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small exhibits

oes size matter? Not necessarily. Anyone that has ever slept in the same room with a love-sick cricket, or tried to walk more than a few steps with a pebble in their shoe understands all too well that attracting attention has little to do with size. When it comes to exhibits, generating awareness has little to do with booth size and budget and everything to do with making a statement - a stunning design, a one-of-a-kind activity, a spot-on product display - something, anything, that sets your exhibit apart from the dozens of other 10-by-10s down the aisle and the big guys at the entrance chanting "go big or go home."

EXHIBITOR found five optimistic little exhibitors that have undoubtedly maneuvered a mountain or two. They understand that effective exhibiting isn't about the size of your space; it's about how you use it. Their bargain-basement 10-by-10 and 10-by-20-foot exhibits prove the price of presence is a pittance - after all, good ideas are free.

Let the People Paint
Price: $5,000

It may have been beginner's luck or simply smart marketing, but either way, first-time exhibitor The Foundation for Hospital Art knocked one out of the park with its hands-on painting activity at the Meeting Professionals International's 2006 World Education Congress (WEC).

Executive director John Feight launched the nonprofit foundation in 1975 after a short stint as a hospital volunteer. "As soon as I walked into the hospital, I realized that patients and their families stare at nothing but blank walls all day," Feight says. To fill those walls with art and hope, Feight started the foundation, which enlists patients and volunteers to paint multi-canvas murals that are donated to more than 1,000 hospitals in 166 countries.

Foundation artists start the murals off site, creating a sort of paint-by-numbers outline. However, rather than numbers, each space contains a drop of the actual paint color necessary for that space. Feight then packages the mural outlines and the painting supplies necessary to complete them into what he calls PaintFest Kits containing six canvasses, paint, brushes, and instructions.

The Foundation sells the kits to corporate event planners, among others, as teambuilding and volunteering activities - to be completed on participants' time and in their locations. "Lots of corporations want to do some kind of service activity as a part of their sales meetings or national conferences," Feight says. "But they don't want to pay thousands of dollars and bus hundreds people off site for an entire day. Instead, people can buy as many kits as they need and complete each mural in 90 minutes to two hours at their own businesses. Then they can go back to work, and the artwork goes to the hospitals."

At WEC 2006, the foundation's first show, Feight hoped to generate awareness among meeting planners, whose word-of-mouth recommendations had become his best marketing pipeline. But rather than investing thousands of dollars in a new booth, Feight simply extended his teambuilding premise to the trade show floor.

His entire 10-by-10-foot exhibit included nothing more than an existing banner, a table covered in butcher paper, a few brochures, letter-opener giveaways, six ready-to-paint canvases, and painting supplies. Counting all booth materials, a pre-show mailer, booth-space rental, and travel expenses for Feight and staffer Suzy Blaylock, a Foundation trustee, expenses totaled only $5,000.

Once the five-hour show opened, Feight and Blaylock needed little more than a smile and the greeting "Wanna paint?" to lure people into the space - as Feight's premise, i.e. his differentiating idea, did the rest.

As many as six attendees painted the canvas at one time, while Feight and Blaylock talked about their painting experience and the type of teambuilding and service activities the foundation had to offer.

At the close of the show, 90 people had left their brush strokes on Feight's canvas. "We were swamped," Feight says. "We simply couldn't have handled any more traffic in our 10-by-10 space."

Recreate a Landmark
Price: $3,400

Anyone who's ever been to Seattle knows that Pike Place Market rivals the Space Needle as the city's most authentic experience. The open-air market - a multi-sensory delight of brilliant colors, savory smells, and thunkable produce - offers everything from fresh flowers to delectable coffee to flying fish. That's why Seattle's Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) recreated the essence of Pike Place Market in its 10-by-10 exhibit at the Meeting Professionals International's 2006 WEC.

"In the past, we've used the Pike Place theme with a traditional pop-up booth, roll-up screens, and pictures of the Space Needle," says Audrey Fan, the CVB's convention sales manager, corporate and incentives market. "This year, we wanted to stand out and do something different and to add a dimension of freshness to the exhibit. We don't have the luxury of spending a lot of money on setup labor, so I needed to find something unique that would set us apart from the rest of the exhibitors but that was also easy for me to set up and tear down," Fan continues. "So I took a good look at what everyone else did last year, i.e. traditional pop-ups and photo-mural graphics, and decided to do exactly the opposite."

Fan's exhibit featured a fabric back-wall mural depicting the famed Pike Place Market sign - a backdrop the National Governors Association donated to the CVB after a recent Seattle event. Two stacked wooden pallets, borrowed from the show decorator, held four five-gallon buckets full of fresh-cut flowers. The aisle-side combination mimicked displays found in Pike Place Market and satisfied Fan's "freshness" objective.

Handwritten paper signs, much like price tags, peeked out of the flowers and identified some of Seattle's finest hotels and famous destinations. Staffers clad in bright-yellow shop aprons distributed flowers to VIP attendees and completed the fresh-market theme.

Including a direct mailer, along with the booth space, flowers, a card reader, and aprons, Fan's good idea cost a measly $3,400 and landed a 20-percent increase in leads compared to the previous year.

Make the Booth the Product
Price: $9,745

For most people, "learn basic accounting" ranks just below "eat dirt" on their "fun things to do" list. Consequently, you'd expect a booth selling accounting-instruction courses to rank about a negative one on the wow-o-meter. CoastalAMI Inc., however, doesn't settle for the expected.

At the 2006 American Society for Training & Development International Conference & Exposition (ASTD), CoastalAMI created a high-energy 10-by-20-foot booth that not only played off attendees' fond childhood memories but that also explained its product in an interactive environment that was anything but boring.

The training-product pub-lisher offers a one-day accounting-training course, The Accounting Game. Since 1982, business professionals have been employing this approach, which uses the metaphor of running a child's lemonade stand, to understand basic accounting skills. Unlike typical nap-inducing accounting courses, The Accounting Game uses fun, child-like images, DVDs, and grade-school teaching techniques to teach corporate employees who couldn't crunch a number to save their Blackberries everything they need to know about basic accounting.

At ASTD 2006, CoastalAMI's first show, its differentiating idea was to create a booth/product hybrid, i.e. to transform the booth into a live, interactive demonstration of The Accounting Game, just as corporate participants would experience in a live, instructor-led session. Acting as the focal point, the exhibit's back wall featured colorful, handwritten and laminated graphics. Eye-catching text included everything from encouraging statements, e.g. "There are no dumb questions," and "Your success is absolutely assured," to fill-in-the-blank income and cash-flow statements.

A child-size lemonade stand, complete with lemons, sugar, and a juicer, drove home the theme, while unobtrusive literature stands adorned with colorful balloons seemed to fade into the background.

Staffers wearing multi-colored whirligig hats lured attendees out of the aisle and into The Accounting Game. Using erasable markers, staffers walked attendees through lemonade-stand accounting equations as they explained the game and demonstrated its ease of understanding. As a departing reminder, staffers offered attendees their business cards, each of which was stapled to a packet of lemonade-flavored Kool-Aid.

The price of presence for Coastal-AMI was a mere $9,745, including staff attire and travel, a card reader, and the exhibit space and all exhibit elements (minus the back wall and lemonade stand, which are part of CoastalAMI's instructor-led sessions). Plus, The Accounting Game booth squeezed out 200 leads, 12 of which are hot prospects currently in various stages of the sales cycle.

Invent Some Enemies
Price: $10,000

At RSA 2007, Fortify Software Inc. welcomed, and in fact planned, an enemy insurgence. The software-security provider created a whole nation of hostile opponents and surrendered its 10-by-10-foot booth to their control.

Creating a memorable tongue-in-cheek ploy that attendees couldn't resist, Fortify turned its booth into a tourist information center for the fictitious country of Hackistan - a nation run by the tech-savvy pests against which Fortify's software protects.

The back wall of the simple pop-up featured a map of Hackistan, including key cities such as Geekland and Bufferville (the former capital), and bordered by North Sloberia and Freedonia to the south. At the front of the space, two Hackistanians - actors speaking in Russian accents and donning fur hats and heavy capes - called out probing questions such as "What's your mother's maiden name?" and "What's your social-security number?"

After capturing an attendee's interest, the formidable yet comical duo explained how they were a threat to his or her software, using a handout of the Hackistan map to illustrate key areas of planned infiltration. Staffers also provided attendees with Hackistan fact sheets, which directed them to a "Discover Hackistan" Web site (www.discoverhackistan.com) - featuring everything from a timeline of Hackistan history to information on the H.I.T., the Hackistan Institute of Technology for hacking professionals. The data sheet also listed information such as the country's gross national product, $5 million from legal activities and $167 billion from illegal enterprises; the national anthem, "I Sing of Proud Hackistan, Land of My Mother's Facial Hair;" and its chief exports, "V1a@GRA and CialiS."

After learning about Hackistan, hailed as "the global epicenter of hacking technology and scourge of the free world," attendees talked with Fortify representatives who scanned their badges and used two kiosks to demo the company's software-security products. To draw further attention to the booth, five additional Hackistanians positioned outside the exhibit hall handed out clever flyers inviting attendees to "Discover Hackistan" at Fortify's booth.

With $10,000, a 100-square-foot space, and a clever idea, Fortify generated twice as many leads as expected - giving both attendees and company execs a reason to love their enemies.

Recreate the Brand Experience
Price: $7,475

When you want your booth to communicate a sense of class, sophistication, and cutting-edge technology, a do-it-yourself design usually won't do. But contrary to what many exhibitors might think, you don't need a Trump-sized budget to build an elegant exhibit. Despite its 10-by-10-foot space, Hyatt Corp. created a modern design that communicated the essence of its brand without a word aside from its logos.

Three colors - white, green apple, and black - comprised Hyatt's color palette at the 2006 ASTD International Conference & Exposition. Broken only by a black, 8-inch Hyatt logo, the stark, white, stretch-fabric back wall provided a sleek backdrop for the exhibit's focal point - a well-proportioned plasma screen positioned at eye level on an aluminum stand. A looping presentation featured nothing more than sophisticated music and photos of Hyatt Place hotels and of Hyatt's affiliate hotels Hawthorn Suites and Summerfield Suites.

A reception desk fashioned out of a fold-up table, a fabric slipcover, and a glass top resided left of center, allowing a clear line of sight to the plasma. The right corner of the space held only an unadorned, collapsible literature stand that seemed to fade from view. A silver bowl brimming with Granny Smith apples and a silver vase holding similar-colored flowers added a spritz of color to the otherwise neutral space.

With little more than fabric, a plasma/DVD rental, and a standard literature rack, the exhibit oozed contemporary elegance - all for the price of $7,475. What's more, however, the exhibit wasn't just cool, it was uber effective, as leads jumped 73 percent compared to the previous year. e

Linda Armstrong, senior writer;
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