There are effective ways to market and promote your business at conference exhibit halls around the country. Unfortunately for some companies, they haven’t learned any of them.

While wandering the exhibit hall at the WCI Conference in Orlando this week I saw numerous examples of poorly conceived and improperly executed booth promotions. While promotion mistakes can be found in any conference, the WCI exhibition hall is a special case definitively earning a spot on the exhibitor marketing short bus.

WCI is trying to gain a national stature, and they have been working to bring in more nationally recognized speakers and sessions. They have been somewhat successful in that effort, but in the process have left their exhibit hall woefully behind. Largely comprised of smaller, local vendors, most of whom are medical providers vying for attention (pick me! pick me!), it still carries the unwieldy carnival feel of a small town county fair. Entering the hall as it opened on Monday, I encountered numerous gypsies, pirates, characters from the Wizard of Oz, and at least one highly disturbing costume rendition that would render any pirate wench fantasy you may have completely obsolete and in need of immediate removal from your lexicon of mental stimuli. Trust me, I will never scrub that image out of my mind. 

I even encountered some poor sap being zipped into a fortune teller machine costume. And by fortune teller machine costume I mean he was dressed like an old fortune teller machine, with his head being the creepy turban wrapped auto-matron that spoke to carnival attendees for a nickel. And you thought your job sucked.

My point in all of this, if there is indeed a point, is that companies often get caught up in gimmicky promotions designed to draw visitors in, but in the end achieve the net effect of those visitors having no clue who the company was or what they do.

Let us look at the aforementioned Wizard of Oz characters. One WCI exhibitor went to extraordinary lengths to convert their little piece of exhibit hall real estate into the Emerald City, and populated it with all the main characters of that classic movie. By all accounts day 1’s Dorothy and the Cowardly Lion were cute (Day 2’s Lion was a dude. Not so cute), and they seemed to attract a fair amount of attention. Still, I suspect most attendees have no clue who they were. I actually took a few minutes to study the booth, and finally found their name in an obscure location on the lower part of one panel. I still have no idea who they were or what they did. It was a perfect example of creating plenty of buzz about nothing.

Now, if they had managed to arrange for a house to fall on the wicked witch and crush her in the middle of the exhibit hall, then they might have created a memorable promotion, barring that the house had the company logo and information plainly in view. The image of that promotion splattered all over the house with the witch splattered all under the house would really drive the message home, particularly if they managed injury claims or provided some type of medical service. It definitely would have got all the little munchkins in attendance talking.

Whether it was the Wizard of Oz, gypsies, fortune tellers or a therapy inducing pirate wench, I could not tell you one thing about these companies, and in most cases could not even name them. The promotion – the “gimmick” – did not support the overarching sales message, and instead obfuscated it. 

I will allow that the various pirates on display did support one aspect of the WCI exhibit hall. This conference is notorious amongst vendors for swag collectors, and the site of attendees dragging multiple overstuffed bags of conference tchotchkes and promotional items out of the hall does closely resemble a pirate raid on a Mediterranean village. 

You just can’t name the damn village.

This is not just an issue for smaller vendors. I’ve seen similar errors from very large ones as well. At a RIMS conference more than a decade ago, a very large carrier paid an artist to create an entire cityscape out of cards in their large booth over the course of the 4 day exhibit. Some of the structures he built were 30 feet tall. A very impressive feat, indeed. I think I annoyed one of their senior VP’s when I asked if a “House of Cards” was an image a carrier wanted to convey. 

I didn’t sell anything to that company that year. Sometimes when you are promoting your company the best method is to keep your stupid mouth shut.

WCI would benefit from adding some larger booths that would attract more nationally focused vendors, and all vendors would be well advised to take a hard look at how their promotional activity actually serves their sales efforts. A gimmick is fine as long as it supports the end game. One that confuses or ignores the primary purpose for exhibiting, however, is ill advised. 

Unless you are selling schmaltz on the exhibit hall floor; in which case, me matey, it is anchors away my pretty. And Toto, too.   

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