just for negotiating," said Wheeler, who recommends doing deals in private, not on the show floor.

Wheeler learned the exhibit business by working for a rival company five years prior to buying Professional Exhibits and Graphics in 1992. He and his wife, Jody Tatro, the company's chief executive, set up their three California offices like a mock trade show, with $600,000 worth of product on the showroom floor.

Shopping for a booth

Although you can buy exhibit booths online from companies, many customers still like to look at the booths up close.

"As you go through the process, you tell them what your budget is, and then they give you all of the options," said Stacey Tomlinson, marketing specialist for WhiteLight System Inc., a software company based in Palo Alto.

Her company spent about $22,000 on an exhibit for their first, upcoming trade show. The price includes the design work, the booth itself, accents to the booth shape, additional parts, storage crates, a carpet with padding, a carpet bag and free instruction on how to set it up and take it down.

"They brought us in-house, and trained all of us on how to put it together," said Tomlinson. "Our set-up time is an hour and a half, and everything ships in four crates and a carpet bag."

Wheeler said he can offer his clients competitive prices because he combines all of the costs into one package. He includes building the booth, transporting the booth materials to and from the exhibit, installation, storage of the exhibit, and refurbishing the booth after the show.

"The only thing we don't include is the cost of your meals or airline tickets," joked Wheeler.

Rather than storing your booth, why not set it up in your office?

"We're getting miles of use out of this exhibit and materials because we set it up in-house," said Kevin Toft, creative director of Brea-based Homeseekers.com, an online listing service for homebuyers. "When we put the booth up at the office, it shows stability and strength to our visiting VIPs. It also makes the office look more professional and dynamic."

The cost of a trade-show booth depends on the size and the elaborateness of the design and detail. Prices range from $5,000 to $15,000 for a display that's 10-by-10 feet, $10,000 to $30,000 for one 10-by-15 feet, and $20,000 to $60,000 for a 20-by-20 exhibit.

Prices also vary depending on the style of the exhibit. Some booths are configured like an "island," so visitors can walk all the way around the exhibit. Others are very simple, and visitors view the exhibit from just one side.

No time to waste

So, when should your company start exhibiting at shows?

"As soon as you open your doors," said Wheeler, who, like many entrepreneurs, had some tough times before reaching his current sales of $16 million a year. Several employees quit when the Wheelers bought the firm, and about half of the 150 employees they hired didn't work out.

"My new employees had been competing against me for so long, they were afraid to have their competitor become their new boss," said Wheeler. "They resented the fact that we were onboard. I didn't know how hostile it would be."

Despite the rocky start, the company has flourished and grown in recent years.

Here are some trade-show tips from Wheeler:

-Your graphics should communicate who you are, what you do, and how the customer can benefit, in three seconds or less. You must create an impact quickly.

-Make it easy for people to get in and out of your exhibit space.

-Staff your booth with well-trained, friendly, outgoing people.

-Don't allow staffers to do any eating, drinking, chewing gum or smoking in the exhibit.

-Come up with an open-ended question to qualify the leads. Find out if the visitor is a decision-maker or someone just dropping in to kick the tires and waste your time.

Reporting by Julie Neal. Jane Applegate is the author of "201 Great Ideas for Your Small Business," and is founder of ApplegateWay.com, a multimedia Web site for busy entrepreneurs. She can be reached via e-mail at jane@janeapplegate.com.

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