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Band Awareness
Stripped of traditional marketing tools and plagued by show-management regulations, Judy Volker carves out a survival strategy that exceeds lead expectations by 49 percent and blows behemoth brands out of the water. By Linda Armstrong
Judy Volker, marketing director for Iatric Systems Inc., has extensive global and domestic marketing experience in diverse industries. She believes that every marketing activity must provide the highest value proposition for the customer and that event marketing is not a standalone function; rather, it is a valuable component of an integrated marketing strategy.
elieve it or not, exhibit-marketing maven Judy Volker and Les Stroud, star of the "Survivorman" TV series, aren't all that different. Stroud plunks down himself in the remote wilderness sans necessities and uses his survival skills to suss out essentials from the world around him. Volker, the marketing director for Iatric Systems Inc., a health-care information-technology firm in Boxford, MA, faces her own survival challenges at trade shows such as the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) show, which draws roughly 1,200 exhibitors and 35,000 attendees annually. At HIMSS 2013 in New Orleans, she faced her latest and perhaps greatest test, and used her own ingenuity and the environment around her to scrounge up the bare necessities.

Volker's survival story started as her team began strategizing for HIMSS. Not long after, they realized that the battle for attendee attention was lemming-versus-lion unfair. "Well-known brands such as Epic, Siemens, and McKesson are vendors of health-care information systems," Volker says. "Iatric Systems' products augment these information systems, so at HIMSS, we compete for the same audience against the big guys."

Compared to those "big guys," Iatric Systems was a smaller, lesser-known company, and its 20-by-50-foot booth at HIMSS 2013 was a pipsqueak in relation to competitors' exhibits, which topped the 8,000-square-foot mark. To make matters worse, Iatric Systems' space was far beyond main traffic areas and a hike from registration and key entry points. So merely getting people to the booth would be a challenge.

What's more, off-floor sponsorships or activities to drive traffic to the booth and generate awareness were problematic. "Although HIMSS was our largest annual marketing expense, we couldn't throw the bank at it," Volker says. That meant almost all show sponsorships that might have generated booth traffic and increased brand awareness – hotel key cards, shuttle-bus signage, welcome bags, etc. – were out of the question. Plus, HIMSS had stringent rules against marketing outside of sanctioned sponsorships and executing guerrilla-marketing techniques, which further limited Iatric Systems' opportunities.

Nevertheless, for Iatric Systems to consider the show successful, it needed to lure 880 attendees to the exhibit and identify 88 qualified leads. And given her modest budget, Volker set a self-imposed cost limit for any off-floor promotions, specifically 10 percent of the total-show price tag.

Hobbled by a meager budget and a booth in the HIMSS hinterland, and facing everything from carnivorous competitors to a landscape peppered with show-regulation snares, Volker had to devise some survival strategies, or her presence at the show would be doomed before it even started.

Guerlain Spa: 15% off
Star Steak
and Lobster:
10% off

Solstice Sunglass Boutique:
$25 off a $125 purchase

The Band Wagon
Judy Volker convinced 28 merchants – offering discounts on everything from food and wine to jewelry and salon services – to participate in the Get Slap Happy promotion. Each merchant's name and location was featured on a 12-by-6-inch card used to promote the campaign.

Patrick's Bar Vin: $5 wine

Poppy's Time Out
Sport's Bar & Grill:
Free pint of beer
On-the-Road Inspiration
Hoping to begin plotting a course over or around the obstacles, Volker visited New Orleans roughly three months before HIMSS. While there, one of her chores was to find a restaurant near the convention center that would be suitable for a quiet business meeting between salespeople and key customers and prospects.

Another task was to visit the show venue for a little reconnaissance. Volker thought the staff at the convention center might know of some loopholes in HIMSS' rules – maybe a privately owned space within the venue that she could leverage for promotions, for example. At the very least, she figured reps could suggest a few promotional tactics that other exhibitors had used to circumvent similar restrictions.

To get the creative juices flowing with venue reps, she even brought along some slap bands. An '80s bauble, the flexible, plastic-covered band lays flat until you slap it over your wrist and it springs into a curved, tensioned bracelet. "In order to generate awareness at various shows in 2012, we gave out branded slap bands in our exhibit and then distributed gift cards to people spotted wearing them outside the exhibit hall," Volker says. "So I brought some along to spark promotional ideas."

Despite Volker's visual aids, however, her scouting mission was a flop. She realized that the distance between her booth and all suitable luncheon locations was a serious hike – one that few, if any, attendees would be willing to take. So the luncheon idea was eliminated. In addition, convention-center reps couldn't identify any loopholes nor offer any promotional ideas that would fit within HIMSS' rules.

Deflated but not defeated, Volker did what any frustrated female might do in her situation: She went shopping. "During the hot trek back to my hotel, I stopped at the Brooks Brothers in Canal Place to find something cooler to wear," Volker says. "When I checked out, the clerk saw a slap band sticking out of my purse and asked, 'Is that a slap band, like from the '80s?' I pulled it out, slapped it on my wrist and said, 'Why yes! Does that mean I get a discount?'"

Iatric Systems Inc.
distributed 7,000 slap
bands to attendees
and the press.

Iatric Systems Inc.
distributed 7,000 slap
bands to attendees
and the press.

Slap bands
turned attendees
into roving brand
ambassadors for
the company.
Some participating
restaurants' staff
wore Get Slap
Happy attire.

"I was kidding," Volker continues, "but then it hit me. Maybe I shouldn't be kidding. What if nearby retailers, restaurants, and service providers offered a discount to attendees wearing one of our branded slap bands? It would be a boon for local merchants, and with hundreds or thousands of attendees wearing the bands to score discounts, it would generate the show-wide attention we needed without violating HIMSS rules."

Excited by the idea, Volker sat down on a bus-stop bench to start strategizing. "I noticed the streetcars, each of which had banner ads on the side," she says. "Then I spied the bus-stop kiosk next to me, which also had advertising panels. I knew I couldn't afford the HIMSS shuttle-bus sponsorship, but maybe I could promote this slap-band concept by renting streetcar and kiosk advertising."

During HIMSS, more than 1,700 attendees visited the booth –
49 percent over goal.

Soon after this second light bulb lit up in her head, Volker headed off to meet with management at The Crazy Lobster Bar and Grill, a locale she'd originally considered for the luncheon. "I delivered the bad news that I'd had to '86' the luncheon," Volker says. "But I also asked the manager if she'd participate in this slap-band promotion I was contemplating. She loved the idea and even offered her restaurant and a nearby sister restaurant to serve as 'promo central,' by hanging banner signage on the perimeter of their outdoor seating areas. Plus, she agreed to dress her staff in black T-shirts during the show. The shirts would feature the restaurant logo along with the Iatric Systems logo and slap-band-related messaging. Given her enthusiasm, I knew I was onto something."

Before Volker left the restaurant, the manager also gave her the names of several other local merchants she thought might participate. Volker met with them, eventually convincing a total of eight merchants to participate in her proposed campaign. So despite being stripped of traditional marketing tools, Volker looked to her environment and hatched the beginnings of a strategy that not only appeared ingenious, but also seemed to bypass all of the perils that previously lay before her.

Making it Happen
Back in Massachusetts, Volker began reached out to additional New Orleans merchants, hoping to get 15 of them committed to the promotion. "Merchants were selected based on their proximity to the convention center and hotels and how well their offerings corresponded to attendees' interests," Volker says. She eventually secured 24 merchants, including a mix of smaller companies such as May Baily's Place, a quaint bar in the Dauphine Orleans Hotel, as well as big-brand participants such as White House Black Market.

With the merchants on board, planning began in earnest. For the first order of business, Volker enlisted her marketing and creative teams to devise a band-distribution method. "We were already going to have booth visitors fill out lead cards to enter a drawing for Bose headphones at the end of the show," Volker says. "So we decided to also reward them with a slap band after completing the cards, which would ensure that we obtained their lead info."

Next, Volker discovered that one show sponsorship was within reach, i.e., a hotel drop to 4,500 attendees. Earlier she'd bypassed this $5,450 sponsorship because she didn't have anything to distribute. But given the slap-band concept, this affordable sponsorship acted as the perfect show-wide distribution system.

To ensure that key CIO attendees at a pre-show reception were aware of the campaign, Volker outfitted a rented cargo van with Get Slap Happy graphics and parked it in front of the reception venue.

Participating merchants
wore slap bands to draw
attention to the promotion.

Volker negotiated
a shortened
contract for
bus-stop kiosk
ads during
the show.

Volker also ordered roughly 7,000 branded slap bands in three colors: the company's orange and blue corporate hues as well as a lime-green shade that corresponded to her booth graphics. To visually track the success of each distribution method, Volker planned to distribute the blue and green bands via the hotel drops and the orange bands in the booth.

The next step was to develop the visuals and text to promote the program via table tents, banners, and advertising on the streetcars and bus-stop kiosks. The team quickly settled on "Get Slap Happy!" as the main message and paired it with instructions on where to find the colorful bands along with Iatric Systems' name, logo, and booth number. Meanwhile, Volker's creative director devised a 12-by-6-inch promotional piece to distribute the bands. It featured the same text and visuals, and each piece offered two cutouts into which staffers could insert a slap band. The bi-fold piece also included the merchants' names and discounts and a map to pinpoint their locations. A perforation along the fold allowed attendees to tear off the bottom portion, which became a quick-reference card bearing the merchants' information.

Urban Outfitting
With the promotional wheels in motion, Volker turned her attention to some other wheels – those on the New Orleans streetcars. "When I first contacted the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority about the streetcar, bus, and kiosk signage, they told me they only sold the space by the month, but we certainly couldn't afford, nor did we need, 30 days of ads," Volker says. "However, after explaining the promotion and painting a picture of how the transit authority might be able to use my merchant-discount program as a model to solicit similar business in the future – and after establishing a not-so-subtle 'we're in this together' mentality – they caved and gave us a great deal."

Volker obtained signage on three streetcars running along Canal Street, which would be heavily traveled by attendees. Normally, the monthly price for the cars was $4,500, but she scored a weekly price of $750. She also obtained side and tail signs on two downtown buses for $625, a tactic that would have normally cost $1,800. And she purchased advertising on the four bus-stop kiosks closest to the convention center and primary hotels. While she paid only $500 for the exposure, these spaces normally run $3,000.

Finally, Volker and her team crafted several social-media tactics, press releases, and emails to highlight the promotion. She also sent promotional pieces with included slap bands to key members of the press.

With all of her major tactics in motion – and within budget – Volker suddenly realized she had a little cash left to bypass another problem that had popped up: a CIO reception two days before the show opened. "The high-level executives attending this pre-show conference were exactly the audience Iatric Systems was trying to reach at the show, so I wanted to be sure these people were aware of our slap-band promotion – and of Iatric Systems of course," Volker says. "However, since the reception was at the Hilton, which fell under HIMSS jurisdiction, I couldn't do any on-site promotion. But with the spare change in my budget, I could develop a guerrilla strategy."

This tactic, which All-Star Awards judges touted as "simply ingenious," featured a rented cargo van that Volker planned to park in front of the Hilton where reception guests would see it. The van would feature the "Get Slap Happy" graphics and text directing people to pick up blue and green bands at The Crazy Lobster, which had agreed to distribute them for two days prior to the show.

So with the promotional pieces, ads, and van strategy primed for the show, Volker and her team headed off to The Big Easy. Soon they'd know if their bare-bones survival techniques would garner the type of exposure the company needed.

Participating merchants wore slap bands to
draw attention to the promotion.

The promotion helped drive traffic to the booth and netted 126 qualified leads.

                    The orange, blue, and green hues of the slap bands mirrored graphics on Iatric's exhibit.

Survival Success
Once on site, the team members quickly sprang into action. While they delivered signage to the merchants, Volker parked the van in front of the Hilton and checked in with The Crazy Lobster to ensure everything was set to launch at this locale.

With everything in place, Volker breathed a sigh of relief – that is until the show opened on March 3. As the day dawned, the team wondered if their tactics would generate enough awareness and booth traffic to satisfy corporate objectives.

By lunchtime on opening day, Volker had her answer. News of the promotion was spreading like kudzu, as attendees donning blue and green slap bands were already using their discounts at merchants such as The Crazy Lobster. (By show's end nearly 200 people used their bands at this restaurant alone.)

The next day, those who didn't receive a band via the hotel drop visited the booth to get their own orange slap band so they could register for the Bose headphones drawing, obtain the discounts, and learn about Iatric Systems' products in the process.

All told, the promotion helped lure 1,719 attendees to the booth, a whopping 49 percent more than the company's goal. Plus, Iatric Systems collected 126 qualified leads, which was 19 percent more than anticipated.

The slap-band promo topped out at just $16,852, 9 percent of Iatric Systems Inc.'s total-show budget.

Due to last-minute negotiations just before the show, Volker actually added four more merchants, bringing the grand total of participants to 28, and beating her own goal of 15. Furthermore, all 7,000 of the slap bands were distributed to attendees and the press. While the hotel drop distributed 4,500 bands, 200 bands went to CIO attendees via The Crazy Lobster. Another 100 were delivered to the press and placed in the press room, and booth staff distributed a whopping 900 bands to attendees clamoring for a discount.

Finally, in a think-on-your-feet stroke of genius, Volker moved one of her staffers to a partner booth. "To generate even more traffic to our booth, on day two I convinced one of our partners exhibiting at the show to let an Iatric Systems staffer stand in their booth and hand out slap bands," Volker says. "As she gave out bands, she directed people to our space to learn more about our products and encouraged them to fill out a lead card once there so they could be entered into the Bose drawing." In the end, this one staffer gave out 1,100 bands in a single day.

Hailed by judges as a "one-off marketing coup," this promotional strategy was truly out of the box – and completely outside of HIMSS territory. But what does a coup cost these days? The slap-band promo topped out at just $16,852, 9 percent of Iatric Systems' total-show budget, and a slim but critical 1 percent below Volker's self-imposed limit. In fact, the cost of the entire promotion was $648 less than the price of the HIMSS sponsorship package for shuttle-bus signage on a single route.

Instead of buying expensive sponsorships or hosting drawings for big-ticket items, Volker turned to the merchants around her and to cost-effective bare-bones exhibiting strategies. Surely, then, Volker's and Stroud's wilderness settings are drastically different, as one contains brands and booths and the other beasts and bugs. But both people are the ultimate survivors. In fact, if Stroud is the Godfather of Survival TV, perhaps Volker is the Godmother of Survival Marketing.

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