For more than 80 years, Sunstar Americas Inc. has enjoyed a legacy of innovation as rich as its oral-care products' multimillion-dollar annual sales. For example, the Schaumburg, IL-based company's Butler brand pioneered breakthroughs in oral care such as two-row toothbrushes, sanitized nylon bristles, and even plastic handles in a variety of coral-bright colors so that each member of the family could identify his or her own toothbrush. But for all its dazzle when it came to creating products, Sunstar was sometimes dazed when it came to exhibiting them at any of its four largest shows, including the California Dental Association Spring Meeting and the American Dental Association Annual Meeting.
The old booths the company used at its premier expos, dating back to at least 2004, were producing acceptable, albeit lackluster, returns. Furthermore, there was "brand confusion and inconsistent messaging," says Laurene Calabrese, Sunstar's convention and event manager. For example, logos for Sunstar's Butler, Gum, and Guidor brands plastered the exhibit's walls, threatening to drown out the parent company's identity. And drawers filled with product samples contributed to a grab-and-go attendee experience that did little to aid face-to-face engagement.
In an attempt to improve its exhibit's returns, Sunstar implemented a number of different solutions that, paradoxically, exacerbated the issues at hand. For example, instead of cutting back on product samples or trying to gauge which items received the most interest and which were overlooked, management more than doubled its budget for samples at trade shows, from $61,000 to $125,000. The result of the nearly 105-percent increase in freebies was an oral-products cornucopia, with hundreds more items spilling over from the exhibit's shelving, creating a bit of a flea-market feel and ramping up drayage costs that left a noticeable cavity in Calabrese's budget. What's more, once the show was over, the leftover samples were often tossed into the garbage or grabbed up by sales reps for their own personal stash, meaning that Sunstar was, quite literally, throwing at least a portion of its exhibit-marketing investment in the trash.
Watch and Learn
The transformation of the Sunstar booth from underperformer to overachiever began in 2013, at an intersection of schedule and serendipity. Because of its booth's five-year depreciation schedule, Sunstar would be purchasing a new exhibit set to debut in 2014. Calabrese knew this was, in effect, an opportune moment to reconsider and retool her company's approach – one that might not come again for another half decade.
At roughly the same time, Calabrese received an email from BuyingBehaviorMetrics LLC, a Byron Center, MI-based company that specializes in helping exhibitors take a wide-ranging and innovative look at the components that influence attendees as they move through a trade show.
The nuts and bolts of what the company does, the email blandishment explained, boiled down to analyzing an exhibit by placing a series of video cameras high above a booth for the entire duration of a trade show. The raw footage collected from the cameras on their elevated perch would then be scrutinized by BuyingBehaviorMetrics' founder and president, Marty Smith.
A veteran of several hundred such case studies, Smith adopted an approach that could unearth information showing how everything from booth design to staff behavior invites or impedes attendees. Additionally, once those observations and data were collected, they would form a baseline from which Sunstar could institute Smith's version of Lean Six Sigma, the metric-driven methodology for eradicating defects. With Sunstar's next major show a just short time away, Calabrese wasted no time getting started. She engaged Smith and BuyingBehaviorMetrics to record Sunstar's existing exhibit at the 2013 California Dental Association Spring Meeting.
On site at the show, Smith placed four cameras over the company's exhibit, each recording about 24 hours of footage during the three-day event. He then broke the forthcoming analysis into several specific components. These included the number of attendees who passed by the booth, stopped in the booth, engaged with booth properties (e.g., products or displays), and interacted (that is, met face to face) with Sunstar staffers. Smith also monitored the total time attendees spent milling about the space (aka dwell time). And to supplement the data gathered by the cameras, BuyingBehaviorMetrics' personnel surveyed attendees entering the exhibit to profile their pain points and most relevant needs.
Observation and Analysis
After inspecting the video from its bird's-eye vantage point, Smith saw that most attendees simply passed by the exhibit. When visitors did wander in, only a small fraction of them were approached by staffers. In fact, a flood of 27,788 people passed by the booth, with just 3,667 stopping in, totaling a 13-percent attraction rate. If that number seems meager, the actual amount of those engaging with staffers or interacting with product displays once they were inside the booth was threadbare: Just 20 percent of those 3,667 booth visitors engaged with Sunstar's displays or samples, while 22 percent interacted with staffers in any manner whatsoever. That meant the company was only engaging with approximately 800 – or slightly less than 3 percent – of the show's nearly 28,000 attendees. Meanwhile, sales from the show totaled $51,000, averaging $280 per order. "The results from almost 100 hours of combined footage were an eye opener," Smith says. "But that's the point of compiling it – nothing can be changed until it's observed, recorded, and measured."
Through the fog of all that data came a redemptive clarity. "The video revealed multiple problems," Smith says. "For instance, Sunstar's booth carpet contrasted sharply with the color of the show floor's aisle carpeting, inadvertently creating a psychological barrier of sorts for attendees. The exhibit's heavy wood elements seemed to increase that off-putting feel as well. And the drawers jammed with what felt like products and samples placed at random negated any opportunity for staff to present visitors with a curated portfolio, so to speak, that would appeal to their individual needs – or align with Sunstar's objectives and product launches – and perhaps spark a longer and more constructive interaction."
The ground-level surveys revealed that the typical person who ordered dental supplies in Sunstar's booth was a female, senior-level dental hygienist in her mid to late 40s who came to the event with a group of hygienists from the same office. There were three key additional findings. First, the vast majority of buyers traveled to the show in hopes of seeing new and innovative products and services. Second, they attended to keep their credentials updated and learn innovative techniques and practices. Third, they found the presentations in the Sunstar exhibit mostly irrelevant to their needs, as evidenced by the fact that the large in-booth theater was home to more empty seats than standing-room-only crowds.
With these baseline findings in mind, Calabrese and Smith hammered out a series of changes, some major and some minor, that Sunstar would experiment with at the company's next large show, the 2014 Chicago Dental Society Midwinter Meeting. These changes impacted everything from booth design and branding to lead taking and sales technology. Working with its longtime exhibit house, Adex International Inc., Sunstar addressed the problems uncovered through Smith's observations. First, the company jettisoned the heavy, ponderous woods it had previously used, replacing them with a mix of fabric and aluminum elements to give the new booth an airier and thus less intimidating look and feel. And it opted for flooring that was closer to the color of the carpeting being used in the exhibit-hall aisles.
Additionally, the company reduced the number of exhibit graphics by roughly one third and slashed its budget for samples by nearly 70 percent, down to $40,000, thereby diminishing the flea-market feel that plagued previous booths. Henceforth, those remaining samples reflected only products the company was promoting that quarter. Calabrese also incorporated iPads into the exhibit, replacing the old, immobile monitors. The au currant mobile tablets would make it possible to not only qualify leads and take orders from anywhere staffers organically encountered guests, but also email digital copies of literature rather than hand out the bulky company brochures and catalogs Sunstar characteristically shipped to its shows.
Next, Sunstar devised a series of promotional packages that it hoped would spur more – and larger – orders from showgoers. These included the Elite Package, where attendees spending $600 or more would earn a $75 Target gift card, and The Crayola Package, where customers buying $100 or more of its Gum brand's crayon-themed products would receive a $10 Target gift card.
Perhaps the most sweeping change of all, however, focused on the exhibit's theater. Formally rebranding it during this process as the Sunstar Educational Theater, the company saw a prime opportunity to address a slew of the diverse needs attendees had expressed. Instead of a large, unenclosed presentation space made of weighty woods that competed – always unsuccessfully – with the loud-as-a-rock-concert racket of the show floor, the theater became a smaller, more intimate 200-square-foot enclosure with comfortable seating for 30. It also featured cutting-edge sound and lighting systems, as well as a 60-inch LCD monitor to augment live presentations.
Presenters would be those with impressive curriculum vitae in the dental-care industry, giving talks geared to educate attendees. To close out the sessions, staffers would outline the at-show specials, discuss featured products, and underscore how Sunstar can assist attendees in their daily practices. But all of these alterations would be for naught if they didn't deliver at their debut, the 2014 Chicago Dental Society Midwinter Meeting.
Bigger and Smarter
The company brought the new booth it had envisioned in the wake of Smith's analysis to life when the expo opened its doors in February 2014. Without architectural or psychological impediments dissuading visitors, hundreds of the nearly 30,000 attendees (including almost 3,900 hygienists, a key component of Sunstar's target market) swooped into the exhibit. Eschewing the visual traffic jams of marketing graphics that had occurred over the years, Sunstar hung several overhead fabric signs with the company's logo poised over the names of its three brands like a crown resting atop a monarch's head. This visual hierarchy was repeated in perhaps half a dozen more graphics in the booth, lending a clarity and consistency that the space previously lacked.
Sunstar Americas Inc. used the video surveillance and survey data to implement many changes in its exhibit at the 2014 Chicago Dental Society Midwinter Meeting.
• Sunstar gutted its budget for samples by nearly 70 percent, down to $40,000, thereby reducing the rummage-sale appearance that beleaguered previous booths.
• Tablet PCs replaced stationary monitors, giving staffers the flexibility to qualify leads and take orders from anywhere in the exhibit.
• Samples brought to the show reflected only specific products the company was promoting that quarter.
• The new booth was constructed with a blend of fabric and aluminum that lent it a lighter look and feel.
• The company added carpeting that matched that of the exhibit-hall aisles.
• Sunstar revamped its theater with frosted-glass walls on three sides, subdued lighting, seating made from reclaimed wood, and cutting-edge presentations by experts in the dental industry.
• Promotional packages were developed to incentivize larger orders.
Sunstar's changes netted a sales increase of more than 108 percent over the previous year's show.
Once guests were inside, up to 12 staffers armed with new iPads engaged them. No longer tethered to stationary monitors, the staff could qualify leads, display info about company offerings, email most of its library of literature, and even take orders with nothing more than a few taps on a screen, all while chatting up guests. And, by transferring all but about five of its approximately 20 different pieces of literature to digital format, Sunstar sidestepped considerable shipping costs during the last few years. Moreover, instead of a freebie free-for-all, samples of new or featured products were distributed by staffers as a thank you to attendees who had visited the booth.
But the company's most significant exhibit-marketing about-face was the new and improved Sunstar Education Theater. The reimagined presentation space beckoned showgoers with frosted-glass walls on three sides. After passing through sliding green doors, guests sat on stools crafted from reclaimed wood, while subdued lighting reflected the entrance's emerald hue, bathing the theater in a sea of soothing illumination.
Several times every hour, the company offered concise seven-minute spiels presented by a duo of speakers. The main presenter was Edie Gibson, a registered dental hygienist (RDH) from Crested Butte, CO, who was well known and highly regarded for winning the Award of Distinction given by RDH magazine in conjunction with Sunstar. Gibson spoke knowledgably on socket preservation, a procedure to minimize bone loss after a tooth extraction, a topic strategically selected due to its popularity among attendees. Also on tap was Jodie Heimbach, Sunstar's New Jersey district sales manager and an Award of Distinction winner herself, who helped field queries and tout products relevant to socket preservation during a question-and-answer period that followed. When each session concluded, Heimbach connected interested attendees with Sunstar staffers to continue the conversation outside the theater.
Better and Better
Compared to results at the 2013 Chicago Dental Society Midwinter Meeting, the 2014 show's sales boomed by more than 108 percent. But Sunstar's story doesn't end there. Smith's point-by-point breakdown of the booth's functions and flaws would have another, more lasting effect. Employing Smith's Lean Six Sigma methodology, Sunstar continued to tweak every aspect of its exhibit, no matter how seemingly small, from product placement to booth design. Since 2014, some of those changes have included replacing small monitors with 40- and 60-inch flat-panel screens to make it easier for more attendees to view video presentations in what can be crowded situations; designing counters to be set side by side so that the sales reps manning them can interact with each other to assist with attendees' needs; and stocking product towers with core offerings for attendees to view more easily and quickly when they approach the booth.
As a result, in Sunstar's first year of using Smith's methodology, orders at its four largest shows shot up by a total of 30 percent, with the amount for each order escalating by 29 percent. Even better, those two metrics combined to create an overall show-related revenue increase of 72 percent over the previous year. "We have clearly changed the way we do things and think," Calabrese says. "Otherwise, we wouldn't have discovered the why and what of exhibiting or our purpose at trade shows."
"If you can't measure it, you can't manage it," says one business proverb. Using Smith's system that created actionable conclusions, Sunstar found that the occasional checkup can turn an adequate exhibit into a pearly white success that any exhibit manager would smile about.