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A Unique Group of Exhibitors – Government and Not-for-Profit

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Government departments, not-for-profits, NGOs, charities, and associations share a common pet peeve – when it comes to exhibiting techniques –  they are lumped in with the private sector. For years consultants and speakers (and until recently I confess my guilt) have expounded on what works and what doesn’t in an exhibit program while leaving the public sector exhibitor left out in the cold trying to bridge new techniques to their reality. 

While understanding the entire gamut of differences would require a great deal of time and space. Here are six key differences: 

Focus on profit.  

It’s easy to say that the private sector has a profit motive and governments do not. It’ is not quite that simple. Many government departments sell products whether they are data, rights, or services. But the key difference is that their underlying motive goes beyond profits or cost recovery. Being part of the public service and having access to public funds takes a great pressure off their exhibit program. Unlike the private sector who lives and dies by sales and profits, the success of the public sector exhibit is found in successful program launches, missions that help businesses gain access to new markets and social programs that benefit the health and welfare of its citizens. Profit is not at the forefront for the public sector decision maker –  a well-developed opportunity is. 

Show selection.  

Outreach is a basic public sector strategy. These exhibitors need to do reach a significant number of people who are affected by a program or service or initiative. This often means they will cast a broader net when selecting the shows they participate in. Also, since the lines between policy and politics are often blurred, shows are selected trying to bridge these two sometimes opposing forces under a single strategy. 


If the focus is not on profit,  then attempting to use the formulas to calculate Return on Investment (ROI) are inappropriate. Governments are better advised to develop strategies for developing Return on Objective (ROO) which is more closely aligned to their reality. Public sector exhibiting objectives often fall under the heading of “soft.” They may include such things as program introduction, broadcasting a message, increasing awareness, or branding.  When measuring the effectiveness of these soft objectives, ROO becomes a helpful and realistic tool. 


It’s not uncommon to see public sector exhibiting with partners and stakeholders who share the same space. This can take the form of international country stands where a group of companies share in a large exhibit that is organized by a government department. On a smaller scale a similar practice may incur when a local government supports local businesses. One example is in the tourism sector when an association or regional government invites local property operators to join a group booth.  This can create confusion if there are multiple exhibiting objectives under one banner. Careful planning is necessary to develop a cohesive single-themed display. 

Balance between good taste and good exhibiting

As this group uses public funding for their exhibits, there needs to be a delicate balance between creating exhibits that attract the right attention and maintaining a respect for taxpayers and constituents. This can add considerable pressure to the public sector exhibitor who needs to create an attractive exhibit to be noticed.  Often the public sector sways heavily on the side of conservatism which can create a negative impact if not thought through carefully. 


There are many government departments where follow-up is appropriate, and many where it is not. In all cases the exhibitor must ensure that visitors take away a message and act or change behaviour as a direct result of their visit to the booth. When exhibitors follow-up, they have one more opportunity to create this impact. If follow-up is not  part of the public sector exhibit plan, then careful thought must go into how well the physical display engages visitors. 

These are but a few of the unique differences between private and public sector exhibitors. Recognizing the differences and acting appropriately can mean the difference between success and failure.  

© 2011 by Barry Siskind