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Extreme Makeover: Technology Edition
Beth Clark transforms an off-brand exhibit program into an engaging and professional high-tech experience for CenturyLink Inc., thereby increasing leads by 132 percent and retaining visitors' attention for an average of 20 minutes. By Linda Armstrong

As the senior marketing manager at CenturyLink Inc., a global communications, hosting, cloud, and information-technology-services company, Beth Clark specializes in the strategy, design, marketing, project management, and execution of trade shows, seminars, executive briefing centers, and hospitality events worldwide.
Beth Clark is a go-big-or-go-home kind of woman. When given the opportunity to change her exhibit-marketing program, she didn't merely alter one thing here and tweak another aspect there. No, this marketing maven mashed the reset button and practically started over from scratch.

Clark's rather abrupt reboot was borne of a general malaise about the power of exhibit marketing. As a senior marketing manager at CenturyLink Inc., a global communications, hosting, cloud, and infomation-technology-services company, Clark might have been at the helm of her company's marketing ship, but management oversaw her overarching exhibit strategy. As such, even though Clark was aware of the current program's shortcomings – and had plenty of ideas on how to navigate around them – she wasn't empowered to affect real change. For example, she was unable to obtain buy-in on amending the status quo with traffic-building promotions, inventive booth designs, or engaging experiences. As a result, Clark's program had veered off course while competing firms stayed atop the waves.

At partner events where CenturyLink exhibited – e.g., VMworld, SAP Sapphire Now, and Cisco Live – its booth was lackluster at best. At Cisco Live, for instance, CenturyLink regularly failed to make a memorable impact among the show's 300 other exhibitors. The firm's typical presence comprised traditional elements, including fabric graphics, sit-down conversation areas, an aisle-side monitor or two, and a reception desk. While conventional exhibitry certainly isn't the kiss of death, nothing about these tried-and-true components even remotely hinted at CenturyLink's digital-giant status within the IT industry.

In addition, there was no experience for attendees. "We included live demos, but they were never scheduled, and we didn't promote them," Clark says. "Sometimes we added a barista or a popcorn stand to try to draw people in, but again we didn't promote it. Our overall strategy relied on people stopping in on their own, but even when they did, we didn't really know what to do with them. We had no engagement strategy, no crowd gatherers, and no experience." Not surprisingly, people often wandered into the stand, snatched a giveaway or a cup of joe, and bolted back out of the booth.

As a result, lead counts were limbo-stick low. Clark estimates that at Cisco Live the booth might have scored 500 or 600 leads, but after weeding out competitors and swag hunters, numbers hovered around 175 to 200. Even though CenturyLink mustered a modest investment, those lead counts weren't enough for Clark. "But worst of all," she says, "most attendees thought we were a bank or a real-estate firm. We're the third-largest telecom company in the world, and nothing about our presence said 'technology.'"

Thankfully for Clark and her program, things changed dramatically in early 2017. That's when a new CMO – one that acknowledged the value of trade shows and recognized the untapped potential of the company's exhibiting program – took the helm and let Clark take the wheel. "Finally, management understood the power of shows," she says. "So when they said 'Go for it,' I went for it." And she went for it like a NASCAR driver at the back of the pack – with white knuckles on the wheel and the pedal buried in the floorboard.

Three-Part Harmony
Clark's first course of action was to assemble a team to help her completely reinvent her program for Cisco Live 2017. She turned to Houston-headquartered exhibit house 2020 Exhibits Inc. for an updated exhibit design, and she looked to Chicago-based Live Marketing Inc. for creative strategies. Clark challenged the teams to facilitate not only a booth befitting a technology mogul, but also a soup-to-nuts line of attack to generate attendee engagement. Plus, she set out to fortify lead numbers, increase dwell time, and provide a three-pronged, audience-interest-based educational experience centered on CenturyLink's offerings.

After hearing Clark's goals and vision for the future, Live Marketing and 2020 Exhibits assembled images and best-practices examples that they thought were appropriate for the brand and its objectives. "First, Live Marketing developed the tagline 'Transform Your Digital Future,' which suggested that CenturyLink had long-term, high-tech solutions for its customers," says Anne Trompeter, principal and executive creative strategist at Live Marketing. "Then we worked together to devise three potential visions for the booth. Much to their credit, the marketers at CenturyLink chose what I believe was the most out-of-the-box solution, one that really allowed them to go all in on a high-tech experience and a high-touch engagement strategy."

Attendees were likely first drawn to the 20-by-20-foot space via an irregularly shaped LED header suspended over the footprint. The 6-foot-wide band offered a 20-second looping video that featured the company's logo and tagline, which appeared to fly on and off of the screens. Designers also deployed digital graphics throughout the exhibit, allowing CenturyLink to change messages on the fly and further promote its technology-leader vibe.

Under the header, the light show continued in what Clark aptly called the Transformation Tunnel. Comprising four pillars and a logo-adorned ceiling of roughly 12 light-embedded support beams, the oblong tunnel was open on two sides. Within the structure, 2020 Exhibits suspended 192 tube-shaped light fixtures of varying lengths that bathed the entire space in a soothing, corporate-green glow.

The tunnel also formed the first of three technology-based educational offerings. Along each wall of the tunnel, designers assembled five 54-inch monitors, positioned vertically side by side. The screens provided an overview of CenturyLink's offerings via a somewhat whimsical, four-part, day-in-the-life experience of Max, a fictional IT director. In essence, attendees physically moved from one end of the screens to the other as they touched various animated elements, propelling Max through his day while learning about his pain points and how CenturyLink solves them.

Staffers scanned the badges of visitors who completed all four portions of the experience and rewarded each of them with a branded fish-eye lens that could be attached to a smartphone camera. The digital system also selected roughly 40 winners at random throughout the show, each of which was presented with a cube-shaped Bluetooth speaker. In addition, at the end of each day, a staffer randomly drew the name of one tunnel participant and awarded him or her with a DJI Phantom 3 Standard Quadcopter drone.

While the four-minute Transformation Tunnel experience provided a 30,000-foot overview of the firm's offerings, the next stop was the theater positioned immediately adjacent to the tunnel. Here, a professional presenter launched into a live presentation for up to 12 attendees at a time using a 7-by-12-foot LED screen. Offering more in-depth information than the Transformation Tunnel, each talk lasted approximately four minutes.

When the theater presentations came to a close, staffers offered participants one of three branded gifts: an inflatable neck pillow, an LED-enhanced fidget spinner, or a combination Bluetooth speaker and phone base/holder. During the process, staffers scanned and qualified visitors via interest-based questions.

Next, for those attendees that wanted to learn more, staff escorted them to product specialists who either moved visitors to the six-person meeting room in the far back corner of the space (where visitors received a branded journal as a thank you for their time) or to one of four monitors attached to the exterior of the tunnel structure. The screens typically ran looping, product-focused presentations, but staffers could interrupt the PowerPoints, open a web browser, and lead attendees on a deep dive into specific products of interest.

After this detailed presentation and at various points throughout the three-part engagement strategy, staffers presented attendees with a 3-by-5-inch card. "The card was the only piece of literature we offered," Clark says. "For a digital company, giving out literature goes against the message we were trying to send, but we still wanted people to walk away with a reminder of how to reach us. So the card featured a URL that led people to a microsite offering downloadable sell sheets, vendor and product info, videos, etc. Plus, when people accessed the microsite, they had to provide their email, and collecting this information allowed us to market to them in the future."

Clark and her team also collected data via another oh-so-subtle strategy. CenturyLink has a location-based analytics tool that uses Wi-Fi, so staffers encouraged booth visitors to save their personal cellular data and log on to the in-booth Wi-Fi instead. CenturyLink could then track how long each person spent in a certain spot, such as the Transformation Tunnel, the deep-dive monitor presentations, or even a small lounge set up near the theater. "This provided us with valuable data about the effectiveness of each component in holding attendee attention," Clark says.

People, Promos, and Petit Fours
Certainly, then, Clark and her marketing team had concocted a high-tech, high-touch experience that engaged visitors, relayed key messages, and established CenturyLink as a leading telecom company. But as Clark had learned in the past, the "If you build it, they will come" promise is a bunch of hooey. Rather, a professional staff, on-target promotions, and VIP hospitality are paramount if you want to generate anything other than "happen upon" traffic and fair-to-middling lead counts.

Clark anted up for professional speakers and engagers, the latter of which funneled attendees in from the aisles and through the tunnel experience with the lure of the various prizes. Plus, she ensured there were enough pre-, at-, and post-show promotions, each of which was fully integrated with the corporate green hue and Transform Your Digital Future tagline, to drive further traffic to the space.

The promotional strategy kicked off before the show with three email blasts that invited attendees to the booth and promoted the drone drawing. An additional thank-you email to all booth visitors after the event rounded out Clark's email promotions. In the days leading up to and during the show, CenturyLink also took to the social-media airwaves with posts and tweets on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter. The varied messages encompassed everything from booth invites and announcements about educational sessions hosted by CenturyLink staff to drone-drawing messaging and invites for deep-dive, in-booth demos.

Signage throughout the venue further accentuated the tagline and cemented Century- Link as a key player in the digital landscape. Tactics included escalator runners, banner stands in high-traffic hallways, and a banner ad on the show's website. Clark also opted for on-brand and on-trend staff apparel, which comprised corporate green polo shirts paired with jeans or black trousers and green, Vans-like sneakers or dress shoes.

Finally, CenturyLink held an exclusive, invite-only VIP customer-appreciation event featuring cocktails, hors d'oeuvres, giveaways, and a birds-eye view of the Bruno Mars and The Hooligans concert at the T-Mobile Arena the second night of the show. Held in a suite high above the venue floor, the event offered CenturyLink salespeople valuable time with clients while providing current customers with an amazing, not to mention memorable, viewpoint of the hot-ticket concert.

Technical Knockout
Re-envisioning CenturyLink's exhibit, establishing an attendee-engagement strategy, and supplementing the program with everything from professional presenters to a one-off VIP experience, Clark wiped the slate clean and started anew. But as anyone who's purchased a new house or car well knows, new doesn't always equal better or effective. Thankfully for Clark, however, "new" blew any anticipated results right out of the water.

Compared to CenturyLink's outcomes at the 2016 show, leads from Cisco Live 2017 increased by 132 percent. Plus, attendees' interaction time soared, as Clark's 2017 program captured visitors for an average of 20 minutes, with many attendees staying a full hour to soak up all three components of the educational strategy and speak with various product-specialist staffers.

Clark also reports that the newly minted program delivered hotter leads than the firm's previous efforts. "We scored a lot more warm leads because attendees understood what we offer," Clark says. "In the past, attendees left the booth before they really understood the breadth of our offerings. But the new strategy allowed us to get them into the booth and keep them there long enough to truly explain how we can help them, and that helped visitors realize that we truly might have a solution to fit their needs."

Another ancillary benefit of Clark's full-system reboot involves the exhibit's modularity and adaptability, which in turn equates to multiple reuse opportunities. "This entire project kept an eye on both the short and the long term," Trompeter says. "With the structure itself, the tunnel, theater, storage room, meeting room, and reception desk are all stand-alone structures." So if Clark wants to scale down her presence to a smaller footprint or even to an event, she can eliminate some of the core components or reposition the layout. "In addition," Trompeter says, "all of the theater presentations and PowerPoint messaging at the kiosks can be easily updated. They were built so that show- and audience-specific messaging can be quickly switched out in the text or the scripts, and since everything is digital, we can even change things on the fly."

Not surprisingly, All-Star Awards judges lauded Clark's program as a prime example of an integrated campaign and touted the value of her risk-taking. "This submission demonstrates the value of reinventing a program when it's not performing," one judge said. "Plus, it shows that starting from scratch might be a bit risky, but it can also reap hard-core results." So brava to Beth Clark. When given the chance to make a change, she didn't ease into the process, cautiously making gradual improvements – and potentially wasting time in the process. Instead, she put the pedal to the metal and didn't let up until she was doing donuts in the winners' circle. E

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