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case study


aterfalls, fire glass, and champagne are so 2006. At least that's what Exhibit Concepts Inc. decided when it traded in its booth's high-tech, high-class look and used its noodle instead - well, 36 12-foot-long fluorescent-green swimming-pool flotation noodles, that is.

At EXHIBITOR2007, a trade show and educational conference for exhibit and event professionals, the Vandalia, OH-based exhibit house designed an exhibit and in-booth activity with the neon, foamy floating devices to showcase its creativity, stand out among other exhibitors, and get attendees to consider using Exhibit Concepts for their exhibit-marketing needs.

At EXHIBITOR2006, the company stuck with a more traditional approach by creating a high-class gallery that featured framed pictures of its rental exhibits hung on the walls. Exhibit Concepts kept the champagne flowing in the swanky exhibit space, complete with funky fire glass and high-tech - and expensive - lighting effects. But in 2007, the company wanted an exhibit as out-of-the-box and creative as its staff.

At a brainstorming session, senior designer Matt Ziessler brought a new ingredient to the table. Citing inspiration from the abstract and conceptual booths at EuroShop, a global retail trade fair held every three years in Dusseldorf, Germany, Ziessler admitted that he'd always wanted to build a trade show booth using swimming-pool noodles. From there, Ziessler and the rest of the staff looked for ways to connect noodles with the company's name. By matching "concepts," implying thinking, with the saying "Use Your Noodle," the team created a central exhibit theme that not only encouraged attendees to use their noodles, but ultimately to "Think Exhibit Concepts."

"We wanted people to think about Exhibit Concepts for service, for creativity, and for value," says Lisa Edwards, marketing manager at Exhibit Concepts. "And we wanted to show that we're a different kind of company. We're creative and willing to take some risks. We don't want to be considered just like everyone else." Spending about four times less than its 2006 booth, Exhibit Concepts maintained champagne goals on a pool-noodle budget, hoping to increase its awareness in the industry and whet attendees' interests in its offerings.

Oodles of Noodles

Two weeks before the show, Exhibit Concepts mailed oversized postcards to preregistered attendees encouraging them to "Think Exhibit Concepts," and to use their noodles by visiting its booth. The pre-show mailers featured thin, bright-green vertical lines - subtle representations of what attendees would encounter at the show - with the word "Think" integrated into the design.

As the show floor opened, Exhibit Concepts decided to get some distance out of its long noodles and create a little mysterious intrigue by having 12 of its staff members walk into the exhibit hall each carrying a noodle. "You can't walk through a hall with a 12-foot piece of foam without attracting some attention," Edwards says. "We did it to create some buzz and excitement before the show."

On the show floor, attendees encountered Exhibit Concepts' booth, ringed by a 20-by-20-foot perimeter of 12-foot-long, 4-inch-diameter swimming-pool noodles mimicking the whimsy and movement of a beaded curtain. The custom-ordered noodles were extra long and extra dense to ensure that they hung straight from the truss-and-hook system hanging from the ceiling.

"The noodles created a lot of interaction," Ziessler says. "They made the booth tactile. Anybody who walked up within touching distance reached out and touched one of the noodles - which was part of the point. We wanted to get people to poke their heads in the exhibit and ask a question like, 'What is this?'" Ziessler says. "There's something about attendees starting a conversation that works well. Then they've asked the question, and you're not invading their space."

As if the large neon-green swimming-pool noodles weren't off-the-wall enough, two refrigerators became the focal point of the exhibit. "When you have a party, everybody hangs out in the kitchen," Edwards says. "We wanted to create that same kind of friendly, welcoming environment in our booth."

When attendees stepped into the airy exhibit, booth staffers gave them smaller, 4- to 5-foot swimming-pool noodles and asked them to use those noodles in creative ways while posing for Polaroid photographs. "We designed the in-booth activity based on the idea of thinking outside the box and taking something that has a traditional use and looking at it in a different way," Edwards says. "A lot of creative people really enjoy that sort of thing. You can see their minds working, and they want to take a turn."

Attendees made wings, swords, microphones, and other objects with the noodles while staff snapped their pictures. Then, to keep track of their interactions with attendees, staffers wrote their names and the attendees' names on the pictures and posted them on the in-booth refrigerators, which held an equally whimsical surprise inside.

After the activity, staff cracked open one of the two refrigerators and gave attendees who used their noodles a cool giveaway - literally. In the refrigerators, Exhibit Concepts stored black T-shirts emblazoned with textured fluorescent-green ink reading "Think Exhibit Concepts."

"It might sound crazy, but I still get a chuckle out of the 'cool' T-shirt idea," Edwards says. "It was a neat thing because people weren't expecting it. People would say, 'Oh, this is really cool,' but they meant it temperature-wise. It was a great way to do something unique that would make them remember us."

After the show, staff sent attendees' noodle photos to them with a follow-up note thanking them for using their noodle with Exhibit Concepts. "It reminded them, 'Hey, those people were pretty cool. We had fun. They were creative, unique, and very memorable,'" Edwards says.

Using Your Noodle for Good

Prompted by Green efforts throughout the business world, Exhibit Concepts used its noodle booth to step up to the Green plate, matching its bright green noodles with some bright Green ideas. "We designed the exhibit to be one that won't just live in a crate and clog up a landfill at the end of its life," Ziessler says.

First off, Exhibit Concepts rented the majority of its booth fixtures from local suppliers, including the two refrigerators, in-booth furnishings, and exhibit signage. Those efforts were intended to promote the reduce-reuse-recycle mantra and decrease the company's shipping needs.

Then, rather than trashing the noodles after the show, the company donated them to the Las Vegas YMCA to use in its Tiny Tots and Senior Aquatics programs. "We called the local YMCA, and they said they'd love to have the noodles. The kids in the program were thrilled, and from a business standpoint, donating them meant we didn't have to pay to ship them back to Ohio," Edwards says.

During conversations with attendees, Exhibit Concepts' staff mentioned the donation as a way to discuss Green exhibiting practices and donation-related alternatives for attendees' own booths, rather than hard selling the company's internal Green initiatives. While attendees were pleased to learn of the donation, press members were equally impressed, as Exhibit Concepts' efforts received mentions in the Las Vegas Sun newspaper and Brilliant Results magazine.

All told, the uber-light design, paired with the post-show donation, slimmed the company's shipping bill to only $1,500, just enough to cover the cost of returning a few of its in-booth items to its corporate headquarters and delivering the noodles to the YMCA. In comparison, a normal 20-by-20-foot exhibit in a full truck would cost more than $10,000 - more than five times as much. The lightweight swimming-pool noodle booth also cut drayage costs to a mere $500, about 10 times less than the company's typical bill for an exhibit of comparable size.

"In the end, we wanted something light and fun. We didn't want a hard sell in the least. It was such a soft sell and a totally different approach from what we've done before. We wanted people to relax and have fun in an environment that is conducive to building relationships. Plus, we wanted to be memorable," Edwards says.

At a total cost of around $50,000 (including everything from booth space to staffers' accommodations and travel expenses), the creative and cost-effective campaign proved successful - and economical - for Exhibit Concepts. The whimsical booth not only generated a positive ROI, but also resulted in a 49-percent decrease in the cost per high-quality lead when compared to the previous year. Now that's using your noodle.e

Elisabeth Miller, associate writer; emiller@exhibitormagazine.com

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