If you build it, they will come. And build.

When LEGO held its first-ever KidsFest, at the Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford last November, the line of families waiting to get in snaked through the lobby, out the door, and down the block. "We projected 12,000 people," says Vince Rubino, manager, event marketing, at LEGO® headquarters in Enfield, Conn. "We thought it would be great if 15,000 showed up. We were a little overwhelmed."

Because, in fact, some 25,000 people waited up to three hours to get in and play, while about 10,000 more had to be turned away.

Although LEGO had participated in plenty of other events—for example, having great success over the years at Comic-Con, the huge pop-culture show held annually in San Diego—it wasn't clear how big a draw a solo show, in Hartford, would be. Would the down economy hurt or help? Would holding the show the weekend before Thanksgiving hurt or help?

"I've been working at LEGO for 25 years. We know that families show up wherever we go," Rubino says. Still, even he was surprised. "We had two or three times the response we were expecting."

Passion for the Product

Rubino linked up with LIFE Marketing & Events to create and operate the show. "We felt that a LEGO-themed festival would be a success, but we didn't have the skill set to run it ourselves," he says. Michael Guinan, president of LIFE Marketing & Events in Hartford, had the experience—and the vision. "I truly understood the passion for the LEGO brand," Guinan says. "My son was 5 at the time I pitched the idea to LEGO. I thought, ‘Why not create a traveling branded show with LEGO assets, and reach out to the communities for other family-oriented companies to sponsor or exhibit at the show?"

The LEGO "assets" include life-sized models from LEGO headquarters, built by the company's staff of Master Model Builders. Characters from the Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies, along with some from the Harry Potter series, were on display alongside dragons and knights, all of them built from LEGO bricks. The creations provided inspiration for kids doing their own building at kid-height tables. Also at the show, a LEGO Club Zone offered interactive activities, while a LEGO Open Builder Talent Contest allowed children to submit their LEGO-built structures for display and prizes. Schools got involved in the LEGO Landmark contest, submitting student-built structures representing their towns' landmarks.

Guinan is at a loss for words when he considers the reality that came from his early vision. After a pause, he says simply, "It was amazing."

Rubino recalls that they questioned the convention center about its maximum capacity and were assured that the relatively new center had never come close to selling out. That changed with LEGO, which sold out in a few hours. "Some show-industry professionals at the center said it was the most successful show they'd seen in Connecticut in 30 years," Guinan says. "People came from 14 states and Canada."

Events Equal Engagement

That's the kind of reach and impact a lot of companies would love to have—and that many believe can be gained from well-designed, compelling events. More than half of the senior marketing and sales executives responding to a 2009 survey said event marketing is "the discipline that best accelerates and deepens relationships" with customers. The survey report, EventView 2009, was released last fall by the Meeting Professionals International Foundation, the Event Marketing Institute, and George P. Johnson. Respondents also chose event marketing as the channel that provides the greatest return on investment.

And while the 2009 Promo Industry Trends Report (from our sister publication Promo) shows slow growth in event marketing, the magazine cites research from the recent VSS Communications Industry Forecast that reveals "event marketing and sponsorships" was the largest branded entertainment category in 2009 and was expected to grow 3.6 percent to $22 billion. (That's a smaller increase than the nearly 11 percent growth of 2008, but these days, just being in positive territory is a good thing.) Spending on event marketing breaks down as follows: sports and entertainment events capture 38 percent, road shows/mobile marketing are at 25 percent, grass-roots events at 15 percent, and college events at 12 percent. (The remaining 11 percent is categorized as "other.")

Charles Schwab uses more than 500 local events every year to "deepen relationships with clients," says Victoria Sandvig, vice president, event and production services, at the company's headquarters in San Francisco. "We invite investors to hear Schwab experts talk about market trends. We're educating individuals so that they can be more savvy investors."

These are often lunch, dinner, or reception meetings with 75 to 250 attendees. And it isn't just the expertise that Schwab is giving them, Sandvig says. "It's how we deliver that information, and the experience we create. That's how we add value from the moment we first touch them with the invitation. I am always asking, ‘What's the first impression? What's the first thing they see when they arrive?' My team is all about improving the client experience." A high-quality experience from beginning to end delivers on the company's goal of "furthering our relationship with clients and deepening their loyalty," says Sandvig. The message sent by the events is: "We are people you can trust and learn from."

Next Page: Chicken and Egg

Chicken and Egg

Clearly, an event like KidsFest reinforces and maintains customer loyalty and identification with the brand. But the brand did a lot of the work too. "LEGO is white-hot right now," Rubino says. Company research shows that in the tough economy, consumers see LEGO bricks and kits as offering value. "It's not a ‘one and done' toy. It's a toy that continually comes out of the toy chest," he says. And parents see the activity as more than playing. "Kids are learning while they are playing, they are exercising their brains and their imaginations while they're building."

KidsFest shows are planned for Boston and New York/New Jersey, and Guinan is booking this fall's dates in Hartford. But for 2010, Rubino emphasizes, there will be a bigger space and improved traffic flow so that no one has a long wait to get in—or worse, to get shut out. "It's frustrating that we disappointed some families," Rubino acknowledges. On the other hand, he says, overwhelming attendance is a good problem to have.

The Hartford show's 90,000 square feet will be increased to 140,000 square feet, the list of exhibitors will be refined, and all of the show's activities will be reviewed to ensure that customers have as much fun and interaction as possible during their day with LEGO. "When you do an event well," Rubino says, "it reinforces the brand and strengthens the relationship consumers have with the brand."

RELATED ARTICLES

Digital Media on the Rise in Event Marketing

EventView 2009: Event Marketing Survey Finds Measurement Critical

George P. Johnson's Long Road to Success