In the years that Fratelli Bologna has been involved with the world of innovative business theater, we’ve worked with some wonderful and inspiring people. We want to share their stories with you in a series of informal conversations. We’ll start with Arlene Courtney
Arlene Courtney retired last year from a career in corporate communications after spending the last 14 years planning events for Hewlett Packard. Most of her time at HP was spent creating and producing trade shows in the US and a few in other countries. William Hall sat down with Arlene to chat about how the business has changed over the years.
HOW IT ALL STARTED
William Hall: Let’s start off with how you got started in the crazy business of trade shows. What happened?
Arlene Courtney: In 1995 I started working for Compaq Computer Corporation in Marketing Operations. In 2002, Compaq merged with Hewlett Packard. At that time I was managing the distribution of marketing materials and rebate fulfillment for the consumer division. One of the results of that merger was that my position moved to California and I was offered a new role in the company managing commercial tradeshows.
Was this a move you wanted?
Not specifically. But my manager at the time told me that my history as a project manager and distribution manager was a good fit with requirements associated with trade show management. I was used to managing vendors, shipping, receiving and budgets … all skills that are necessary to succeed with trade shows.
TRAINING, WHAT TRAINING?
Did you get any training when you took the job?
I began by attending the HP World event in California. I was able to meet a lot of the enterprise group and many people that were on the HP trade show team. The first day on the floor I learned my first lesson in trade show management.
And what was that?
I really needed a good pair of shoes. By the end of the day, my feet and legs were killing me. My first thought was, “What have I got myself into?” My second was “Get appropriate footwear!”
The next three or four days were much, much better. I was there to observe, learn and network. I also attended the Exhibitor FastTrak, which really helped me understand the concept of trade shows as marketing events.
NOW AND THEN
What was the trade show business like when you started compared to the way it is now?
One of the biggest differences is that back then we shipped boxes and boxes of paper brochures, spec sheets and the like to the shows. These hand-outs were a big expense … all the printing, shipping and drayage.
Now we use virtual collateral to provide the information to attendees via PDF’s sent to their email address. They get to choose what information they would like sent to them. And we save a lot of trees.
That brings us to the Internet. Back when I started, broadband access was hit and miss. Today it’s more stable but also more expensive. At one show in Orlando, the service provider actually came into the booth to count every device we had operating. They were determined to collect every penny they were owed.
From a corporate messaging standpoint, the biggest difference is that in the beginning, our booths were more about brand awareness, product specs and lead capture. Nowadays we focus more on the HP story, HP solutions and services, and our return on investment.
“Nowadays we focus on return on investment” – Arlene Courtney
BY THE NUMBERS
How many trade shows and events have you done in a year?
At my busiest, I averaged 15-20 trade shows and events a year personally, and was responsible for many more.
More than one a month. I guess you saw a lot of America.
Over the course of the 14 years I spent as a trade show manager for HP, I worked in 22 states. I’ve been responsible for over 300 events/trade shows and I’ve personally managed over 200.
THE ART OF THE SHOW
How do you gauge the ROI for trade shows? HP was obviously getting their money’s worth on trade shows or they wouldn’t have kept doing them.
The feedback I received was that they were very happy with the money spent. The bottom line with trade shows is acquiring a significant number of leads. The whole point is to deliver a compelling message to the audience and motivate them to ask how specifically HP can help their business. Customers receive an overview of HP solutions and services, then ask the HP experts in the booth for more information.
Customers are requested to fill out a survey as part of our process and as a result we are able to capture important information from them. What brought them into the booth? What engaged them? Were all of their questions answered? What could we have done better? Their answers are extremely helpful in evaluating the needs of our customers.
Some trade show exhibitors spend a lot of money to hire celebrities in order to attract people to their booths. I get the feeling that isn’t what HP does.
A trade show is a strange beast. It’s a combination carnival, sales pitch and revival meeting. There has to be some entertainment value, but we’d rather spend our budget on making sure our marketing messages get through in a way that’s engaging and effective.
Here are three good examples of that.
In 2008, we were planning for a DAC show in Anaheim, California. Our booth was only a ten by twenty. Once we filled it with demo stations, there was very little room for anything else. We asked Fratelli Bologna to come up with a way to capture the attention of the people passing by the booth and get our message out there.
You and your team created the “Got a Minute” presentation. You promised a full trade show presentation in only 60 seconds. There was a large countdown clock, a Digital Display on a stand and you – that was all. It was genius.
People lined up to see if you could really do it in only one minute. Well, you did it and the audience loved it. In fact, when the DAC show awards were handed out, HP won for Best Floor Presentation. We’ve done “Got a Minute” many times at events since then and it’s always been a highlight.
Innovation keeps if fresh
Here’s another example. One year, our booth for the National Retail Federation show had a large number of demo stations. It was a year we were promoting a lot of really great solutions and we were concerned there might be too many … that the audience would be overwhelmed.
You came back with the VIP Tour concept. Mary, our host, wore a microphone and handed out headsets to a group of people. The headsets blocked out the noise of the venue so the listener could focus on what Mary was saying. For about ten minutes, she took the group on a tour of the booth, offering a high-level description of each demo station.
When the tour was over, each audience member knew exactly which station offered the specific solution they were looking for. After the first tour, HP execs and members of the press came up to me and told me what a great idea that was. It was simple. It was elegant. And it worked perfectly. Again, we’ve used the VIP Tour many times since then with much success.
One more. We were doing a realtor show a number of years ago and we wanted to promote our lineup of mobile solutions. We found a bar that looked exactly like a 1958 Chevy. It was so cool. Mary was behind the steering wheel posing as a realtor, and you came out dressed as a policeman. You asked to see her realtor’s license. Everybody laughed.
That began a discussion of how to be a mobile realtor with HP printers and tablets. You and Mary got a lot of focused messaging out and, since there was a lot of humor, the audience really got what we were saying. The audience wasn’t just observing … they were engaged.
One of our slogans is, Outsource the Drama. By the very nature of your job, there’s a lot of drama. How important is it for a trade show manager to hire people who can make you’re your life easier?
Creating great trade show presentations is a team effort. I have a lot on my plate and it’s so calming for me to know that the Fratelli team is handling the content and presentation. They add real value.
Glad to know we’re doing our job. Trade shows also mean travel. I bet you have some great travel stories.
Here are some things that happened to me that I think are memorable. I’ll tell them in no particular order.
Once, when traveling for a show in New York, I chose the very first seat behind first class. I was tired from all of the pre-show work and all I could think of was sitting down and sleeping. I’m ready to start to close my eyes and the flight attendant walks up and tells me that I have to move. And the reason? A cello was being sent to New York for a concert and in the entire plane, the only available place to put it was my seat. I was not happy. I said, “What … I have to give up this great seat for a cello?” They said, “Yes, I’m afraid you have to.” So they moved me to a center seat a few rows back and I was miserable for three and a half hours. To this day, when I see a cello I remember this episode.
You’ll have to get off the plane.
Another. I had flown to Colorado Springs to do some training with our call center and discuss upcoming events. Our call center’s very important because they follow up on the qualified leads that come from telemarketing.
The meetings went well and I went to the airport at 2 PM to fly to Houston for a 9 AM meeting the next day. The entire waiting area was full of young children with camp backpacks and a couple of chaperones. Besides them, there was only me and a couple with their small child.
All of a sudden, two ticket agents stand at the front of the plane and get our attention. This is never good. “We have a little problem,” one said. Apparently, they needed to reduce the weight in the plane. They needed volunteers to get off the plane and take a different flight.
I needed to get home for my meeting the next morning so I just sat there … and so did the couple and their child. It didn’t take me long to figure out how this was going to work out. They couldn’t break up the group of children heading to camp, so their options were limited. When we didn’t volunteer, the ticket agent said, “Unfortunately, if no one volunteers, we aren’t going anywhere.”
Still nothing. Finally, an agent points to us and says “You, you, you and you … need to get off the plane now.” So we get off the flight and the ticket agent says, “Sorry about this. We’ll see if we can help you find a flight.” But there were no more flights that evening. Everything has been canceled and the next flight was at 6 AM the next day.
Can I stay at your house?
Since there were no other options, they tried to find us a hotel with no success. I was going to have to spend the night in the airport. Not thrilled.
All of a sudden, the agent came back and said, “I want to let you know that another ticket agent has volunteered to put you up for the night. She’s only done this once before in the 27 years I’ve known her.” Needless to say, I was most appreciative. She even drove me to the airport the next morning so I could make my flight. So I spent the night at a ticket agents home.
More Travel Stories
Last one. Pretty much everyone in the business knows that the Jacob Javits Convention Center in Manhattan can be very challenging for trade shows. One time we had terrible weather for setting up. It was raining and hailing and the winds were in full force. The ceiling leaked and show management had hung “diapers” (that’s what they called them) in the ceiling to stop the water dripping and placed buckets around the floor to catch the water that got through.
Anyway, it was very late at night and four of us decided to go back to our hotel. The hotel had no cars they could send us. We tried the car services, but no luck. No taxis would stop for us. We thought we’d have to walk when a car drives up and stops in front of us. There’s a piece of cardboard in the window with Magic Marker writing: Take you to your hotel for $20. We were so grateful we gave him a bonus. Today we’d probably just go Uber.
THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES
Great stories. Before we wrap up, I have one last question. What would you say are the top five most challenging aspects of being a trade show manager?
First is keeping your team on task; you have a lot of different personalities to work with and most all of them are in remote locations to you. Second is staying in control in spite of the distractions. Third is understanding the challenges of working in different countries. Fourth is controlling your budget. And, fifth, through everything, keeping calm.
“Through everything, keep calm.” – Arlene Courtney
And how were you able to stay calm through all the trade show turbulence?
Coffee plays a big part in that. I even bring my own coffee and coffee maker to the hotel. And I always have power bars in my bag for a relatively healthy snack. In almost every show there are 14-hour days setting up, performing, taking down; if I have my coffee and a good breakfast in the morning and nibble on my power bars when I feel my energy going down … I stay calm.
I also trust in my team: my HP staff, the vendors and the venue staff. We all want to look good and have fun. I totally understand I can’t do this by myself and only by working together can we succeed.
I remember one show at Javits. We were really busy and the booth was so packed I had to take a photo. A few minutes later an HP exec at the booth wanted me to show him other booths at the floor. We walked over to the booth of one of our biggest competitors … and it was almost empty. I took another photo so I could show my team the two time-stamped pictures that proved we were doing our job. I was very proud of everyone.
Any last thoughts?
I look back over my career with much fondness. I had a great time with my work family doing what I loved. Now I’m looking forward to the next chapter in my life: spending time with my husband, three children and six grandchildren. Life is all about family … and I’ve had a great life.
Thank you, Arlene Courtney, for your friendship and support. They say the best way to predict your future is to create it. It sounds like you’re ready.
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William Hall is an actor, trainer and improviser living in San Francisco, CA. He works with companies to engage and involve audiences at Trade Shows, Conferences and Training Sessions. He is a founder of BATS Improv and the author of The Playbook: Improv Games for Performers.