conference

CONFERENCES & TRADE EXHIBITS – With a twist!

The contact lens and optical manufacturing industries (like most industries) conduct various conferences and in conjunction with, usually run a supplementary trade show where manufacturers and suppliers have an opportunity to exhibit products and services.

standbad2These trade stands are traditionally 3 x 3 metre spaces with gray walls, a couple of chairs and a table upon which products can be displayed. The spaces are usually ‘dressed’ with a few obligatory posters, a brochure holder or two, a liberal offering of sample products and maybe … a pot plant! I personally find this style of trade presence lacking style, the presentation boring, showing no individuality and offering little or no attraction to entice customer attention. Moreover, these stands (and furniture) can be expensive to hire and it is probable that the business done at the show (if any) will never recoup the costs of participation.

I also observed that people attend conferences for three main reasons - none of which are to take an interest in the trade exhibits! They are 

  • to gain further education from the lectures on offer, 
  • to earn continuing education points required of them by their respective professional bodies and 
  • to meet with colleagues and partake in social activity.

It is more often the case that exhibitors spend significant money and walk away with a lackluster response to their exhibit and often very poor attendance to their stand.  


After buying the contact lens business, I decided that we would never again attend conferences and offer a trade exhibit that followed the format above. I felt that we needed to deliver a show that met the following criteria:

  • A display construction that stimulates the senses
  • An exhibit that does not display product
  • A display that can generate income over and above the costs of construction and rental
  • A display which can hold the visitor on the stand for an extended period
  • A stand that can act as a natural venue to allow colleagues to meet
  • A display that more often will have absolutely nothing to do with the trade
  • An exhibit that embodies a performance and is enjoyed as a show
  • A display and presentation that embodies a sense of humour

We attended a number of conferences over the next few years and the following are some of the ideas we developed an used with great success …(there were many more besides these examples shown here!)

THE CARICATURE CONFERENCE

The NZ Contact Lens Society annual conference was held and the trade was invited to participate in a trade show running concurrently with the scientific conference.  We decided to hire a double-sized stand (6m x 3m) and ordered only two chairs with no other furniture. We also asked that the walls of the stand be completely bare. 

We took no product to the show and we took no posters, product literature or brochures. We did however take one very large company logo (2.5m x 1.5m) and placed it at one end of the stand. Apart from our “secret weapon”, our stand was complete. We had some very puzzled comments from our competition mostly surprised that we had no product or related paraphernalia on display. They certainly (and discreetly) questioned our sanity!


Our “secret weapon” was Mr. Stan Hurr, the resident caricature artist at Auckland’s “Rainbow’s End”. We contracted him to be on our trade stand for the duration of the show where he was asked by us to draw large caricatures of the optometrists and attendees at the conference (note, these caricatures usually cost $50 each at Rainbows end). We arranged the two chairs on the stand carefully so that the person being sketched was facing the giant company logo while their portrait was being drawn – they could not avert their eyes – they had to concentrate on the company logo! 

We placed an adhesive company logo on every caricature. We also said to each person being sketched that they could have the caricature for free, so long as we could display it in our stand for the duration of the show. To this they all readily agreed. Gradually our stand filled with portraits of everyone attending the conference. It became a place for optometrists to meet and for them to bring their colleagues to “show off” their picture. Our stand was always full of people – we talked ourselves dry about our products and our services.

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During the lecture times – a time when the trade exhibition centre was empty – our competitors would come and ask whether they could have themselves drawn as a caricature. We said, “of course” but we made it mandatory that they had to hang the finished caricature (along with our adhesive logo) in their stand for the duration of the show. This they agreed to and suddenly we our company was displayed in every stand at the show. 

When the conference came to a close, we made a general announcement to all that they could come back to our stand to collect their caricatures and on-masse we had a big crowd on the stand. We deprived our competition of people to talk with – at the very time when deals should have been completed.

We also handled our give-away literature in a unique way! We determined that in most cases literature, brochures and samples picked up at trade shows are discarded or thrown away within minutes of them being avidly collected by the attendees. To address this, I decided that we should print our brochures on the ultimate throw-away – a frisbee!! We ordered and printed with our messages a significant number of frisbees and gave them to the optometrists (an unplanned frisbee-throwing event began on the trade show area as a result!)– to this day (25 years later) many still have that same frisbee. Talk about longevity of message!

The increase in business due to that show more than covered our total show costs forty fold! I believe the increase was due to success of the stand – it fulfilled most of the criteria above. It was a display construction that stimulated the senses, we did not display product, it generated income over and above the costs of construction and rental and it held the visitor on the stand for an extended period. The stand aced as a natural venue to allow colleagues to meet, caricatures have absolutely nothing to do with optometry, it was an exhibit that was a performance and it was enjoyed as a show and was a presentation with a sense of humour.


THE FAST-TRACK SHOW

Fired up from the success of the caricature show, we decided to become even more courageous and rented a quadruple size stand – 6m x 6m and this time we asked for no walls, no furniture and no pot plants! 

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We constructed out of 50mm x 50mm timber four 3m high scaffolding units (painted white) that could support our theme for the conference – Scalextric Racing cars! We ordered (on-consignment) every single Scalextric Racing set available in NZ (and Australia) and assembled some of them into 4 giant track layouts intertwined in the scaffolding. Making sure we could disassemble for transport, we moved them and re-erected them on the trade exhibit stand. We made sure that the cares were painted in the company colours and that the barriers around the track had advertising hoardings of our products and services. 

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We took along all the rest of the unopened Scalextric Racing sets with an intention to sell them to optometrists and ophthalmologists with a view to recouping the cost of the stand. This we did – not only selling every set we had on the stand - but also sold the whole stand to one optometrist and took numerous orders for more sets to be delivered later. We sold more sets in 2 hours than the retailer we ordered them from had sold in 2 years!

The optometrists had fun! They spent a great deal of time on our stand racing (and being competitive) and we had ample time to talk about our products and services. It was interesting to note that even though we had broken the ice at the previous trade show, none of our competitors tried to emulate our new approach to trade shows. They maintained the 3x3 stand with minimal products and statuary posters. 

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We also used this conference to forever change the way our customer had us paying for the service we provided. It had long been a custom that when one of customers sent a lens in for alteration, re-polishing or such, that we had to pay for the courier costs both to and from the customer – a service cost that we found difficult to comprehend. We decided to launch a service product at the show which we called “Fast Track” (obvious pun with the racing cars). We took a humble pizza box, put into it a selection of packaging materials, paperclips, tape, courier tickets and addressed envelopes and dressed the box with a snazzy chequered flag logo. We then proceeded to sell them from the stand as a better and more convenient method for them to ship lenses to us. We sold a very large number of boxes, not only covering the costs of making the boxes but covered (in advance) all courier costs we had been sustaining. 

The revenue from sales of Scalextric Racing cars (and the stand itself!), the Fast-track boxes and the increase in business due to the success of the stand resulted in a sustained doubling of company turnover. Again, this exhibit met all of the criteria I had decided were the elements that would lead to a successful show (see above). 


THE SILVER BALLS SHOW

The following year we were invited to display at the annual conference, this time being held in the Christchurch town hall. The trade exhibition was given the mezzanine floor and we chose a busy landing area at the intersection of all foot traffic to and from the exhibition to the lecture theatre.

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The area had new carpet and we were a little concerned that the authorities make take exception to our show – but we prevailed! We laid down a large and long plastic tarpaulin, surrounded that with heavy railway sleepers, and then proceeded to dump into that construction wheelbarrow loads of fresh, damp soil and over that more barrow loads of river stones and pebbles. We constructed a full size Petanque pitch directly on the newly carpeted town hall floor!

We got (again on consignment) every Petanque set we could lay our hands on and brought them all to the show to play with and to sell. Alongside the pitch, we set up umbrellas and coffee tables and constructed an open-street French café with wine and cheese, coffee and bread. It was somewhere our clients could sit and chat with us (and their colleagues). We had determined that there is often very little sitting spaces available in a trade display. We decorated the Petanque pitch with posters of French landmarks and proceeded to enjoy some competitive games with our customers.

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Again, we took no product, no brochures and no paraphernalia that we would have normally taken to a conference. Instead, we talked ourselves silly about our products and about our services. We made a roaring profit from sales of the Petanque sets and our business grew another notch as a result.


THE BUSHMAN’S CONCERTO CONFERENCE

Wellington was our next venue - this time at a prestigious hotel in a newly decorated conference facility. This time we chose to keep costs to a minimum and essentially pick up our conference display on our drive from Auckland to Wellington in a rusty old truck!

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We collected tree stumps, branches of trees, oil drums, old tools, recently cut forest trimmings, greenery of all types, lengths of pit-sawn timber – indeed any manner of natural bush/forest stuff. When we arrived we constructed a living, smelling replica of a section of NZ native forest. We saved money on hiring furniture by using a chainsaw to hew out tree-stump chairs, we laid rough planks across oil drums to make tables and even put fluffy bunny rabbits in the scene to provide a sense of fun. We hired nothing but the empty un-walled stand!

Prior to leaving Auckland, we arranged to get (you guessed it, on consignment) a significant number of electronic music keyboards (some attached to computers!) to take with us to the show. These we set up at various parts in our man-made forest. The scene was set.

mm8The stand gave forth a pleasing aroma of native foliage, the optometrists playing the keyboards attracted attention (and exhibited some questionable talent!) and the stand became the “come to” place for all to have some fun. We all dressed as lumberjacks – a distinct departure from the obligatory suit and tie.


Again we took no product and instead continued the success of talking until we could talk no more about the products and services we offered. We sold the keyboards (making a handsome profit) and again the show contributed to further business growth.