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Exhibitor: Derse Inc.
Creative/Production:Derse Inc., Milwaukee, 414-257-2000, www.derse.com
Budget: $167,500
 Gather 70 new leads.
 Entice three customers and
three prospects to schedule post-show meetings.
 Close $1.7 million in show-related revenue within a year of EXHIBITOR2011.
 Generate 500 visits to the campaign-related microsite.
 Collected 83 new leads.
 Enticed six customers and three prospects to schedule post-show meetings.
 Closed $750,000 in show-related revenue within three months of the show, putting Derse on target to reach its 12-month goal.
 Generated 835 visits to the microsite.
e can all get a bit too comfortable at times. At some point, those ripped old jeans actually become obscene. And despite its ability to soothe the soul, a constant diet of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and apple pie will not only put those comfy jeans out of commission; it'll likely send you to an early grave.

Not surprisingly, we also tend to get a too comfortable in our jobs - exhibit managers included. Particularly in a post-recession climate where yesterday's "good job" isn't good enough anymore, exhibit managers are being held to a higher standard, at least according to Heather Rosenow, vice president of marketing at Derse Inc., a Milwaukee-based face-to-face marketing firm.

"There's a whole new level of accountability in our industry," she says. "Upper-level management figures that if exhibit marketers could keep the ship afloat with a miniscule budget and less staff during the recession, surely they should be able to deliver stellar results now that purse strings have loosened. But when we're uncertain, in business and in life, we often turn to what's comfortable. We go for what we know rather than risking failure - and success - by trying something different. But that 'something different' is exactly what many exhibit managers need to meet management's new demands."

Going into EXHIBITOR2011 in Las Vegas, then, Derse wanted to challenge exhibit managers to do more than just slip on their comfy old slippers, so to speak. Rather than settling for the same-old tactics that'll no doubt generate the same-old results, Derse set out to urge exhibit marketers to step out of their comfort zones - and to enlist the company's creative capabilities to assist them in their new endeavors.

And of course, Derse hoped to walk the walk by offering a never-before-seen creative strategy that also drove traffic to its booth, increased leads, and proved that it, too, could implement a strategy that was a little outside its comfort zone.

Cozying Up to Attendees

To that end, Derse created an award-winning integrated program that judges touted as "an inventive concept with a stellar execution." Dubbed "Step Outside Your Comfort Zone," the campaign began roughly two weeks prior to the show when the company sent attendees a pre-show mailer that hinted at the comfort-challenging experience they'd find in Derse's booth in Sin City. The mailer comprised a roughly 6-by-9-by-1-inch white box with a fold-up lid. When attendees popped it open, they discovered a sticker attached to the box top that read "Step Outside Your Comfort Zone." A swatch of white, faux fur was wrapped around a bi-fold piece of literature, and a grey, paper band encircled the fur. Text on the band read: "Is your comfort zone soft? warm? expected? dangerous? Break the seal and step outside your comfort zone ... if you dare."

After removing the band, attendees examined the curious-looking literature, which featured a roughly 2-by-2-inch metal plate inserted into a slit in its center. Text urged recipients to remove the plate, under which they discovered a quick-response (QR) code. Below the code, text explained how to use it (easing the discomfort for people that had never experienced QR codes) and urged recipients to visit the Derse booth at EXHIBITOR2011 and take their first steps outside of their comfort zone.

When attendees scanned the QR code, they were taken to a microsite (www.dersecomfortzone.com), which introduced them to the campaign and challenged them to step outside their comfort zones in several unique ways. A blog with entries offered encouragement and insight for those stepping out of their comfort zones, and an ongoing newsletter of sorts called "One Exciting Thing Before Breakfast" offered a new idea each day that challenged visitors to try something unexpected in their daily lives, such as eating lunch with a co-worker from another department.

Attendees also discovered a live Twitter stream from @DerseSocial, and an online area where they could submit their own stories and pictures of times when they stepped outside of their comfort zones. Plus, during the show, the microsite offered a photo gallery featuring images of the exhibit, booth-staff training in action, and on-site interactions between staffers and attendees.

Derse's pre-show tactics also included a short e-mail blast that served as a measurement tool. Sent roughly a week before the show, the e-mail instructed recipients to stop by Derse's booth and mention the phrase "guiding light." The e-mail promised those who used the phrase an adventure sure to take them outside their comfort zones.

"The e-mail created intrigue, as people wondered what the 'guiding light' code words might mean," Rosenow says. "However, it also helped us to track the number of people driven to our booth via e-mail, as no other promotions urged people to provide these code words in the booth. Ultimately, we were surprised by the outcome. Forty percent of the people that received the e-mail opened it, and of those people, 13 percent actually used the phrase in the booth."

Get Comfortable

With attendees' curiosity no doubt piqued by the mailer, e-mail, and microsite, they streamed to Derse's booth at EXHIBITOR2011 to see just what this Comfort Zone was all about. Approaching the 20-by-30-foot booth, attendees couldn't help but notice the inventive materials - and the fact that the space was divided in half, with one side (the Comfort Zone) mostly white or cream in color and the other side (the Out of Comfort Zone) featuring dark, more sophisticated grey hues.

In the Comfort Zone, staffers dressed in khaki pants, simple white shirts, and custom-made Converse-brand Chuck Taylor shoes (which staffers later explained were part of a post-show promotion) approached visitors in the aisles and guided them to the cream-colored half of the space. Here, attendees immediately felt soothed by various offerings. For example, overhead truss supported hundreds of white silk strands that dropped low enough to allow visitors to actually walk among them. Plus, shag carpet and faux-fur-covered walls (comprising the same type of fur used in the mailers) offered a plush aesthetic to the space, almost like a pair of warm pajamas.

Next, staffers invited attendees to take a seat in one of two sofa-sized beanbag chairs positioned atop the shag. As the aroma of chocolate-chip cookies wafted through the air (through a scent-release system) and soothing music played via hidden speakers, staffers offered attendees warm chocolate-chip cookies and opened a conversation about what made the visitors comfortable. Talking about everything from personal to professional comfort items, staffers also pointed out a round, orange name tag attached to their shirts that indicated something that made them comfortable. For example, one button read "Jann - A neatly made bed," and another read "Brad - Shorts and flip flops."

As the conversation wore on, booth staff slowly started to point out the ways in which this comfortable environment might not be so good for people over the long haul. They urged attendees to stand up, and in doing so, attendees realized that the comfy chairs were actually hard to get out of. As they stood a while longer, they began to feel a little annoyed by the silk strands that had initially seemed so interesting but after time got in the way of conversations. As staffers urged attendees to consider the fact that what is comfortable may not be what is best for their programs, they also pointed out that too many of those cookies might not be too good for their health either.

Staffers then asked attendees if they'd allow them to be their guiding light to something a little out of their comfort zone. Extracting a small glow stick from their pockets, staffers offered attendees their arm, and one by one led them into a dark, black-curtain-enclosed tunnel on the left side of the booth. Filled with a couple of unexpected turns, through which staffers safely guided attendees, the tunnel led from the Comfort Zone to the Out of Comfort Zone on the other side of the exhibit space.

A Dash of Discomfort

Before each staffer and attendee pair emerged on the opposite side of the booth, the staffer pointed out a small window-like opening near the base of the central wall. Located immediately opposite one of the white beanbag chairs on the Comfort Zone side, the window revealed that the beanbag contained a jumble of barbed wire. While attendees weren't in danger while sitting on the chairs, the wire clearly made Derse's point - that what appears comfy and safe may actually contain hidden dangers.

Next, the attendee took in the sleek and modern colors and materials in the Out of Comfort Zone. While Derse-branded gray and black walls surrounded three sides of the space, sheer black curtains acted as aisle-side walls.

Before proceeding into the Out of Comfort Zone, the staffer handed off the attendee to a staffer dressed in a far more edgy and sophisticated manner. Male staff wore tailored shirts under black cardigans or vests with loosely knotted black ties. Women wore black leggings with black vests and white blouses. Oblong, green name tags indicated what made each staffer uncomfortable. For example, one read "Heather - Exiting a plane at 13,500 ft. ... recreationally."

The guide then invited the attendee to take a seat on what appeared to be an uncomfortable option: a large bench with 7,134 screws comprising its "cushion." After the staffer sat down to prove the screws weren't harmful, the attendee gave it a try and discovered that the screws were close enough together to create a surprisingly comfy seat.

To help attendees take another step outside their comfort zones, staffers offered them a wild hibiscus flower to eat, which resembled a purple, gooey-looking squid. Attendees tentatively sampled the flowers only to discover that they tasted like raspberries. As attendees munched, staffers pointed out that while the flowers were probably a new experience for attendees, they were a lot healthier than the comfort-food cookies they'd enjoyed earlier.
Finally, after demonstrating that being comfortable isn't always beneficial in the end, Derse explained how some new and seemingly uncomfortable exhibiting solutions could actually make attendees' programs more successful - and meet the new accountability standards in the industry. "Once attendees had experienced our exhibit, we pulled out our iPads and started showing them how we could guide them through the sometimes scary experience of new exhibiting strategies. What's more, we didn't just tell them we could help. We showed them how we'd helped companies just like them through unchartered territory," Rosenow says.

Off-Floor Zones

Both as a disengagement tactic and as an ancillary activity to extend the program outside of the booth, Derse offered attendees a free ticket to Insanity, a scream-inducing outdoor ride atop the Stratosphere Tower. After scanning attendees' badges, staffers encouraged them to continue the experience by taking a spin on the Insanity ride.

By using the coupon provided by Derse, guests received one free ride. Plus, participants who came back to the booth with evidence of their ride, such as a cell-phone photo, also received a free tin of Instant Underpants, just in case the ride was too frightening.

Those attendees that used the "guiding light" phrase upon entering the booth - as instructed via the pre-show e-mail - immediately received one of the ride coupons.

In addition to the ride, Derse extended the theme to an after-hours hospitality event at the Palms Hotel and Resort. Here, the company served clients and prospects drinks and hors d'oeuvres and challenged them to complete three activities - involving food, drink, and dance - that were likely outside their comfort zones.

For the food-based activity, staff suggested that attendees try a buzz-button flower, which makes the tongue tingle for a short time. The drink activity challenged guests to experience "flavor-tripping" by dissolving a dulci berry, which actually binds to the taste buds and makes sour foods taste sweet, on their tongue. Next they sipped a sour drink to experience the taste-bending power of the dulci berry. Guests could also sample hibiscus-infused shots served via a shot ski, a wooden snow ski with four shot glasses attached. To take their shot, guests had to use teamwork to accomplish the memorable task. Finally, in the dance-based challenge, guests had to learn to belly dance via an instructor.

For each person that completed the three tasks, Derse made a donation of 100 meals to Aidmatrix Foundation Inc., a Dallas-based nonprofit that provides the supply-chain-management technology to match donors with humanitarian organizations. Following the show, attendees also could submit examples of how they stepped outside of their comfort zones via the campaign's microsite. For every submission, Derse also donated 100 meals to Aidmatrix. All told, Derse made the equivalent of $10,000 in donations on behalf of its clients and prospects.

Untroubled Results

After the show, Derse continued the campaign with a clever mailer comprising a 4-by-6.5-by-3.5-inch white box. A QR code on the side of the box linked to the microsite, and a sticker atop the box once again urged recipients to "Step Outside Your Comfort Zone." However, in this instance, the mailer played off the word "step."

Inside, attendees found a white card bearing the outlined image of a pair of Converse-brand Chuck Taylor shoes, the same brand worn by Comfort Zone staffers. Along with the image, one side of the card read "When stepping outside your Comfort Zone, it helps to be wearing the right shoes." The back of the card read: "Everyone's Comfort Zone is different, and we want to give you exactly the right shoes for the journey outside your Comfort Zone. Let's spend an afternoon together, discussing your unique needs and how Derse can help you achieve your strategic goals. Once we've had a chance to walk a mile in your shoes, we'd like to give you a gift card to converse.com to customize your own kicks, perfect for taking the first steps outside your Comfort Zone with us." Text also urged recipients to e-mail Rosenow to arrange a meeting.

"People contacted us much faster after the show than in previous years," Rosenow says. "And both new prospects and existing customers - many of whom discovered new ways we could help them attain their marketing goals - set meetings after the show ended. We attribute much of this post-show success to the inventiveness of the concept and the quality of the campaign."

Sizzle Awards judges concurred with Rosenow regarding the campaign's quality. "Every element of this program was spot-on in terms of relaying Derse's message," one judge said. "The company started with a creative concept and then every component was extremely well executed. It was high quality through and through."

Derse's integrated campaigned garnered some serious results as well. Not only did the program exceed the company's original lead goals by 19 percent, as Derse scored 83 new qualified leads, but within three months after the show, the company has closed new business valued at more than $750,000.

Plus, Derse hoped that the strategy would tempt both prospects and customers to set post-show meetings in which they could learn more about Derse's offerings - and ultimately enlist its services. Following the show, six customers requested meetings with Derse, doubling its goal. In addition, three prospects also requested meetings, hitting the company's target dead on. And finally, in addition to staffers taking home the show's Best Booth Staff Award, Derse's microsite recorded 835 visits during a 30-day period leading up to and following EXHIBITOR2011.

As Derse so aptly demonstrated, sometimes, you really can get too comfortable. In fact, in this case, a little discomfort went a long way.E

Linda Armstrong, senior writer; larmstrong@exhibitormagazine.com

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