|Diana Hunter is the creative services manager with WestRock Co.'s corrugated container
division, reporting to the division's vice president of marketing. Hunter worked in various creative positions before joining WestRock in January 2012, where she quickly became enamored with the world of trade show marketing. After attending her first EXHIBITORFastTrak in June 2015, she decided to pursue professional certification and is currently working toward her Certified Trade Show Marketer (CTSM) designation.
In 2015, when two companies, RockTenn Co. and MeadWestvaco Corp. (MWV) formed WestRock Co., the second-largest packaging company in the world, their union left Diana Hunter in an uncertain and perhaps even unstable limbo. RockTenn's creative services manager for its corrugated container division and the supervisor of its trade show program for four years at that point, Hunter was anxious about the difference in cultures that might occur between her old organization and the new one when it came to the expanded company's exhibiting program.
"I was uneasy about possibly losing trade show responsibilities for the division I worked in, due to the newly acquired and expanded corporate communications department coming in from the MWV side," Hunter says. "MWV was much more centralized from an organizational standpoint – by no means a bad thing, just different from us – with a corporate trade show/events manager already on staff. RockTenn, on the other hand, was a decentralized organization before the merger, with a small corporate communications department and an internal marketing department housed within each division."
Hunter's dilemma was substantial, yet it was anything but rare. In fact, the year RockTenn and MWV combined, a record-setting number of mergers and acquisitions took place. According to data from Thomson Reuters Corp., Dealogic Ltd., and the Institute for Mergers, Acquisitions, and Alliances, there were approximately 44,000 such corporate consolidations in 2015, valued at a breathtaking $4.7 trillion. Even more startling than the number of mergers, though, is the number of them that, in some way, fail. A KPMG LLP study found that a shocking 83 percent are judged unsuccessful in some form – e.g., revenues, market shares, or shareholder values don't rise significantly after the amalgamation. "A staggering percentage of mergers fail," says Jennifer Vergilii, a partner in the mergers and acquisition department of the Cleveland law firm Calfee, Halter and Griswold LLP, "and the main reason is that you often can't get the two cultures to mesh."
One All-Star Awards judge, who appreciated from personal experience the situation Hunter had been thrust into, noted the "merger melee trickle down" phenomenon. It's a disrupting circumstance where "companies go through mergers in a vacuum and pitch the mess over to their exhibit department to figure out with minimal or no direction," the judge said. In just a short time, Hunter could have found herself in the middle of such a clash of corporate cultures when it came to one of the company's pivotal shows, the Craft Brewers Conference and BrewExpo America (CBC). "I knew it was going to be a bit of a challenge, but I was up for it," Hunter says.
With the two companies formally merging, Hunter would have to navigate an uncertain path. Drawing upon the logistical and organizational skills she had demonstrated in her career with RockTenn, the one-time graphic designer reached across the aisle, fully prepared to collaborate with her new colleagues.
Shortly after the merger, WestRock management formed a special craft beer team within the company's beverage division to tackle packaging opportunities for the increasingly lucrative craft beer market. The concentrated focus hardly came as a shock: The Brewers Association estimated in 2015 that craft breweries held a 10-percent share of the American beer market, which it predicted would rise to 20 percent by 2020. With the formation of this team, manned by former RockTenn and MWV personnel from several departments (including one MWV figure senior to Hunter), the possibility arose of CBC slipping out of her purview and into the corporate trade show/events manager's jurisdiction. While CBC, scheduled for May 2016, was one of seven shows the company would appear at overall, the expo represented the flagship event for breaking into the coveted craft beer market.
The addition of an enclosed semiprivate meeting space to WestRock Co.'s enlarged booth at the Craft Brewers Conference and BrewExpo America show gave the sales reps and other divisions a relaxing nook in which to converse with attendees.
In one corner stood the craft beer contingent, which had not exhibited at the show previously. In the opposite corner stood Hunter and WestRock's corrugated division, which had appeared at CBC twice with RTS Packaging, a specialty packaging division within the organization that has a large presence in the craft beer market. Hunter believed she had accrued considerable know-how when it came to attracting attendees at CBC and maximizing the company's return on investment. Prior to the merger, in fact, Hunter already laid much of the groundwork for the annual event: She renewed the company's obligatory membership in the Brewer's Association (which produces the CBC), paid the deposit for booth space, and established an advertising schedule.
Anticipating that the merged company might need more space at the show, she had also increased the footprint by a factor of almost five, expanding from a 10-by-20-foot in-line
exhibit to a 30-by-30-foot island booth. But now, with Hunter's plans caught in merger limbo, what remained to be seen was whether or not she would be overseeing plans for the new company's enlarged booth space.
Retreat, Regroup, Rebound
Despite some differences in approach between Hunter and the craft beer contingent, both sides seemed committed to making WestRock's exhibit at CBC a success. But that proverbial common ground was initially ceded to the craft beer bloc. Hunter's change in fortune came when a budget and a booth concept didn't materialize as quickly as management wanted. At that point, Hunter was charged with picking up the ball and sprinting. The sort of person who by nature always has a Plan B, Hunter had two booth concepts ready. "If we couldn't deliver," Hunter says, "we knew we'd be up you-know-what creek without a paddle. Thankfully, I had an extra paddle ready just in case."
Even though she was managing two other smaller shows at the time, Hunter didn't press the panic button. While she used to only consult with a single stakeholder from her division for a given show, Hunter was now required to consult with stakeholders from five divisions participating in CBC. But that additional effort proved more of a wise investment rather than a waste of time. From those various divisions, Hunter formed a coalition of ideas she would try to manifest in the booth.
Aiming for a 50-percent increase in leads at the Craft Brewers Conference and BrewExpo America show, WestRock Co. pulled in a 180-percent surge, more than three times its initial goal for 2016.
For instance, she collaborated with her exhibit house, CDI USA Inc., to create a booth design reminiscent of a craft brewery, with galvanized metal wall panels and flooring simulating the concrete found in most breweries. That delighted the craft beer group and its members' respective divisions. Instead of fabric materials, hard panels were used to convey strong and reliable packaging, and stained-wood shipping pallets became shelf-like displays that would be loaded with baskets, carriers, keg caps, merchandising displays, labels, partitions, trays, shippers, shrink sleeves, and wraps, symbolically representing all of the company's divisions. Furthermore, instead of forking over the estimated $3,000 in shipping and drayage to have a new 4,000-pound piece of equipment on site, Hunter substituted a video that included info on a variety of packaging mechanisms.
What's more, Hunter's prescience in expanding the booth size from 200 square feet to 900 square feet offered a large and blank canvas that allowed all the stakeholders to represent their respective segments in the exhibit. For example, a semiprivate meeting space designed to lend the impression of a tasting room gave several divisions a relaxing nook in which to converse with visitors.
Because politics is often synonymous with compromise, Hunter conceded on one front that she ordinarily might not have. Having always taken a more corporate approach to the dress code for booth staff, with oxford shirts and Dockers-style pants, she realized that CBC's audience was nontraditional, and instead elected for jeans and short-sleeve work shirts branded with the company logo and embroidered with each booth worker's name. Staffers donned a different color shirt each day of the three-day event.
As for messaging, Hunter decided to continue the "Protect, Promote, Deliver" slogan of the previous two years' shows as a means of building a bridge between RockTenn and WestRock now that the name of the company had changed. The theme also played upon both companies' key differentiators of offering packaging, high-end graphics, automation, and recycling solutions.
Additionally, Hunter's continuation of the previous year's sponsorship of the show's Brew Talks, a series of networking events on business strategies for craft-beer makers (with celebrity draws like Sam Calagione, founder of the renowned Dogfish Head Craft Brewery Inc.) provided sales staff another welcome avenue to schmooze.
Hunter then prepared for the show by reaching out to a targeted list of customers and prospects with two rounds of email blasts, one at the end of March and the second in mid-April. The first wave of pre-show missives went to approximately 95 recipients, and the second went to 210. Both emails' content focused on WestRock's expertise in beverage packaging that would "Protect, Promote, Deliver" customers' intoxicating amber elixirs of hops and grains.
WestRock's goals for the show ranged from aspiring to aggressive: increase leads from the last CBC by 50 percent and earn an ROI of five times the company's exhibit-marketing investment in the event. So with the booth design settled, the various factions' needs addressed, and the promotional effort expended, all Hunter could do was wait and see if her efforts to create a seamless, unified front would come to fruition.
A mosaic of more than 5,000 beer-bottle caps set against an interior wall of WestRock Co.'s exhibit displayed the slogan "Quality Packaging Matters."
When CBC opened in May, any chaos or discord that occurred before the show was, for all practical purposes, invisible. Visitors' first impression upon entering the booth's open floor plan was that of a rustic, even retro, vibe perfectly fitting a show where attendees sporting ball caps and hoodies were more the rule than the exception. Helping that impression along was the industrial-grunge look of the galvanized metal walls and the reception desk, whose front and sides comprised thick slabs of stained wood. A trio of stained-wood shipping-pallet shelves (one did double duty as a back wall) ranging from 8 to 16 feet tall enriched the nearly rural-hip look, while an LCD monitor on the aisle-facing side of the tallest shelf unit continually ran videos highlighting, among other aspects, the company's wide range of automated packaging solutions.
Messaging on large graphics covering much of the booth's exterior also pushed the company's automation and other key differentiators. Brightly illuminated 1-foot-high letters, perched on both sides of the back wall/shelf, spelled out the message "Protect, Promote, Deliver." (Purchased by the exhibit house from Amazon.com Inc., the letters were lit by an outline of battery-operated bulbs.) Meanwhile, a mosaic of more than 5,000 beer-bottle caps set against an interior wall displayed the slogan "Quality Packaging Matters."
After hosts greeted guests, they handed them off to the personnel from various company divisions who seemed best suited to addressing their interests. Visitors with a keener interest in WestRock's offerings could move into the semiprivate meeting space and sit at a table made of patterned reclaimed wood to discuss their needs in further detail.
By the time CBC wound down, there were few at WestRock who might have even remembered any tension leading up to the show. "I love the story of this merger and the collaboration and ownership issues that came from it," one All-Star Awards judge said. "It wasn't easy, but Hunter got great results under challenging conditions." Another judge concurred, adding, "Hunter's take-charge-softly approach made this look less like a company dealing with growing pains and more like a well-oiled machine."
The mechanical metaphor could be applied to the company's results, too. Aiming for a 50-percent increase in leads, the company pulled in a 180-percent surge, more than three times its goal. Because the long sales cycle can extend six months or more, the goal of a five-times-cost ROI on the event is a work in progress, though Hunter is confident the company will reach and maybe surpass it. And why not? Hunter's skill at office diplomacy and corporate detente nearly single-handedly proved what fictional Vice President Selina Meyer said in an early episode of "Veep," that, in the end, "Politics is about people." E