Conferences and trade shows.
February 16, 2005 9:03 AM   Subscribe

Conferences and trade shows. What makes a booth at a trade show particularly compelling? Do schwag, trinkets, gewgaws, etc. do anything for you? What have been some of the more creative / innovative approaches you've seen to conference booths? [more inside]

My coworkers and I will be at a big publishing conference this summer (BEA, NYC, June), and the attendees will be a completely different market than what we're used to. Rather than simply giving a spiel, I'd like to do something creative that maybe makes the conference more appealing to the attendees.

So, regardless of the type of conference, have you seen people do things that were memorable and that you thought were nice touches? Or is handing out doodads de rigeur (yikes)?
posted by Alt F4 to Work & Money (24 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Last year, our marketing VP went out and bought an inflatable remote-controlled airship (actually, I think it was that exact model). He set it up at the trade show, hung from it a sign that said "Come visit [company name] at Booth #36", and let it soar over the competitors' real estate.

Of course, the trade show director found him about ten minutes later and frantically told him that he couldn't do that (which was fully expected, really), but the stunt certainly drew a lot of attention to our booth.
posted by DrJohnEvans at 9:14 AM on February 16, 2005

Exciting interactive consoles displaying video on huge monitors and an excellent sound system (with a simpleton's interface) generally attracts a huge crowd.

As for geegaws, those that have some utility seem to work best. The best I ever got was a stainless steel screwdriver with a 1/4" blade that went on a keychain. I've had it for over 15 years.

Finally, beautiful women with big boobs in formal gowns (and one or two men in tuxes, if warranted).
posted by mischief at 9:29 AM on February 16, 2005

I attend a lot of museum conferences where the exhibitors range from publishers to art insurers to shipping companies to exhibit designers. I love the trade show exhibits and find them really helpful. I am also a shameless glommer of free schwag. Here are some things I've enjoyed as take-aways (keep in mind that publishing trade shows are not likely to be as 'wow' as techie trade shows. Loud, annoying video or sound will probably not go over well, I'm guessing.):

--Postcards with great images on them
--Museum supplies, like white gloves and small archival boxes
--Mouse pads
--Sticky notes
--mini-tools (nail clippers, screwdrivers)
--small flashlights
--nice-ish bags for storing all the other schwag
--business card holders
--pens and pencils (you always need one at a conference anyway

Booths I don't think are successful are
--ones with chocolate or other candy
--ones that have something eye-catching or large, but it's clearly just a gimmick for a salesman to buttonhole you

More than free stuff, booths that have something interactive for people to do are ideal. That way, your marks spend more time at your booth, and you can engage them in conversation while they do the activity, finding out who they are, where they're from, and whether they can use your product. Some examples:

--Have a couple of laptops either hooked up to your company's web site or running an interactive presentation for people to fool around with.
--Let them check e-mail.
--Have a trivia game printed on a card with prize for correct answers
--Have puzzles or games available to try
--Have riddles or questions with concealed answers for them to lift up and compare to their guesses
--Have a business-card drawing for a free lunch at a nearby restaurant
--Supply the materials for a really simple craft, like fun foam cut into flower or abstract shapes, crazy glue, and pin backs. Believe it or not, adults will do this if you invite them.

A lot of conferences also have a contest that gets people around to every booth -- basically, a card that shows all 50 exhibitors, and each person has to go to 20 of them, and have the list initialed by each booth host they visit, and when the card is complete, you can enter it in a drawing to win something.

Basically, a great booth is one that a) attracts a guest, either with multi-media, a great exhibit, a contest, or good free stuff, and b) creates an opportunity for the guest to stay a few minutes, during which you can make your pitch.

In all cases, the soft sell goes over better. People are at conferences and trade shows getting hit with a barrage of info all day. They want to hear what you have to offer, but they don't want to be cornered or pressured. Just let them know you're excited about your product, and be friendly whether or not someone is going to buy your stuff. It's a chance to convey the mood and spirit of your company.
posted by Miko at 9:35 AM on February 16, 2005

From what I recall from my time at BEA (I believe it was two or three? summers ago, when it was in LA), people love nice bags, because they're getting more free stuff than they can carry. And then, once they start carrying a bag that has YOUR COMPANY NAME on it, people will want to come to your booth, to get one of your bags. After that, it's like compound interest- the more bags people see, the more people will come to your booth to get one.

Man, I loved BEA. I don't suppose there's a way to go unaffiliated? (doubt it!)
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 9:39 AM on February 16, 2005 [1 favorite]

Um, I went to a porn convention. Some of the booths were giving away free porn. That seemed like a smart move.
I'm actually not trying to be cutesy. I actually heard a couple attendees say, at one of the porn-giving-away booths, "Damn. This is a great way to get me to remember your company."
In short: free samples, if you can. Let your product speak for itself - this is why people are attending these conferences. Most of the lesser schwag will just wind up in the garbage, anyway.
posted by Dr. Wu at 9:46 AM on February 16, 2005

I like free squishies myself. My favorite one was a red squishy replica of a human heart with "Dictionary of Medical Information" printed on it, from the Medical Library Association conference. I've been seeking a brain to match but I haven't been able to get a good gray one. The best one I ever saw was a squishy Guinness glass (brown with a white band on top), but it belonged to someone else so I couldn't take it.
posted by matildaben at 9:57 AM on February 16, 2005

So, regardless of the type of conference...

I'm curious, Alt, why did you generalize this question? I knew my answers may not fly at a publishers' conference. What are typical attendees for your business?
posted by mischief at 10:00 AM on February 16, 2005

Serve espresso. And boobs.
posted by ParisParamus at 10:01 AM on February 16, 2005

That really depends on who your target audience really is. If you want to win over the people who are actually interested in buying your stuff, you should focus on having the people who know the most about your product in the booth. Nothing is more frustrating to me at a trade show than being given a high-level marketing overview by someone who knows less about the product than I already do.

Have someone there who can answer all of my questions and with whom I can follow up later.
posted by Caviar at 10:03 AM on February 16, 2005

A plasticized inflatable pig lung did it for me at a health educators conference I went to last year. You got to make the lung breath by working a bellows or something. They even let you touch it. Yuck-tastic!
posted by prettyboyfloyd at 10:10 AM on February 16, 2005

Miko provides quite a bit of advice, but I think the fundamental question is: what is the purpose of going to this tradeshow?

Are all the attendees potential customers? Are only 5% of the attendees potential customers? Are you trying to build brand awareness in a new market segment? Do you have a clear call to action that you would want people to do after visiting your booth?

These are important questions because you should go into a show like this with a clear sense of what will happen to call it a success (leads generated? meetings held? press obtained? etc). Otherwise trade shows can be an easy way to blow a lot of cash and pretend that it made a difference.

For example, I've had success at shows where we didn't give away much of anything quite intentionally as we didn't want to draw a crowd but instead wanted to be available for conversations with a smaller subset of people who aren't motivated by crap from China. At another show we might give away something useful or playful to the mases because the goal was to build awareness rather than use the booth as a place to do business. I'd encourage you to think through these sort of things--it'll make planning easier and make you feel better about the money you spent when you're standing in the convention center with sore feet. ;-)

Memorable things? Well I must say that I've seen enough robots, giant video screens, and booth babe boobs that none of that is memorable. One thing springs to mind: At CES in 2004 Kodak was promoting digital imaging stuff and they had this painter who would paint large portraits of famous people using brightly colored paint and (I think) his hands. He would paint every 90 min or so and the whole performance was displayed on large screens. It was different, quirky, not annoyingly loud like many tradeshow "shows" and always gathered a big crowd. having an artist do their thing might fit well at a publishing conference --maybe have him/her riff on popular book titles and create original "book covers" or something (I'm just guessing here 'cause I don't know the audience.)
posted by donovan at 10:34 AM on February 16, 2005

I'm a branding gal, so pardon the brand soap box, but the reason that tchotkes are trash is because they have nothing to do with the brand and nothing to do with the target. You forget it if it has no good reason to be.

I love shwag. Good, clever shwag. Why? Because it's a treat. And if it's good, I keep it forever and have a weird bond with the brand. It's certainly more of a brand bond than a sales tool, though.

But everything should come from the brand in some way, even if it's a pun. Otherwise you're not reinforcing anything. You're just getting your logo in front of someone for no good reason.

At things like tech trade shows, they give away shwag because they're building a mailing list -- a good list for direct mail can be your best marketing tool. Swipe a card, get a keychain and oops, you're also giving your addy.

If you want people to actually learn about your company and offerings, something that's interactive that keeps them in the booth for a little bit while the spiel is going on is very effective. (I don't know the serious to goofy factor of the crowd at the conference.)

(Yeah. I'm such a marketing knob.)
posted by Gucky at 11:05 AM on February 16, 2005 [1 favorite]

HOT GUYS always keep me coming back!
posted by svenskjenta at 11:35 AM on February 16, 2005

Food is what my wife uses. People will line up to eat free finger foods, and then you make your pitch. Sure, you will get a lot of people who just come for the food, but at least you get your pitch chance.

Cheese and crackers, chips and salsa, cheese straws, chocolates, whatever. People won't ever turn down free food.
posted by dios at 11:46 AM on February 16, 2005

Sure, booth babes are great, but it's just a terrible, unconvincing veneer. (I giggle at the time I was asked by one if I was running Exchange 2003 in an multi-site Active Directory environment, it was if she just learned the words on the plane) You're not going to generate anything more than a puddle of drool on the floor from the guy in the Quake 2 t-shirt.

Good, memorable presentations - complete with a few whizbang visuals, giveaways (t-shirts are a definite must), and crowd participation are going to be what gets the people interested in your company and sticking around long enough to talk to the folks behind the product. Don't settle for a hokey local magician, consult an imaginative ad agency, and go to town. Be slightly edgy, but don't go overboard.

Oh yeah, let's not forget that the free booze coupons keep me coming back around.
posted by kuperman at 12:29 PM on February 16, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks, all, for the thoughts. Our normal market is direct-to-consumer (parents buying books), and we're getting into the larger marketing world (Publisher's Weekly and, well, BEA and the like).

mischief (re: why generalize?) — I wanted input from all sectors, not just publishing, in case something from, say, a medical or architectural trade show would be applicable. Ideas can sometimes jump laterally. Also, so future MeFi-ers might find value in the question.

TPS — great insight. That's spot on.

Miko — Wow. Thanks for the time spent working on those thoughts. Your (& TPS's) "nice-ish bags" idea is great.

Donovan — I'll be thinking about those questions (success criteria). We weren't expecting to have a booth at the conference ... our distributor surprised us with it, because (as best I can figure) our books' sales have been good. When we kick through our current deadlines, we'll be sitting down to evaluate our goals for this. Part of the confusion comes from our lack of exposure to the publishing world (both a blessing and a curse). Our normal customers are moms, dads, and libraries and schools. One of our main goals will simply be learning what the territory is like, so that next year we can be better prepared for it.

and Guckyintelligent brand extensions. Got it. Our budget will be low enough that anything we do will be very intentional, but your reminder's a good one. Thank you.

If anyone else has stories / ideas / etc., I'd still love to hear your thoughts.
posted by Alt F4 at 12:46 PM on February 16, 2005

Donovan's points taken, I still think the idea that you're only targeting the five people who are actually interested in buying your product is not the way to approach a trade show. Trade shows are almost never about a direct sales opportunity. They are held to promote a company's name and create interest.

The reason? I work for major museums with 150+ employees. I might approach a booth just for the schwag or the contest, even though I'm not remotely interested in, say, art packaging and shipping. (I'm in charge of historic interpretation and education). While I'm there, though, the salesperson will politely grill me about whether our museum does changing exhibits; whether we have an active loan program; and how to get in touch with our chief curator. In addition, they may tell me what similar institutions they've worked with and give me catalogs and information that I can take with me. They'll probably get my business card. They've made some sort of impression.

Has it been successful? Well, I haven't walked up and said "I need an art shipping company right now!" But - they've just learned a lot more about my institution's present activities. They know whether we are likely to need a service like theirs. They've harvested the name of a productive contact. And they've made themselves known to me. Often, the reps will follow up with a phone call or e-mail, which I don't mind. When I get back from conferences, I sort out the catalogs and brochures and I forward them to the relevant departments. If someone really wowed me, I might go to the director of another department and say "I think you should consider using VanDeLay Art Shipping -- they were very polished, understood what we're doing, and have already worked with 3 of our peer institutions." And if we're in meetings discussing the feasibility of a loan program, I might say, "Well, I met Sally from VanDeLay Art Shipping, and she made a strong case that an institution of our caliber would be an attractive loan prospect."

And so on. By narrowing focus to exclude me (the only person from my institution at the conference), an exhibitor has missed 150 other people who work with me, as well.
posted by Miko at 12:53 PM on February 16, 2005

My husband has been going to BEA for a few years and always comes back with tons of books -- often in big, strong, canvas-ish bags with a company's logo on it. So I'll second those.
posted by lisa g at 1:18 PM on February 16, 2005

I like unusual and appropriate schwag, like a two-foot-long shoehorn for a Parkinson's disease drug. PD patients need such a thing because sometimes when they stoop over to put their shoes on they 'freeze' in place, which really sort of sucks. My colorful neurologist friend, in fact, now takes his plastic Mirapex shoehorn with him through airport security so he can put his shoes back on with a minimum of effort.

I like schwag that is cheerfully presented to me by attractive young ladies with no resistance or sales-spieling, but rather a willingness to have an open-ended chat about whatever they're hawking. I understand why a booth exists at a trade show and there's certain information I need about the things I'm going there to learn about, and I really, really appreciate respect on the part of the booth staffers in terms of letting me acquire that information at my own rate. I'd gladly swap the 'attractive young lady' part for a hairy, balding old dude who understood this.
posted by ikkyu2 at 1:41 PM on February 16, 2005

Alt: gotcha. Btw (following up lisa g), I used a canvas bookbag I got at a conference as my son's diaper bag. The handles were just floppy enough to go over a shoulder but not so long to make hand-carrying a pain. Good luck!
posted by mischief at 2:01 PM on February 16, 2005

I don't need more junk, or stupid games.


This is a general comment to all the marketing people out there. Honest to goodness coupons with real savings and practical expiry dates are, for me, the most effective marketing tool out there.

Alas, they appear to be a lost art. Management are so afraid of a potential short term loss on a few items that they sacrifice the immence market building potential of a humble peice of paper with "15% off" written on it.

Now, I'm not sure how you can use coupons to attract people at a trade show. Word tends to travel fairly fast, hopefully that would be enough. Maybe you could advertise ahead of the show whatever offer(s) you choose to make.

Getting back specifically to trade shows. Whatever you do, don't use noise. Trade shows are already opressively noisy. Anything you do to attract people should be visual, or at least silent.

Oh, and avoid the cliche that is the Booth Babe.
posted by krisjohn at 5:03 PM on February 16, 2005

Ditto on not using noise, but don't dismiss the value of a cheap bizarre gimmick. When I worked at Alien Skin back in the mid-late 90s, the folks who were going to MacWorld or Seybold would meet a day or so before the show and dye our hair all sorts of colors. Then we'd throw little plastic aliens at folks passing by and otherwise just have a good time, laughing and chatting and not taking ourselves too seriously.

It worked; it was amazing how much free publicity just being a little weird got us. And keep in mind that trade show press folks are dying for something fun to write about.

On a side note, does anyone really still do good business at trade shows? I'd have thought the Web would surely have eliminated most of the value of those things by now.
posted by mediareport at 7:16 PM on February 16, 2005

Why not give out free copies of your books? Or would that be too obvious?
posted by delmoi at 7:07 AM on February 17, 2005

Response by poster: We'll probably be giving away some galleys and other free copies, but I'm interested in other, less-traditional ideas. Thanks, all, for the input.
posted by Alt F4 at 10:26 AM on February 19, 2005

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