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case study


hen life gives you lemons, make lemonade. When the U.S. housing market bottoms out, big financial institutions crumble, the stock market crashes, and the United States falls into the worst recession since the Great Depression, you better spike that lemonade and bring enough to share. That's exactly what Steelhead Productions did when it devised an exhibit-marketing strategy to satisfy the masses at EXHIBITOR2009.

By the time companies began planning their exhibits for the show - an educational conference and exhibition for exhibit and event marketers - the recession was in full swing. Many exhibitors struggled with whether they could afford to exhibit at the show at all. And most that had committed to showing up were recalibrating their goals and expectations assuming the slow economy would result in decreased attendance - which in turn could translate into a decrease in show-related revenue. Faced with this not-so-cheery reality, several companies ratcheted down budgets for their trade show programs, concluding that if they weren't going to make as much money, why should they spend as much?

Thus, many exhibitors adopted a more modest "we know what you're going through" mentality when it came to impressing attendees at shows - primarily because they themselves were trying to overcome the same challenges.

One such company was Steelhead, a Seattle-based exhibit company (with operations in Las Vegas) that had exhibited at EXHIBITOR Show for 13 years. In the past, Steelhead's focus was on introducing its newest rental components and products to attendees, with checkbooks in hand. But Rhiannon Andersen, Steelhead's director of marketing, knew the 2009 show would be drastically different. "This year presented exhibit and event managers with a new set of challenges and opportunities, and we wanted to speak to the new needs of our audience," she says.

Those needs included stretching the lifecycle of current exhibit properties and reducing all exhibit-related costs anywhere and everywhere possible. Thus, meeting those needs became the objective driving Steelhead's strategic approach to EXHIBITOR2009, which consisted of a clever integrated program centered on the concept of literally turning lemons into lemonade.

The Main Squeeze

In the months after the September 2008 economic meltdown and the start of the recession, Steelhead reps began fielding calls from concerned, cash-strapped clients who weren't sure of the fate of their own exhibit programs. "Many of our clients and prospects were expressing woes around having to do more with less, or as some would say, 'taking lemons and making lemonade,'" Andersen says.

It seemed companies across the board were trying to squeeze every last dollar out of their budgets, including Steelhead, which was working with about 23 percent less money than it spent on its booth at EXHIBITOR2008. Making lemonade out of lemons wasn't just a simple cliché anymore; it was a credo in this new, seemingly unstable, economy.

In light of its own budget cuts and the feedback it was receiving from its clients, that new credo struck a chord with Steelhead's marketing and creative teams, and quickly became the theme for the company's exhibit program. "We wanted to show exhibit managers that though they are asked to do more with a reduced budget - in this case, the lemon - Steelhead would work with them to match our innovative rental inventory with their budget in an effort to create maximum impact - or the lemonade," Andersen says.

But a simple, old-school lemonade stand would come off as more kitsch than clever to an audience of savvy exhibit marketers. Plus, Steelhead wanted to show attendees that it is possible to create a sophisticated exhibit on a budget by investing in quality, reconfigurable rental components and by sourcing those components from a company that is local to a show's host city to save on shipping costs. "We wanted to create an experience that would make light of a big, heavy issue, but just as importantly, we wanted to use the exhibit as an opportunity to shine the light on rental as a very effective and impactful way of exhibiting," Andersen says.

So Steelhead took the lemonade-stand concept and morphed it into what it called "The Lemonade Lounge," a hip hangout on the show floor that it hoped would provide a brief reprieve from the economic obstacles attendees were facing. Steelhead felt the tongue-in-cheek, yet hyper-relevant promotion was just the draw the company needed to help it maintain the previous year's booth traffic despite an anticipated drop in attendance.

Lemony Tickets

Everyone knows a club is only as cool as the people who patronize it. So to attract the ideal crowd for The Lemonade Lounge, Steelhead sent two e-blasts to clients and prospects, people who visited the company's booth at the 2008 show, and a select group of attendees pre-registered for the 2009 show.

The first e-blast introduced attendees to The Lemonade Lounge theme and invited them to visit the exhibit. The second e-blast included an attachment sure to tempt any exhibit manager in the throes of budget cuts - a ticket redeemable for one drink of "hard or not-so-hard lemonade mixed to perfection for hardcore exhibitors." The ticket also contained Steelhead's logo, The Lemonade Lounge tagline ("turning sour budgets into sweet exhibits"), and the company's booth number.

When attendees showed up at The Lemonade Lounge to redeem their drink tickets for a glass of lemonade, they encountered a 20-by-20-foot rental exhibit straight from Steelhead's inventory. Using an existing property not only reinforced the "doing more with less" slant of the integrated program, but it also showed attendees that they, too, could repurpose existing materials and components when times are tough rather than splurging on a shiny new property. Steelhead gave the exhibit an updated, loungey look, complete with black-and-white zebra-print carpet; bright-orange, lime-green, and yellow accents; and faux lemons.

The focal point of The Lemonade Lounge was an 11-foot-long bar with lime-green side panels, a sleek black countertop, and 10 miniature lemon trees sitting in a recessed space across the front. Behind the bar stood an 18-foot-tall orange-yellow back wall and a series of four white shelves containing 32 clear drinking glasses. But these weren't your ordinary bar glasses. Twenty-four of the glasses featured a digital photo of a completed Steelhead project rolled up inside, serving as an unconventional portfolio of sorts that was in line with The Lemonade Lounge theme.

Also in keeping with the lounge theme were key messages printed in white text on two black "drink menus" flanking the back-wall shelving. Those clever messages included: "Single Shot of Service: simple is often better. Hand-crafted account managers deliver the right blend of experience, professionalism, likeability - all in one point of contact," and "Sin City Sensation: Exhibits that happen in Vegas should stay in Vegas, and we are so there (as in Las Vegas). Do the right thing and rent local, it's soooo much fresher."

Other prominent lounge-themed signage included a large black fabric banner suspended between two aluminum beams, which were connected to an overhead structure that jutted out from the back wall of the exhibit. The fabric banner displayed The Lemonade Lounge title and tagline, as well as the Steelhead logo, its Web site, and the text, "Let us guess . champagne taste on a beer budget? We feel ya." The language reinforced the "we know what you're dealing with" sentiment that Steelhead wanted to project to clients and prospects, many of whom were thirsty for a little economic empathy.

Raising the Bar

Adding to the club atmosphere of the exhibit were Las Vegas-style "flair" bartenders (think the bottle-flinging character played by Tom Cruise in the 1988 movie "Cocktail," but without the cheesy Hawaiian shirt). Instead, Steelhead's bartenders were decked out in head-to-toe black. Each member of the exhibit staff also wore all black - a subtle touch that the company felt would reinforce the swank nightclub aesthetic.

The booth uniforms consisted of a branded black T-shirt with "The Lemonade Lounge" printed on the back, along with the "turning sour budgets into sweet exhibits" tagline, Steelhead's logo, its booth number, and the company's Web site. Staffers also wore black server aprons similar to the ones worn by restaurant waitstaff. But despite the club-like vibe of the space, The Lemonade Lounge was much more than a glorified hospitality bar with snazzy carpet - it served up a plethora of useful exhibiting information as well.

Three black cocktail tables were used as "work stations" - a place for Steelhead booth staffers to chat with attendees and qualify leads. Each of the tables featured a glass jar labeled "Exhibitor Tip Jar," positioned in the center. However, unlike most clubs where patrons tip the staff, Steelhead staffers tipped booth visitors instead. The jars were filled with business-card-sized pieces of paper, each with one of seven exhibiting tips that reinforced Steelhead's key messaging.

For example, one card read: "When it comes to exhibiting, it is the quality of the experience that matters, not the size of the experience," while another read: "When in doubt, use Steelhead!" Not only did the tip jars provide another touch point on which Steelhead could reinforce its lounge theme, but they also served as conversation starters for exhibit staff, according to Andersen. As attendees approached the booth, staffers led them to the tables and encouraged them to grab a tip from the jar, and then took that opportunity to elaborate on the company's key messages. Next to the jars sat a stack of coasters, another lounge mainstay. But instead of a bar logo, these coasters featured The Lemonade Lounge logo and tagline, along with Steelhead's Web address.

The exhibitor tip cards and coasters were a relatively inexpensive way to communicate brand messaging, and staffers used each piece to direct attendees to the company's Web site for more information, all but negating the need to ship printed collateral literature to the show. Rather than sending off attendees with a product catalogue and a brochure, staffers gave booth visitors a tip card and a coaster, which directed them to the company's online catalogue, included all relevant contact information, reinforced the theme, and provided a simple reminder of The Lemonade Lounge experience.

Sweet and Sour Success

Though The Lemonade Lounge was crafted to attract clients and prospects and cater to their needs in this new economy, the payoff for Steelhead was palpable as well. Of the drink tickets distributed via the pre-show e-blast, 15 percent were redeemed during the show. In fact, so many people bellied up to the bar on the first day The Lemonade Lounge was open that Steelhead ran out of drinks. So staffers handed out additional tickets to booth visitors, and invited them to come back to the lounge the next day.

By the end of the show, the company served 350 clients and prospects, a figure that represents a 48-percent increase in booth traffic compared to 2008 - more than double the company's goal and particularly impressive considering a slight decrease in the show's overall attendance.

Equally impressive is that of those 350 visitors, 88 are considered high-quality leads, which Andersen defines as "prospects that will be in need of our products or services within one year." Those leads represent a result that's on par with the previous year's total, and slightly above Steelhead's recalibrated expectations for the 2009 show.

With a mouth-puckering approach to exhibiting during an economic downturn, Steelhead turned its own sour budget into a sweet exhibit - and showed clients how it can help them do the same for their programs. Now that's the kind of success any exhibitor would drink to. Bottom's up!  E

Spreading the Good Word
Steelhead Productions sent two e-blasts promoting The Lemonade Lounge. The first one introduced the exhibit program and included the company's Web site and booth number, while the second one featured a printable drink ticket redeemable for regular or hard lemonade.

Lounging Around
To prove to EXHIBITOR2009 attendees that it was the go-to company for exhibit managers looking to stretch their trade show budget, Steelhead used one of its existing rental properties to create The Lemonade Lounge.

Cardboard Collateral
Bar coasters replaced conventional printed lit in The Lemonade Lounge. Booth staffers used the coasters to direct attendees to the company's Web site to request additional information on Steelhead's offerings.

Raise a Glass
To display examples of Steelhead's past projects without resorting to passé portfolios, the company printed digital photos and placed them inside drinking glasses that sat on shelves behind the bar. The resulting display was a thrifty, theme-appropriate solution that cost Steelhead little to create.

Juggling Act
Las Vegas-style "flair" bartenders were on hand to provide entertainment for attendees waiting to redeem their drink tickets.

The Tipping Point
Steelhead placed small glass tip jars on each of the three cocktail tables in The Lemonade Lounge. But instead of collecting tips from attendees, the jars offered exhibiting tips for booth visitors. Attendees could collect a total of seven "exhibitor tip" cards, each of which featured a bit of advice.

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