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case study
Home Improvement
Using a cross section of a modern house that featured components of Reliant Energy Retail Holdings LLC's e-Sense products, the company set the perfect stage for two actors to demonstrate a day in the life of Reliant end users at the 2011 International Consumer Electronics Show.

1. A spokeswoman welcomed visitors and introduced Mark and Jan, actors portraying a pair of Reliant end users.

The spokeswoman narrated the actions of Mark and Jan as they completed everyday chores, such as doing laundry, via appliances monitored by e-Sense.

3. As the couple interacted with various electronics and appliances, the spokeswoman explained how Reliant's offerings helped them monitor their energy usage.

4. The day-in-the-life presentation included key messages sprinkled throughout the dialogue.

5. While in the car, Mark showed how Reliant's e-Sense product suite could be controlled remotely via smart phone to change the settings for the air conditioner, lighting, and appliances.

6. Mark and Jan demonstrated the convenience of the eVgo charging station when they plugged in their Nissan LEAF electric car.

e are a people dependent on our power cords and the electricity that zips through them. Almost as soon as light bulbs displaced kerosene lamps, the civilized world found electric energy's ever-present hum as essential as oxygen. Today, thanks to technological advances, energy is being harnessed in countless ways, from solar panels to wind turbines. In the average home, too, emerging technology is changing how consumers understand and use electricity.

Enter Houston-based Reliant Energy Retail Holdings LLC. With 1.6 million customers, Reliant was making great leaps in energy innovation. But despite the company's reputation as a leading energy retailer in Texas, its brand and services were little known on a national level - and Reliant was determined to overhaul that anonymity.

As 2010 drew to a close, the company was preparing to release a new energy-services suite. So for 2011, Reliant aimed to broadcast its energy solutions to America while simultaneously increasing brand awareness, introducing its new products and services, and provoking consumers to think about how they use energy in their daily lives. But to accomplish its goal, the company needed a little bit of drama.

Deep in the Heart of Texas

Reliant Energy, whose parent company is Fortune 500 energy firm NRG Energy Inc., can trace its roots back to the beginning of the 20th century when power companies first brought electricity to Texas. From that sepia-toned history blossomed one of the state's most forward-thinking energy retailers. At the cusp of 2011, Reliant was moving forward to launch a relatively ambitious, technologically sophisticated line of products and services: e-Sense.

This suite of tools would take readings from consumers' smart meters (already installed in more than 2.4 million Texas homes and deployed in 20 million homes nationwide) to deliver current data about energy consumption. The retail of these services and tools would mark a turning point in the history of energy use as we know it - empowering consumers to make smart, informed decisions about how they manage their electricity.

The e-Sense suite includes Online Account Management (an online service permitting customers to view energy use down to the hour, compare usage trends in their area, and forecast their estimated energy bill), a weekly summary e-mail (relaying customers' weekly energy-usage stats along with energy-saving tips), a Time-of-Use plan (allowing customers to program their energy usage to occur during lower-priced, off-peak times), and the Home Energy Monitor (a 6-by-8-inch wireless in-home display that links to the customer's smart meter and shows how much energy they're using and how much it's costing). When combined with home automation systems, consumers' homes can power up when they're in and power down when they're out. Also, consumers can opt to install home charging stations for electric vehicles (EVs) through Reliant's sister program, eVgo (an EV-charging program).

"When you couple smart energy solutions like the Time-of-Use plan with home automation, you get a consumer value proposition that is very compelling," says Stephen Morisseau, Reliant's director of public relations and communications. So compelling were the solutions that Reliant was preparing to release, that the company decided it would synchronize the launch with the 2011 International Consumer Electronics Show, the uber-sexy electronics conference that annually draws nearly 2,700 technology exhibitors and more than 140,000 attendees. Prior to 2011, no energy retailer had exhibited at CES, but this untrodden territory didn't rattle Reliant's nerves, for it viewed itself first and foremost as a consumer services company. Pair that consumer focus with the electronics that Reliant powers, and the decision to exhibit at CES was kind of a no-brainer. Actually, the Reliant team found itself wondering why no other energy company had thought of it sooner.

Up until that point, Reliant had been marketing its wares through the usual outlets: radio, TV, print media, billboards, online, direct mail, and word of mouth. All of these methods were successful, but they had been limited to Reliant's home market. CES, on the other hand, loomed like a megaphone
readymade for its e-Sense product launch. "Opting to attend CES was an aha moment," Morisseau says. "If we were rolling out with something that had an electronic aspect to it for consumers, then CES was a fantastic platform to show it off."

But there was precious little time for Reliant to give itself a pat on the back. While the decision to exhibit at CES was a brilliant one, it was also rather last minute. With a 20-by-40-foot booth space reserved and paid for, the only thing left for Reliant to do was come up with a booth design that would attract and hold attendees' attention long enough to explain e-Sense in an easy-to-digest way, hardwire the Reliant brand into attendees' heads, and secure some solid media coverage.

An Inspirational Speech

To brainstorm a booth concept that accomplished his company's goals, Morisseau turned to Burlington, NJ-based Lynch Exhibits Inc. Sitting down with the Lynch team, Morisseau handed over a stack of documents outlining Reliant's services and the eVgo EV-charging program. As papers were shuffled, Lynch alighted upon a speech that NRG CEO, David Crane, had given to employees at the 2010 Leadership Meeting in Baton Rouge, LA. The speech was Crane's vision of a day in the life with smart energy: Smart appliances instantly heat water for a morning shower as coffee percolates in sync with a ringing alarm clock; the air conditioning unit whirs to a stop as the homeowner jumps into an electric car to go to work. Lynch Exhibits latched onto the speech as the basis for Reliant's booth.

"Crane's vision was so clear," says Mike Fosbenner, senior designer at Lynch. "I knew this energy story was out there, but I didn't know it was this close to being a reality. We decided to create a lot of drama around it."

Transfixed by the speech, Lynch designers could see a crystal-clear example of what a home pimped with an e-Sense suite of services and an EV might look like, and how those services might benefit its inhabitants.

"Weaving Reliant's different products, services, and technologies into a cohesive story would be an effective way to communicate our services to consumers who have no background about us and who have never really thought about how they use electricity," Morisseau says.

Immediately, pencils hit paper as the Lynch team sketched a double-deck exhibit in the form of a split-level house, which would be outfitted with the e-Sense suite. The house would feature a bedroom, laundry room, kitchen, living room, and garage where actors would enact an ordinary day, demonstrating e-Sense and using the EV. Containing Reliant's key messages, the script would be recited before rows of seated spectators,
giving them a vibrant glimpse into the future of energy use.

"Writing the presentation script was challenging because CES attendees won't sit still for a half hour," says David Assal, a digital media director with Newtown, PA-based DB Media Inc., which was outsourced by Lynch to produce the presentation. "To get Reliant's message across, we had to hit hard and fast, communicating a great deal of information in a short amount of time."

Making a Scene

When the doors of CES opened, attendees found the 20-by-40-foot Reliant booth in the automotive electronics space of the Las Vegas Convention Center's North Hall: the three-level whitewashed residential home juxtaposed starkly against the surrounding futuristic vehicles.

The Reliant house, while it appeared simple in its design, was no dummy's domicile. The home's substructure was a steel mezzanine with a standard box frame that hid the miles of wiring required to orchestrate its audiovisual effects. A chimney situated to the left of the stage featured a 60-inch flatscreen, and five more 40-inch flatscreens were positioned around the stage to display informational graphics to coordinate with the presentation. Meanwhile, the house's garage contained a Nissan LEAF (Leading, Environmentally friendly, Affordable Family car) electric vehicle, and was equipped with a motorized garage door (simulated using lightweight window-shade fabric). Overhead, suspended aluminum beams suggested the house's rooftop, and above that hung three 6-by-10-foot pillowcase fabric banners showing off the NRG, Reliant, and eVgo logos.

A clock was mounted on the stage, counting down the minutes until the next presentation would begin. As attendees filtered into the booth, Reliant staff ushered them into the 30 seats in front of the stage. When the clock ticked to zero, actors took their places, and the presentation began. Lights that had been flooding the house faded to black as a spotlight beamed onto a spokeswoman at center stage and NRG, Reliant, and eVgo logos appeared on the flatscreens. After welcoming the attendees to the "smart home of the now," she asked the audience to give Reliant five minutes of their time for a tour of today's smart home, promising, "We'll show you everything you need to know about the convenience of managing electricity usage."

In the same spirit as Thornton Wilder's stage manager in "Our Town," the spokeswoman guided audience members through the actions of a couple, Mark and Jan, on a typical Saturday morning in a Reliant Energy smart home. The house's four faux windows were bathed in pale yellow light (from overhead LEDs) to show that it was morning, as Jan appeared in the bedroom, dressed and getting ready for the day. On the first level, the audience noticed Mark exiting the Nissan LEAF parked in the adjoining garage. The charger was illuminated by overhead LED lights as Mark plugged the car into it, showing off Reliant's home charger option for EVs. Mark then made his way into the kitchen with a bag of groceries, as Jan walked down a short flight of stairs to the second level to start a load of laundry.

Going Live: Five Tips for Live Presentations
While a well-done presentation can earn your company 15 minutes of fame, a poorly executed one could derail your image. EXHIBITOR spoke to four experts and identified five tips for a successful live presentation.

1 Keep it Short and Sweet
At a trade show, everyone has a tight agenda, so your script better be clear, concise, and worthy of attendees' precious time. David Seckinger, senior partner at interactive media agency BrandSpeak Communications, says, "In most cases, after five minutes of a presentation, you basically have diminishing returns for each additional minute."

2 Leave it to a Professional
According to Joanne Brooks, president at Creative Impact Group Inc., putting your best sales rep or project manager on stage with an ear prompter might seem like an easy and cost-effective alternative. But unless that person has the charisma of Jimmy Fallon, you'd be better served by hiring a presenter. It's also not a bad idea to use professional crowd gatherers who can corral attendees into seats so your presentation doesn't fall on deaf ears.

3 Put on a Show
A good presenter will inject some personality and energy into the script, and won't shy away from a little improv if necessary. "The magic formula for any presentation is 80-percent content, 20-percent humor," says Ken Newman, founder of Magnet Productions. "Your goal is to make attendees nod - not nod off."

4 Set the Scene
"Under no circumstances should you put your stage in the center of your booth," Newman says. "People will not commit to stepping out of the aisle and inside your exhibit." Instead, position the stage on the perimeter of the booth. That way, sitting down to hear the presentation appears less "risky" to passersby.

5 Train Your Staff
Ensure your staffers are prepared to engage attendees when your presentation is finished. "Don't let the energy from your presentation dissipate," says Kristin Veach, vice president of marketing and client marketing services at Live Marketing Inc. "Have sales reps ready and waiting to answer attendees' questions and qualify leads."

"Reliant e-Sense smart energy solutions and home automation woke this smart house hours ago to Jan and Mark's pre-programmed preferences," the spokeswoman said. As she spoke about how each home appliance linked to e-Sense, that particular appliance was spotlighted by LEDs for easy recognition. When Jan did the laundry, or when the coffee pot started percolating, for example, those items were illuminated to show they were being used (and monitored by e-Sense).

The e-Sense suite tools also were illuminated for easy recognition. For example, when the spokeswoman explained that the couple's Home Energy Monitor (HEM) was nearby to review precisely how much energy different appliances were using, the HEM (a 6-by-8-inch tablet-like device) was spotlighted and an infographic appeared on the flatscreens, showing the HEM's dashboard. When she referenced how the couple's home was pulling information from its smart meter, the smart meter was illuminated. Also talking through the couple's decision to keep closer tabs on their electricity usage, informational graphics appeared on the flatscreens, displaying e-Sense's Weekly Summary e-mail, which showed how the house was using its energy.

In this way, the presentation moved through the couple's casual weekend at home, calling attention to the appliances that e-Sense monitored: wall switches, smart lights, a thermostat, a security system, a washer/dryer, a coffee maker, an alarm clock, stereo components, web cams, and the electric-vehicle home charger. All of these things, attendees saw, were siphoning specific amounts of energy, and the Reliant couple, thanks to their e-Sense suite, were privy to precisely how much energy each was using. Watching this day play out, seeing these appliances that they, too, had in their homes, attendees could easily imagine how Reliant's product suite could make sense in their own lives.

As the presentation moved toward conclusion, the stage lights projected the deep purples and dusty pinks of a sunset in the windows, and the audience watched as Mark and Jan finished household chores and prepared to go out for an evening football game. In the garage, the couple put their smart home into "away mode" via home automation, thus powering down energy. Sitting in the Nissan LEAF, pretending to drive to a game, the couple realized that they would be two hours late getting back home. To show how Reliant's services could control home automation remotely, Mark simply used his smart phone to delay when the air conditioning, lighting, and appliances would start back up.

After the football game, the couple parked their Nissan LEAF in the garage, plugged it in to their eVgo home charger to juice the battery overnight, alerted their home through the home-automation system that they'd returned, and went to sleep.

"Right now, 175,000 Reliant Energy customers in Texas are enjoying the convenience and personal usage control provided by the Reliant e-Sense suite of products," said the spokeswoman in closing. "If you have any questions, or would like to learn more, Reliant staff will be happy to assist you." The audience, impressed by the service suite they'd seen demonstrated, applauded and rose to seek out Reliant staffers with their questions. Others turned to the seven tablet PC demonstration stations tethered to a hand railing at the base of the stage, each of which was loaded with details about e-Sense and eVgo.

Without a single technical hiccup or actor fumbling to improvise lines, each presentation went off without a hitch. Actors and the spokeswoman took the stage four times every hour over the course of the four-day show, totaling 130 presentations - a string of dramatic demonstrations that attracted more than 700 attendees each day.

Closing Credits

Reliant expected about 1,500 people would view its presentation during CES. Instead, more than 3,000 unique visitors watched the demonstration. Add to that the media mentions, and it's clear the demo was a huge success. "We expected some media coverage, but the fact that we got two TV stories back in our home market and a prominent mention on influential technology site, GigaOM, in addition to several online and print mentions - that exceeded our expectations," Morisseau says. The exhibit and in-booth presentation were so successful, in fact, that after CES, Reliant took its show on the road. Incorporating a voiceover loop instead of a cast of live actors, the "smart home of the now" took Reliant's key messages to the month-long Houston Livestock Show, where it attracted another 500 attendees.

Since the show, Reliant has expanded its business and now offers packages in Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Washington, DC, to more than 350,000 customers - a number that's growing every day. And while that growth isn't solely attributable to the company's exhibit at CES, it's safe to say a lot of attendees saw themselves living in that archetypal Reliant house, lording over their electronics - turning a theatrical presentation into reality. As it turns out, at least for Reliant, life really does imitate art. E

Kelli Billstein, staff writer; kbillstein@exhibitormagazine.com

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