Employers' Guide to Job Fairs: Boost Hiring & Brand Visibility!

What are job fairs?

Job and career fairs are events where employers and jobseekers gather to network, learn about job opportunities, and potentially conduct on-the-spot interviews.

There is a subtle difference between the two:

  • Job fairs: Primarily focused on promoting local jobs that are immediately available.
  • Career fairs: These are broader events that showcase job opportunities and are a platform for jobseekers who are entering the workplace or looking to change careers, to learn about various industries, companies, and career paths. They often include presentations and workshops where professionals discuss industry trends and provide insights into working in different fields.

I‘ve spent over £100,000 on job fairs, so I have more experience than most. Sadly, despite the hype, they are usually last on my list of Applicant Attraction options.

I particularly don’t like career fairs for apprenticeships. Many students only attend because their school bussed them in, and then they trawl the event for swag and sweets. Because most students will be one year away from completing their exams, they are mainly interested in work experience rather than working. Finally, due to child protection issues in some countries, it may be unlawful to take their contact details, but you may get around this by asking them to subscribe to an email newsletter on a website.

To avoid doubt, throughout this section, I’ll refer to them as job fairs, as my points generally apply to both.

Which businesses should use job fairs?

Larger businesses generally get more value from job fairs because they typically already have the financial capacity and personnel to invest in quality exhibition stands and promotional material. This investment is necessary to showcase an employer’s brand and attract potential candidates.

Additionally, larger businesses often have ongoing recruitment needs, making it more likely that they can capitalise on the immediate availability of jobseekers.

In contrast, smaller businesses can need help competing with larger companies’ more elaborate stands. Due to the proximity of competing employers, a less impressive stand can convey a less favourable image. Small businesses will also have limited staff, meaning that sending employees to a job fair can significantly impact their daily operations, and there is a comparatively bigger lost opportunity cost.

However, smaller companies may find attending smaller, industry-specific fairs yields better results as there is often less intense competition.

What type of job can you fill at a job fair?

Job fairs typically attract local jobseekers who are unemployed or can make the time to attend. Most employed jobseekers will attend during their lunch breaks, so make sure you don’t go on yours simultaneously!

Career fairs more often attract trainees, juniors, and those looking to change careers.

You may struggle to recruit for specialist and senior roles.

When would employers use a job fair?

Employers use job fairs when they can reasonably predict their hiring requirements will align with the fair’s timing. This includes periods of mass recruitment, launching new projects, or establishing new locations.

However, the inherent inflexibility and the need for planning are notable limitations, making it essential for employers to carefully consider their participation based on their specific circumstances and recruitment strategies.

How much does it cost for employers to exhibit at a job fair? Time vs money 

There are lots of small costs that quickly make it expensive. These include:

  1. Cost of the exhibition space.
  2. Design and production of stand.
  3. Design and production of promotional material.
  4. Staff costs.

Let me cover these costs and provide some tips in more detail:

Cost of the exhibition space

If every exhibition space is the same size, it is common for each employer to pay the same amount. Despite this, always negotiate very hard, particularly nearer the date because it is embarrassing for the organiser to have empty spaces.

Additionally, the organiser may offer you a re-book discount if you make an advanced booking for the next event. Although you’ll be keen to reuse your exhibition stand and use up all your promotional material, I’d generally be very cautious about rebooking, as you need time to identify if it was worth attending. (Spoiler: I’ve never exhibited at a good-value job fair.)

There may also be optional extras you need to pay for. The most common is electrics, which seem ridiculously expensive and require completing outlet plans and health and safety documents! But you’ll need electricity if you have lights, TV screens, computers etc.

You may also be encouraged to purchase a name badge scanner that saves the contact details of the attendees you’ve spoken to. Beyond the extra cost, a downside of these scanners is that it is often difficult to assign the attendee to a staff member and write notes that add necessary context. You could use a tablet instead to capture information, but these are often cumbersome. Therefore, I usually find the best solution is to use old-fashioned pen and paper.

Tips: For exhibition space layout and design:

  • No seating: Your exhibition space shouldn’t have any seats. Chairs allow staff to sit down, but staff look disengaged as soon as they do. This means that staff will be on their feet all day and must leave the exhibition area for a break.
  • No tables: A table isn’t required to lay out your promotional material because it creates a barrier between the attendees and staff.
  • Instead, use a podium: A podium or lectern can be a great idea. Staff often need somewhere to put small bags, coats, and promotional materials. These can be stored inside the podium to keep the exhibition space tidy and belongings safe.
  • Lights: Bringing additional lighting is often a good idea as many exhibition halls are dingy. Low-voltage LED lighting now usually runs off batteries, so there is no need to buy electricity.
  • TVs or computers are generally not required: Few attendees want to stand around to watch a presentation, and sometimes, renting a TV costs more than buying one.

And also:

  • Storage after: It’s important to consider where you will put equipment when not being used. You’ll probably only use it two or three times a year and will be tripping over it if you don’t have somewhere sensible to store it. Most importantly, find somewhere it won’t get damaged, or your investment could be ruined.

Design and production of stand

Your stand design and production choice are very important as they reflect your employer brand. This is especially important because you’re in an environment with many competing employers. If you go with something that looks cheap and cheerful or is damaged from overuse and not being stored correctly, it indirectly says something about your business.

The design of a stand typically costs £1,000, depending on the size/complexity and whether you already have some brand assets.

Because it is relatively expensive to design a stand, it can be tempting to recycle an old design created by marketing to attract customers. However, you need a design that is relevant for jobseekers.

When briefing designers avoid the common mistake of trying to include lots of copy as this fails miserably. Jobseekers either breeze past, unwilling to read lots of copy, or they read some and make an ill-informed decision to move on. Instead, the design should be straightforward. A striking and relevant headline should be placed at eye level so that when jobseekers glance at it, your staff can interject and say, “Hi, are you looking for work at the moment?”

Pull-up banner stands are affordable, compact to transport, easy to set up, and, importantly, easy to take down. I make a point about being easy to take down because many staff are frazzled at the end of an event and don’t have the time and energy to disassemble a stand carefully. If not careful, pieces can be missing and damaged when you come to set up the stand next time.

Pop-up stands that open like origami seem like a good idea in principle. However, whilst relatively affordable, they are very heavy and cumbersome to transport and a nightmare to dismantle. For this reason, I’ve never seen these stands last more than a couple of uses, making them an expensive option overall.

The best solution I’ve found is to use an exhibition company. They can design a stand, create a wooden structure, and stretch a printed fabric design. At the job fair, they can disassemble the stand and reuse many components, keeping the costs down. Overall, you get a high-quality stand at a reasonable price, and staff can just come and go.

Design and production of promotional material

The objective of a job fair is to get leads from jobseekers who have a potential interest in working for your business. You don’t need to give them anything other than a simple A5 flyer as an aide-memoire to achieve this.

I don’t recommend buying any promotional material or “freebies”:

  • Beware the freebie-seeker: Some attendees won’t be jobseekers but hoarders. They’ll come up to a stand and say, “Oh, I thought I’d see what giveaways you've got!” I’ve even seen a few bring their kids who go around ransacking stands.
  • Don’t damage your brand: Many promotional items are junk. For example, a jobseeker will unlikely become an applicant just because you gave them a branded pen. Moreover, what subconscious message are you sending when you provide them with a branded stress ball?

If applicants are disappointed that you don’t have any promotional goods, take the moral high ground. Explain that your organisation is trying to reduce its environmental impact and didn’t want to produce items that would end up in landfills.

There is no need to give away sweets or drinks or run competitions. For example, suppose attendees enter to win a bottle of champagne by providing their contact details. They’re really interested in the champagne, not necessarily working for your business. Having made this mistake, I left an event thinking it was a success because I had lots of contacts to follow up on, and then wasted the next few weeks chasing people with a taste for champagne!

Staff costs

Budget for a minimum of two staff to run an event so they can cover each other’s lunch and breaks.

There are obvious direct costs for sending staff to events such as travel and welfare. But the most significant cost is usually the indirect lost opportunity cost of them not adding more value doing their regular job!

Sadly, I often see staff volunteering to attend a job fair, thinking of it as a day off. With this mentality, the event is scuppered from the start.

Do employers have any guarantees when using a job fair?

Employers generally do not have any guarantees when participating in job fairs.

I’ve frequently attended job fairs where more exhibitors have attended than jobseekers! This likely happens because the organiser has focused too much on selling exhibition space rather than promoting the event.

Even with a good turnover, there’s no certainty that employers will find suitable candidates.

You can minimise these risks with some research and due diligence. Ideally, choose job fairs with a history and positive feedback from previous participants to set realistic expectations. I typically never attend an inaugural event because there is too much risk.

Tip: If attendance is very low, be prepared by taking some work with you to be productive. Additionally, it can be a good opportunity to network with other exhibitors who are likely desperate to talk to other people! But ideally, never leave your stand – let people come to you – just in case you miss the perfect candidate.

How employers exhibit at a job fair

You can easily find job fairs by using search engines to locate organisers and events in your location or industry.

Additionally, it is worth contacting the career advisors at local schools, colleges, and universities and expressing your interest in attending a career event.

Once you’ve identified a suitable job fair, the next step is to contact the organisers and negotiate a deal for an exhibition space, its size, location, and also for extras such as electrics and whether you might want to be a guest speaker if they have a “presentation area”. They vary from being held in school halls and community centres which are relatively small, to exhibition and conference centres.

Tips: A venue’s location has a significant impact on the footfall:

  • Central town locations: Typically get the most footfall during lunch time (coinciding with when your staff want to go on lunch!). 
  • Out of town locations: Ensure there is ample car parking for both the exhibitors and jobseekers. 

Beware of job fairs with poor-quality venues, such as run-down hotels – the organisers may get it free, and the venue hopes to raise awareness and sell some drinks!

When choosing the location of your exhibition space inside the venue, in general, they are all relatively similar, but I’d recommend avoiding:

  • Near the entrance/exit: Upon entering an event, most attendees want to become familiar with their surroundings and aren’t as warmed up and ready to engage. When exiting, they’re often tired, their heads buzzing with conversations, and they just want to leave.
  • Near noisy presentation/seminar areas: These are areas where speakers will present a topic. Unfortunately, the noise and bustle around these areas can cause distractions, making it challenging to engage with attendees.
  • Near food/coffee stations: Lines will likely form across your stand, making it difficult to grab attendees’ attention.

Next, you must design a stand and decide how to decorate your exhibition space. You must stand out from competitors and accurately represent your brand so jobseekers will come over.

You’ll need to design and order promotional materials to take with you and train your staff to talk to the attendees. Will they use tablets or mobile phones to take jobseekers’ details or stick with good old pen and paper? Will staff wear a uniform or branded clothing that must be ordered in advance?

Depending on how far away the fair is, you may need to arrange transport and hotels for you and your staff. Events vary; you may be able to set up the day before, otherwise it will be an early morning start before it opens. At the end of the fair, you have to take down your display that evening.

When you’re back at the office, your immediate task is to follow up with (hopefully) many potential candidates for your jobs.

Final advice for job fairs

If you want to explore this option, here are a few words of wisdom for getting the most out of a job fair:

  • Prepare: Plan at least one month ahead if you haven’t got a stand and promotional material designer.
  • Train your staff: Staff should always stand up at the exhibition space’s edge, looking attentive and trying to engage jobseekers. I’m not trying to be cruel; I just want to get you the best results. 
  • Only work at your stand: No mobile phones or eating is allowed on the stand because it creates a bad impression. I’m often stunned by how many companies allow their staff to sit, scroll through their phones, and stuff their mouths! If your staff are so busy they need to be on their mobile phones, they shouldn’t be at the event. Because there should be no chairs in your exhibition space, they should take their breaks away from the stand.
  • Have a script for your opening questions: When a jobseeker notices your exhibition stand, try to make eye contact, and with a warm smile, ask, “Hi, are you looking for work at the moment?” This simple question is so powerful that an attendee will likely say “Yes”, as that’s the purpose of a job fair. Once a conversation has started, try quickly qualifying the jobseeker by asking, “What sort of work are you looking for?” If you can’t help the jobseeker, try to end on a positive note and highlight other employers who might be appropriate.
  • Don’t rush conversations: If you’ve got an interesting applicant, take the time to discuss them and get their contact details.
  • Prioritise: When your stand gets busy, try not to get distracted by attempting to speak with everyone; focus on the most interesting applicants. Explain, “As you can see, we’re really popular. Would you be kind enough to come back in five minutes?”
  • Keep things simple: Just use a notepad and pen to write details about an applicant. You don’t need any fancy technology.
  • Stay to the end: It can be tempting to finish up when you see other exhibitors taking down their stands early, but you MUST stay to the end. I once met a great jobseeker who approached me, saying, “Everyone else has started packing up, so I thought I’d come and talk to you!”
  • Evaluate: One month after an event, measure its success. Forget all the vanity metrics like the number of attendees you spoke to, the number of names you collected, or the number of follow-up calls you had. Instead, focus on the most important thing: how many people will you offer a job to?
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Geoff Newman has dedicated his entire career to recruitment. He has consulted for many well-known international brands, and worked with over 20,000 growing businesses. He has helped fill over 100,000 jobs.

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We literally wrote the book on...

The secrets of great recruitment

The Secrets of Great Recruitment is a top-seller. It is easy to read and wastes no time in giving powerful actionable strategies you can use straight away.

Book cover for The Secrets of Great Recruitment