Think stand, not booth. Think fair, not show. And be ready to do business.

When in Rome do as the Romans do, and when exhibiting in Europe, a continent with a long and rich history of trade fairs, it is essential to do as the Europeans do. Understanding differences in the culture, standards, and timing involved will help U.S. exhibit managers not only in planning and executing better programs in the expanding European marketplace, but in finding it a more enjoyable experience as well.

Respect the Tradition

The European trade fair, originally developed to create common markets for suppliers from wide-ranging geographic homelands, has been around for thousands of years. The fruits of this tradition can today be seen in fairs that have grown to be very large in size, rooted by venue (meaning they are always held in the same place, as opposed to being held in different cities depending on the year), and frequently oriented toward buyers and sellers actually writing business over the course of week-long-plus events. These trade shows are still called “fairs” today, with exhibits known as “stands.”

Compared to Latin American expositions, for example, which continue to evolve as a conscious means of attracting and accommodating participation from countries outside Latin America, European fairs are more set and rigid. Newcomers are expected to adopt European approaches to presentation when exhibiting here.

Further, although English is a language increasingly spoken in international business circles, it is far from universal in exhibit management. Specialized show organizer staff, service desks, and labor personnel are often limited in their ability to communicate beyond their home language. A bilingual supervisor should be sufficient to manage even larger labor talent pools, in addition to other on-site contractors. But this must be clearly specified well in advance, including the degree of language proficiency required (e.g., technical, electrical) and specific hours during which that supervisor is to be dedicated to a particular exhibitor's stand. (Several fine resources are available to help the novice, however. Web sites include and Basic translation programs can be downloaded for the Palm hand-held organizer from

Setup on the floor of the European trade fair is often favorably contrasted with the rule- and jurisdictionally-oriented situation found in many U.S. venues. “You can plug in your own lights,” and “Setup the entire stand yourself if you'd like” are not expressions that Americans are used to hearing from show management, but are often options in European venues.

This open approach even allows exhibitors the option of building highly finished properties right on the show floor, from scratch, during setup. In many cases, work trucks are permitted to be driven onto the show floor. But this does not negate the need for planning and approvals. Safety and fire standards can be especially strict in European fairgrounds, requiring sign-offs from a variety of disconnected and not-always-apparent bureaucracies. Despite this design freedom, systems structures are even more commonly used in Europe than in the U.S. (See below.)

Understanding Standards

On January 1, 1999, 11 European countries began the process of adopting a new, common unit of currency, the euro (notes and coins do not have to be in circulation until January 1, 2002; country-specific denominations are valid through July 1 of that year). The 11 participating nations are Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain.

No individual country currency, including the euro, is tied to the U.S. dollar. All fluctuate. And even in situations where show organizers are represented by agents and offices in the United States, it is more likely that space contracts and fees will be written in host country denominations. The longer the show planning calendar for any given event, the more likely that the cost over time to the exhibitor will vary due to exchange fluctuations.

Currencies notwithstanding, each of these sovereign nations has its own specific rules regarding exhibit properties moving into or through them. This is important to remember when planning for land freight movements across borders, involving customs inspections, truck-load permits, and potential fees where the port of call is a number of countries removed from the ultimate trade fair destination.

Weights and measures are primarily expressed according to the metric system, and most European nations have adopted this standard. Stand space is typically sold in 9-square-meter units: 3 meters by 3 meters. Two things here can snag logistics for exhibitors unfamiliar with European projects and specifications. First, this standard space is slightly smaller in both directions than a so-called equivalent 10-foot-by-10 foot space (by a couple of inches in each direction). Second, it is common for European show organizers to utilize rigid panel-and-post hardwall systems structures to separate individual exhibitor spaces, further reducing the area available for display build-out.

The lack of easily compliant draping means a reduced margin of accommodation for oversized properties. It can also mean increased difficulties in setup, as installation and display labor may have difficulties working behind exhibitor structures that abut these ubiquitous hardwalls. It is also common at many shows for exhibitors to build up a raised platform flooring for the entire area of their stands. Historically, this has served to level the foundation for subsequent property construction and assembly; it also provides a more finished alternative to the ramping otherwise commonly used to cover electrical cords and hoses that need to run across exhibit spaces. Thus, attendees typically will formally step up to enter such stands.

Worth special note here in terms of design is the driving force of function and purpose. Rooted in a mind-set of commercial transaction, stands often require multiple meeting rooms for long buyer/seller engagements; offices for specialized staff and support; and dedicated areas for eyes-only new-product introductions for VIP customers only. With space-use rules that seldom impose setback or sight-line restrictions, it is not uncommon to have exhibitors utilize the entire cubic content area of their contracted areas — sometimes creating the effect of an office corridor when walking the aisles of some exhibitions in Europe.

Planning Ahead

Distances and time zone differences certainly add to the complexity of managing exhibit programs beyond domestic borders.

On the long side, many established, leading industry events take place on three- and four-year rotation cycles. Actual exhibit space applications, let alone contracts, are not typically addressed this far out. But the booking of hotel room blocks, and payment of deposits, may be. Five-star accommodations and locations closest to the fairgrounds are often booked for future shows even before the current show has closed.

To the other extreme, exhibitors will still find that there is a lower limit on how fast they can move freight and parcels through international borders. Allow three to five days even for smaller shipments by air, including customs clearance. In the case of large or heavy equipment, this may not even be a backup option. Ocean crossings may involve four weeks from port to port. But actual sailing schedules may be limited (e.g., departing only on the first and third Monday of each month).

For these reasons, it is recommended that a minimum of three to six months be added to even a small European event planning calendar, as compared to a parallel domestic investment by a U.S. exhibitor. On larger expositions and mega-shows, anticipate show organizer timelines that will drive schedules. Except for a few administrative details such as wait-listed contract applications, an active 12-month plan for a show at home will generally equate to 18 months for something similar in Europe. (See sidebar, page 48.)

Each country in Europe has its legal holidays on which banks and many businesses may be closed. Navigating these will be important when arranging for pre-event site visits, conference calls among suppliers, and financial transfers. The United States Department of Commerce, through its International Trade Administration, posts current listings of business holidays on a country-by-country basis via Check also with individual venues.

Finally, it is a time-honored tradition in Europe to shut down for approximately the entire month of August. Historically, this respected the most oppressive weather of the summer. Now, with high premiums on choice vacation destinations during this time, employees are most likely to make inflexible plans far in advance; and neither a global trade fair nor the needs of any one exhibitor are likely to change them.

Dell Deaton is president of Proteus TradeShow Marketing in Ann Arbor, Mich.

This article is reprinted with permission from International Event, an Internet-based publication ( on international event planning produced by the Bruno Group in Salt Lake City, providing information and resources to professionals who plan all types of events held outside of the United States .

Timeline for Exhibiting in Europe

Following is an actual timeline for a large, established machine show, held once every three years:

  • Hotel room reservations and first-night deposits made 36 months prior to show date.

  • Space application submitted 19 months prior to show date. Space application due 17 months prior to show date.

  • General logistics planning began 16 months prior to show date.

  • Show organizer awarded space 12 months prior to show date.

  • Space contract signed and 50 percent deposit due nine months before show date.

  • Final decision made for equipment displays made to accommodate logistics, eight months prior to show date.

  • Final outstanding balance on space contract due five months before show date.

  • Freight consolidation and shipment required two months prior to show date.

Forget Pipe And Drape

Here is your guide to typical exhibit stand display structure types in Europe:

First, shell scheme refers to the basic hardwall structure that many organizers still provide as part of a basic package. These panel-and-post structures are very basic, often restricted to white panels and right-angle connections. Back and side walls raise to a typical height of 2.5 meters; these extend at full height across the back and from there out to the aisle.

Custom displays most frequently mean use of systems as well — but in more creative and often highly engineered configurations. Indeed, it is often difficult to distinguish these from made-to-measure exhibits on the trade show floor. But made-to-measure is what should be specified in order to obtain exhibits which more closely approximate U.S. booths that are built from scratch. Use of pipe-and-drape in Europe is rare.

Between exhibitions, storage space is at a premium and often expensive. This helps explain the popularity of systems structures; it also supports a use-and-destroy motive for made-to-measure displays. But such disposal is not without cost, as exhibitors are not simply allowed to leave their post-show exhibit debris for show management to handle.

When “Dress Down” Is Out

Casual attire for trade show booth staff is on the way out, and globalization is a key reason. “Most companies now do business on a global basis, and our research found that international customers do not always accept casual attire,” notes a survey from INCOMM International, Chicago, a center for trade show research and sales training. Says survey respondent Frank Nissel, CEO of Welex Extrusion Equipment, Blue Bell, Penn., “International customers put great importance on appearance, and selling a million-dollar machine at a trade show is not something you do in a golf shirt.”

At first, the casual look for trade show staff — an outgrowth of “casual Fridays” in the office — was well received. An INCOMM study in 1998 found that 86 percent of trade show attendees responded positively to casual attire for booth salespeople. But by 2000, that had fallen to 45 percent. The reason? “Casual” had become “crumpled” and “unkempt.” Salespeople were wearing sneakers and logo shirts, looking like “a bowling team — not professional experts.”

A business suit is still considered too formal for booth staff — more appropriate for senior management. Today's favored look — at home, and especially beyond borders — is a business shirt or blouse, with a tie for men and scarf for women, dress slacks, and leather shoes.