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Restaurant vendors whip up leads with exclusive online offers during event

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The National Restaurant Association introduced a show-specific, online group-buying platform for its May event, partnering with market newcomer Bizy to offer attendees deals on everything from app development to coffee beverage machines. “Exhibitors often offer show specials,” said Mary Pat Heftman, exec VP-convention at the association. “That's been tried-and-true for decades. We thought, how do we modernize that?” Nine exhibitors at the NRA Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show tested the concept, offering attendees the opportunity to save at least 50% on products and services purchased through the Bizy online deal platform. Organizers rolled out one deal per day, starting five days before the opening of the event. They used the show website, email blasts and existing social media channels to alert attendees. Floor stickers designated booths with active offerings. The program required buyers to meet face-to-face with sellers to secure the deal. “It was critical to us that it have an onsite component, because we're in the business of face-to-face,” Heftman said. “Exhibitors loved it because it was a great way to market and drive people to your booth with the goal of developing a long-term relationship. Even those who didn't sell many [deals] benefited from traffic. A lot of it is marketing exposure and branding, concluding with sales. But sales weren't always the first priority.” The program helped first-time exhibitor Fresh Intermedia carve out a place for its OrderingApps service on a crowded show floor, said Richard Doyle, president of the company. “We had a 10-ft. booth, so we weren't going to compete on real estate and signage,” he said. “We had to be innovative. It was a nice way to get an introduction and get our name out there.” Exhibitors could keep the deals open for the duration of the show, giving small-business buyers time to get approval for the purchases. They could also cap sales, helping to remove fears that an enthusiastic reception would undermine the benefit of participation. Participating exhibitors split the offer proceeds with Bizy and the association, never earning less than 50% of the sale price. For NRA, the program had less to do with new revenue and more to do with creating buzz and adding value for both attendees and exhibitors, Heftman said. “All things being equal, we'll do it again,” she said—though she would make some adjustments. The event launched the program with little lead time in a year in which show dates had been unexpectedly advanced by two weeks. More manufacturers may have been interested in participating if distributors had been taken into consideration, she said. “I would have given more thought to sales and distribution channels, finding a way for it to work direct and with dealers and distributors.” In addition, poor smartphone reception at Chicago's McCormick Place made it difficult for attendees to purchase a deal on the show floor, she said. Gary Slack, co-founder of Bizy and chairman-chief experience officer of Slack & Co, said he now suggests show organizers initiate programs at least two months prior to show dates and roll out deals before attendees arrive on the show floor. “We're suggesting that they start the offers earlier and maybe do two weeks before the show.” The NRA show marked Bizy's first collaboration with a trade show and helped gain the attention of more than 20 event organizers in verticals as diverse as broadcasting, agriculture and healthcare, Slack said. Events at which small businesses make up at least 20% of the audience and at which exhibitors focus on onsite sales hold the most potential for the platform, he said. “The program has generated a lot of interest from trade shows and b-to-b publishing partners,” he said. “A number of these trade shows are interested not just in doing this at events, but they're interested in starting year-round efforts.”
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