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Product launch

t the 2007 Campus Marketing Expo (CAMEX), Linda Spann invited attendees to walk a mile in her shoes - literally.

Spann, the creator of Hotflops novelty flip-flops, had rock-solid faith in the product she'd developed: comfy, themed flip-flops embellished with custom-made footballs, golf balls, grapes, bubbles, and fish that retail for about $30. She knew if she could get the flops on people's feet, her start-up company would take a significant step toward a successful future. With hopes of breaking into the lucrative gift market, Spann realized that if she could build some buzz for her fanciful flops, she just might unleash the next foot fad.

But Spann lacked a retail background and needed to find a feasible way to get her flops in stores. While she had never attended a trade show, her years of marketing experience gave her familiarity with the practice. She knew it would be the easiest way to get the company going, so she set out to find a trade show with an audience that fit her flip-flops' demographic.

"I knew I was launching a line that had to do with sports," Spann says. "The flops are fun and festive; plus, the college girls are really into them."

Coeds often take the lead when it comes to apparel trends, such as turning pajamas into day wear or making hoodies as hot as haute couture; plus, scads of athletes participate in intramural and collegiate sports, which meant her new sports-themed line couldn't be a better fit for college-age consumers. In fact, college campuses offered rich possibilities, as their bookstores sell much more than books. Students find plenty of university-branded apparel among the tomes and tchotchkes.

Since Spann lives near the University of California, Santa Barbara, she called the college bookstore and asked about an appropriate trade show. She also checked with the bookstore at UC San Diego. Both gave her the same answer: Campus Marketing Expo (CAMEX), a business-to-business trade show for college retail businesses run by the National Association of College Stores (NACS).

She then contacted the show's public-relations office but found the reps were less than thrilled about her product. "They were 'ho-hum, another flip-flop,'" Spann says, until she mailed them a pair of Hotflops. "Then everyone in the office wanted a pair."

After receiving that enthusiastic thumb's up in November, she booked a 10-by-20-foot booth, and put her energy and resources into launching her product at the 2007 CAMEX show in Orlando, FL, in March. But Spann knew that running blind would put her - and her company's success - at risk. So she and her staff took a step-by-step approach to learn about the trade show business.

Spann's team called other exhibitors, searched the Internet, and asked a lot of questions of the show organizers, who referred her to full-service exhibit house Freeman Co. to build the company's booth.

She, her partner Karen Phillips, and her staff worked closely with Freeman on the design of the 10-by-20-foot customized rental booth, which ultimately featured a nearly life-size image of Spann laying on a giant Hotflop across the top of the booth. Another photograph showed Spann standing in a rain of Hotflops. The back wall of the booth displayed the flip-flops on small shelves, much like at a shoe store, and two tables surrounded by chairs offered a place to talk business or a comfy area for attendees to try on the flops.

Steppin' It Up

With a location and a booth in hand, Spann could now focus on the marketing plan. She might have been a novice when it came to trade shows, but she had years of practical business experience in property and hotel management, and understood the importance of properly marketing a product. She consulted the CAMEX public relations director, who was also in charge of marketing for the show, about creating and detailing a specific marketing campaign for Hotflops.

"I informed her of the frenzy I wanted to create, to paint a really clear picture in her mind of the outcome I expected from this campaign," Spann says. The marketing strategy needed to raise brand awareness, as well as create a must-have mentality among attendees. "I came up with the idea to give away a pair of flip-flops to each and every buyer who came to see them. I knew once attendees got them on their feet, the comfort and fun of them would make them want to have more and more of them not only for themselves but to sell in their stores."

To raise product awareness to stiletto height, Hotflops sponsored the show's opening-night reception, a pool-side beach party at a nearby resort. To advertise the sponsorship and the product, Spann created a three-part pre-show promotional strategy that began with a flip-flop-shaped postcard included in a registration packet NACS sent six weeks prior to the show. The postcards went to 2,000 attendees, redeemable for a free pair of Hotflops at the sponsored reception or at the company's booth during the trade show.

The next step involved another Hotflops-shaped postcard the company mailed to attendees two weeks prior to the show. The postcard featured a checklist that reminded show goers to get their free Hotflops, set up an appointment with Spann via e-mail, enter a drawing for a Hawaiian getaway, and check out the Hotflops discounts at the show. For the third step, Spann purchased a full-page ad in the CAMEX show program, shoehorning the Hotflops brand into attendees' minds and hopefully adding the company's booth to their list of must-see exhibits.

The sponsorship, mailers, travel and staffing costs, and the 1,000 Hotflops she brought to hand out to attendees added up to a $25,000 gamble. If the company took $10,000 worth of orders, Spann says she would have considered the show a good return on her investment. If she brought in $25,000 in sales, equal to the cost of the products and promotions, she'd call the show and the launch a success.

On Their Toes

When it came to selecting her booth staffers, Spann stayed close to home. She asked moms from her neighborhood if they'd like to earn a few dollars and travel to Florida. Three of them said yes, giving Spann a full staff of people she knew she could trust. Before leaving for the show, Spann familiarized each of the staffers with the product so they would be prepped and ready for success.

With moms in tow, Spann headed for the CAMEX show. She hoped her pre-show marketing campaign had been successful, but even she was surprised by the chaos that ensued. "It was crazy," Phillips says. Attendees rushed the Hotflops table at the opening reception, crowding around as they tried to score a pair of the fashionable footwear. "The craziest part of it is we had absolutely no idea what to expect."

Prior to the opening-night beach-party reception, Spann instructed her staff to keep the cardboard boxes holding the extra flops out of sight in an effort to keep the area neat and clean. "That went to hell in five minutes," Spann says. "Demand was so intense that we were literally mauled. We were throwing boxes of flops over the fence by the pool to satisfy the demand and get them in people's hands."

On the show floor the next day, the frenzy continued. Word had already spread about the fun flops, and attendees lined up for their own pair. A glance at those waiting showed many of them barefoot, ready to slide into a pair of Hotflops. As attendees entered the booth to claim their free flops, they were also invited to complete an entry card for a drawing for the Hawaiian getaway. Since the entry forms asked for attendees' contact information, they doubled as lead forms, and provided Spann with the information she needed to follow up with booth visitors after the show. "That first day, we were so busy that we didn't get a chance to pee until 4 o'clock," Spann says.

With a relatively simple plan, Spann and her team pulled off a successful launch for her new business. As one judge said, "That kind of word-of-mouth excitement, or maybe I should say word-of-feet excitement, is the best marketing buzz there is."

If the Shoe Fits

Introducing a fresh and fun product at a trade show can build buzz, but taking it beyond the hubbub requires strategy and planning.

Spann brought 1,000 pairs of Hotflops to hand out to attendees at the reception and in the booth. Those disappeared about half-way through the three-day show, with certain favorites, like the Fishflops and the baseball themes going first. Attendees continued to stop by the booth, hoping for a free pair of the Hotflops long after the supply was gone. But all attendees who placed orders received a free pair in the mail after the show. Considering that the company sent the pre-show postcards to 2,000 attendees, that equals a resounding 50-percent return rate on the mailers, without taking into account the hundreds of attendees who walked away from the booth empty-handed.

Phillips says at first they credited the crowd's hunger for Hotflops to the muggy Florida weather and women wearing tight, uncomfortable shoes. But buyers lined up to place orders even after the freebies ran out by noon the second day, putting that assumption to rest. In fact, approximately 90 percent of attendees who came to the Hotflops booth placed an order by the end of the show.

When the frenzy died down, Hotflops had garnered some $100,000 in sales - 10 times the amount expected and four times as much as the company spent on marketing, travel and staffing costs, and giveaways. Further sweetening her success, Spann accomplished this feat with no professional salespeople and no trade show experience. She attributes the company's success at CAMEX to three specific tactics. In her words, "We had a great booth, we had a great giveaway, and we had great pre-show marketing."

As a result of the company's launch - and attendees' overwhelming response - at the 2007 CAMEX show, Hotflops can be found in shops across the nation, from college campuses and airport gift stores to larger retailers such as Macy's and Hallmark.

"I admire the innovative, gutsy, and successful choices these folks made so they could be heard in an already very loud environment," said one judge. "And the results show that they indeed were heard."

Looking ahead to the future, Spann has already signed up for the 2008 CAMEX in San Antonio, TX, where Hotflops will again sponsor the opening-night event - this year it's a fiesta-themed party.

The new flops designed for the show should heat things up, as they boast tiny red, yellow, and green chili peppers, along with a pair of mini-maracas, maintaining Hotflops' reputation for festive fun and bringing a whole new meaning to the company name. e

Janet Van Vleet, staff writer;
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