“Our show was really struggling — it was a dying show,” says David Martin, vice president, marketing, at the Electronic Retailing Association in Arlington, Va.

When Martin joined ERA in February 2009, the association's annual conference was bleeding attendees and revenues — both down about 11 percent in 2008. The show floor was dead and, to make matters worse, the event was infested with “barnacles,” Martin says, people who would attend without registering and hold meetings for free in the hotel bar. Needless to say, the exhibitors and sponsors were not happy. And to top it all off, a new for-profit show had emerged and was taking away attendees.

Big changes were needed. It was time to rebrand and reinvent the 20-year-old association's annual event. Unfortunately, it was also a time when most associations were experiencing double-digit percentage decreases in attendance. Nevertheless, ERA managed turnaround. Attendance climbed 31 percent in 2009 and another 22 percent in 2010. In just two years, attendance went from about 2,400 to around 3,900.

Marketing Muscle

After the 2008 show, ERA hired Julie Coons as its new president and CEO. She quickly embarked on a “listening tour,” getting feedback from members on how to improve the convention. She also brought in a new show director, a new head of sales, and a new marketing chief, Martin.

The overriding concern? Hundreds — maybe even a thousand — barnacles would show up and hold meetings at what they called the “circle bar” in the lobby of the hotel where the convention was held. “We wanted to bring all those barnacles under the tent,” says Martin.

They decided to streamline the very complex pricing model. They realized that many attendees were interested only in the exhibition, so they created a $149 rate ($99 for early birds) for nonmembers. This way, nonmembers could attend the show for next to nothing, and once they were under the tent, the hope was, they could be converted to members. (Membership has gone up 15 percent in two years.)

“There were a lot of marketing challenges,” says Martin. He pushed the budget to $75,000 to market the convention, a figure that makes many of his counterparts envious. “I'm lucky because Julie Coons recognizes the value of marketing,” says Martin. He spent that money on graphic design, a new show Web site, ad campaigns, telemarketing, and video. He also hired a third-party marketing company to handle the creative, branding, and new “look and feel” that flowed throughout all materials.

Martin is also a big believer in multi-modal marketing, which means hitting customers through multiple marketing channels all at once so they get the message in a number of ways. Plus, the message was segmented to the various audiences and was focused on showing the value of attending as opposed to listing the features of the meeting, as had been done previously.

Bring Back the Fun

Of course, a big marketing budget can't save a lackluster conference. So another huge task was to reinvent the show, starting with the name. Instead of the utilitarian ERA Annual Convention, it's now called the D-to-C Convention, which stands for direct-to-consumer. (Members are in the infomercial business.) The change seeks to represent the entire D-to-C industry, not just the association, because a major goal was to re-establish the convention as the leader in the industry.

ERA also sought to revive the show floor. “Our members are an eccentric, fun-loving bunch — very successful and entrepreneurial — yet there was no fun in the show,” Martin says. “So we had to figure out ways to add some.” One innovation was a product catwalk where inventors, through a partnership with an organization called InventHelp, would showcase their new creations to ERA members. ERA also plunked a stage onto the show floor and launched a talk show, where attendees and industry leaders were interviewed by Coons and other staffers. The sessions were videotaped and later posted on the Web as part of ERA TV.

Further, ERA sold private meeting rooms on the show floor to encourage exhibitors to book appointments with clients there rather than in hotel suites, which had become a common practice.

And as a nod to the barnacles, they even re-created the circle bar just outside the show floor. “Now the buzz on the floor is crazy,” says Martin.