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Stronger Together
Chris LaRoy brings together a diverse portfolio of Cox Automotive Inc. brands to generate record booth traffic and close 35 contracts. By Claire Walling
Chris LaRoy supports the industry events and trade shows team at Cox Automotive Inc. This team is responsible for cultivating key industry relationships as well as strategy and activation at trade shows and conferences. LaRoy, who has an MBA from Florida Atlantic University, joined Cox Automotive subsidiary Autotrader Inc. in 2013, where he leveraged more than 10 years of marketing experience to drive innovation and enhance the client experience.
Cruise control is a wonderful feature on a long car ride. It removes the driver's need to focus on the gas pedal and keeps the vehicle's speed consistent as it climbs hills and negotiates curves. But in the world of exhibit marketing, putting a trade show program on cruise control can be as foolhardy as a midnight drive sans headlights. Thankfully Chris LaRoy, senior manager of industry events and trade shows for Cox Automotive Inc, was at the wheel when his company's exhibiting program navigated a bend in the road.

In August 2014, Atlanta-based conglomerate Cox Enterprises Inc. consolidated more than 25 consumer and business-to-business automotive brands under the umbrella of Cox Automotive. Household names such as Autotrader Inc. and Kelley Blue Book Co. Inc. joined forces with dealership juggernauts, including Manheim Inc., NextGear Capital Inc., DealShield, and more. The brands could now tag-team to provide end-to-end solutions for dealership and consumer clients under the Cox Automotive headliner and tap into the vast resources of its mothership conglomerate, Cox Enterprises.

When the National Independent Automobile Dealers Association Convention and Expo convened the following summer, however, the company and its face-to-face marketing program remained cruising at status-quo speeds, despite the recent consolidation. The handful of Cox Automotive brands that had attended the show in previous years continued to exhibit at NIADA as separate entities with disparate promotions and strategies, even though they were now part of the same company. "Clients had to go to all of these different booths if they wanted to see everything we had to offer, and they may not have even been aware that all of these brands were now part of Cox Automotive," LaRoy says.

But LaRoy wasn't coasting along and ignoring the company's growth. He knew Cox Automotive's strength was in how the products in its diverse portfolio worked together to provide cohesive solutions for clients. And the best way to communicate that strength and cohesion would be to consolidate the brands that would exhibit at NIADA onto a single piece of carpet on the trade show floor.

Lane Change
Unlike larger dealer-focused trade shows, such as the National Automobile Dealers Association, which serve as a cattle call for anyone who sells a chunk of metal and four wheels, NIADA attracts a smaller, more tailored audience. More than 500 representatives from "mom and pop" dealerships flock to the show to learn how to make their operations thrive and to source suppliers who will help make that happen. But according to LaRoy, enthusiasm for the organization had been steadily waning, and attendance at its annual event had encountered a precipitous drop-off. That decline was problematic for Cox Automotive: The independent dealer market comprised a critical customer base for the company, and NIADA offered a prime avenue to have quality conversations with this very important group.

Cox Automotive Inc. closed 35 contracts as a result of its exhibiting presence at NIADA, a company record to date.
Many marketers might look at the show's dwindling attendance, pack up their crates, and run – or at the very least scale down their presence to the bare minimum. LaRoy had a different idea: NIADA would be the perfect place to pilot a companywide pavilion. "As Cox Automotive evolves, bringing the brands together and showing the unified power of the company was really priority No. 1," LaRoy says. "We wanted to show how we can support the dealer in every way possible." Part of that strategy would include securing speaking opportunities for the company's subject matter experts and executives and doubling down on show sponsorships.

Shared show-floor spaces are as common as tchotchkes, but they're often reserved for associations and similar groups. LaRoy liked the idea, however, because it would still give each product and service its own space without making the exhibit cluttered. "Cox Automotive's priority is that we still lead with the brands," he says. And a pavilion would lend space for each brand that pertained to the independent dealership market to proudly display its own logo, back-wall verbiage, product demos, etc., all under a Cox Automotive banner. What's more, the expected savings derived from having a single plot of show-floor real estate – compared to a smattering of separate exhibits – could be applied toward sponsorship efforts to generate buzz for Cox Automotive and its various brands.

Caution: Merger Ahead
With a strategy in play, it was time for LaRoy and the rest of the Cox Automotive marketing team to choose which brands should exhibit at NIADA. With more than 25 different brands tailored to diverse audience segments, it didn't make much sense to jam everyone into one booth. "We wanted to make sure that we didn't have solutions and brands on site that didn't fit the audience," LaRoy says. The marketing team began its arduous process by looking at the nine brands that had exhibited solo at NIADA 2015: Autotrader, Kelley Blue Book, Alliance Inspection Management, DealShield, Manheim, Dealertrack Inc., NextGear Capital, vAuto Inc., and Ready Logistics.

Ultimately, all of those brands made the cut for the 10 slots in the new Cox Automotive pavilion. Each brand would be afforded its own 10-foot-wide space where it could promote its individual products or services. Kelley Blue Book and Autotrader (the media sites that help consumers find and price vehicles) are closely affiliated and would share one of the pavilion slots. That would make room for Stockwave, a new product from vAuto that was launching at NIADA, to have its own area in the pavilion. The final space would be reserved for Cox Automotive itself to pitch its various solutions to attendees as a package deal.

Simply building a pavilion and hawking products wouldn't create a traffic jam of attendees clamoring to learn more about Cox Automotive, and LaRoy's team knew it. To that end, they devised a passport program that would incentivize attendees to have six or more quality interactions with the company, either by visiting a space in the pavilion or attending an educational session presented by a Cox Automotive executive. Attendees could then exchange their completed passports for a $100 Visa gift card on the spot. "We debated many different incentives, but cash is king," LaRoy says. And if cold, hard cash wasn't impetus enough, the marketing team also threw in exclusive at-show discounts, including up to $1,000 in rebates on select show specials.

While Cox Automotive would be exhibiting at NIADA with a united front, LaRoy opted for a divide-and-conquer approach to show sponsorships. Numerous brands had sponsored various aspects of the convention on their own in the past. For example, in 2015, vAuto paid for the privilege to wrap elevator doors in the venue with branded graphics, and Manheim sponsored digital LED signage around the facility. Many brands would maintain or expand those opportunities to have their own logo in front of attendees via sponsorships at the 2016 show. Moreover, a new venue for the convention meant that LaRoy could leverage Cox Automotive's long-standing relationship with the association to explore new sponsorship activities; after several years at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, the convention was moving up the Strip to The Mirage. "The beauty of our partnership with NIADA is that when they move to a new venue, they invite us to do a walk-through," LaRoy says. "Through that, we identified quite a list of potential sponsorship opportunities to investigate."

Sponsorship Spotlight
Cox Automotive Inc. employed a series of companywide and brand-specific sponsorships to reach NIADA attendees at every turn.

Before the show, Cox Automotive staff reached out to 57 VIPs to arrange luxury transportation from the airport to The Mirage on their behalf.

NIADA staffers received a bottle of Chandon sparkling wine in recognition of the organization's 70th anniversary.

State association executive directors found $50 Mirage gift cards and a welcome note when they checked into their rooms.

Cox Automotive bestowed National Quality Dealer Award nominees with bottles of bubbly and $100 gift cards for The Mirage.

Custom vinyl graphics blanketed the iconic aquarium behind the check-in desk in The Mirage's lobby.

NextGear Capital Inc. staffers interacted with attendees in the venue's rotunda via the friendly competition inspired by a NASCAR virtualracing game.
Very Important Partnerships
Before NIADA even officially kicked off, a select group of 57 attendees and show staff received a little extra pampering courtesy of Cox Automotive. LaRoy and his team reached out to all of the state association executive directors to arrange VIP transit for them from McCarran International Airport to The Mirage. This group may not have a lot of buying power, but it holds considerable sway over its constituents, LaRoy explains. Once checked into his or her room, each state association director found a $50 Mirage gift card and a welcome note from Cox Automotive that had been dropped off by hotel staff.

LaRoy and his team also honored the NIADA staff on site who were working tirelessly to make sure the convention went off without a hitch. To commemorate the association's 70th anniversary, Cox Automotive had a bottle of Chandon sparkling wine with a customized label and a congratulatory note delivered to the hotel room of each staff member the night before the conference. "We have a true partnership with give and take on both sides," La Roy says. "I'll speak for them and say we need each other."

Nominees for the National Quality Dealer Award – an honor bestowed upon one independent dealership owner during an awards ceremony that the company was sponsoring later in the week – also received bottles of bubbly from Cox Automotive. Like the sparkling wine delivered to NIADA staff, these bottles also featured custom labels and were accompanied by a card toasting their nomination. And to further honor the nominees, Cox Automotive bestowed this elite group with $100 gift cards for The Mirage, redeemable at any restaurant or retail location on the property, at the box office, and in the spa.

Other attendees also received a little something from Cox Automotive before the show, albeit in a digital form. Two pre-show email blasts invited NIADA registrants to participate in the passport activity and informed them of the company's at-show specials. In years prior, each brand had sent email missives to customers and registered attendees scattershot, which resulted in clogged inboxes and substantial confusion. So with Cox Automotive top of mind and some extra incentive to visit the company's corporate pavilion, attendees prepared for the opening day of NIADA.

Show and Tell
As soon as attendees entered The Mirage, they saw a logo for Cox Automotive or one of its brands at almost every turn. As attendees waited to check in to the host hotel, they admired the sea life swimming in the giant aquarium that stretched the length of the check-in desk and couldn't help but notice the logos of Cox Automotive and its affiliate brands adhered to the glass with white decals. Once attendees made their way to the rotunda outside the exhibit hall, they found four NASCAR virtual race car gaming stations. A team of NextGear Capital staffers stood at the ready, eager to engage attendees passing through the space about floor planning their dealerships and how its inventory blueprints could help. And to make sure that attendees knew about the product launch of Stockwave, the company sponsored escalator graphics that splashed the news all over The Mirage's lobby.

The Cox Automotive onslaught continued once attendees stepped foot in the exhibit hall and saw its 30-by-70-foot pavilion front and center. The structure, built by Czarnowski Display Services Inc., featured 10 equally sized spaces, each with its own 10-foot-wide back wall, reception desk, and smattering of tables and chairs. "We wanted to let each brand maintain its individual identity," LaRoy says. "That's why we had different back walls with each brand's individual verbiage." An expansive, periwinkle blue, tensioned-fabric structure rigged from the ceiling conspicuously branded the space as Cox Automotive territory without overpowering what each brand brought to the table for potential prospects.

Seventy-two percent of attendees said they visited more brands in Cox Automotive Inc's pavilion than they initially planned on.
As attendees walked up to the space, staffers engaged them in a conversation about the company's diverse offerings and the particular brand they were representing and then handed them a 5-by-7-inch passport card. The front of the card featured the Cox Automotive logo with the message "Your Passport to Success." Smaller text informed attendees that they could visit six out of 16 passport destinations and then exchange their passport for a $100 Visa gift card. When attendees opened the folded card, they found succinct descriptions of each Cox Automotive brand represented at NIADA and blank diamond logos where stickers could be placed. The back of the card listed the six educational sessions being presented by company executives where attendees could also earn passport stickers.

Staffers then engaged attendees in a conversation about their dealership needs, and when that interaction was complete, affixed a small sticker onto their passport cards and sent them on their merry way to learn more about Cox Automotive at their leisure. Or, if the conversation revealed that another product would perfectly fit an attendee's needs, the staffer escorted the interested dealer to that area of the pavilion. "Putting everyone in one booth facilitated the client journey, the handoff from brand to brand, and the overall consultation," LaRoy says.

Once attendees re-entered the show aisle, they were greeted by a surveyor from Exhibit Surveys Inc. Four independent interviewers peppered attendees with roughly 20 questions and gave participants a $10 Starbucks gift card to thank them for their time. "The main thing we wanted to figure out from the client was whether the single-booth approach was the right approach for them. Once we got past that, the second objective was measuring the effectiveness of our engagements with clients," LaRoy says. "We gained a lot of valuable insights about how many touchpoints we had with them, how the passport program worked, what they'd like to see implemented bigger or better next year, etc."

After participants had acquired the requisite stickers at a smattering of pavilion spaces and educational sessions, they handed their passports back to a Cox Automotive staffer and received a $100 Visa gift card. But according to LaRoy, attendees kept visiting pavilion spaces and sitting in on educational sessions long after they had completed their passports, proving that the unified approach wasn't just a boon for the company; it gave attendees exactly what they were looking for, too.

Driving Digital
Passports submitted and gift cards in hand, attendees exited the booth and continued on to other exhibits and sessions. But that wasn't necessarily the last interaction they had with the company at NIADA. In addition to its large pavilion and all-encompassing sponsorships, Cox Automotive also took its presence at NIADA to the digital realm. "The great thing about being a part of Cox Enterprises is that it gives us the ability to reach out to all of the different companies, one of which is Cox Communications," LaRoy says. Using its sister company's expertise, then, Cox Automotive devised a digital retargeting campaign that would put its messaging in front of dealers, even when they were surfing the internet in their hotel rooms.
Strength in Unity
Ten Cox Automotive Inc. brands exhibited in a single pavilion at the NIADA show in Las Vegas.

Attendees who participated in an exit survey were given $10 gift cards to Starbucks.

Cox Automotive's passport promotion rewarded attendees who had six qualifying engagements with a $100 Visa gift card.

To start, LaRoy and his team created a list of approximately 1,000 keywords and 150 websites that they believed attendees would likely be searching for and visiting online. After attendees typed any of those magic words or URLs into their laptops or smartphones, they were served a display ad for Cox Automotive that touted its show specials and passport promotion at NIADA. For example, if a showgoer Googled "NIADA" or visited a competitor's website, he or she would subsequently be served Cox Automotive ads while they surfed. And to make sure that only dealers in town for NIADA saw the online ads – and not tourists basking in all that Sin City has to offer – Cox Communications geofenced the venue, ensuring that only people within the confines of The Mirage would be served ads. "We were worried about having spoilage. If you're not a dealer, the ads won't make any sense to you," LaRoy says. "We wanted to make sure that we weren't wasting impressions or confusing people."

Victory Lap
By the time NIADA closed up shop, LaRoy had the data to prove that Cox Automotive and its myriad brands really are stronger together. The company closed 35 contracts as a result of its exhibiting presence at NIADA, a company record to date. Moreover, of the 53 attendees who completed their passports, 13 were interested in Cox Automotive's show specials and corresponding rebates. The digital realm also saw impressive results: a 30-percent email open rate (far above the business-to-business industry event benchmark of 20 percent) and 2.5 million impressions through the digital retargeting campaign.

What's more, the intercept surveys affirmed that exhibiting in the pavilion helped prospective customers learn more about Cox Automotive – and increase their likelihood of buying its products. Out of 105 attendees surveyed, 97 percent reported engaging with a booth staffer; 92 percent said that the organization of brands in the pavilion made sense to them and their businesses; 72 percent visited more brands than they had originally planned on; 62 percent were very or extremely likely to purchase a new service from one or more brands; and 44 percent were very or extremely likely to make a purchase sooner than they had originally anticipated. And LaRoy's successful solution to his company's growing pains wasn't just a one-off endeavor. He has implemented the pavilion approach at other shows since its impressive NIADA debut, swapping out brands as necessary to fit the market and needs of attendees at each event.

"Juggling lots of brands may not be a unique challenge, but LaRoy tackled this problem in an innovative way," one judge said. "The program was well developed and achieved some remarkable results." So while cruise control can make a lengthy journey more hassle-free, sometimes a rapidly growing company can benefit from someone minding the accelerator – assuming, of course, it has an All-Star Award-winning exhibit manager behind the wheel. E

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