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all-star awards

t's hard to notice a clever little gibbon in a room full of 800-pound gorillas. But at Interop Las Vegas 2009, an information-technology (IT) trade show dominated by behemoth brands such as Cisco Systems Inc., Hewlett-Packard Development Co., Motorola Inc., and Nortel Networks, a clever little company, Xirrus Inc., wasn't only noticed by almost 3,000 attendees, it also scanned more badges than every one of the big beasts at the show - amounting to a 400-percent increase in booth traffic compared to the previous year.

AWARD WINNER
Lorna Pierno, director of marketing programs for Xirrus Inc., oversees and executes more than 80 trade shows and corporate events each year. She has 15 years of experience as a marketing professional at a range of companies including MetLife Investors, Alcatel-Lucent, and now Xirrus, which is based in Thousand Oaks, CA.
The brainchild of Xirrus' director of marketing programs, Lorna Pierno, this ingenious integrated program featured in-booth product demos paired with live, sanctioned boxing - which connected with the show's predominately male audience. Drawing hundreds of attendees to the company's exhibit four times per day, Pierno's award-winning strategy entertained attendees while educating them about Xirrus' offerings - and no doubt leaving the big hairy brands pounding their chests with envy.

A Long Count of Challenges

Pierno's prizewinning strategy was born of a flurry of marketing challenges. Based in Thousand Oaks, CA, Xirrus is a privately held company launched in 2004 that is best known for its Wi-Fi Array, a wireless device that delivers Internet and networking capabilities to end users. IT directors from endless industries, including everything from education and health care to conventions and manufacturing, use the Array to create Internet-capable computer networks for employees, clients, students, attendees, etc.

While the Array competes with other wireless devices, its main competitive contenders offer switched Ethernet solutions (aka wired switches), which typically require endless cables, switch ports, and devices. On the other hand, according to Pierno, "The Array is like Wi-Fi on steroids. It delivers the most coverage, bandwidth, and throughput on a per-device basis than anything else on the market; plus, it requires 75 percent fewer devices, cabling, installation time, etc. compared to everything else."


Banner stands and overhead signage with the campaign's tagline - "Melee at the Mandalay" - littered the concourse leading to the exhibit hall and drove attendee traffic to the booth.
For technological featherweights, the Array's benefits probably amount to little more than a gigabyte of techno-babble. But IT managers, who generally understand the techno speak, were mostly unaware of the Array and its benefits - including everything from ease of installation to cost per user - given Xirrus' relatively small size and newcomer status. So for Interop Las Vegas 2009, held May 19-21 at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center, Pierno's game plan was to educate attendees about the Array and its advantages over typical switched-Ethernet options, and to generate awareness for Xirrus, the gregarious gibbon that had been quietly bobbing and weaving its way around the Interop show floor for the last four years.

To that end, then, Pierno wasn't particularly concerned with lead quality. Instead, she focused on quantity, hoping to double booth traffic compared to the previous year's exhibit, all despite a predicted 25-percent decrease in show attendance. "When you're trying to generate awareness and get people to understand your product's benefits, you want to cast a wide net over an indiscriminate school of fish," she says.

But getting attendees to the booth would be a battle in itself, as Xirrus would be sparring for attendees' attention against the aforementioned big-brand behemoths.

"We don't have nearly as much money as the heavy hitters, and our booth space is usually considerably smaller," Pierno says. "So we always need to come up with something creative and unexpected to get noticed."

In addition to this bevy of challenges, Pierno also needed to take advantage of a recent marketing coup: Xirrus was named the official Wi-Fi provider for Interop 2009. "This was a huge honor," Pierno says. "Along with our competitors, we had to apply to be named the official show provider. In exchange for setting up our Wi-Fi capabilities for the show, we received scads of signage throughout the venue identifying Xirrus as the official show provider, not to mention additional show-sponsored press releases mentioning the Xirrus name."

Given this additional show-wide visibility and the prestige associated with the "official provider" status, Interop Las Vegas offered the perfect opportunity for Xirrus to deliver a marketing TKO. Problem was, with roughly six months to go before the show, Pierno didn't have a suitable marketing strategy in her corner, much less a booth. But a night of male bonding and a few beers soon changed all that.

The Birth of a Champion

"In November 2008, there was a big boxing match on TV, and my husband invited a bunch of his friends over for a 'boys' night out' at our house," Pierno says. "I had planned to go out with one of my girlfriends, but just as the fight started, she called to say she was running late. So I watched the fight with the fellas to pass the time. As I sat there with these six burly guys, it suddenly dawned on me that while these men weren't necessarily Xirrus' customers, they were definitely our target demographic. And these guys were enthralled by the boxing. A light bulb went on and I realized I could use a boxing theme for our booth, pitting our product against other companies' switched Ethernet products. Plus, since Interop was in Vegas, home to some of the biggest boxing matches in the world, a boxing theme was the perfect fit."

With a killer strategy taking shape in her head, Pierno enlisted the help of Bullz-Eye Marketing & Events (now Blazer Exhibits & Graphics), a marketing firm in Milpitas, CA, that Pierno had used in the past. She explained that she wanted a real boxing ring featuring both a verbal product-comparison match and real boxing bouts at the center of the booth, surrounded by educational demos to tout the Array's benefits. Oh, and she wanted a top-notch announcer, a professional referee, and even a ring girl to announce the rounds.


Aside from the live boxing, the booth offered six product-demo stations, where staffers swiped attendees' badges and answered questions about the Array.
"I gave them a laundry list of requirements, and they came back with every component I needed the first time out of the gate," Pierno says. "The exhibit elements and supporting cast of people they found weren't just passable; they were authentic and professional, which added a sense of realism to the program - and kept it from being cheesy."

Killer Combination

Pierno's resulting strategy was far from cheesy and it made her an All-Star Award winner to boot. It began roughly 10 weeks before the show when attendees first got word of Xirrus' strategy - aptly named "Melee at the Mandalay: Wi-Fi Array vs. Wired Switch" - via a series of e-mail blasts. Using a template provided by show management, Pierno sent a total of three different pre-show e-mails to 30,000 IT professionals listed in her company's database.

To make sure customers and prospects knew about the in-booth boxing, however, Pierno followed up these e-mails with another more personalized version on the first day of the show. Sent to the same 30,000 IT professionals, the e-mail promoted the Array, the fact that Xirrus was the show's official Wi-Fi provider, and Xirrus' in-booth boxing activities. Since it went out to both pre-registered Interop attendees as well as people with no intention of visiting the show, the e-mail included a link to Xirrus' Interop microsite, which kept recipients involved with Xirrus' activities whether they attended the show or not. Throughout the show, the microsite featured a virtual tour of the booth, along with video clips, photos, and blogs highlighting in-booth product demos and live boxing.

At the show, attendees found myriad banners and kiosks promoting Xirrus' presence. A 16-by-6-foot banner suspended along a main convention-center passageway featured the Xirrus logo and an image of a boxer wearing Xirrus-branded gloves. Text on the banner read: "Melee at the Mandalay: Wi-Fi Array vs. Wired Switch. Live: Men's & Women's boxing at booth #1331." Three 6-foot-tall kiosks with similar information and images were scattered between the hallway leading from the hotel to the convention center and the space just outside the show hall.

If attendees missed that series of promotional punches, they quickly stumbled upon one of six 3-by-3-foot floor decals promoting the "Melee at the Mandalay." Pre-approved by show management, the at-your-feet graphics adorned a section of carpet on all of the show's main aisles.

Arriving at Xirrus' 40-by-50-foot space, attendees were immediately drawn to a regulation-size boxing ring positioned dead center. A whopping 24-by-24 feet, the rented boxing ring featured custom additions, placing the Xirrus name on everything from the ring mat to the turnbuckles.

A truss assembly overhead acted like a JumboTron scoreboard; the four-sided 20-by-20-foot structure featured the Xirrus name in 2-foot-tall letters along with the "Melee at the Mandalay" tagline. Spotlights attached to the truss highlighted the boxers during live events, while monitors positioned on each side of the system featured various content throughout the day. During the boxing matches, the monitors played videos of the live fights, which were also streamed to the microsite and posted to various social-networking sites, such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. When the ring wasn't in use, the monitors played videos of historic fights, such as Ali versus Frazier, and Hagler versus Leonard. A timer positioned at the lowest point of the truss system featured a countdown to the next match.


Miss Nevada USA 2009, Georgina Vaughan, acted as the ring girl for the matches. Prior to each round, she walked around the ring holding a branded card announcing the round number.
Product Prizefight

Roughly every 2.5 hours, the boxing ring came to life as a professional presenter acting as the ring announcer grabbed a mic. Speaking to crowds of 200 to 400 attendees sitting on Xirrus bleachers and jamming the aisles, he began with "Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the 21st century clash of technologies. Today's competition is for the network edge. It will be as brutal as the Thrilla in Manila - the results as shocking as the Rumble in the Jungle. For today, we bring you the Melee at the Mandalay."

The announcer then called a six-round bout between the Array and other company's switched-Ethernet products. A stool in one corner of the ring held the Array, while a stool in the opposing corner held a competing product along with its piles of wires and devices. At the beginning of each round, a ring girl - none other than Miss Nevada USA 2009, Georgina Vaughan - strutted around the ring holding a branded card featuring the round number.

Throughout each round, the announcer offered clever commentary mixed with real product comparisons. For example, in round one, he said: "The competition starts with mobility, with laptops replacing desktops, Blackberries replacing desk phones, and business being conducted almost everywhere but at your desk. The ability to be fleet on your feet and to roam around the ring untethered is key. The Switch may claim some mobility via VLANS (virtual local-area networks), but most know that's just a feint and that it is still hobbled by cables and physical switch ports. The Array defines mobility: Once connected, you stay connected wherever you roam within the Wi-Fi enterprise. The decision: The judges score this round an easy win for the Wi-Fi Array."

The announcer proceeded through six rounds, comparing the Array to its competitors on six levels: mobility, bandwidth, availability, security, moves/adds/changes, and number of cables. At the end of round six, he announced that the competitor had thrown in the towel, and immediately thereafter, a staffer literally threw a towel into the ring to symbolize the end of the competition.

While all of this was going on, staffers handed out 9-by-4-inch "Official Scorecards" to the crowd. One side of the cards contained Xirrus' contact information along with a detailed 12-point comparison of the Array versus a switched-Ethernet product. The reverse side featured a faux scorecard pitting the Array against switched Ethernet in 10 rounds of comparison - allotting point totals for the same six levels the announcer discussed, along with four others. While the Array obviously won the bout each time, the scorecards allowed attendees to follow along as the announcer ticked through the Array's benefits.

Lured to the exhibit space by the promise of live boxing, attendees soaked up roughly seven minutes of Array product knowledge before boxers threw a single punch.

Ready to Rumble

With the product fight completed, the real boxing began, as the announcer stepped out of the ring and two boxers along with referee Rynell Griffin stepped in. But these boxers weren't just a couple of gym rats who'd thrown on some gloves. "Our boxers were from the Richard Steele Boxing Agency, a nonprofit boxing organization in Las Vegas which helps Nevada youth get off the streets by getting them involved in boxing," Pierno says. "We hired four pairs of boxers to compete in four matches a day (one match per day for each pair) throughout the three-day show."

At the sound of the bell, the boxers, clad in Xirrus-branded headgear, T-shirts, and boxing gloves, duked it out. During each match, the announcer interjected a few comments here and there, and Xirrus played boxing-related music (such as LL Cool J's "Momma Said Knock You Out") in the background. But the fights were dead serious, with feet shuffling, fists flying, and the referee keeping it fair. After two rounds, the ring announcer joined the referee and the boxers inside the ring and allowed the audience to decide on the winner of the fight based on who received the most applause.

While the fight was going on, staffers gave attendees black T-shirts featuring the now-infamous Melee at the Mandalay tagline and images. Staffers and in-booth signage informed attendees that if roaming Xirrus staffers witnessed them wearing their shirt on the show floor, they'd also receive a branded cap and be entered in a drawing to receive a free Array after the show.

Following each bout, the ring announcer directed attendees to six product-demo stations surrounding the boxing ring, where staffers quickly swiped their badges and answered product-related questions.


Each bout drew roughly 200 to 400 visitors to Xirrus Inc.'s boxing-ring booth, where Interop attendees perched on metal bleachers or looked on from the aisles to get their own piece of the "Melee at the Mandalay" action.
After the show, attendees could review the action via YouTube, Facebook, Flicker, and Twitter. Here Xirrus displayed demos, booth tours, video clips, photos, press releases, and news clips, extending the program long after the show and reaching customers and prospects who never set foot on the show floor.

The Winner by a Landslide

Hailed by judges as "an aggressive integrated program that was both appropriate for the audience and hugely successful," Pierno's Melee at the Mandalay not only exceeded her goals; it walloped the competition. While Pierno hoped the 2009 program would double the number of lead scans from the 2008 show, it actually quadrupled 2008's figure. Xirrus scanned just shy of 3,000 attendees; meanwhile, the 410 other exhibitors averaged only 307 scans, according to show management.

Plus, during their booth visits, attendees couldn't help but absorb key messages about the Array's benefits. And many went home and told their co-workers about Xirrus. "Salespeople reported getting a lot of referrals following the show," Pierno says. "For example, someone would call and say, 'I didn't attend the show, but my friend saw your booth and said you might have a product to fit my needs.'"

Pierno also estimates that Xirrus has gained more than 15 new customers and more than $1 million in sales as a result of the show. What's more, brand-consideration figures rose as well. In a post-show, Interop-sponsored survey, 5 percent of attendees indicated that they would have considered purchasing from Xirrus prior to the show; but as a result of the show, that figure jumped to 33 percent of attendees. This staggering spike in purchasing consideration was the highest among all companies in the survey.

So how much did Xirrus pay for this knockout punch? "Our budget was almost identical to last year's program," Pierno says. "We quadrupled our scans, educated the masses, and drove up our purchasing-consideration figures dramatically, all for the same amount of money as our 2008 program."

Hooking and jabbing, Pierno's program delivered a one-two punch of rock-solid results for an up-and-coming company, and a trade show TKO to those 800-pound gorillas. E

Linda Armstrong, senior writer; larmstrong@exhibitormagazine.com

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