Franchisee guidance: visiting exhibitions

Franchise exhibitions are a great way to get a feel for franchising, to meet some of the industry performers and to see what sorts of opportunities are available. But swamped by so much information and with so many brands to choose from, how can you be sure which one is best for you?

What's in store for you?
So you've made the decision to attend The Franchise Exhibition in Dublin... what's in store for you? Well, it's a great way of gaining direct personal access to a whole bunch of franchisors packed in under one roof and on their stands, they'll be a captive audience for your questions.

As soon as you arrive you'll be swept into a hall humming with conversation and bristling with colourful stands promoting franchises in all manner of industries, all sending out hard-to-resist marketing messages about be-your-own-boss business opportunities.

Take a Reality Check
Right, now's the time for a reality check. You need to keep you head clear and your chequebook in a deep pocket. You're not here to sign up and hand over money. You're here to survey what's on offer, assess what's relevant to your needs and then go home to weigh it all up.

You'll be going home with a couple of carrier bags full of brochures that you can study at leisure in order to draw up a shortlist of franchises that can then be researched - ideally by professional advisers with franchising experience.

What's your move now you're at the show? I suggest sitting down with a cup of coffee and going methodically through the exhibition catalogue. Identify those of most interest to you - for example, do you want to operate from a van (e.g. mobile showroom or repairs), a shop counter (e.g. fashion or fast food), an office (e.g. personal services), or a briefcase (e.g. consultancy).

Then work out where they are in the hall and draw up a hit list of which to visit with minimum wandering about aimlessly. They are the ones you will want to approach with questions you should have prepared at home. Above all, have a strategy for the show.

Sales Target
Now you're in the hall, you're effectively a sales target in a high competitive selling arena. The franchisors will have invested heavily in their stands, travelling, hotel etc. and will want a good 'return on investment'.

This means that 'convertible prospects' must be identified quickly and valuable show time allocated to them rather than timewasters. Be prepared to play a flirtatious game, where neither side may make their true feelings apparent. No good exhibitors will want to squander minutes on unqualified prospects, so they will want to qualify you quickly with upfront questions.

But make one of your first questions 'how much can I make?' and the professional franchisor will probably dismiss you as a slacker - while the con man will delight in your apparent naïvety.

Cooling Off
Never trust an exhibitor who tries to sign you up on the spot for anything more than an Open Day or follow-up meeting - and never hand over deposit money at the show. The idea is to use the post-show week as a cooling-off period to study the materials, think about what you really want and research the franchisors of your choice.

Even if it is affordable and sounds right, not every franchise is suitable for you. So assess yourself. Are you just desperate for a 'new life', whatever? Is the franchisor accepting you just because he wants your money? In both cases, caution is advisable. Both of you may eventually discover that you are incompatible and that your 'business marriage' is a dreadful, costly mistake. So make your choice carefully - and always take professional advice.

Serious exhibitors will also be evaluating you. Do you actually have the liquid funds you claim? Do you have what it takes to run your own business with all its ups and downs? Are you capable of making a sensible decision, or are you just a tyre kicker?

If they identify you as a 'suspect' rather than a 'prospect', they will probably only ask you to fill out a 'lead card' for possible follow-up contact after the exhibition. If this happens and you feel they have misread the seriousness of your intentions, make that clear at the show.

Nothing's Sure Fire
Above all, exercise caution in your choice. People may seek to reassure you that all exhibitions are on the level. Unfortunately, having gained access to an exhibition does not constitute a guarantee for an exhibitor's genuine intentions or ability. Even if not dishonest, some can be incompetent or hit by unexpected difficulties beyond their control.

Even a big name, although attractive, should never be regarded as a sure fire business success opportunity. OK, they may be fantastic, but don't presume success - check out the full franchise offering carefully.

Exhibitions can be great fun and ideal for gaining direct access to the people selling the opportunities. You may end up finding the right business for you - or coming away realising that being your own boss is not your cup of tea. As long as you always follow the 'buyer beware' principle, you should be able to make a sensible and profitable choice. So go to the show with your eyes open and your chequebook shut.