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case study
photos: Visit Omaha
Right on the Money
Visit Omaha tweaks its exhibiting tactics with a cash-themed campaign that lures almost 30 percent more organizations to its booth. By Brian Dukerschein
Exhibitor: Visit Omaha
Creative: Clark Creative Group, Omaha, NE, 402-345-5800, www.clarkcreativegroup.com
Production: Barnhart Press, Omaha, NE, 800-341-2213, www.barnhartpress.com; Renze Display Inc., Omaha, NE, 800-627-9131, www.renze.com
Show: American Society of Association Executives' Annual Meeting and Exposition
Promotional Budget: $4,500
Objective: Add a fresh twist to an established product-sampling experience that would incentivize attendees to visit the booth.
Tactic: Distribute "Omaha Bucks" via pre-show mailers and show bags that would allow attendees to "buy" product samples.
Results: Attracted 807 executive-level attendees representing 453 organizations.
Face-to-face marketing programs are like sharks: They have to keep moving, or they die. Even the most creative exhibit designs, in-booth activities, and traffic-building giveaways can become stagnant after a show or two, killing any hope of improving metrics faster than the Grim Reaper. Finding innovative ways to push a program forward is a constant challenge and one that marketing professionals tackle in countless ways.

Take the marketing team at Visit Omaha, aka the Omaha Convention & Visitors Bureau, which has been driving tourist and business traffic to Nebraska's largest city via appearances at consumer- and industry-facing events for the past 20 years. One of the most important shows on Visit Omaha's calendar, the American Society of Association Executives' Annual Meeting and Exposition (ASAE), is usually where the organization debuts its most forward-thinking activations. "Knowing what it's like to sit in meetings, learning labs, and lectures all day, our strategy has always been to put the needs of the attendees first and provide them with a fun, engaging experience," says Deborah Ward, vice president of marketing and communications at Visit Omaha. "If they remember their experience, they'll remember Omaha."

In recent years, these in-booth experiences have included partnering with Omaha's ECreamery LLC to offer a digital build-your-own-ice-cream activity, online trivia games, and virtual-reality tours of the city's most popular locales. The high-tech activations were a hit with attendees, but Ward soon saw the need to break out of the sea of sameness. "More and more folks were turning to tech-heavy exhibits, and we wanted to make sure Visit Omaha stood out from the crowd and offered a different yet authentic experience," she says. "As VR and the like became popular at ASAE, we knew we had to offer something new."

Back to Reality
Ward and the Visit Omaha team found fresh inspiration in the old – Omaha's Old Market Entertainment District, that is. A downtown neighborhood renowned for its cobblestone streets, historic buildings, and eclectic mix of restaurants and retailers, Old Market was, in Visit Omaha's opinion, the perfect symbol through which to convey the city's key attributes and personality. Working with Clark Creative Group and Renze Display Inc., Visit Omaha debuted an exhibit design that brought Old Market's look and feel, right down to its brick buildings and hanging flower boxes, to ASAE 2016 in Salt Lake City. And rather than ask attendees to don VR headsets, Visit Omaha offered them a genuine taste of the city by giving out samples from iconic and up-and-coming local businesses, including Omaha Steaks International Inc., the Benson Soap Mill, and a craft root-beer brewer.

The real-world strategy drew almost 800 attendees to the exhibit, more than double the usual ASAE traffic for Visit Omaha. What's more, first-time showgoers voted it Best Booth in ASAE's exhibitor competition, lauding its authentic design elements and product presentation. The Old Market exhibit concept clearly held some allure, but now the challenge lay in keeping Visit Omaha's blockbuster booth moving in the right direction.

New Money
When it came time to plan for ASAE 2017 in Toronto, Ward and the Visit Omaha team sat down to assess the situation and brainstorm ways to sustain and improve their program's performance. Knowing they had a year-old exhibit and giveaway concept that resonated with attendees, they adopted an "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" mind-set and focused solely on ways to drive additional traffic to the booth via a fresh promotion. Rounds of discussion eventually led to the germ of a new tactic: If authenticity was key, then why not duplicate the experience of shopping in Old Market by giving attendees play money they could use to "buy" the products?

The idea, then, was to send a select group of roughly 200 attendees a pre-show mailer containing a wallet filled with three "Omaha Bucks" they could use to purchase any combination of product samples they wanted. Copy inside the 7-by-3.5-inch textured-paper wallet extolled Omaha's virtues (e.g., walkability, convenience, value, etc.) and encouraged recipients to stop by Visit Omaha's booth to do some shopping. But this promotion wasn't limited to just VIPs. Thanks to Visit Omaha's corporate partnership with ASAE, the Omaha Bucks would also be included in the show bags that attendees received on site at the venue's registration desk.

The strategy added a subtle layer to Visit Omaha's ASAE traffic-building game plan, but Ward and her team were willing to bet their bottom dollar that the $4,500 promotion would incentivize showgoers to flock to the exhibit like Black Friday shoppers to a doorbuster special. "We felt that attendees would have fun shopping after spending their mornings in education sessions," Ward says. "Plus, if someone hands you free – albeit fake – money and tells you spend it, most people happily do so."

Hoping to drive more traffic to its booth, Visit Omaha gave attendees play money in the form of Omaha Bucks that they could use to purchase product samples from iconic and up-and-coming local companies.

Booth visitors could use their Omaha Bucks to purchase packages of beef jerky, bars of locally milled soap, or a pint of craft beer in a branded mug.

A group of 200 attendees received their Omaha Bucks via a pre-show mailer that included a branded paper wallet. All other showgoers found the bills in the show bags presented to them at the venue's registration desk.

The faux currency featured text extolling to the city's business-travel-friendly attributes, such as its 346,000-square-foot convention center.
Cash and Carry
By the time attendees made their way to the Metro Toronto Convention Centre for ASAE 2017, most had caught wind of the Omaha Bucks promotion courtesy of pre-show emails and advertisements in the event's marketing materials. After receiving their show bags at registration, they discovered their three Omaha Bucks, which, along with the wallets, were designed by Clark Creative. The front of the bills resembled a typical piece of paper tender, with a green-and-white color scheme, a photo of the Omaha skyline, and Visit Omaha's logo and web address. Meanwhile, the backs of the currency called attention to details about the city that make it appealing to meeting planners and decision-makers at trade associations and societies, such as its 15,000 hotel rooms, nonstop service to 28 major airports, and CenturyLink Center Omaha, the 346,000-square-foot convention venue downtown.

Upon arriving at Visit Omaha's 20-by-20-foot island exhibit, attendees were transported to the Old Market district. A series of black, powder-coated aluminum columns supported an overhead canopy filled with artificial flowers, a spot-on reference to the covered porches and sidewalks for which the neighborhood is famous. Topping the exhibit was a roughly 12.5-foot-square element composed of silicone-edge graphics printed to mimic the district's historic brick buildings and factory-style steel windows. For an additional touch of authenticity, the windows offered views of iconic Omaha sights, such as TD Ameritrade Park and the zoo's massive indoor Lied Jungle.

With their Omaha Bucks burning a hole in their pockets, attendees had their badges scanned before being invited to a trio of corrugated metal counters, each dedicated to "selling" a local product, that were positioned along three of the aisles. Due to the logistics and regulations involved in exhibiting at a trade show in Canada, some of the offerings differed slightly from ASAE 2016. For example, instead of samples of Omaha Steaks cooked on site, one counter distributed prepackaged beef jerky. And rather than navigate the red tape of importing a local libation, Visit Omaha opted to serve a Canadian brew in an Omaha-branded mug that attendees were welcome to keep. Every item cost one Omaha Buck, and booth visitors were encouraged to spend them however they wished, e.g., three bars of Benson soap, two packages of jerky and a pint of beer, or one of everything.

At each station, Visit Omaha staffers engaged attendees in conversation about their unique needs and how the convention and visitors bureau was able to address them. Reps from local hotels and the CenturyLink Center were also on hand to field specific inquiries. More in-depth conversations could move to a pair of high-top tables, the tops of which were covered in vinyl graphics that further highlighted Omaha's business-travel-friendly attributes, while a nearby monitor played looping video of the city's popular hot spots and culinary cornerstones: steaks and Reuben sandwiches. By combining marketplace, restaurant, and pub-like elements into a single experience, the exhibit bustled with the casual energy of a laid-back neighborhood hangout.

Money Talks
When ASAE 2017 came to an end, 807 of the 2,484 executive-level attendees present had visited the exhibit, a modest improvement over the previous year's show. But those roughly 800 decision-makers represented 453 organizations, meaning the Omaha Bucks campaign brought almost 30 percent more individual associations to the booth than in 2016. And while it's too soon for Ward to comment on revenue generated from the show, she's optimistic the city's business-travel industry will also see an increase, thanks in no small part to the fact that more groups are now familiar with all that Omaha has to offer.

The fact that Visit Omaha grew its presence using the same exhibit and nearly identical giveaways proves you don't have to invest in reinventing the wheel to move your face-to-face marketing program forward. Sometimes all that's needed is a clever campaign – ideally one that requires the attendees, not the exhibitor, to go on a spending spree. After all, doling out cash is a lot more fun when you're playing with someone else's money. E

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