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The wonderful world of trade show marketing

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Call it the Disney effect. Something about attending this month’s National Center for Database Marketing show at Disney World awakened my senses. Being immersed in that high-spirited blend of entertainment and marketing—Disney World, not NCDM—made me more aware than usual of the lengths trade show marketers will go to in their quest to attract attention.

It didn’t take long to get started. When I went to put the swipe card in the door lock to my room, I noticed the card was emblazoned with the NCR logo. My initial thought was that it was interesting that NCR’s technology is used in the cards. It was only the next day I noticed the card also bore the company’s booth number at the show.

That was the same day I noticed, upon returning to my room, that a marketer had managed to have a water bottle containing a press release placed on the dresser. Frankly, I like the marketing to stop at my room door.

To enter the exhibit hall I had to walk past the official greeter, Mickey Mouse. I presume he was there to ensure marketers didn’t forget who’s king in the magic kingdom.

Inside, marketers vied for attention by offering showmanship, toys and food.

The showmanship included a 1950s-style quartet, a magician and a presenter whose hyped-up style would make Richard Simmons blush.

I quickly gravitated to Fair, Isaac and Co.’s booth, which was done up in "Gilligan’s Island” moderne, replete with palm trees and nautical paraphernalia, and manned by an actor decked out in yellow rain gear and high boots. All of this was meant to reinforce the company’s tagline: "Put the wind in your marketing sales.”

As a former member of the Merchant Marine, I feel compelled to point out that if you’re decorating your display with green and red ship’s running lights, you shouldn’t position one above the other. Out on the water such a sight would mean you’re looking at a ship that’s capsized. Maybe the S.S. Minnow was the model, after all.

As for freebie playthings, no fewer than four exhibitors were holding drawings for scooters. The booth personnel were probably too busy setting up the previous Friday night to have watched CBS’s "CSI: Crime Scene Investigations,” in which a character went on at length, more than once, about how dangerous scooters can be.

And then there were the yo-yos. What message does your company send when one of your employees paces back and forth, twirling one of the toys you’re giving out, beneath a placard stating: "The most targeted source for information you need to make your business a success”?

Here’s a bit of advice for marketers proffering food: Tootsie Rolls, for all their wonderful, decades-long shelf life, are probably not enough to snag show attendees. My dry cleaner gives Tootsie Rolls away and, while they’re enough to get my 5-year-old son to accompany me on my trips there, they’re probably not likely to spark a conversation leading to the purchase of several thousand dollars computer equipment. I passed by one booth several times only to find its attendants talking to each other over a lonely bowl of Tootsie Rolls.

My favorite booth at the show was Cyber Dialogue’s, which offered food and showmanship. As a hired gun in an NYPD uniform handed out mock summonses, the company’s marketing manager cooked up donuts. Cop, donuts— get it?

Marketing manager Alexis Thomas said the setup had been used before successfully, but that choosing the proper venue could be tricky. "With the health care show, you wouldn’t want to use it,” she said.

Thomas said on the first evening of the exhibition that business had been brisk at the booth and that she expected an even bigger crowd the following morning "because donuts don’t really go that well with beer and wine.”

She’ll get no argument from me.

John Obrecht is managing editor of BtoB and can be reached at jobrecht@crain.com.

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