"The exposition industry is on a collision course with arts and entertainment," declares Charles Allen, the poetry-writing, piano-playing, 37-year-old president and CEO of American Exhibition Services, LLC, an exhibitionservices company in Birmingham, Ala. Allen wants his company to be smack in the middle of "where marketing meets entertainment."
He believes people come to shows for three reasons: "to do business, to feed their minds, and to have an entertaining experience." But show managers pay too little attention to the entertainment factor, he says, and by entertainment Allen isn't talking about a return to the "partying" experience that characterized many shows in the past.
No, he's talking about much the same thing author Michael J. Wolf details in his book The Entertainment Economy. "Entertainment is something to be added to the mix, but it is not the mix itself," Wolf writes. "It's something that makes one product stand out from the other, something that can spur the impulse or discretionary buy." Elsewhere in the book, Wolf observes," There is no business without show business."
New Resources Thanks to its merger with Vulcan Corporation, a privately held media and "tele-sales" company also based in Birmingham, AES has the financial and sales muscle to expand its product offerings and to develop its "entertainment vision" even further. With combined revenues of $42 million, the new AES is now the largest company devoted exclusively to exhibition marketing, with a sales force that has grown from 30 to 155, Allen reports.
"Our ability to generate revenue for show producers has tripled. We are in a better position to increase the nonbooth, nondues revenue resources for clients."
AES's association clients run some of the biggest shows in the industry: The Miami International Boat Show, the Consumer Electronics Show, the National Hardware Show, and the International Machine Tool Show, for example. Most of its 300 shows are among the Tradeshow 200 expos.
The company's 12 marketing services include its flagship Exhibitor Preview, a revolving kiosk with exhibitor literature, which has recently morphed into the Exhibitor Preview Pavilion, an entertainment and information area where attendees can pre-shop the show, find city maps and free coupons to restaurants and attractions, and have a chance to win a sponsored Dom Perignon giveaway at the end of the show (winner must be present). From giveaways to moving signage and audio commericials, the pavilion, like all the marketing services provided by AES, is a veritable gold mine of sponsorship opportunities. (See box on the following page.)
"The idea is that everyone leaves the pavilion with a good feeling, Allen adds. We're thinking of adding comfortable seating and sponsored massage breaks."
A Natural Evolution A tireless crusader for theconcept, Allen sits on the board of directors of the Center for Exhibition Research, and has been a generous donator to CEIR funding. He frequently quotes CEIR statistics and studies on the industry. One such study found that the more ancillary marketing exhibitors do, the better their results. Naturally, that's music to Allen's ears-- and to show managers', since they share a percentage of revenues generated by American Exhibition Services.
Allen says, "Trade shows have evolved from a simplistic booth/attendee model to an elevated forum for event marketing--a function of the fact that the average booth reached too few attendees. We had to create marketing opportunities that allow exhibitors to communicate throughout the show," he says, "not just at the booth."
And not just at the show, it turns out. Nothing will ever replace the "magic" of live meetings and trade shows, Allen continues. "People want to do business with people they can look in the eye and shake hands with." But the Internet has changed the way people make decisions to attend shows--increasingly, attendees evaluate shows and set up their agendas by visiting the expo's Web site prior to the event.
And so, AES has broadened its strategy to include pre- and post-show marketing opportunities on the Web, working with New York-based Trade Show Network News, in which AES is an investor.
"Technology and trade shows don't cannibalize each other," he believes. "They are the ultimate complements."
CEO as Poet To say that Charles Allen is driven seems an understatement. Even when he's relaxing at the piano, quickly picking out a requested song by ear (he doesn't read music), Allen seems like a man on a mission. He says his drive has to do with his father's leaving the family when Allen was at the Univer- sity of Ala- bama, forcing him to make his own way in the world, and ultimately, to support his mother, brother, and sister. He went on to work for the brokerage firm Morgan Keegan & Company. In less than two years he was elected vice president and became the firm's top sales producer nationwide.
After wandering around the aisles of the Miami International Boat Show in 1988, Allen got the idea for the Exhibitor Preview kiosk, starting his company with "two other people and a desk." He grew it to 80 people and $7.5 million in revenues before joining with Vulcan.
Not often do you find a CEO who enjoys writing poetry and playing the piano more than conquering last year's sales revenues, but Allen is such an unusual combination. A businessman with artistic aspirations, he intends someday to take a different kind of leap.
"In the next phase of my life, when I decide to take a break, I'd like to take a deep breath, get a good night's sleep, catch up with family and friends, travel, and six months later, maybe pursue my more artistic ambitions." Namely: to write, produce, direct, and score motion pictures.
He is not saying when he'll take that leap. In the meantime, he's continuing with his passionate involvement in the trade show industry. So serious is he about the entertainment value of trade shows, he has applied to protect the word "expotainment" as intellectual property. As far as AES is concerned, the company is getting ready to launch a really big "expotainment" program.
"That's all I can say about it right now," Allen says with a grin. Stay tuned.
WHERE THERE'S A WILL If there is a way to capture exhibitor marketing dollars, AES probably has a program aimed in that direction. Besides the Exhibitor Pavilion, some of AES's 12 marketing services include: * Audio Billboards: audio towers providing information about the show, and exhibitor commercials
* Marquees in Motion: a program for exhibitor/sponsor advertisements on shuttle buses
* Multimedia Kiosks: touch-screen computers with a variety of possible services, including language options, voice messaging, product locator, e-mail, registration for upcoming shows--all with various levels of sponsorship/advertising opportunities