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case study
ideo games are big business. According to market-research firm NPD Group Inc., the gaming industry generated $19.7 billion in sales last year alone, and that money talks to everyone, including exhibit marketers. From Nintendo Wii console giveaways to in-booth "Guitar Hero" showdowns, you'd be hard pressed to walk the aisles of a trade show today and not see some sort of game component somewhere. It seems many exhibitors are exploiting the popularity and broad appeal of gaming by incorporating elements into their programs - however disparate the connection to the company's actual offerings - to accomplish various objectives, from increasing the amount of time attendees spend visiting an exhibit to generating booth traffic.

So when it was time for Creatacor Exhibits and Displays Inc., a Clifton Park, NY-based exhibit house, to develop its marketing program for EXHIBITOR2009, an educational conference and exhibition for exhibit and event marketers, it's no wonder that one of the ideas pitched by the creative team was inspired by the video game "Rock Band," nor is it surprising that it came about as the result of a little friendly competition. "The company's owner, Tom Lemery, asked staff members to help him come up with ideas for a new exhibit for the show," says William Farmer, vice president of client services for Creatacor. The company had used the same exhibit the previous two years, and Lemery felt it was time to sing a different tune. His only direction to the staff: Have fun and be creative.

"After going through some creative exercises as a group, we were split into three teams, each assigned with the task of pitching a new marketing campaign," Farmer says. And though he believes all of the teams were equally creative, he concedes that due to the game's popularity, the team that pitched a "Rock Band" theme - and accompanying "become a trade show rock star" tagline - was the clear winner. "It certainly didn't hurt that they brought in the game for us to play as part of the pitch," he says.

Though a catchy tagline and a game giveaway might have been sufficient to lure a few attendees to its exhibit, Creatacor knew that one-note giveaways such as video games and consoles, while sought after, rarely do much to reinforce a company's key messages. Thus, the team dug deeper to create a stronger, more memorable tie between the "Rock Band" theme and the company. "The rock-star concept was creative and contemporary," Farmer says. "But we took it one step further. We wanted to promote the idea that we were the 'roadies' for exhibit managers, making sure everything happens as planned. And we wanted to use our clients to tell that story."

Hoping this message would strike a chord with the show's exhibit-manager attendees, Farmer and his team began composing an integrated marketing program that included a pre-show testimonial ad campaign, in-booth presentations, and a "Rock Band" giveaway that worked as one chorus to belt out the company's "become a trade show rock star" theme.

Establishing a Fan Base


In addition to having a solid-gold theme to draw a crowd, Creatacor had another advantage on its side - time to build a fan base. After all, having the best idea in the world won't matter if you're playing to an empty room. So the company launched its rock-star campaign in October, five months before the show, with a series of three ads that ran in Exhibit City News and on Creatacor's Web site. Each of the full-color ads featured a photo of a worn-out-looking person in business clothing seated at an office desk with the text, "Are you doing it all?" across the top of the page. Text next to the person revealed his or her name and job responsibilities. For example, one ad read: "Courtney Vaughn, Tradeshow Coordinator . and Exhibit Designer, Travel Agent, Therapist, Shipping Clerk, Accounts Payable, Setup Supervisor, Trouble Shooter."

The same person also appeared in the background of the image, decked out in flashier duds, an exuberant expression on his or her face, and hands waving in the air like he or she just stepped into the Roxbury.

To introduce its "become a trade show rock star" campaign to EXHIBITOR2009 attendees, Creatacor Exhibits and Displays Inc. issued a series of testimonial ads on its Web site and in industry publication Exhibit City News five months before the show opened.

Additional text read: "Maybe you need an exhibit partner who can help you become the star you know you can be. We don't make stars. You already have that in you. We just back you up with 20 years of experience in exhibit design, production, and management, while providing the rock-star treatment you deserve. No matter how big a stage you perform on, we can help you shine."

Creatacor hoped the before-and-after ads would convey its ability to turn raw exhibit-marketing talent into fine-tuned trade show moxie - much like the music executives who polish country bumpkins from Louisiana and turn them into "Hit Me Baby One More Time" superstars. But the eye-catching ads gave readers more than just a pretty face to look at; each ad also included Creatacor's contact information as well as three photos of past exhibit projects along the bottom of the page. What's more, each of the ads was based on one of Creatacor's real-life, local clients. By basing the ads on real people (and leveraging its existing fans to gain more fans), Farmer and his team created a campaign that was more than marketing hype - it was grounded in the actual stories of exhibit managers who became trade show rock stars and Creatacor ambassadors.

With the three ads in heavy rotation building brand awareness since October, Creatacor's next step was to send an e-mail to 760 pre-registered attendees two weeks prior to the show. Resembling a concert poster, the e-mail included an invitation to "Come see us at EXHIBITOR2009 and listen to a trade show rock star," and register to win the newest iteration of the game, "Rock Band 2." The flash-animation design featured a black silhouette of a woman placed in front of an electric-blue star graphic, with the company's booth number on one side and the "trade show rock star" tag on the other. Farmer and his team hoped the provocative e-mail - with its promise of an opportunity to meet a trade show rock star and be entered in a video-game drawing - would draw attendees to Creatacor's exhibit like die-hard Deadheads to a Jerry Garcia tribute concert.

With the pre-show ads and e-mail promoting a rock-star experience and a chance to listen to an in-the-flesh trade show rock star, Farmer knew he had to deliver the goods come show time. He also knew he needed to keep the rock-star theme going while ensuring its relevance to Creatacor's services. So he turned to Chicago-based Live Marketing, a full-service marketing firm, to craft the perfect performance. He also booked Live Marketing's Paul Traynor to play the emcee for the in-booth presentations. "We have used Traynor for several years and as different characters, and knew his ad-libbing talent was the perfect fit for what we wanted to do," Farmer says. "He knows how to connect with the audience." And in the music industry as well as the exhibit industry, connecting with the audience is akin to showmanship, which Farmer hoped would ultimately equal a full house.

The 20-by-20-foot exhibit comprised six 16-foot-tall kiosks, each of which featured one of the three testimonial print ads and an accompanying
audio clip.
With the talent booked, Farmer worked with the Live Marketing team to compose an in-booth presentation that would emphasize the key messages introduced in the company's pre-show ad campaign, make good on the promise of a rock-star appearance, and entertain and educate at least 150 attendees. What they came up with was a music-trivia game that would demonstrate just how Creatacor produced trade show rock stars as easily as the Mickey Mouse Club produced tween heartthrobs during the '90s.

The Main Attraction

The first thing attendees noticed upon entering the Creatacor booth during EXHIBITOR2009 wasn't the brand spanking new exhibit, cheery booth staff, or even the music playing throughout the space. Nope, it was Traynor's ridiculous rock-star-inspired get up. The outfit, which looked like something straight out of the wardrobe closet from the movie "This is Spinal Tap," drew attention to the exuberant emcee, who had adopted an accent that would make David St. Hubbins proud. As attendees entered the 20-by-20-foot exhibit, which was covered by an electric-blue fabric canopy, Traynor milled about, chatting them up and inviting them to grab a seat for the big show.

Everything in the exhibit, from the 14-by-6-foot back wall with a 42-inch plasma screen to the 10 white and silver circular stools smack dab in the center of the space, placed the spotlight squarely on the presentation area. That area, which contained the same graphics and electric-blue color scheme as the pre-show e-mail, alluded once again to the trade show rock-star theme, and curious attendees quickly heeded Traynor's invitation to sit and listen.

Once the seats were filled, he provided a short introduction explaining that he, too, was once an exhibit manager struggling to accomplish all the tasks that came with the job. As he was talking, an image of Traynor was displayed on the screen, depicting him in disheveled business attire with an exasperated look on his face - paying homage to the print ads. The next image again alluded to the print ads, and it portrayed Traynor as a happier version of himself decked out in rock-star rags. This transition, he explained, was all thanks to Creatacor.

Creatacor distributed branded T-shirts to those who answered the music trivia correctly, and also gave attendees earphones and invited them to listen to the audio testimonials.
Throughout the presentation, music clips played that corresponded to the key message Traynor was relaying to attendees at a given time. As a song played, Traynor prompted the audience to answer a trivia question tied to the name of the band, song, artist, etc. For example, when he talked about not getting the satisfaction he needed from his job before working with Creatacor, The Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" blasted out of the monitor's speakers and Traynor asked the audience to name the song. When an attendee answered a question correctly, exhibit staff gave him or her a branded, black T-shirt that featured the same blue graphics found in the e-mail and exhibit, and again showcased the campaign's "become a trade show rock star" credo.

At the end of the presentation, which occurred twice an hour or when the seats were full, Traynor invited the audience to listen to more trade show rock-star testimonials. Booth staff, wearing the same branded T-shirts given to attendees, handed out a set of earphones to thank attendees for listening. Staffers also distributed a 5-by-7-inch card and instructed attendees to fill it out with their contact information to be included in the drawing for the "Rock Band 2" giveaway (which happened once each day of the three-day show). Upon returning the completed cards to staffers, attendees were then directed to one of six 16-foot-tall kiosks lining two sides of the exhibit - three on each side of the space.

Each kiosk featured an image of one of the three people from the print ads, and text prompted attendees to plug in the earphones to hear the story of how Creatacor helped that person reach rock-star status. Once the earphones were plugged in to the audio jack, pre-recorded, 60-second testimonials began to play. Combined with Traynor's seven-minute presentation and the kiosks coming in at one minute a pop, attendees who listened to all three of the client testimonials spent a total of 10 minutes in the exhibit doing nothing but absorbing Creatacor's key messages.

Curtain Call

By the end of the show, 181 people had caught Traynor's music-infused performance and Creatacor's trade show rock-star message, which is 20 percent more than the company's goal of 150. Considering the shaky economy throughout 2009, and the fact that trade show attendance was down across the board, Farmer was pleasantly surprised by the outcome. "We were very happy with the results, especially since about a third of the leads we captured were considered very good prospects," he says.

To keep the conversation going with those leads, Creatacor sent each prospect a thank-you note after the show. But the company's rock-related campaign was far from a one-hit wonder. Creatacor repeated the same "become a trade show rock star" theme at EXHIBITOR2010 and once again enjoyed impressive results. The company's encore performance generated a 5-percent increase over 2009 in what Farmer calls "A" leads.

And in addition to qualified sales leads two years in a row, the rock-star campaign generated another, harder to quantify result - an enthusiastic fan club. "We received many comments during the event, and an attendee told me, 'You guys get it. You have created an experience that people will remember. That's what this industry is all about,'" Farmer says. A testimonial-based campaign that begets more testimonials? Turns out that Madonna was right, after all - music does make the people come together. E

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