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Tasteful Planning
Exhibitus Inc. demonstrates how its holistic approach to face-to-face marketing means less stress and more success for clients by using a pie-themed integrated campaign that attracts attention, increases qualified leads, and generates enough business to pay for itself more than six times over. By Ben Barclay
Integrated Program
Exhibitor: Exhibitus Inc.
Creative/Production: Exhibitus Inc., Tucker, GA, 800-770-4392, www.exhibitus.com
Promotional Budget: $300,000 – $399,000
• Engage 550 visitors and scan 360 badges.
• Collect 340 qualified leads.
• Donate 9,000 meals through a cause-marketing campaign.
• Acquire 23 requests for proposal (RFPs) and/or requests for information (RFIs).
• Earn a payback ratio of 6:1.
• Lured 624 visitors and scanned 375 badges.
• Netted 356 qualified leads.
• Provided 12,000 meals to a nonprofit.
• Obtained more than 20 RFPs and/or RFIs.
• Projected to exceed a 6:1 payback ratio.
An event manager's job is no walk in the park. Unrelenting demands for measurable results, constantly changing rules and regulations, and the prevalence of social media that allows attendees to broadcast exhibitors' less-than-stellar performances in real time catapults the occupation onto the top 10 list of the world's most stressful jobs year in and year out. On the upside, a talented, full-service exhibit house can help alleviate an event manager's show-related stressors, which is exactly what Tucker, GA-based Exhibitus Inc. set out to demonstrate with its own "easy as pie" integrated program at EXHIBITORLIVE 2019, an educational conference and exhibition for trade show and event professionals. But proving to overworked and overtired event managers that it can provide them a life on easy street is a daunting challenge when surrounded by scores of competitors trying to prove they can do the same. Exhibitus knew it would necessitate top-shelf design ingredients, the right blend of engagement, and careful measurement of its goals and objectives; otherwise, the entire endeavor could come off as a giant, half-baked mess.

Over the past 25 years, Exhibitus has spent a lot of time fine-tuning its recipe for success. It has mastered designing and fabricating trade show booths that help clients position themselves as leaders in their fields, but that's something other competitors boast about as well. That's why roughly five years ago, Exhibitus sought to differentiate itself from other firms by adding three key ingredients to its business model and offerings. First, it created a marketing division to help sales secure more clients. Second, the company developed a results division that works with event managers to track and measure their programs' return on investment (ROI) and return on objectives (ROO). And third, it brought event production services in-house and began tailoring engagement opportunities to help clients cut through the noise of the show floor.

In addition to the new offerings, the exhibit house made two companywide changes at about the same time. It formalized a charity initiative called BeyondUs that brought one of its core values of supporting nonprofit organizations to the forefront, an element it began incorporating into its own exhibit program. And in 2016, Exhibitus started developing annual online and print-marketing campaigns targeting event managers and marketing executives that dovetailed with its trade show exhibits.

Each year since then, the company has created eight one-page themed advertisements to strategically run in exhibit-industry publications beginning in the fall and ending in the spring, coinciding with the busiest part of the trade show season and overlapping with EXHIBITORLIVE at the end of February. "It's the time of year that a lot of event marketers are looking to exhibit houses for tips and tricks, planning guides, and inspiration – anything that will make their lives less stressful and their shows more successful," says Lynn Reves, director of marketing at Exhibitus.

Since implementing the aforementioned changes, Exhibitus has seen incredible growth in revenue and its client base, and it has more than doubled its number of employees. Having moved from line cook to top-tier chef with a solid reputation, the exhibit house set four lofty goals for the 2019 show: It wanted to engage 550 visitors and swipe 360 badges, acquire 340 qualified leads, amass 23 requests for proposal (RFPs) and/or requests for information (RFIs), and generate an ROI six times that of its investment. However, achieving those objectives would require Wolfgang Puck-like preparation and presentation.

A Sweet Idea
Each year, Exhibitus uses EXHIBITORLIVE to demonstrate its design chops and educate attendees on how it makes creating one-off engagements and tracking ROI and ROO a cinch. "At the present time, EXHIBITORLIVE is the only major industry show at which we exhibit," Reves says, "so it is our opportunity to practice what we preach." The company's goal was to take the complexities of a trade show program and make them look deceptively simple from the perspective of prospective clients.

Exhibitus' creative process for the 2019 show began in earnest in August of 2018, a full seven months before the event. In many companies, the exhibit-marketing program is often siloed from other departments, but Exhibitus' design team works closely with its marketing department to ensure a trade show experience that seamlessly integrates with its ad campaigns – a strategy the company believes is the cherry on top of its program. "Given our small marketing team and the many demands placed on our design teams, this approach has proven an effective way to leverage internal resources and fully develop the concept so that it speaks to our target audience," Reves says.

In the very first brainstorming session, the teams discussed the myriad challenges program managers face on a daily basis, and one of the team members said, "Let's help them understand how we can make their lives 'as easy as pie.'" Everyone loved the idea, in part because food is a unifying element around which many relationships are developed and sustained. Plus, Reves adds, "Those that are really good at exhibiting can make it look easy as pie, even though anyone who's actually tried to make a pie – or an exhibit – can tell you that it's anything but easy."

Once the central concept was established, Exhibitus set an additional fifth goal to satisfy its cause-marketing initiative. The company aimed to donate 9,000 meals to Feed My Starving Children, a Minnesota-based nonprofit Exhibitus had worked with in the past that delivers meals to undernourished children around the world. With all its objectives clearly defined, the marketing team designed a series of pie-themed ads, each of which would feature a different slice of pie and text such as "Get a taste of the good life" and "Easy as pie." In the meantime, the exhibit team set about designing an in-booth experience that would complement the print ad campaign.

It didn't take the team long to land on an urban coffee shop as the design inspiration for the booth, since cafes are a place where both business relationships and friendships often grow over food and conversation. More challenging – and more than a little ironic – was figuring out how best to serve pie. Baking it in the exhibit would require a full kitchen and chew up valuable real estate. Additionally, trying to eat a slice of pie while walking around the booth could prove an awkward, not to mention messy, affair. After consulting a catering service, Exhibitus decided that premade tarts would be the perfect mess-free solution. However, the cost of catering turned out to be far outside the original budget for in-booth hospitality, meaning that serving the delectable treats required finding ways to save money elsewhere. "The budget struggles were a good reminder of the challenges our own clients face as they weigh alternatives that impact the available dollars," Reves says.

Recipe for Success
Six months before EXHIBITORLIVE, the first print ad appeared in exhibit-industry publications featuring an image of a slice of key-lime pie lounging in a sunchair on a tropical beach with the headline, "Get a taste of the good life." Punchy text demonstrated the exhibit house clearly understood its clients' challenges and ended with the tagline "Exhibitus – Easy as pie." The implication was that the company would handle the heavy lifting, allowing event managers more time to kick back and relax. Each subsequent month delivered the same quirky concept: a "relaxed" piece of pie in some out-of-office destination living the good life while Exhibitus sweated the details. As the show date neared, Exhibitus started featuring the ads on its website and social-media platforms, inviting attendees to join staffers in its booth for some casual conversation over pie.

By the time the show arrived, attendees were practically drooling to check out the booth and hear about life on easy street. When visitors hit the show floor, they immediately sniffed out Exhibitus' stand, easily located by the wafting aroma of baked goods. They encountered a 20-by-30-foot coffee shop open along the front and one side with a faux metal barrel ceiling supporting a large Exhibitus logo and metal ductwork. The 20-foot-wide back wall featured white laminate with a subway-tile pattern and dark wood paneling, as well as a large pie-shaped graphic that faced the interior and displayed the campaign's "Easy as Pie" tagline. Below the graphic, an 84-inch high-definition monitor looped images from Exhibitus' client portfolio. Hipster music added to the urbane yet welcoming vibe, and a long bar housed coffee dispensers and an assortment of tarts in flavors mostly mirroring those in the pre-show ads. Behind the counter, three faux-metal trusses formed a side wall that supported three large chalkboard-like menus listing the company's offerings: "fully baked design," "recipes to engage," and "good measure." Beneath them, in a nod to its integrated ad campaign, eye-level graphics set in a lightbox depicted the series of vacationing pies. Finally, designers set out three high-top tables surrounded by comfortable stools to facilitate meetings.

Exhibitus' new attendee engagement strategy fostered the same relaxed, come-in-and-chat atmosphere as its booth design. The company's past several exhibits relied on staffers giving a systematic tour of its low-, mid-, and high-tech engagements and explaining its design philosophy and capabilities. But by 2019, Exhibitus felt it had already established itself as an industry leader in those fields. Instead, the company decided to focus more on listening to prospects' needs and less on talking about itself. Eschewing any sort of prearranged tour, staffers allowed attendees to freely wander in and then broke the ice by asking them what their programs "had a taste for." From there, Exhibitus reps let visitors steer the conversations while they listened to and addressed attendees' individual needs. Like restaurant servers, staffers carried "menus" – iPad Pros in distressed-leather covers – that contained information about Exhibitus' design, engagement, and measurement offerings along with images and videos of previous work. Whichever direction an attendee steered the conversation, staffers were prepared to serve up tasty solutions. And whenever visitors were feeling at all peckish, they headed to the bar for a cup of coffee and a treat.

Following an engaging conversation over pie, staffers led visitors to a display in the back corner of the booth that had 25 empty pie tins mounted to the wall in a five-by-five grid. Staffers offered each visitor a blank, slice-like wedge of white acrylic, each of which represented 30 meals that Exhibitus would donate to Feed My Starving Children.

After personalizing the wedge with a provided marker, the attendee inserted the triangle into an empty space in one of the tins. Once a tin was filled with 16 slices, it illuminated, showing that 480 meals would be donated to fight world hunger for that particular pie. Finally, staffers handed attendees a small gift bag containing a branded adjustable measuring spoon, ensuring that every time attendees spiced up one of their own recipes at home, they'd remember their visit to the Exhibitus booth.

Just Desserts
Even after the coffee shop closed down, the tasty morsels didn't stop coming. Inside the giveaway bag, attendees also found a card explaining how they could win a trio of pies from Darden's Delights LLC, an Atlanta-based bakery that donates a portion of its proceeds to help people with developmental disabilities. After taking an online three-question survey about whether they'd planned to visit the booth before arriving at the show, which of the company's offerings they found most valuable, and whether they'd like to be contacted, attendees were entered into the drawing. Two and a half weeks after the show, Exhibitus announced the 10 raffle winners, each of whom were sent pies packed in dry ice via FedEx. And to make sure the tasteful experience lingered in everyone's minds, two final pie-themed ads ran in post-show issues of industry magazines. The perfect recipe left Sizzle Awards judges salivating. "This is an amazingly well-planned and -executed program," one judge said. "The ongoing campaign continued the customer journey well beyond the event and ensured the success that Exhibitus expected."

The company's metrics were equally delicious. Exhibitus surpassed its pre-show goals of engaging 550 visitors and scanning 360 badges by 14 percent and 4 percent, respectively.

And based on its lead qualification ranking, 356 of those visitors turned out to be high-quality leads. Because of the influx of visitors to its booth, the company ended up donating 12,000 meals to Feed My Starving Children, besting its goal of 9,000 by a third. Plus, as of five months after EXHIBITORLIVE, Exhibitus had received more than 20 RFPs, well on its way to surpassing the company's aim of 23. But perhaps sweetest of all, based on the opportunity value in the pipeline as a result of the show, the exhibit house projects it will easily exceed its goal of earning back six times its exhibit-marketing investment within nine months of EXHIBITORLIVE's conclusion. "This sweet idea and great execution led to stellar results," one judge remarked, adding, "Exhibit marketing is anything but easy as pie, but Exhibitus' well-integrated campaign and successful execution proved to clients and prospects that it has the expertise necessary to help them succeed – and enjoy the resulting sweet rewards." E

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