Water technology company Xylem Inc. kicked off a branding initiative when it was spun off from ITT Corp. last October, working overtime to get customers to associate its new name with its lineup of heavyweight products. But when the company set up its booth at the Air-Conditioning, Heating, Refrigerating Exposition in Chicago last January, only one water pump made it to the show floor.
“We focus our dollars to do the most we can,” said Jerry Abbott, manager-sales communications and programs for the residential and commercial water division of Xylem. “Bringing a pump and setting it on a box is no longer sufficient. We are bringing less steel, less wood, and we're bringing more iPads, more monitors for technology so that we can present our entire portfolio. We've found in previous methods, the shipping companies were making more money than anyone else.”
The high-tech makeover is a common theme in a trade show industry that appears to be regaining momentum. Marketers are taking a hard look at how they are investing in the face-to-face medium. “We need to leverage various platforms and plans to maximize reach,” said Tim Ward, director of accounts and digital media at H+A International, a marketing services provider that works with Xylem. “We need to think strategically.”
Industry stakeholders are watching companies like Xylem closely. The Center for Exhibition Industry Research in June projected the events market will continue to grow this year, after the 14 industry sectors surveyed for its benchmark first-quarter CEIR Index posted year-over-year gains across all four key metrics. Growth of professional attendance, the number of exhibitors, net square footage and real revenues speaks to the health of the industry, said Doug Ducate, president-CEO of CEIR. “The trend lines are positive, but we saw a substantial amount of space reduction [during the economic downturn]. Now the question is, have exhibitors gotten comfortable? Are they able to meet their objectives?”
Xylem has not changed the size of its overall footprint, Abbott said, but it has reapportioned its spending, bringing less equipment to events and replacing print collateral with digital files and QR codes, for example. “A lot of our budget changeover was from taking products to the show to taking technology to the show,” he said. The company has developed a virtual booth, invested in touch-screen technology, created a social media channel and purchased video equipment that allows it to capture content on the trade show floor. Digital event assets find multiple homes: “Most of what we use at the show we can multipurpose, either on the website, or for dealer presentations or for our reps and distributors to use as selling tools.”
Exhibitors investing in touch-screen technology are putting their money into a market-tested medium that gains the attention of attendees on the show floor and can also be translated to an individual sales pitch, said Jon Hickey, executive director at agency George P. Johnson Experience Marketing. He works with MeadWestvaco Corp., a packaging company developing its own library of digital assets that can be delivered via eye-catching large screen kiosks or tablet devices. (See case study, Page 21.)
“We do some technology as buzz and eye candy, but that's not the core use,” Hickey said. “We focus on using technology to tell a story. [Marketers] want to invest in a content-delivery system. Buzz dries up. That's a losing proposition.”
The addition of technologies that allow customers to interact with a product virtually does not necessarily translate into smaller booths, marketers said. But it does throw a return to the larger booth sizes of 2009—a year in which overall events industry performance took a big hit—into question.
Production mail solutions provider Kern Inc., for example, grew its footprint at Graph Expo, a major trade show in its market, though not to the size that it had staked out in 2009, said Dave Squires, senior VP-strategy at Kern. The growth came even as the company invested in video advertisements and introduced large-screen kiosks that provide virtual demonstrations and presentations to support new-product launches. The company still transported its equipment to the show floor despite the substantial cost associated with its presence. “We wanted a real pop of awareness,” Squires said, adding that one sale can be enough to legitimize the expense of an entire show.
Newcomers are also providing a bright spot for organizers looking to sell more booth space. Marketers that are growing new product lines continue to vie for prime real estate, said Melissa Moore, housewares marketing manager at Smith's, which launched its Edgeware-branded kitchen tools three years ago and is investing in building out a footprint and developing a year-round marketing strategy to drive traffic to its booths. “It's critical to be at the main trade shows, especially when you're trying to build a brand,” Moore said. “The recession was a good time for us growing and introducing Edgeware.”
The company's booths have expanded incrementally each year and now house three demonstration areas, each providing live, in-person demonstrations. Smith's blends technology and traditional marketing mediums, building its social media presence, providing QR codes on its packaging and also printing catalogs and collateral, as well as developing novel giveaways. The company sent buyers a knob, for example, and mailed them the rest of the mystery product—an adjustable knife sharpener—once they met face to face. “To get them to come to the booth, that's a relationship we've been building all year long,” Moore said.