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case study

For 20 years, Hoodman Corp. was happy to be the mild-mannered exhibitor at trade shows. Sure, the Torrance, CA-based company's typical 10-by-10-foot booth may not have been loaded with marketing muscle, but it was more than sufficient to compete with other companies in the camera-equipment market. Hoodman, which opened its doors in 1986 selling camera accessories and small hoods to keep the glare off lenses and viewfinders, fit in nicely with the competition, bringing its pop-up stand to shows and paying minimal fees for its 100 square feet of floor space.

Since the other manufacturers of after-market camera peripherals frequented the same camera expos with similar-sized booths, Hoodman felt it was keeping up with its mere mortal competitors. But all that changed in 2006, when the company decided to expand its offerings and enter the memory-card market. The new product put Hoodman in direct competition with some of the biggest players in the digital-camera business, such as Lexar and Kingston Technology. That pumped-up competition, of course, also tended to cover wider swaths of floor space at camera and electronics trade shows, which meant that trying to compete using its meager 10-by-10-foot pop-up would be like trying to fight The Joker as Bruce Wayne.

"Our biggest worry was how we would compete against billion-dollar companies out of a little 10-by-10-foot booth," says Louis Schmidt, marketing director for Hoodman. After all, the company's competition in the memory-card market tended to show up in 5,000-square-foot exhibits or larger, giving them instant recognition as major players in the industry. "We knew we needed to exhibit in a larger floor space to add credibility," Schmidt says. "If we weren't willing to go big, we might as well just stay home." But any exhibit manager will tell you that it's tough to go big when your budget is small.

Dollars Like Kryptonite

Schmidt says that to be competitive, Hoodman needed to increase its footprint at the half-dozen biggest shows the company attended each year, jumping from its meek 10-by-10 to a 20-by-20-foot booth. Still smaller than many of its competitors' exhibits, Schmidt hoped that doubling his footprint at those key shows would help send a message that Hoodman might be a newcomer to the memory-card market, but it's still a force to be reckoned with. Unfortunately, as he analyzed the costs associated with increasing the company's presence at those shows, Schmidt wasn't sure how he'd be able to accomplish this financial act of derring-do.

Just switching to a bigger booth would be a financial hurdle akin to leaping tall buildings. At a minimum of $39 per square foot, his floor-space costs alone would increase anywhere from $3,900 to $15,600 per show. In addition to the cost for the space, a larger footprint also meant paying for a larger booth property. That larger booth would weigh more, meaning it would cost more to ship. And drayage, too, would add significantly to Hoodman's total costs. The bigger booth would also cost more to store, labor for installation and dismantle would add red ink, and because those installs would take more time, travel costs would increase since Schmidt or someone from his staff would need to arrive early and possibly stay late to supervise the I&D. "We just couldn't afford to do this in a traditional way," Schmidt says.

But Schmidt needed to find some way to inflate Hoodman's image if he wanted to compete with the big boys that ruled the memory-card market. He needed space for the company's expanded product line, a meeting room for sales reps to get together with the high-end retailers the company planned to target, and he needed to somehow look less like the underdog exhibitor and more like the memory-card hero of the show floor.

Fortress of Sell-a-tude

After crunching the daunting numbers, Schmidt realized it would cost anywhere from $60,000 on up for a traditional 20-by-20-foot booth that would meet all of Hoodman's needs, including a meeting room, storage, and merchandise display space. Considering that price tag, Schmidt knew he'd have to think outside of the box to get what he wanted.

So he started looking at fabric systems and lightweight alternatives that would cost less to ship, assemble, and store. Unfortunately, nothing seemed to stand out. And since traditional booths were not within his price range, Schmidt spent a couple of weeks searching industry publications and Web sites looking for an alternative. That's when he discovered the Web site of an Australian company that made large-scale inflatable signage and marketing materials.

Schmidt called the company - Inflatable Image Technologies Pty Ltd. (IIT) - to inquire about its products. IIT, which makes everything from parade-float-sized cartoon characters and giant 20-foot-tall inflatable beer bottles, seemed to immediately understand Schmidt's vision: a 20-by-20-foot inflatable exhibit property he dubbed, "The Hoodome."

Since Hoodman had been using a comic character dubbed "Hoodman" as part of its marketing and branding efforts for years, Schmidt and IIT decided to play off the persona when designing the dome. But they didn't just take general design inspiration from the character, they literally morphed him into the booth's architecture. Schmidt says the process was simple: A few phone calls, some e-mails including artwork depicting the Hoodman character, and 12 weeks later, the booth was done.

After all was said and designed, Hoodman dropped $30,000 on its new 20-by-20-foot exhibit property, compared to the Exhibit Designers and Producers Association's reported $58,000 average for a comparable island exhibit. That price included the Hoodome, a pair of fans - one for everyday use, and a backup in case something were to happen to the main fan - and interlocking foam flooring tiles, which meant Schmidt could avoid the expense of renting carpet and pad at each show.

The 16-foot-tall dome featured space for product displays, and a 7.5-foot doorway that led to an interior meeting room. The shipping crates that the exhibit came in converted to tables that anchored the corners of the booth space. And, of course, the entire inflatable structure resembled a giant, yellow superhero, making it one of the most memorable and easily recognizable exhibits on any trade show floor.

With budgetary obstacles out of the way, the biggest concern quickly became ensuring Hoodman would be allowed to use the aired-up booth in all the exhibit halls where the company planned to expand its show-floor footprint. Since some exhibit halls have rules against inflatables, Schmidt contacted show organizers and exhibit-hall representatives to make sure the rule was really about helium-filled balloons and not the use of inflatable exhibits like the Hoodome. Thankfully for Schmidt, his assumptions proved correct, and he obtained approval for his inflatable exhibit structure.

Hoodman Unmasked

Hoodman debuted its Hoodome at Gotham City's Javits Center for the 2006 PhotoPlus Expo (PPE), and the savings rolled in faster than a speeding bullet. "Most 20-by-20 displays weigh well over 5,000 pounds and ship in a minimum of four large crates," Schmidt says. "Our Hoodome weighed 1,000 pounds - including all the merchandise we brought to sell and display - and took up only two skids at 42-by-48-by-60 inches."

That dimensional weight compared to the size of a normal booth, Schmidt says, amounted to a difference of about $4,000 on shipping. Meanwhile, with drayage running about $140 per 100 pounds, Hoodman's inflatable Hoodome racked up additional savings of $5,600 on material handling alone.

While the inflatable Hoodome and its accessories - the flooring, crates, and fans - cost a cool $30,000, its light weight and easy installation save Hoodman Corp. an average of $16,600 per show over the cost of using a traditional 20-by-20-foot booth. That means the Hoodome paid for itself after only two uses. Used at roughly 16 shows thus far, that's a total savings of approximately $265,600.

Traditional Booth

Hoodman Inflatable

Per-Show Savings
Weight/ Shipping
5,000 lbs.
1,000 lbs.
Carpet Rental
I&D Labor
2-day setup
2-hour setup
Travel Arrive 2 days early
Arrive 1 day early
Total     $16,600
Furthermore, while most booths the size of the Hoodome take two days to set up, Schmidt and his team installed the dome in about two hours - simply placing the interlocking foam flooring tiles, laying out the dome's outer shell, and turning on the fan to inflate the double walls that support the structure. That ease of installation translated into a $4,000 savings on labor and travel costs that Hoodman would have otherwise incurred. Finally, bringing its own flooring saved the company $3,000 over rental carpet, and took less than 30 minutes to put together on site.

All told, Schmidt estimates that the Hoodome reduced his total costs by a minimum of $16,600 compared to what he would have paid to bring in a traditional 20-by-20 exhibit. But that was just the icing on the company's inflatable cake. After all, the dome's original purpose wasn't just to save money, but to give Hoodman a space to do business in a new way, provide the company a bigger, splashier presence on the show floor, and offer adequate space and a meeting room for sales reps to woo targeted retailers.

With the Hoodome up and running, Hoodman was an undeniable presence on the trade show floor. At PPE 2006, the dome's size and unique look helped Hoodman increase traffic to its exhibit an estimated 10 times over the previous year. That traffic also translated to a 210-percent jump in sales on the show floor, which meant at-show sales alone more than covered the total cost of exhibiting at the show, thanks to the dome's cost-saving qualities and its eye-catching allure.

And when the show was over, Schmidt simply turned off the fans, unzipped the side vents, and watched as the Hoodome collapsed in about 15 minutes. In fact, the inflatable structure was packed up and ready to ship before most of the company's neighboring exhibitors had even received their crates from storage.

Scaling New Heights

Since the company's success at the 2006 PPE, Hoodman has used its inflatable exhibit property at roughly 15 additional shows, including the annual Photo Marketing Association (PMA) show. And according to Schmidt, the low-budget, inflatable booth more than pays for itself, with show-floor sales consistently covering the cost of exhibiting just like it did when it debuted in 2006.

The Hoodome has also inflated the company's dealer network. Schmidt's primary objective at many of his shows is to identify new retail dealers willing to carry the company's memory cards and camera hoods in their stores. For example, when the Hoodome made its first appearance at PMA, 15 sales reps booked the dome's meeting space with roughly 60 meetings - keeping the private conference space occupied for more than 70 percent of total show-floor hours. What's more, 80 percent of the retailers entering the Hoodome with a sales rep left those meetings as dealers of the company's new memory cards.

To put those sky-high results into perspective, before the Hoodome was introduced, Hoodman signed an average of 10 new dealers at major shows like PMA. Today, Hoodman regularly signs more than five to seven times that many dealers in the booth per show. In fact, the company has increased its dealer base tenfold in its target market since the Hoodome debuted in 2006, a feat Schmidt attributes to the now-iconic inflatable exhibit.

"When you've got big-budget competitors like we have in the memory-card market, you can't bring dealers into a boring little 10-by-10-foot booth and avoid the impression you're working out of your garage," Schmidt says.

Since its inaugural appearance at PPE, Schmidt says the Hoodome has become something of a destination on the show floor. "I constantly hear people on their cell phones saying, 'Meet me at the Hoodman dome,'" he says. "And at the smaller shows where we bring our 10-by-10 exhibit, attendees actually approach the booth and are disappointed that the dome is not there."

With its money-saving powers, lightning-fast install and teardown, and magnetic charm on the show floor, Hoodman's inflatable exhibit has given the company the super powers it needs to fight the good fight against titan competitors - while keeping a mild-mannered budget. Of course, like any superhero, for the Hoodome, it's all in a day's work. E
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