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Formula for Success
Faced with a flat budget and a trade show city with sky high ancillary costs, Kathleen Gunderson, CTSM, makes calculated cuts to her exhibiting formula and achieves a 66-percent increase in highly qualified leads. By Claire Walling
Kathleen Gunderson, CTSM, is the assistant vice president at Wells Fargo Home Mortgage, a division of Wells Fargo Bank N.A., where she oversees not only the division's largest exhibit each year, but also smaller B2B conventions, corporate meetings, conferences, and events. Also a 2012 Sizzle Award winner, she produces trade show programs that attract and inspire realtors to use Wells Fargo's mortgage services.
ccording to industrialist and businessman J. Paul Getty, the formula for success is "rise early, work late, and strike oil." While Getty may have been leaving out a few key ingredients in that oversimplified formula, it certainly seemed to work for him. But does such a formula exist for exhibit-marketing success? And if so, what is it?

Kathleen Gunderson, CTSM, assistant vice president for Wells Fargo Home Mortgage, a division of Wells Fargo Bank N.A., seems to have developed a formula of her own. And while she hasn't struck oil just yet, Gunderson has established an 11-year history of creating and executing successful exhibit-marketing programs for one of Wells Fargo's most important annual events, the Realtors Conference and Expo, sponsored by the National Association of Realtors (NAR). In fact, for the 2011 trade show, she deployed a multifaceted rubber-ducky-themed integrated marketing campaign that helped her achieve remarkable increases in booth traffic and attendee dwell time – and also earned her a Sizzle Award. Like most of the campaigns she's developed, the duck-themed program followed a formula Gunderson has honed over time, which includes trade show sponsorships, a series of in-booth activities, and plenty of giveaways to go around. And the secret ingredient that folds all of the other elements together like a sweet soufflé is a clever, catchy theme.

Granted, Gunderson's formula might not work for every exhibitor or every audience, but it seems to suit her exhibiting objectives and attendee demographics perfectly. Wells Fargo isn't selling directly to attendees at the Realtors Conference and Expo; rather, the bank's endgame is to have realtors recommend its mortgage options to

Kathleen Gunderson, CTSM, tied together her program with a "Home Sweet Home" theme.
A friend cross-stitched the program's
logo, and then Gunderson
photographed it.
Dueling pianists played sweet-
themed songs as attendees
boarded Wells Fargo-sponsored
Attendees signed candy-shaped
stickers to show support for the
Realtors Relief Foundation.

their would-be homebuyers. That's why Gunderson fosters a "come one, come all" atmosphere in Wells Fargo's booth. Her exhibiting programs at the Realtors Conference and Expo are more aimed at creating a fun atmosphere and feel-good vibes (with a dash of education on its mortgage products) than a hard sell.

Gunderson knows her target audience of realtors intimately – they're a unique hybrid of salespeople and "people people," and those traits make them both highly competitive and extremely outgoing, she says. They jump at the opportunity to engage in a little friendly competition. As such, much of her exhibit education comes through games and in-booth activities. Furthermore, by linking a variety of activities through a passport-style promotion, she ensures that attendees will linger in her booth for upwards of 20 minutes. Since Gunderson is seeking realtors' recommendations, brand awareness is critical, and thus her primary goal is to "own the show," i.e., make sure that Wells Fargo's logo is the most visible one at the show. In past years, she's accomplished that goal through a comprehensive show sponsorship package that includes everything from a room drop in attendees' hotel rooms to signage on the exteriors of shuttle buses, in addition to giving away a car at the show.

So when it came time to make plans for Wells Fargo's exhibit at the 2013 edition of the Realtors Conference and Expo, Gunderson's first instinct was to consult her formula for success and adopt a suitable theme. But an extra variable was thrown into her time-tested approach: The show hopscotches across the country to a different city every year, and in 2013 it was slated to land at the Moscone Center in San Francisco. Her budget, however, would remain flat, despite the fact that labor, drayage, lodging, and travel rates in that city run approximately 35 percent higher than most of the cities Wells Fargo exhibited at in the past. Gunderson knew she'd have to tweak her trustworthy template to balance the books.

Tradeoff Tactics
To cut costs without watering down her program, Gunderson made perhaps the most unconventional decision that an exhibit manager could make: She decided to leave her 50-by-50-foot hard-walled exhibit at home. Just hauling the crates containing her exhibit property from the convention center's loading dock to her booth space would rack up enough in drayage fees for a mortgage payment. Plus, almost all of that cargo would require union labor for assembly, thus blowing her budget before the show even started. "I didn't see the value in spending a lot of money for labor, drayage, and shipping," Gunderson says. "That doesn't add anything to the attendee experience." What would enhance the attendee experience, Gunderson reasoned, was more of the interactions and engagements that have become the hallmarks of her exhibiting program, so she decided to allocate the finite budget dollars accordingly.

Gunderson saved roughly $115,000 worth of shipping, labor, and drayage expenses by not bringing her exhibit to the Realtors Conference and Expo, and she chose to spend that cash on enhancing the messaging and activities in her booth. She also allocated some of those savings toward upgrading to a 50-by-80-foot swath of show-floor real estate. The extra 1,500 square feet would allow ample space for a presentation theater (a new addition to her exhibiting formula) and more room for activities. Next, she turned to Live Marketing Inc., a Chicago-based experiential marketing agency. Live Marketing set out to find an act suitable for the newly added theater, and also augmented Wells Fargo's booth staff with professional presenters to help facilitate the other in-booth activities.

The lack of a traditional exhibit didn't mean that Wells Fargo's booth space would be completely bare, however. Gunderson selected chests of drawers as ad hoc registration desks and leather sofas as theater seating, all of which could be purchased at an Ikea store in San Francisco (and thus only needed to be hauled a few miles from the store to the Moscone Center). And since the Swedish modular furniture can be set up with little more than an Allen wrench, Wells Fargo staffers could assemble it without violating union rules. Gunderson also decided to donate the furniture to the San Francisco chapter of Habitat for Humanity, eliminating her return shipping expenses. What's more, she negotiated to make the donation on behalf of Wells Fargo, Freeman Co. (the show's general services contractor), and the labor union in exchange for half-priced drayage rates for the couches and dressers.

Amid the flurry of budgeting tradeoffs, two mainstays of Gunderson's exhibiting formula would stay intact. Extensive show sponsorships had been a cornerstone of her efforts in the past, and thanks to her cost-cutting techniques, she was able to retain that key ingredient, despite her stagnant budget. Another element safe from the

The Home Sweet Home theme also included some sweet swag.
One lucky booth visitor won a new
Jeep Grand Cherokee.
Four attendees played each round of
an in-booth arcade game, but only
one got the top prize.
Wells Fargo also gave away various
gift cards as incentives and prizes.

chopping block was a central booth theme: For the 2013 Realtors Conference and Expo Gunderson landed on a "Home Sweet Home" motif. "Back in the day, people hung up cross-stitch samplers with that saying in their homes, and that's what you think of when you move into a new home," Gunderson says. But this home-sweet-home theme would have extra emphasis on the word "sweet," courtesy of peppermint candies, which Gunderson hoped would leave a sweet taste in attendees' mouths – and a sweet brand impression on their minds.

Owning the Show
After nearly a year of prepping, Gunderson and her team jetted off to San Francisco – without Wells Fargo's usual trade show booth in tow. Aside from a handful of display ads on the NAR website alerting attendees that Wells Fargo would give away a Jeep Grand Cherokee on the final day of the show, Gunderson hadn't allocated much of her budget to pre-show promotion. But when attendees arrived at the convention center, they saw the red, gold, and gray Wells Fargo Home Mortgage logo every direction that they turned.

When attendees stepped off the bus at the show site, they were serenaded by a pair of dueling pianists performing ballads that incorporated Gunderson's "sweet" theme, including popular tunes such as "Sweet Home Alabama." Realtors also made song requests.

The candy-coated promotions continued just inside the doors of the Moscone Center, where attendees encountered the Realtors Relief Foundation wall. Another element of Gunderson's tried-and-true approach to exhibit marketing, the philanthropic promotion allowed attendees to engage with Wells Fargo by signing circular peppermint-candy-shaped stickers and affixing them to the wall, thereby signaling their support for the organization, an offshoot of NAR that aids victims of natural disasters. Wells Fargo pledged to donate $25,000 in exchange for signed stickers.

Next, attendees proceeded to the show registration area, and in their show bags they found even more goodies from Wells Fargo: a strand of silver beads and an entry form for the Jeep Grand Cherokee sweepstakes. The beads were similar to those worn by the masses on Mardi Gras, but featured baubles with Wells Fargo's famous stagecoach logo and a 2.5-inch square pendant. One side of the pendant included the Wells Fargo Home Mortgage and show logos in red lettering, and the reverse side was lenticular printed with the program's home-sweet-home logo, NAR's logo, and the Jeep logo. Every show registrant automatically received one entry into the drawing for the Jeep Grand Cherokee. But Wells Fargo staff also prowled the area beyond the curb of the Moscone Center for realtors wearing the beads, and presented lucky attendees with "second chance" entry forms for the car and $10 gift cards to Brinker International Inc., valid at Chili's, Romano's Macaroni Grill, On The Border Mexican Grill and Cantina, and Maggiano's Little Italy.

Unstructured Engagement
After encountering Wells Fargo's logo at every turn on their way to the show floor, attendees spotted Wells Fargo's "home" at the show, its 50-by-80-foot booth. Four 6-by-16-foot vinyl banners, positioned diagonally at each corner of the booth space, marked the exhibit's locale, even if there wasn't a massive structure underneath. "The large banners helped to delineate our space and give the appearance of a lot of structure, but we didn't incur the costs associated with shipping and installing a traditional hard-wall booth," Gunderson says. On one end was the brand new Jeep Grand Cherokee that attendees could enter the drawing to win, and on the other was a replica stagecoach, a symbol synonymous with Wells Fargo. In the center of the exhibit was the 700-square-foot pipe-and-drape theater, with the various activities adjacent to its outside walls.

When attendees approached Wells Fargo's booth, they heard screams and cheers coming from within it. Attendees were cheering because the bank wasn't just giving away a new car; lucky attendees could also take home

Gunderson worked with show management to create a sponsorship package that fit her needs.
Room drops included Junior
Mints, branded sunglasses, and
cards with information about
renovation loans.
Wells Fargo sponsored shuttle
buses that ran between show
hotels and the convention center.
Giant banners in the Moscone
Center lobby reinforced Wells
Fargo's goal to "own the show."

one of Wells Fargo's highly coveted plush ponies.

Gunderson adds that she doesn't know what it is about the faux fur and fiberfill of the ponies that makes attendees go crazy, but that outside of the Realtors Conference and Expo, they're only attainable by walking into a Wells Fargo branch and opening a new account. But before earning a pony of their own, attendees had to navigate a veritable obstacle course of games and activities.

More Than Fun and Games
Another tenet of Gunderson's success at past shows is the idea of a passport-style promotion that requires booth visitors to participate in multiple activities in exchange for a chance to take home a Wells Fargo pony. So for 2013, she redeployed this concept in the form of a stamp card. Attendees would need to visit various sections of the booth and participate in a trio of activities in order to earn stamps, complete their cards, and redeem them for a chance to participate in a final activity. The 2.5-by-3.5-inch cards featured instructions on how the promotion worked on one side, and a blank box on the reverse side for attendees' stamps. When compiled, the three red, gray and gold stamps would form an image of the Wells Fargo Home Mortgage logo. After obtaining one of the cards at any of the booth's 10 chest-of-drawers reception desks, attendees were free to roam about the booth and start earning stamps.

Attendees grabbed their stamp cards and beelined through the exhibit to gather their stamps. The first stamp was a freebie – attendees merely had to visit a counter, fill out a lead form, and collect a "home sweet home" lapel pin to earn a gray stamp.

To earn a yellow stamp, however, realtors had to play the "Driving More Sales" game. Attendees stepped up to one of eight bistro tables scattered around the exhibit and grabbed an iPad. Next, a Wells Fargo staffer helped them get started with the iPad-based game. To play, attendees "drove" a yellow Volkswagen Beetle down a virtual street, veering to either curb to rotate a "for sale" sign to "sold." Roadblock-like statements also appeared intermittently, featuring truth-or-myth housing-industry trivia such as "Potential buyers need to make a down payment of at least 20 percent of the home purchase price." Answer screens informed attendees of Wells Fargo's solutions to the conundrums posed. No matter their final score, players earned a "sweet treat" – a $2 Dairy Queen gift card in addition to a yellow stamp.

Finally, to acquire a red stamp, realtors had to participate in the theater presentation. While attendees were waiting in line for the show to begin, Live Marketing presenters facilitated a trivia game that again asked attendees about common industry stats, but this time answers were paired with different types of candy. For instance, attendees who answered a question correctly about the most popular paint color for homes received a bag of Skittles, and those who answered a question correctly about two home-buying prerequisites – money and mortgages – received a bag of M&M's. After the presentation theater cleared out from the prior performance, up to 48 waiting attendees filed into the roughly 700-square-foot space, enclosed by 12-foot-high velour drapes, and popped a squat on one of 14 leather Ikea sofas. Gunderson wanted the area to mimic the aesthetic of a home theater, so every seat on each of the sofas had a throw pillow with the "Home Sweet Home" logo printed on it. On the back side was a number between one and 12, which would be used for a random drawing that would take place at the end of the performance.

As the show began, a pair of rappers known as the Q Brothers took the stage. At first glance, rappers and corporate bank culture go together like oil and water, but the artists mixed in key messages – such as the claim that Wells Fargo is the United States' No. 1 retail mortgage lender – with the exhibit's "home sweet home" theme. For instance, one stanza in the rap performance stated, "Single source is what it's all about. Home lending specialists who can really help you out."

After the performance, the artists randomly called one of the numbers, and every attendee holding a throw pillow with that number won a $20 cash gift card. While the rap lasted roughly six minutes, it was still plenty of time for the bank's key messages to sink in, and Gunderson recalls many attendees having "light-bulb moments" at certain lines, especially those addressing prequalification terms.

Winning Business
After realtors had earned all three stamps, they could turn in their completed cards to play a high-stakes arcade game against three other players, with the winner of each round taking home a coveted Wells Fargo pony. The branded game was contained within a 10-foot-wide cabinet on castors, and developed by Bob's Space Racers Inc., the same firm behind the famous Whac-A-Mole game. Signage above players' consoles read "Hit the Sweet Spot," and within each console were positive messages about the bank, such as "Opening more doors for homebuyers" and "A history of service, a heritage of reliability." To play, realtors pressed down on a button on the outside of their console, which activated a pinball-machine-like lever, launching the colored ball into the air. The goal was to land the ball in a basket mounted on the opposite side of the unit, and every time players did so, a telescoping pole mounted on top of their consoles inched upwards. The first of the four players to score enough baskets to get their pole to its fully extended height of 16 feet became the proud owner of a Wells Fargo pony.

While attendees were visiting exhibits during the show's truncated opening hours on Friday evening, housekeeping staff was bustling to deliver 5,000 branded gifts to attendees' rooms at the show hotels. Each package contained a card with the text "Have some listings that aren't in mint condition?" alongside information about the bank's renovation loans, a theater-sized box of Junior Mints candy, and a pair of branded sunglasses. The room drop was another element of Gunderson's routine tactics for the Realtors Conference and Expo. "Room drops can capture their undivided attention for two or three minutes," Gunderson says. "That's an invaluable opportunity to connect with prospects and communicate key messages in the comfort of attendees' rooms."

But realtors left the trade show with more than just branded swag (and in one case, a new set of wheels). They also had a deeper understanding of Wells Fargo's mortgage products. And the latter is invaluable for the company, which relies on realtors – especially in this competitive post-housing-crisis market – to tell wide-eyed home buyers how its products can help them achieve their dream of home ownership.

Attendees had to complete a series of tasks to win the ultimate prize – a Wells Fargo pony.
Stamp cards detailed the promotion
and included blank spaces for
attendees' stamps.
The Driving More Sales tablet-based
game mixed fun with industry trivia.
The Q Brothers rapped Wells Fargo
key messages in the presentation

Sweet Success
Traditional exhibit or not, Wells Fargo was once again the talk of the show. But attendees weren't the only ones singing the company's praises. The campaign had All-Star Awards judges dishing out kudos for Gunderson as well, lauding her creative solutions to the challenges at hand. "This was a great, innovative solution to the problem of exhibiting in an expensive locale without forfeiting the attendee experience in the process," one judge said.

What's more, Gunderson left San Francisco with compelling proof that her strategy had worked. Wells Fargo staffers interacted with approximately 5,500 attendees, 10 percent more than at the prior year's show. And of that group, 2,217 were ranked as highly qualified leads, an improvement of more than 66 percent compared to the previous year's show. Furthermore, attendees stayed in Wells Fargo's exhibit longer than they had in the past. Attendees spent an average of 25 to 35 minutes in the booth, roughly 20 percent longer than their average dwell time in 2012. And an exit survey (conducted on the second and third days of the show with more than 420 attendees) revealed that 99 percent of realtors found the Q Brothers' rap performance educational and informative. That same exit survey discovered that 89 percent of realtors were more likely to refer homebuyers to Wells Fargo following their visit to the booth, and that 95 percent of attendees had a more favorable impression of the mortgage lender than they did before attending the show.

For many homeowners, the first line item of their monthly budgets is their mortgage payment, and the rest of their purchasing decisions are influenced by what's left in their bank accounts after that check clears. Gunderson took the same approach to budgeting for her exhibit program at the Realtors Conference and Expo. But instead of prioritizing a physical structure, she made that first line item her messaging and activities, and then cut costs on other aspects of her program. By doing so, she was able to retain the all-important activities and engagements that would allow her to deploy her winning formula without breaking the bank. And as far as recipes for success go, Gunderson's was definitely on the sweet side.

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