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n today's harried, high-tech world, we typically turn to the latest gizmo or the nearest vendor to solve our problems. While this strategy often allows us to do more in less time, it's also created a nation where we outsource everything from childcare to dog-poo pickup.

All-Star Award winner Kristen Bostedo-Conway, however, doesn't submit to the buy-your-way-out-of-a-jam philosophy. After she inherited a boatload of exhibit-marketing problems, including everything from out-of-control costs to a pitifully inadequate lead-tracking process, Bostedo-Conway bypassed high-tech tools, sidestepped a bevy of vendors, and tried something different: She used her existing internal resources - and her brain. Armed with good old-fashioned marketing principles, she overhauled her program in less than a year - not only cutting program costs by more than 21 percent but also increasing her company's ROI by 72 percent.

Going Nowhere, Fast

While Bostedo-Conway is currently the marketing director at Sona MedSpa International Inc. in Charlotte, NC, from August 2002 to August 2007 she held numerous positions within the marketing department at EquiFirst Corp., a non-conforming wholesale mortgage lender in Charlotte, NC. In September 2006, she was promoted to marketing manager and inherited responsibility of EquiFirst's exhibit-marketing program, which was going strong, but going nowhere.

"We were exhibiting at more than 100 shows a year," Bostedo-Conway says. "And while our regional vice presidents and sales managers were convinced trade shows were extremely important, they viewed them as expenses rather than revenue generators. They never viewed trade shows as a way to generate solid, actionable leads that could turn into sales."

That attitude was compounded by the company's antiquated lead-gathering strategy - the old business-card-in-the-fishbowl method. Salespeople often pocketed the business cards for themselves, and even when the cards made it back to the office, there was no follow-up or lead tracking.

Plus, with no tracking process, not to mention little-to-no budgeting records, Bostedo-Conway had no historical data. Even if she immediately started qualifying, tracking, and following up on leads, she had no data to plan budgets or marketing strategies, and no data against which to compare results. "Our 15-year-old trade show program had no provable ROI, and thus, no provable value to the company," she says.

As if that wasn't enough, exhibiting costs were through the roof. "The little budgeting information I could find in our files indicated that we signed up for everything late, rented rather than owned almost everything, paid for unnecessary services, and spent a fortune on shipping," Bostedo-Conway says. "Bottom line, our costs were too high."

But perhaps Bostedo-Conway's biggest hurdle was a lack of control. Rather than driving the exhibit strategy, the previous exhibit manager had been relegated to mostly logistical functions. Meanwhile, regional vice presidents held the reins when it came to show selection and budget allocations, and without a measurement system or historical data, they relied on anecdotal data and gut instincts to guide their decisions.

So to effect the big-picture changes Bostedo-Conway had in mind, she not only needed to transform her role from logistics manager to strategist, but she also had to convince decision makers that her suggested improvements would add value to the program.

Facing this mountain of problems, most exhibit managers would have called in a cavalry of suppliers or ponied up for a slew of new gee-whiz software solutions. Instead, Bostedo-Conway implemented a five-step, back-to-basics strategy.

Link past leads to actual sales.

Before Bostedo-Conway could move forward with her plans, she had to go back - to the stacks of paper files and unorganized spreadsheets left behind by her predecessor.

Without historical data concerning each show's results and costs, she couldn't effectively set objectives or budgets for the future. So she dug up anything and everything she could find regarding 2006 trade show leads and budgets and began a labor-intensive research project to connect 2006 leads to sales - and eventually to set lead goals and plan budgets for 2007.

Working with her company's database marketing manager she uploaded 2006 leads, along with any lead-qualifying information she found, into the existing marketing database and organized the information by show. Then, using the company's sales database, which segments customers into four categories based on sales frequency, she compared the leads to existing customers and labeled them accordingly.

Next, she identified which leads had done business with the company in the 180 days following each show and noted this information in the marketing database. She and the database marketing manager then tied the existing marketing and sales databases together so they would automatically share information, and so she wouldn't have to complete this painstaking process in the future.

By November 2006, approximately two months into her program overhaul, Bostedo-Conway had ballpark data for each show's lead counts and lead quality, and the number of orders placed and sales made (i.e. the volume of loans closed). Using this information, she created a profit-and-loss statement for each show. This simple statement allowed her to set measurable lead and sales goals for each show and to adjust promotional and total-program budgets to make sure each show would generate a return on investment. It also helped her identify several non-performing shows that were sucking her ROI bucket dry.

With the profit-and-loss statement to back her up, it was time to wrangle some control out of the vice presidents' hands. Since she didn't have the authority to cut shows or force her goals upon the vice presidents, she needed upper management on board. Thus, she presented her research to key executives, dovetailing it with her strong data-backed recommendations for improvement.

Back-to-basics techniques to
overhaul your exhibit program.  

Link past leads to sales.
After culling old papers and lead forms, Kristen Bostedo-Conway created a marketing-research database, eventually allowing her to create a profit-and-loss statement for each show her company attends.

Implement a lead- and sales-tracking system.
She developed two monthly performance reports that helped stakeholders see the connection between trade shows and sales.

Develop a show-planning database.
Rather than buying a custom software program to manage her information, she opted for the company's Access program and learned how to use it.

Filter and process leads.
Using internal resources, she developed a detailed lead-processing system that ensured that all sales leads were categorized and followed up with after each show.

Control costs.
She identified five money drains in her program's budget and developed stopgaps for each, ultimately saving more than $142,000.

Not surprisingly, executives were so thrilled with her measurement strategy and recommendations that they asked her to present them to the vice presidents and to drag them aboard her measurement train - exactly the reaction she was hoping for.

During the ensuing meetings with vice presidents, her undeniable data convinced them to cut roughly 30 non-performing shows, decreasing the exhibiting schedule from 100 shows to approximately 70. According to Bostedo-Conway, "By compiling and analyzing 2006 data, my role changed from taking orders and managing logistics to providing strategic show-selection recommendations with data to back them up."

Implement a lead- and sales-tracking system.

Next, Bostedo-Conway developed a three-pronged lead- and sales-reporting system to provide accountability, increase performance, and assist in show selection.

Two monthly scorecards - or reports - formed the crux of her new system: one for executives, and one for vice presidents and salespeople. The executive scorecard provided overall exhibit-marketing results, including total leads, sales, and costs. Meanwhile, the vice presidents' and salespeople's scorecard included similar statistics, but rather than total-program figures, it drilled down to show-specific results, such as the number of business cards collected, the number of units closed, the volume produced, and the total amount of money spent.

The other arm of her system was a marketing-lead report, which tracked all leads obtained by the marketing department, including those from trade shows and other avenues such as direct mail and telemarketing. The report indicated not only the type and number of leads generated but also which salesperson received each lead and what action, if any, was taken to date.

Once a month, Bostedo-Conway distributed the report to executives, vice presidents, and sales managers, as well as call-center and marketing reps assigned the ever-powerful task of distributing leads to salespeople. Since the latter group's performance was evaluated by the number of leads converted to sales, the report allowed them to distribute leads to the salespeople with the best track records. Plus, the do-it-all report held salespeople accountable and demonstrated the volume of leads generated by the marketing department.

Initially, Bostedo-Conway's system was a bit of a shock for some people. "Some vice presidents and salespeople had trouble with the new process because their performance was suddenly being measured," she says. But before long, they started to see the connection between trade shows and sales, and reviewing exhibiting goals and results eventually became a part of their weekly management meetings.

Plus, with management holding each region accountable for its exhibit results, Bostedo-Conway's phone began ringing off the hook, as everybody wanted to know how to improve their show performance. Within a few months, executives demanded that regional vice presidents cut non-performing shows or work with marketing to identify other positive measurable results to justify their show participation.

Bostedo-Conway's new lead- and sales-tracking system not only caused a tectonic shift in how internal stakeholders viewed trade shows, but the resulting improvements also helped increase exhibit-related sales by a projected 41 percent in 2007.

Develop a show-planning database.

During the early stages of her overhaul, Bostedo-Conway realized she needed a database to house logistical information - such as early-bird deadlines, booth-space notes, competitor information, costs, booth-staff performance, etc. - so she could track results, compare shows year to year, and plan for improvements. But rather than buying a custom software program to manage the information, she opted for the company's Access program - and learned how to use it.

"Since I wasn't familiar with databases, I started taking Access classes in September 2006," Bostedo-Conway says. "When my class finished in January 2007, I'd already begun building my database, and by February, it was up and running and linked to our marketing database."

Building the database herself, rather than buying a custom solution from a vendor, afforded several benefits. She saved approximately $4,600 a year compared to purchasing a custom software solution and paying the yearly licensing costs. But perhaps more importantly, Bostedo-Conway's self-made database was void of unnecessary fields and functions often found in custom solutions, and she could add or adjust fields at any time, rather than paying a vendor to manipulate them for her.

Filter and process leads.

With a few key strategies in place, Bostedo-Conway could finally smash that dreaded fishbowl and develop a new-and-improved lead-qualifying and follow-up process.

She quickly developed an in-booth lead card, featuring a few simple questions regarding sales potential and purchasing authority, to qualify leads. After the show, the marketing-department used a software program to scan the cards and transfer the information into an Excel spreadsheet.

Next, they dedupped the leads against the marketing database, and qualified them as A, B, C, or D based on the average monthly sales indicated on the lead cards. Finally, they uploaded the leads into the marketing database, and Bostedo-Conway handed them off to her company's response center - a team of telemarketers who typically take customers' and prospects' inbound calls and complete outbound calling campaigns.

The response-center reps sent the leads a welcome e-mail, promoting the company's offerings and thanking them for stopping by the booth. E-mails featured a response-tracking tool that notified the reps if, and when, each e-mail was opened.

Next, they called A, B, and C leads, starting with those who opened their e-mail first - only speaking to D leads if they contacted the company on their own. Reps then reassessed each lead's A, B, or C ranking, passed the lead on to the appropriate salesperson, and entered it into the marketing database for future promotions.

As a final step, and to link this strategy with her lead- and sales-tracking system, Bostedo-Conway transferred lead results and budget data to her marketing-lead report and scorecards within one week of each show.

The simple qualifying and follow-up process - completed with existing resources - helped increase lead counts by a projected 54 percent compared to 2006 shows. Plus, it ensured that salespeople received pristine leads worthy of follow-up, and that EquiFirst contacted leads within a few weeks of each show.

Control exhibit-related costs.

Aside from the aforementioned systemic challenges, Bostedo-Conway also had to plug the leaks in her budget, as money was seeping out left and right. After identifying five major leaks and devising the following stopgaps for each, Bostedo-Conway slashed 2007's projected exhibiting costs by 21 percent, saving her company more than $142,000.

Missed deadlines were eating up countless dollars, so she required that all early-bird deadlines be met whenever realistically possible. In 2007, she saved a projected $8,150 simply by meeting early-bird deadlines.

Rather than renting carpets and paying for vacuuming services, she purchased carpet and a vacuum - saving a projected $11,800 in 2007.

Given her company's location in the Southeast, West Coast shows, which accounted for roughly half of her calendar, were chewing up her transportation budget. So she added a West Coast exhibit house. By storing roughly half of her properties at this exhibit house, she saved a projected $30,000 in 2007.

While direct-to-site shipping to some shows was a cost benefit, it was an unnecessary expense at others. Thus, she saved a projected $2,190 in 2007 by analyzing the cost of direct-to-show shipping vs. the costs associated with shipping to a warehouse or marshalling yard, and selecting the cheapest option.

To build booth traffic at past shows, EquiFirst rented an expensive golf simulator, which required little staff/attendee interaction. Bostedo-Conway purchased a video-game activity to replace it, saving a projected $90,000 in 2007.

All told, Bostedo-Conway's five-step overhaul not only cut costs, it also increased the exhibit program's ROI by 72 percent - and earned her a place among this year's All Star Award winners. According to this year's judges, "She proved that when you apply tried-and-true marketing principles, you can solve almost any marketing problem without investing a wad of cash." Bostedo-Conway's approach also proves that even in our high-tech, over-outsourced world, a back-to-basics approach is often your best bet. e

Linda Armstrong, senior writer;
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