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case study
Steelhead Productions invites attendees to a vintage carnival in its exhibit
that generates a 229-percent increase in leads. By Lena Valenty
The phrase "work hard, play hard" pops up all over the place, from Forever 21 T-shirts and rap songs to television shows and movies. But it's not a new idea. In fact, it was first introduced by authors Terrence Deal and Allan Kennedy in the 1982 book "Corporate Cultures: The Rites and Rituals of Corporate Life." Originally describing a work environment where employees take few risks but receive immediate feedback on performance, "work hard, play hard" has since been adopted as a mantra by many a working professional to epitomize the perfect work-life balance.

Granted, exhibit managers tend to put an emphasis on the "work hard" portion of that idiom due to packed show calendars, little to no support staff, and countless hours on the road attending shows all over the world. And as such, it's fair to assume that this particular group of people has seen and done everything there is to do on the trade show floor. So when it's time for them to switch roles and be the attendees at a show like EXHIBITOR2014, an educational conference and exhibition for exhibit and event marketers, it takes more than a fun-size Snickers bar and branded pen to elicit any sort of reaction – or heaven forbid, a smile.

A muted color palette helped the carnival-themed exhibit retain an air of sophistication.

Enter Steelhead Productions. The Las Vegas-based exhibit house has a history of executing whimsical campaigns at EXHIBITOR Show (now known as EXHIBITORLIVE) that in recent years have included an adult (read: alcoholic) lemonade stand and a fully stocked peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich bar. At first blush, that fun-for-all approach to exhibiting might seem a tad soft – mostly because joy isn't really a metric you can track and report to upper management. Fortunately those programs also generated results, such as a 48-percent increase in booth traffic and 88 qualified leads, proving the unconventional strategy works for Steelhead. Plus, those campaigns reinforced the company's Exhibit Happy tagline. When having fun and making people happy is an exhibiting objective, anything is fair game.

So when it came time to devise a campaign for EXHIBITOR2014, Steelhead's creative team again turned to fun for inspiration, this time in the form of game play. "Our target audience is very familiar with traditional traffic builders and probably somewhat desensitized to them," says Rhiannon Andersen, Steelhead's vice president. "I wanted to find something captivating that would pique their interest and pull them in."

In searching for campaign ideas, Andersen came across the following passage from Brian Sheehan's book "Loveworks": "Human beings are powered by emotion, not by reason, and growing an emotional connec-tion with your brand can increase buying intention by as much as seven times." Cue Andersen's ah-ha moment. "Honestly, the thought was simple – games engage emotion," she says. "So we decided to create a game that would encourage attendees to play with us in our booth, and in turn increase their buying intention with us." But at a highly competitive show like EXHIBITOR2014, you can't just put a Monopoly board on a reception desk and expect attendees to jump at the chance to collect $200 and pass go. And quite frankly, the sight of a Monopoly board probably conjures feelings of frustration and disappointment – not exactly the emotions Steelhead was looking for. No, board games wouldn't do. Andersen needed something that appealed to the masses, rewarded participation, evoked happiness, and encouraged interaction: Steelhead needed a good old-fashioned carnival.

Before you think, "Isn't that a little cheesy?" ditch any preconceived notion the word "carnival" brings to mind. The default is to think red-and-yellow striped tents, plush toys made of questionable materials, jaded vendors that dish out more "side eye" than the entire cast of "The Real Housewives of Orange County," clowns (enough said), and fried foods served on a stick, in a cup, and with a side of broken dreams. True, all of those things have probably made their way to the show floor at one point or another. And while Andersen and her team were well aware of the clichés, they were determined not to reinforce them. "There are many iconic visual cues to pull from when it comes to a carnival theme," Andersen says. "We needed to fight that look while remaining true to the Steelhead brand. To avoid being gimmicky and cheap, we went back a few decades to the 1920s for a more vintage, vaudevillian vibe."

That decision led to some distinct design directives. For example, instead of red and yellow as the color palette, Steelhead opted for a sophisticated suite of black, white, and tan throughout its campaign and 20-by-20-foot double-deck exhibit. And rather than filling the back wall with throwaway prizes no one wants to win, it planned to stock plywood shelves with branded wooden yo-yos, Bluetooth speakers, novelty glasses, and more, all of which could be won playing an in-booth ringtoss game. Furthermore, it wanted to eschew unflattering spotlights in favor of black chandeliers and marquee-style lights that emitted a soft, yellow glow. The icing on the "uncarnival" funnel cake would be the campaign name: Play.

Come One, Come All
Simple and relatively straightforward, the single-word moniker would be introduced in the weeks before the exhibit hall opened via a series of pre-show mailers and eblasts. After all, Steelhead could create a carnival to rival the greatest show on earth, but if no one came to see it, the campaign would fall flatter than the big top during teardown.

The first of three missives was sent with the EXHIBITOR2014 sponsored pre-show postcard pack, mailed to registered attendees. The roughly 4-by-5-inch card introduced the campaign theme and featured the soon-to-be-ubiquitous Play logo along with carnival-inspired language such as "Wonder of Wonder," "Ladies & Gents," and "Right This Way." It also included Steelhead's URL, logo, Exhibit Happy tagline, and booth number. A call to action rounded out the mailer and read: "Fun should not be put off until Friday night. Join us!"

"We decided to create a game that would encourage attendees to play with us."

Next, Steelhead mailed what it called a "Selfie-it-4-Fun" card to the same group of registered attendees. When recipients opened the crimson-red envelope, they discovered a deflated black balloon featuring the Steelhead logo and attached to a card. Text on the card instructed attendees to blow up the balloon, strike a pose with it, and then take a selfie. Attendees who texted their photos to 313131 would be eligible to win a prize. The card also directed people to upload their selfies to Instagram using the #ExhibitHappy hashtag.

The final postcard mailer, sent two weeks before EXHIBITOR2014 opened on March 16, contained one carnival-style ticket good for a game of ringtoss, and a second ticket redeemable for a fortuneteller machine á la the movie "Big" that would be housed in the upper level of Steelhead's booth. On the surface, the fortuneteller experience seemed like harmless – albeit fruitless – fun. But the company had bigger plans for it. Located in a lounge space in the upper level of the exhibit, the semi-enclosed area would facilitate one-on-one conversations between Steelhead booth staffers and those waiting to get their exhibiting-related fortunes.

In addition to the direct mailers, Steelhead also emailed a reminder and invitation to visit its booth a week before the exhibit hall opened. Text in the eblast read, "Steelhead excitedly invites you to have some fun, play some games, snack on some popcorn, and chat about what your future looks like in our zany exhibit industry!" Again featuring the Play logo, Exhibit Happy tagline, and booth number, the eblast reinforced the vintage carnival theme.

While the postcards and eblast went to registered attendees, the press received a little something extra. "In addition to getting attendees excited about our campaign, we also wanted to gain attention from industry press," Andersen says. "So we sent a box containing all of the promotional materials to industry writers, editors, and photographers." When a member of the media opened the package, he or she saw a letter explaining the campaign theme and exhibit experience as well as a collection of the ringtoss prizes that would be given away in the booth: a branded canvas lunch bag, a pair of novelty glasses, a lollipop, and a wooden yo-yo.

Not convinced that the pre-show efforts would drum up enough traffic to meet its goal of increasing leads by 150 percent over 2013, Steelhead decided to hand out fliers on show site at EXHIBITOR2014's various networking events. Featuring the same Play logo, verbiage, and palette as the direct mailers, the fliers also contained tickets for the ringtoss game and fortuneteller machine.

Step Right Up
When the exhibit-hall doors finally opened, Steelhead was ready to entertain the masses. Tickets in hand, attendees meandered their way to the Play booth, eager to see what, exactly, a vintage carnival looked like. The towering black structure didn't disappoint. Completely open on two sides, the striking double-decker space looked like it was ripped from the pages of the Restoration Hardware catalog, and delivered on the experience promised in the pre-show mailers. For example, the selfies solicited in one of the mailers popped up on the 9.5-foot-tall side wall of the exhibit in a sepia-toned collage of happy faces and Steelhead-branded items. And in a nod to a traditional carnival tent, white silk curtains adorned the outside back wall, framing the Steelhead logo and a series of sepia photos featuring some of the exhibit house's past projects.

Back inside the exhibit, attendees discovered the ringtoss game – a collection of amber-hued glass bottles set inside a black framed box atop four black, ornate table legs. Positioned in the middle of the space and against a gray wall featuring the word "play" in marquee lights, the ringtoss was the main attraction and served as a key engagement point, as staffers dressed in suspenders and black bow ties invited passing attendees to grab some popcorn from the nearby machine and try their hands at the game.

As visitors attempted to land one of their three wooden rings on the bottles, staffers stepped back and let them have their fun, casually making conversation about their exhibiting needs. If a ring landed on a bottle, attendees got to pick a branded trinket from the prize wall. But Steelhead was the real winner, as the organic conversations allowed its staffers to suss out the qualified leads from the fun-seekers. Those that wanted to discuss the company's services were escorted to the upper-level lounge, where they could have a seat on vintage-inspired furniture and also redeem their tickets for the fortuneteller machine.

After participating in the ringtoss and receiving their fortune, attendees paused for a tongue-in-cheek photo op where they stuck their heads through a cutout in what Steelhead dubbed the "Strong Exhibitor" – a play on the Strong Man vaudeville acts of yore.

"The Play exhibit was designed to conjure memories of playful times at a circus or carnival without hitting people over the head with it," Andersen says. "We incorporated elements like the popcorn machine, picture-taking station, fortuneteller activity, and ringtoss game in a manner that was true to our brand while presenting a comprehensive attendee experience that gave us an opportunity to have meaningful conversations."

By the time the last ring was tossed and the final fortune delivered, Andersen and her team knew the Play exhibit was a success. "The audience reaction was overwhelmingly awesome," she says. "Our booth was packed the entire show, and everyone was having a good time. It seemed that having a game in a booth was a lot less intimidating for attendees than watching a product demonstration or filling out a survey."

Curtain Call
Happy attendees aside, Steelhead wasn't ready to close the curtain on the campaign just yet. A week after the show ended, Steelhead sent all visitors a postcard featuring a photo of the exhibit staff and the text, "Wow, EXHIBITOR2014 rocked the house! Thank you so much for stopping by, tossing the rings, and letting Zelda share her gypsy insights with you! Drop us a line if you would like us to assist with your next trade show project!" Mimicking the pre-show mailers, the card once again contained the Play logo, along with the Exhibit Happy tag and the company's URL. The postcard served not only as a reminder of the Play experience in the booth, but also as a gentle call to action.
"The Play exhibit was designed
to conjure memories of playful times
at a circus or carnival."

About three weeks after that, Steelhead mailed a goodie bag of sorts to its qualified prospects. Inside, recipients found a branded deck of cards and a thank-you postcard containing instructions for playing Flip, a single-player card game. True to form, the postcard had the Play logo, Steelhead's URL, and the phrase, "Your future is waiting."

Fortunately for Steelhead, it didn't have to wait long to learn what its exhibiting future held. In the weeks following the show, it secured nearly $1 million worth of business, right in line to meet its goal of $2 million in new opportunities within 12 months of EXHIBITOR2014. What's more, the extensive pre-show marketing campaign and eye-catching exhibit helped the company generate a whopping 229-percent increase in leads over the 2013 show.

From the consistent messaging throughout the pre-show marketing campaign to the posh, nouveau carnival theme, Steelhead gave attendees a memorable experience they won't soon forget – and that's something you can't win at the midway.

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