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hile government talking heads and the Federal Reserve would like us to believe that the worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression is almost over, the horizon in the employment sector still looks as bleak as the 1930s Dust Bowl. The latest numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show 15 million Americans are out of work, with a meager 2.4 million openings to fill, down 50 percent since early 2007.

Adam Polaszewski, trade show and events manager for CareerBuilder Inc., has successfully navigated his way through more than 400 shows during his five years with the company. During his tenure he has not only improved implementation and results but also the processes by which trade shows and events are handled at CareerBuilder.
With more Americans unemployed and fewer employers hiring, the demand for human-resources services has dipped accordingly, and that was evident heading into the Society for Human Resource Management's (SHRM) annual conference in 2009. The number of enrolled attendees for the country's largest convention of HR professionals plummeted a jaw-dropping 50 percent from 2008, with just 7,300 planning to attend the conference in June.

Despite the decline in attendance, for Chicago-based CareerBuilder Inc., one of the 1,204 exhibitors attending SHRM 2009, skipping the show or scaling back its exhibit wasn't an option. "Missing SHRM for us would be like missing your wedding day," explains Adam Polaszewski, trade show and events manager for CareerBuilder. "We use this time to show our clients how much we appreciate their business. If they saw us downgrade or not show up to SHRM, many of them would be disappointed and assume we were struggling."

But simply showing up wouldn't be enough. With fewer attendees, Polaszewski faced increased competition for the eyes and ears of conference visitors. Furthermore, the company wanted to present itself in a new light. "Many of our prospects and even current clients don't realize we are anything more than just a job board," Polaszewski says.

CareerBuilder's recently revised mission statement touts it as "the global leader in human capital solutions." With hopes of educating attendees on its lesser-known offerings, CareerBuilder decided to promote its entire slew of human-resources products and services, such as outplacement assistance and background and drug screening. So with SHRM 2009 quickly approaching, Polaszewski set out to create an exhibit that would attract attention while repositioning the company and its offerings - all without breaking the bank.

Show us the Numbers

While CareerBuilder forged ahead with plans to exhibit at SHRM 2009 despite declining attendance, company leadership didn't turn a blind eye to the current economic conditions. Executives tasked Polaszewski with producing a substantial set of measurable objectives for the exhibit to demonstrate that SHRM participation helps CareerBuilder meet its bottom-line goal. To accomplish that metric feat, Polaszewski teamed up with Judi Baker Neufeld, president of Pittsburgh-based exhibit-marketing agency TradeShows Plus. "What it came down to was that CareerBuilder leadership wanted to see hard data coming out of the show, numbers to determine ROI and justify the expense of exhibiting," Neufeld says.

CareerBuilder Inc.'s integrated program during the Society for Human Resource Management's conference featured various pre- and at-show tactics, ranging from Mardi Gras-themed giveaways and a New Orleans-style exhibit to in-booth cooking demos and "Top Chef" appearances.

CareerBuilder's 2,300-square-foot exhibit, inspired by New Orleans' French Quarter architecture, comprised a second-story balcony and cobblestone-esque flooring.

A 3-D box-shaped pre-show mailer that went to 5,224 registered attendees contained branded Mardi Gras beads. Attendees spotted wearing the beads on the show floor received a prize.

Adam Polaszewski capitalized on the popularity of two of America's passions - food and celebrities - by inviting "Top Chef" contestants to build buzz and increase booth traffic.

"In the past we weren't as thorough in measuring our results," Polaszewski explains. He says previous company exhibits focused more on relationship building through interactions with attendees and not on promoting specific services. The switch in strategy to a more product-based display to support the company's new brand identity lent itself well to developing the increased measurable objectives CareerBuilder leadership desired.

To measure the change in client knowledge of those products, which CareerBuilder hoped to grow at SHRM, Polaszewski and Neufeld developed a comprehensive survey for attendees to complete post-event.

Apart from increasing awareness of product offerings, other ambitious measurable objectives for the show included increasing visitor traffic 30 percent from the previous year despite the 50-percent dip in attendance, and scanning 1,000 leads on the show floor. In addition, CareerBuilder execs wanted to see a hefty ROI for the $380,000 investment budgeted for the exhibit.

To meet all of those objectives, deliver a solid ROI, and support CareerBuilder's image overhaul, Polaszewski worked with the company's exhibit house, Elmhurst, IL-based DesignCentrix LLC, for a complete exhibit makeover, and found inspiration in SHRM 2009's host city: New Orleans.

French Quarter Cost Cutter

"New Orleans is often referred to as the most unique city in America. It's a city that celebrates its multicultural heritage and takes great pride in its annual celebrations. We wanted to celebrate with attendees and showcase each of the service offerings we have," Polaszewski explains of CareerBuilder's decision to pursue a New Orleans-themed exhibit design.

Fashioned in the style of a French Quarter building, the 2,300-square-foot exhibit had everything from cobblestone-street-style flooring to a traditional second-story balcony, giving it an authentic and eye-catching feel to capture the interest of passersby. Designers integrated The Big Easy theme into brand messaging as well, with kitschy slogans such as "The Crawdaddy of All Talent Supplies" adorning the booth.

Combining form and function, the exhibit design allowed Polaszewski to create a crowd-catching booth while putting CareerBuilder's products front and center. The 40-by-50-foot main floor boasted 16 strategically placed product workstations (housed in double-sided kiosks) and a small presentation area with ottoman seating. On the 10-by-30-foot upper level, a cozy, café-style setting provided the perfect atmosphere for private conversations, in addition to some extra storage space.

By building up instead of out, Polaszewski cut costs from the previous year by needing less space on the show floor. In essence, CareerBuilder's second floor provided the company with 300 square feet of additional functional booth space, on top of the 2,000 square feet of floor space it rented from SHRM show management. To further minimize expenses, Polaszewski capitalized on the extensive rental inventory at DesignCentrix, allowing him to build a piece of New Orleans at a low cost while not tying the company down to a custom-built booth structure.

Polaszewski says the space-saving design and reliance on rentals saved an estimated $75,000 compared to the previous year's exhibit.

A Little Cajun Spice

Not satisfied that building his own Bourbon Street would enchant enough attendees to meet his goals, Polaszewski decided to spice things up by adding two of America's favorite passions - food and celebrities. He found both in one package: contestants from Bravo's TV show, "Top Chef," which pits chefs against each other in a competition for cooking superiority. Polaszewski brought in chefs Brian Malarkey, Richard Blais, and Casey Thompson to serve as an opening act at CareerBuilder's exhibit, kicking off the show via a cooking demo and free food on SHRM's inaugural evening. Keeping the venue and booth design in mind, Polaszewski tasked each chef with creating New Orleans-inspired dishes of their choosing.

Apart from appealing to attendees' stomachs, Polaszewski's addition of "Top Chef" contestants was a strategic play for the largely female attendee demographic at SHRM, the same demographic that makes up a majority of Bravo's regular viewership.

While the sizzling smells of a cooking demo would guarantee visitor interest once the show floor opened, Polaszewski leveraged its potent punch before the show even started by making it a central theme of a multi-media pre-show campaign designed to pique attendee interest.

Leave no Medium Unturned

Knowing he needed to increase booth traffic despite a drastic decrease in the number of attendees, Polaszewski called upon CareerBuilder's ample marketing-communications and public-relations resources to construct an innovative pre-event communications strategy that utilized a variety of messaging formats to build interest and amp up attendance.

To bolster the campaign's success, CareerBuilder Inc. produced videos comprising pre-show promos,
interviews, and coverage of in-booth activities and the VIP party, and posted them to its SHRM microsite.

As the cornerstone of a campaign that included a pre-event mailer, e-mails, and ads in HR publications, the CareerBuilder team created a microsite (www.careerbuilder.com/shrm2009) housed within CareerBuilder's main Web site to promote the exhibit. The microsite was updated frequently with news and videos before, during, and after the show, enticing prospective attendees while providing a virtual exhibit experience for HR professionals that couldn't attend the conference.

"Microsites are something that we've dabbled in before, but we haven't done anything nearly as comprehensive as what we produced for SHRM," Polaszewski explains. "Taking into consideration the economic conditions, we realized that many folks would not be able to participate in the show this year, so we decided to bring the show to them."

The first video clip posted to the microsite, shot by Chicago-based video-production company P3 Mediaworks at the Oceanaire restaurant in San Diego, was a high-energy teaser featuring Chef Malarkey. He enticed attendees to "bring their appetites" to the show floor, and provided the date and time of the "Top Chef" demo, as well as CareerBuilder's booth number. Demonstrating his hands-on project management, Polaszewski even served as the "boom guy," holding the mic during filming.

To get the word out on CareerBuilder's Big Easy booth and promote the microsite, a three-dimensional, box-shaped mailer went out to 5,224 registered SHRM attendees. Inside, they found information on CareerBuilder's booth location and planned activities, as well as Mardi Gras beads bearing CareerBuilder's trademark blue and orange logo. The mailer told attendees that if they were spotted wearing the beads on the show floor by a CareerBuilder "secret shopper," they would win a prize, effectively turning participating attendees into free, walking adverts. CareerBuilder also sent an e-mail to pre-registered attendees that provided exhibit info and a link to the microsite.

In addition, 500 VIP clients received an e-mail invitation to CareerBuilder's off-site party, an annual relationship-building tradition for the company. The e-mails for the party - to be held the evening of Monday, June 29, at the New Orleans House of Blues restaurant and music hall - instructed recipients to print the attached voucher and bring it to the booth to receive tickets to the event. This ticket tactic ensured recipients made a stop at the exhibit, and didn't simply jump straight to the celebration.

"As a technology company, we have always prided ourselves on becoming marketing innovators. To us, using these different pre-event media tools was second nature, and it gave us an upper hand in increasing our brand awareness, as well as getting the target audience excited about the show and the promotions we had in store for them," Polaszewski says. "It was the strongest multimedia pre-show campaign that CareerBuilder has ever seen," Neufeld adds.

Hands-On Help

With the company well positioned for a strong showing as SHRM 2009 opened on Sunday, June 28, Polaszewski and the CareerBuilder team members took a brief break from business the day before to focus on the community hosting their exhibit.

While downtown New Orleans is on the mend from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, many small, poor neighborhoods are still struggling to rebuild. Keeping the community in mind, SHRM offered attendees the chance to volunteer for Beacon of Hope, a nonprofit group bringing these neighborhoods back to life. CareerBuilder jumped at the chance, serving as the exclusive sponsor of the outreach, deemed "Voluntourism."

Approximately 75 attendees, including 20 CareerBuilder employees, spent Saturday morning planting flowers, painting, and laying sod in the Gentilly neighborhood. Attendees who signed up to participate, through SHRM, did so at no cost. The $15,000 CareerBuilder provided as the sponsor purchased tools and materials for the project, as well as transportation and lunch for the volunteers.

While Polaszewski notes that he didn't see the outreach as a traffic builder for the exhibit, the sponsorship nonetheless gave CareerBuilder increased visibility in the form of mentions on SHRM's official Web site, on the show floor, and in the conference guide. The company's concern for the community also rubbed off on the attendees who volunteered: "100 percent of the attendees involved in the volunteer work came to the exhibit to find out more about CareerBuilder and its offerings," Neufeld reports.

Hard Work, Big Easy Results

In addition to the exhibit and in-booth activities, the campaign featured numerous components that provided additional brand touch points for CareerBuilder Inc.

The off-site VIP event, hosted at New Orleans' House of Blues restaurant and music hall, served as a relationship-building activity for CareerBuilder employees and top clients.

While in New Orleans, the CareerBuilder team and attendees took advantage of a volunteer opportunity with Beacon of Hope, arranged by the Society for Human Resource Management.

SHRM attendees that completed a post-show e-mail survey received a thank-you note and a $5 Starbucks gift card from CareerBuilder.

Visitors who attended a 30- to 45-minute in-booth presentation received a branded, stuffed koala as a token of gratitude.

Philanthropy complete, CareerBuilder kicked off SHRM 2009 with a bang, courtesy of some Cajun cookin' at the "Top Chef" demo on opening night, for which CareerBuilder shipped in more than 100 pounds of live lobster. Ravenous HR professionals from all over the country flooded the booth for a taste of New Orleans, building a buzz that percolated through the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center for the following three days.

CareerBuilder staff, professionally but festively dressed in suits with CareerBuilder-orange scarves (for women) or ties (for men), kept up the excitement and Mardi Gras atmosphere by periodically throwing beads at passersby from the second-story booth balcony. All attendees who entered the exhibit wearing the beads they received in the pre-show mailer were awarded a T-shirt featuring the CareerBuilder koala, a mascot for the company's TV advertisements at the time. And the attendees who stayed for one of the presentations on CareerBuilder hiring solutions, held every 30 to 45 minutes in the presentation area near the rear of the exhibit, received a branded, stuffed koala.

For those who preferred a shorter stay in the booth, CareerBuilder staff circulated to guide them to the product-demo stations that matched their business needs. At each product station, a built-in scanner collected attendee information to follow up with them via e-mail post event and assess the success of the exhibit.

The celebratory atmosphere boiled over on Monday night to the invite-only off-site event at the House of Blues. There, VIP clients packed the private party to standing room only, keeping the energy up for the final day of exhibiting on Tuesday.

Four weeks after the show, those post-show e-mails were sent, and when the results were tabulated, it was clear that attendees were bewitched. The 286 respondents who completed the e-mail survey (for which they received a mailed thank-you note with a $5 Starbucks gift card) indicated that knowledge of CareerBuilder products and services increased as a result of the booth visit. Among non-customers who completed the survey, 45 percent indicated they were more or somewhat more likely to choose CareerBuilder as their human-capital solutions provider after learning about those products.

"Our strategy was to educate our audience on the diverse assortment of products and services we offer, and I feel these results show we were successful in getting our message out," Polaszewski says.

The venue-inspired booth theme drew 1,321 scanned visitors, up 65 percent compared to 2008 and 30 percent above the pre-show goal, all despite the 50-percent decrease in show attendance. In addition, the microsite has received 2,807 views since CareerBuilder began promoting SHRM, and its success led the company to duplicate the effort for subsequent trade shows. Polaszewski estimates the ROI for the $380,000 exhibit at $2 million due to increased product sales and new client relationships.

Those outstanding metrics weren't lost on All-Star Awards judges. "Reinvention of brand is always relevant. CareerBuilder nailed the problem and pulled together all the components required for a strong attendee experience to engage, educate, and exceed expectations," one judge said. "This program was incredibly thorough, and the incorporation of volunteerism in New Orleans was a natural fit," another judge noted.

Neufeld gives Polaszewski ample praise as well. "I've been working in this business since 1985, with hundreds of companies, and this exhibit and Adam's leadership really stand out," she says. A humble leader at that, Polaszewski throws the credit back to his team: "Everything we do is a team effort. When we put our heads together, we are able to produce something great."

In the end, the greatest ally on Polaszewski's team was the host city itself. His New Orleans-themed exhibit proved that a little local flavor, a pinch of Mardi Gras madness, and a can-do bayou attitude goes a long way toward conjuring an effective exhibit that exceeds expectations despite a tough exhibiting climate.  E

Christopher Nelson, contributing writer; editorial@exhibitormagazine.com

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