Planning and participating in offshore expositions is almost like learning an entirely new profession.

You'll encounter new terminology, business and cultural practices, facilities and equipment, schedules and procedures. In a situation like this, Rule #1 is "Make no assumptions." Consider yourself a novice, and ask every question you can think of. Rule #2: Use this checklist as your guide. It outlines the basic information that you'll need to know, and tells you what additional questions you should ask.

Trade Fair Facilities: What's the Difference? * Learn the lingo. Outside the United States, trade shows are usually referred to as trade "fairs" (an "exhibition" is a consumer show). Thus, facilities, especially those that have outdoor exhibit space, are often called "fairgrounds." Because Germany has such a long history of trade fairs, and is such an important player in the industry, some of its terms have traveled beyond its borders to other German-speaking, and even non-German-speaking, countries. For example, the German words for fair and fairgrounds are, respectively, messe and messegelande. There are trade fair venues named Messe Berlin and Messe Dusseldorf in Germany, Messegelande in Vienna, Messe Basel and Messe Zurich in Switzerland--and Stockholmsmassan in Stockholm, Sweden.

* Expect more in Europe and Asia. In Europe, and especially in Germany, facilities reflect the exposition industry's long history and the esteem in which it is held. There are enormous complexes with imposing buildings, vast outdoor exhibit spaces, and many shops and services. The largest facility of all is in Hannover, Germany: five million square feet in 27 halls, plus two million square feet of outdoor exhibit space and a 35-room meeting facility ("congress center"). And there are some new, technologically up-to-date facilities in Asia, such as the Bangkok International Trade and Exhibition Centre (BITEC). The exception: China, where facilities are older and do not have meeting space.

* Expect less in developing countries. In Russia and in Latin and South America, some facilities are conversions, not purpose-built. Thus floor-load capacity, electrical wiring, and loading docks might present problems. Ask plenty of questions so you'll know exactly what you are--and are not--getting.

Stands and Pavilions: Doing It Their Way * Learn the lingo. Booths are called "stands." A "pavilion" consists of several side-by-side stands; exhibitors are all from the same country, but not the one where the fair is being held.

* Leave the pipe-and-drape at home. Construction is always hard wall. The stand will have a back wall and two side walls. It might also have a raised floor, called a platform or plinth. The platform is useful for exhibits that involve a lot of wiring--it keeps the wires out of sight and out of danger.

* Be aware of all the options. Exhibitors may choose to ship their company booth to the show or have a new booth built on site. At many facilities, they may rent a "shell scheme." This is a package that includes hard walls, a header with the company name, and sometimes carpeting and minimal furniture.

* Evaluate those options carefully. Each has its own pros and cons. Using the company's own booth saves construction costs and presents a consistent image, but there are shipping costs and import fees, plus concerns about compatibility of electrical outlets or wiring and whether or not the booth will fit the space. Before building on site, exhibitors should investigate local labor costs, the cost of replicating a complex booth, and the quality of the construction available locally. Shell schemes are lower cost and require less planning and less setup time, but exhibitors get a no-frills, generic stand.

* Include a lounge area. This is where customers and prospects can relax and talk business with exhibitors, and where refreshments are served. Pavilions often include a common lounge for use by all exhibitors. In some countries, snacks are sufficient, and small exhibitors are seldom expected to offer anything elaborate. But at major fairs, especially in Europe, large companies serve complete meals. Alcohol is often permitted, except, of course, in certain countries in the Middle East.

Get Your Measurements Right * Remember to use the metric system. All measurements are metric outside the United States. Keep this in mind when selecting exhibit space, checking floor load capacity, calculating shipping weights and costs, or figuring travel distances between the facility and the airport or hotels.

* Compile a list of all the conversion formulas you'll need. The most important ones: Multiply square meters by 10.7639 to get square feet; multiply square feet by 0.0929 to get square meters. Other conversions you're likely to need: feet to/from meters, pounds to/from kilograms, Fahrenheit degrees to/from Celsius degrees, miles to/from kilometers.

* Put that list on a pocket-sized card. Keep the card, and a calculator, within easy reach during pre-show planning sessions and also on site.

* Don't trip over square feet. You'll hear people say that an exhibit space of three meters by three meters--nine square meters--is roughly the same as a basic 10-by-10 (100 square feet) in the United States. That's true, and it works well when you're doing a general estimate. But it's important to be precise when doing the actual planning. The reason: a three-by-three meters is not exactly 100 square feet; it's 96.8 square feet. Thus a booth that extends to the boundaries of a U.S. exhibit space will be slightly too large for a space that's measured in metrics. And if a booth is built on site, using metric measurements, the shelving, cabinets, and displays shipped from home won't fit the same way as they did in the U.S. booth.

Understanding Audiovisual Differences * When possible, use videodiscs, not videotape. A videodisc is easier to set up to recycle and repeat; it resets faster; it's more durable and can withstand repeated playing over several days at a show; it's better suited to interfacing with multiple screens; and it doesn't require the attention of a staff person who instead should be talking to customers and prospects.

* If you must use videotape, find out what the local standards are. Tape widths and color standards vary. The NTSC color standard used in the United States is also used in Canada, Mexico, Japan, Korea, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Other countries use either PAL or SECAM. To learn what is used in a particular facility, check with facility management or--the easier route--a videotape duplication company in the United States.

* Avoid shipping NTSC equipment for your NTSC tapes. Shipping costs are high, and customs clearance procedures complex.

* For VHS or three-quarter-inch tape, rent a multistandard player, which handles all formats. In this case, renting is more economical than converting the videotapes.

* Convert Betacam tapes to the local standard. For that format, renting a multistandard player costs more than converting Betacam tapes.

* Convert Hi-8 tapes to the local standard. It's hard to get multistandard players to accommodate Hi-8.

* Don't cut corners on videotape conversions. Look in the Yellow Pages for "videotape duplication services" or "video production." Avoid small mom-and-pop companies, which can't provide the quality you need. And ask all suppliers whether they do analog or digital conversions. Digital costs more, but is worth it.

* Use the best possible master tapefor the conversion. Never use a copy of a copy.

* Keep the video short. Remember that attendees are time-pressed, and the video is just the attention-getter. The human being does the selling.

* Lay down the presentation several times back-to-back on one tape. This avoids constant rewinding.

* Take a minimum of one tape per show day. That's especially important for VHS, which can't survive the type of pounding to which it will be subjected.

Electricity Issues * Consider all the electrical specifications. Voltage varies, of course. But you'll also need to find out about current (whether alternating or direct), cycle frequency (hertz, or HZ), and even the type of attachment plug (there are 12 variations worldwide). A mismatch can damage products on display, audiovisual equipment, and even copiers and fax machines. In a pavilion, one exhibitor's error could affect everyone else.

* Get authoritative information. To find out the standards in any destination, check Electric Current Abroad, published by the U.S. Department of Commerce. (Publication No. PB91-193383; paperback. Order this book from the National Technical Information Service, U.S. Department of Commerce, Springfield, VA 22161; 703/605-6000 or 800/553-6847).

* Take any necessary equipment modifiers with you. Exhibitors who use their own equipment will probably need transformers, converters, or voltage regulators.

* Ask how exhibitors will be billed. In some facilities, exhibitors pay according to the amount of electricity consumed, not a fixed sum.

Labor Unions Overseas * Find out who does what. Sometimes the facility acts as general contractor. In other instances, the "stand builder"--also called a stand fitter or stand contractor--handles that responsibility and has his own labor pool. Most stand builders do electrical installation, and some even do nightly cleaning. But drayage (unpacking, storage of empties, return of empties and repacking at the end of the show, and lifting and handling) is usually, though not always, handled by the freight forwarder or his on-site agent, not the stand builder. It's especially important to clarify that responsibility to ensure that (1) drayage is done in a timely manner and (2) exhibitors don't pay twice.

* Don't worry about unions. In many countries, there are none. Even where there are unions, exhibitors have much more freedom to set up their own exhibits, and even change their own light bulbs.

* Do find out about shift minimums and overtime rates. They vary significantly from country to country.

A Different Kind of Attendee Mix * Expect higher-level attendees. Trade fairs are taken more seriously in many countries--Europe and Asia especially--than in the United States. Consequently, decision-makers attend. And they expect to speak with their peers, as well as with salespeople and technical people. Exhibitors should bear that in mind when selecting booth personnel.

* Qualify attendees more thoroughly. In the United States, a badge is required for admission to the exhibit hall, and the information on the badge helps booth staff prequalify before they begin their presentations. But in some countries badges are not issued because they are considered an invasion of privacy. In other countries, executives won't wear their badges because they consider it beneath themselves to do so. Without badges as a guide, booth staff must ask different questions, and should bear in mind that they could unwittingly be speaking to competitors.

* Find out if the public will be admitted. It is not uncommon for trade fairs--even air shows or technical exhibits--to be open to the public, children included, for one or two days. Exhibitors need to be aware of this and take proper precautions: Keep all literature and giveaways out of sight, close the hospitality area (where the food is), or even rope off the entire exhibit if any items could be damaged by rambunctious children.

Sales Styles Will Vary * Adjust your approach. In U.S. shows, exhibit staffers usually prequalify quickly, asking rapid-fire questions and noting responses on a lead card. Elsewhere, that style is considered aggressive and brusque. Attendees who are serious about doing business often want to spend some time determining if the exhibitor is equally serious--getting acquainted, lingering in the lounge area. Americans might find this approach frustrating, and even consider it a waste of time. It isn't.

* Adjust your expectations. The qualify-and-cut approach works when the primary goal is to gather as many leads as possible, and follow up on those leads later in the hope of making post-show sales. But exhibitors will find that in some countries, especially in Europe, many attendees have already done much of their research. They are prepared to reach a final decision--and place an order--at the fair. Exhibitors who are not prepared can be overwhelmed if they cannot provide all the information necessary to close a sale. On the other hand, in the Middle East and Far East, attendees are likely to spend a great deal of time discussing products and prices, but leave without making any commitment because they must first go back to confer with their colleagues.

* Learn the local business culture. The sales process is much more formal than in the United States. Attendees often make appointments in advance rather than just wandering into a booth. Some large exhibits have a receptionist who greets visitors, and even a visitor-registration book. Find out what's expected, and proceed accordingly.

* Be more formal throughout your business dealings overseas. First names are seldom used unless permission is given to do so. Touching--even shaking hands--is sometimes unacceptable; you should certainly wait for the other person or persons to set the example. Don't make jokes: humor is easily misunderstood. And avoid hand gestures; many of those that are common in the United States are offensive, puzzling, or even obscene in other countries.

Show Hours Are Longer * Expect longer shows in overseas venues. Trade fairs outside the United States often run several days longer than they do here. One reason is the different approach to selling: a greater emphasis on building relationships, plus more time for order-writing. Thus both exhibitors and attendees need more days in order to make sufficient contacts. Another reason is the enormous size of some of the facilities, with their multiple halls and outdoor exhibit areas. It simply takes attendees longer to cover the area.

* Expect longer days. The actual hours might also be longer, with some fairs running until 6 p.m. or 7 p.m. In countries where long lunch hours are the norm, fairs might even stay open until 9 p.m. to accommodate those who could not visit the exhibits during midday.

* Staff exhibits accordingly. Exhibiting companies should take extended hours into consideration when assigning booth staff. The staff should be large enough that individual shifts are not unreasonably long.

When heading into a country for the first time, start by checking your own contacts. Who do you know who's been to that country and can offer you tips and references? Then, move beyond your own sphere and tap the vast network of individuals and organizations that are available and eager to help:

* The national tourist office of the country where the trade fair is being held--many have U.S. offices

* The U.S. Department of Commerce's Country Desks and U.S. and Foreign Commercial Service

* Embassies and consulates in the U.S. and in the trade fair city

* Professional congress organizers

* Management of the trade fair facility or its U.S. representative

* Service contractors, includ-ing stand builders and security personnel

* The international freight forwarder you're using

* Your local bank and its corresponding bank in the trade fair city

* Airlines, especially the national airline of the country where the fair is being held, or the official airline of the fair

* Sister associations

* Destination management companies