- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Trade show gimmicks have moved far beyond fancy pens and key chains with logos. Robots, massage chairs and even golf have found their place at meetings and conventions. The goal is to attract attention and get potential clients to remember exhibitors’ products and services.

About 175 exhibitors have set up shop at the Washington Convention Center. They are pitching everything from funky furniture and waterfalls with messages to T-shirts with TV screens, virtual golf and oxygen bars.

“[Exhibitors] have to cut through the clutter,” said Jonathan Mensing, chief executive officer of Relaxation Station in San Francisco, which offers massages and oxygen bars. “You have to do something to get people’s attention.”

The trade show, called “TS2,” is expected to draw about 3,500 association and corporate event managers, sales directors, company executives and others.

Officials say the innovative marketing tools showcased at the three-day event, which started yesterday, are needed to get exhibitors noticed and remembered at trade shows and conventions.

“Exhibitors are getting more sophisticated,” said Tamara Christian, president of National Trade Productions in Alexandria, which owns and manages TS2. “As they compete, they want to do things to grab people’s attention.”

Trade shows are still big business, despite technology that can eliminate the need for face-to-face marketing.

Companies can spend 17 percent to 23 percent of their marketing budgets on trade shows, said Skip Cox, president of Exhibit Surveys Inc., which tracks trends in the trade-show industry.

The average mid- to large-size company can spend nearly $1 million on events each year, Tradeshow Week reports.

“It’s all about budget,” said Ronnie Schaer, a former employee at LexisNexis in Bethesda, who handled more than 60 trade shows annually for the information provider. “There’s a lot of things you can do out of the box, but it’s all budget-driven.”

The convention is full of off-the-wall marketing images. Women with TV screens on their T-shirts stroll across the exhibit floor, and a robot named Chip appears almost human as he chats with participants.

Chip is a product of Power Robotics in Ashburn, Va. He says his rate of $2,000 per day is reasonable because he “works all day long.”

Ray Raymond, division president, said Chip’s presence at an exhibitor’s booth can double or even quadruple the number of exhibitor leads.

A virtual golf simulator brings 18 holes on 32 U.S. courses right to conventioneers.

Jeff Nycum, marketing director for Golf-A-Round America in Altoona, Pa., said virtual golf is used as a “traffic building” tool and has attracted as many as 1,000 people in a day.

“People want to have something in their booth that sets them aside from everyone else,” he said.

The full-size simulator, which is about 9 feet high, 22 feet long and 13 feet wide, costs $2,750 to rent for the first day and $2,250 for each additional day.

Foot and seated massages, as well as a visit to the oxygen bar, are ways to recharge during a long day, Mr. Mensing said.

When he started Relaxation Station in 1992, Mr. Mensing said, no one was dealing with the human side of trade shows: the sore feet, tired muscles and stiff backs.

Relaxation Station’s foot-massage machines cost $100 per event. Seated massages, which come with a practitioner, cost $65 per hour.

What looks like a computer hard drive is an oxygen machine with a headset that releases refreshment through the nose. The units cost $200 to $250 per day.

Mr. Mensing said his company’s tools are effective in getting an exhibitor noticed and getting face time with potential customers as they enjoy foot massages or peruse company materials next to the oxygen bar.

“When people are more relaxed, they are more receptive,” Mr. Mensing said. “People appreciate this a lot more than a new pen or a stuffed animal.”

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