Conference Booths, Space Travel and Innovation...
“Holy crap, they have the same idea for their booth!” 😨 said Christina, who was, at the time, communications specialist and my right arm. “They even have a hashtag,” she added looking worried and deflated. I scanned the room filled with health care executives and government policy peeps. This was the biggest conference with the biggest branding impact for our organization. Every year we spent months planning it. ”Christina, these aren’t coms people—most of them don’t know what a # is.” I said. “Don’t worry about it—we got this.” But I wasn’t sure at all. 😟😟
And I had a title to defend for best booth…yes, I’m THAT competitive.
I knew the other organization well. They were flush with cash, flashy with their slick booth setup and always got “pole position” at the conference. We, on the other hand, didn’t have much 💰💰💰, MacGyvered most of the booth ourselves, and usually landed a less-than-perfect location in the conference centre.
It was 2015—the unofficial Year of the Selfie 🤳🤳🤳. We had invested in over 1,000 selfie sticks as giveaways (bought in advance directly from AliBaba to save $$), lugged a flatscreen TV to the space (no rentals for us, too expensive) and created some fun but slightly homemade-looking backdrops (space 👨🚀 🚀 and an underwater scene 🐠🐠🐠) for people to stand in front of and take selfies with. Despite the less than stellar stands, on camera, the backdrops looked pretty cool. They also tied in nicely with our client-centred theme to highlight our newly client and family advisory and Client Voice (part of our spiel when conference-goers stopped by). Clients and families were the centre of my organization’s universe (space picture) and their involvement helped us discover a new world (underwater image).
Our “competition” stopped by—self-assured and confident as ever. Until they saw the selfie sticks and the looping images of conference goers our TV (which drew more people to our booths). Despite our low budget, “mom and pop” style stand and out-of-the way booth, people began engaging. I mean REALLY engaging—lining up to get a shot under water or floating through space. We had hit our stride.
On day two of the conference, the other organization had magically procured a monitor as well to broadcast their own selfies (they do say imitation is the best form of flattery). But despite this, their booth was comparatively quiet. Once voting was closed, we got the news we were hoping for: we won best booth! But more importantly, we left an imprint with conference attendees. I look back at this moment and realize how many lessons it taught me about engagement and innovation (in this case “small i” innovation if you will).
👉We were successful because, instead of focusing our booth entirely on our own business, we always tried to empathize with the conference goer. What was important to them? How could we elevate their experience? Usually, it started with a fun idea or trend (like the selfies) but we always took it further.
The conference space was notoriously freezing 🥶 —we responded with frothy coffees named after different programs and services our org offered, explaining their benefits and providing a cute leave-behind menu as people patiently waited for their ☕ ☕ ☕.
People seemed bored and stiff as they killed time waiting for their next session…so in two different years we gave them the opportunity to play and engage with others—first with a Wii Fit canoe 🛶 game (we had a camping theme replete with smore kits) and another year with giant Jenga, Connect 4 and Kerplunk games that also highlighted a play program for kids with medical complexities. Though of course our ultimate goal was to get attendees to remember our name, we also wanted them to remember it with fondness and enjoyment!
👉People are much more receptive to your message when they’re guard is down. I’m not sure about you, but I’m no fan of the “hard sales pitch.” Networking is, and should always be, in my opinion about relationship-building NOT about pressuring someone to buy in. Of course, it was easier for us as it wasn’t a “direct” sales pitch. But people remembered us, what we did and what we were highlighting that year. I’m pretty sure if someone had done “sentiment analysis,” we would have scored high.
👉A team effort always produces more dynamic results. Though I was often deemed the “creative one” within leadership, I knew better. Collaboration always won the day on my team, even before I knew a thing about #designthinking. Our theme could come from anyone—interns included. My job was to pluck the most promising ideas and work with the group to figure out what we could actually execute on. As the eternal optimist, I undeniably freaked my team out by wanting to do it ALL! Fortunately, we always managed to rein it in and figure out which elements were #desirable, #feasible and #viable and then run with them.
👉 The end product is only PART of the end result. THIS was probably the most important lesson! Others had way more money, better location, fancier booths, but as a team we realized that a huge component of our success was the “magic” that happened AFTER we produced the booth. For the duration of that conference, our team was “on”—engaging people, responding to questions, demonstrating—and generally ensuring that people were having an awesome experience.
I have seen so many “new and improved” products and services fall flat during execution—primarily because the project leads their widget “sells itself.” IT DOESN’T! Relationships,
genuine engagement, tenacity—these are the elements that will deliver success for you again and again.
And while “best booth” at a healthcare conference is hardly an Olympic medal 🏅 or best-selling book 📖, innovation is really about collecting a series of “small victories” along the way that help you get to that large-scale goal. 🚀 🚀 🚀
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