Marine navigation manufacturer gets its booth shipshape for international show

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Challenge: Three years ago, Frank Soccoli, the marketing director of Sperry Marine, a major supplier of navigation systems for the world’s navies and merchant fleets, took a close look at the way the company was conducting trade shows, and he didn’t like what he saw.

Sperry Marine traditionally takes a major display at two major international maritime industry trade shows held in alternate years—Europort, in the Netherlands, and SMM, in Germany. These are enormous events attracting exhibitors and attendees from all over the world. They are also very expensive for large exhibitors, which routinely use booths that occupy several hundred square feet.

In addition to the obvious costs of renting the booth space, designing and building the stand and shipping heavy equipment to the exhibition hall, there are hidden costs, such as overseas travel and lodging for 30 to 40 sales, marketing, engineering and management personnel, and special conference rooms for meetings with agents, representatives and customers. And when 30 to 40 key people are out of the office at a trade show, they are not at their desks talking to customers and keeping up with the day-to-day flow of business.

When trying to justify the hundreds of thousands of dollars budgeted for these shows, Soccoli was not satisfied with the usual rejoinder: “We can’t afford not to be at this show. Our competitors are all there, and people will talk if we don’t show.”

Solution: Faced with an impending strategic product launch, Soccoli and his marketing team decided to overhaul their entire approach to marketing at trade shows—with an eye to establishing a competitive advantage and to target messages to important customers.

They started by redesigning the booth layout, creating an enclosed “Solutions Center” where new technologies and products were previewed for a prequalified audience. Customers, representatives, dealers, agents and other guests were invited to the center by a direct-mail and e-mail blitz prior to the show. They were then slotted into one of the regularly scheduled sessions, where they received a 30-minute presentation, followed by a 15-minute Q&A session. At the end of the presentation, they were asked to fill out a short questionnaire and were given a token gift of appreciation. At the end of the show, the registrations and questionnaires provided a helpful metric as to the usefulness of the show, a way to solicit useful feedback for future product development and a database of prospects for follow-up.

Results: The program was unveiled at the 2003 Europort exhibition in Amsterdam, and was expanded for the SMM exhibition in Hamburg the following year.

At Europort, a total of 161 attendees were registered for presentations in the Solutions Center. Soccoli and his marketing team were able to capture complete demographics for each registered attendee, including type of customer, area of responsibility, geographical location and level of interest in Sperry Marine products.

“Too often at trade shows, qualified leads are not captured into a system,” Soccoli said. “The salespersons manning the booth typically jot notes on the backs of business cards and shove them into their pockets for follow-up later. Since every participant in the Solutions Center presentations registered, we had complete information on each of them. Not only that, each of them was asked to fill out a brief questionnaire responding to the presentation to help gauge their level of interest and.”

At SMM the following year, registrations were up to more than 210. “The important thing is that every one of them was prequalified,” Soccoli said.

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