Listen up, technology event marketers: Someday your product won't be sexy. Technologies, like people, mature. And when they do, your event marketing strategy will have to change. Can't happen here? Listen to Kathleen Noce, corporate events manager, marketing communications, of Seagate Technology Inc., the largest independent manufacturer of computer hard drives and other storage solutions, based in Scotts Valley, Calif.:

"Fifteen years ago it was easy to attract hard-drive customers. When the technology was new to everybody, people were motivated to take seminar courses because they needed to know what disk drives did. Today, my kids know what a hard drive is." This is not to say that there still isn't a lot of technological sizzle in the hard-drive market--as anyone who has watched hard-drive storage standards move from megabytes to gigabytes knows--but creating widespread interest in the product is no longer a slam dunk. In fact, it's not even a particularly good use of marketing dollars. And that means the traditional tactic of creating a big trade show booth and giving away T-shirts is out, since simple awareness won't get you far if every-one already knows what your product does.

That also means that a Seagate demo isn't for everyone. Demos show engineers from OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) and resellers how the drives work for specific applications. "That kind of demonstration doesn't really lend itself to a loud, noisy environment where there are a lot of people who don't know anything about disk drives," says Stacey S. Lund, Seagate's executive director, marketing communications.

Learning, Not Dazzling If the usual booth antics don't work, what was Seagate doing at a big horizontal show like Comdex 99 in Las Vegas? Engaging in off-the-floor marketing. The company held special meetings for its OEM customers at the Four Seasons Hotel. Instead of taking a big booth as it had in previous years, the company went off the show floor and into a meeting room at the Las Vegas Convention Center. There, Seagate reps were able to qualify attendees as they walked through the door. Resellers--a special target this year because of the launch of a reseller partner program--were directed to theirown reception desk. After being qualified, they received invitations to a special invited-guests-only party at the House of Blues. And, of course, they had the option to see detailed demos of Seagate products in a setting in which they could talk with Seagate representatives who--unlike their T-shirt-tossing counterparts on the show floor--were there to provide technical information and to talk about the benefits of the reseller partner program. The bottom line, says Lund, is that visitors to the product suite in the meeting room were there not to be dazzled by a show, but to learn about hard drives. "If we did what we're doing in the meeting rooms out on the show floor, we'd get a lot of volume but not many people who really cared," she says.

Adds Noce, "What you want are people who actually want to see your product, not just people walking through a booth saying 'What's that? Look at how that thing moves.'"

"They Were Like Piranhas!" Of course, getting the right people off the floor and into the meeting room was no easy task. The job began with invitations mailed to resellers. The next step was coming up with a gimmick to lure attendees to the room. This turned out to be plastic eyeglass cases in fluorescent colors. The idea was to place the cases strategically in bins around the convention center, where an illuminated sign explained that attendees who picked up a case could get something to go inside it at the Seagate meeting room.

That was the idea. What happened was that every time Seagate reps took a cartload of eyeglass cases out to refill the bins, Comdex attendees descended on them, grabbing cases by the fistful.

"It became a joke," says Noce. "They were like piranhas! I had to limit appearances with the cart to once an hour. We couldn't even reach the bins." (Comdex veterans know that having giveaways anywhere other than a booth is a no-no. But drawing people off the floor was essential for Seagate's concept to work, and show operator Ziff-Davis was willing to negotiate. "There's a lot of money in this for them," says Lund. "They do want to keep us happy.")

Once inside the Seagate product suite, attendees got a pair of sunglasses to go with the plastic case, but not until they had been through a detailed qualification process, with, as mentioned above, special attention to resellers.

Turning Attendees into Prospects Attracting the right kind of attendee and providing the right kind of product information may constitute a successful conclusion to a marketing event for most companies, but getting the data is just the beginning, says Lund. She speculates that half the companies that come to large horizontal shows to build their customer databases end up not doing anything with them.

"Unless you use that information immediately, within three months it becomes useless," she says. "It's hard to get people to actually work the database, make the calls, do the mailings, keep the information fresh."

Seagate outsources database follow-up to companies like Sunset Direct, Austin, Texas, which make the calls to clarify what business attendees are in, whether they buy hard drives and other Seagate products, and the best way to continue contact. In short, Lund makes sure that Seagate hangs onto any prospects who could be turned into customers. Event managers who are struggling with proving return on investment might want to note that it is the quality of the follow-up on data gathered at an event that makes you a hero. "If all you're doing to justify your participation in shows is taking the position that you have to be there and you want to be big, you don't know what you're going to get out of it," says Lund.

Meanwhile, at the Four Seasons . . . For all the careful planning and execution that went into Seagate's product suite at the Las Vegas Convention Center, it was not even the main event. The big off-the-floor marketing action was at the Four Seasons Hotel at the far southern end of the Strip. Seagate took about three-quarters of the hotel's rooms and all the meeting space.

There, in the hotel's conference center, which is on the south side of the gigantic Mandalay Bay property, Seagate operated its technology suite (as opposed to the product suite at the convention center). This was an invita- tion-only, sign-a-nondisclosure-form event for the company's OEM customers. "This is where the OEMs see where our newest and hottest technologies are going in the next couple years, and lets them tell us where they see their systems going, so we can marry our technology with theirs," says Lund.

In addition to the technology suite, Seagate held special single-customer meetings with its largest OEM clients, as well as a huge hospitality suite event. "Over the course of 3.5 hours, about 1,000 people came through," says Noce. "I warned them, but the catering people didn't know what hit them."

According to Noce, it took a while for the Four Seasons to understand what Seagate was doing. For one thing, the company wanted three-quarters of the hotel's room nights during Comdex (330 rooms) because it was providing sleeping rooms for Seagate employees, employees of such partner companies as Gadzooks, and customers. "They were afraid to let us have all the rooms," she says. "But once the Four Seasons understood what we were offering in terms of F&B, they didn't even really care about room nights anymore." When you talk F&B, she says, hotels listen.

She also says that being at the Four Seasons was an aspect of Seagate's branding strategy. "We want to show that Seagate is still the market leader," she says. "Being at the Four Seasons is part of that. We had very few no-shows for our special customer events, and I do believe part of that is because we were at the Four Seasons. If a customer knows he's staying at Circus Circus for the whole week of Comdex, and he's being offered two free nights at the Four Seasons. ... Let's say it was a great move for us. It's a wonderful hotel."

What's Next? Will Seagate engage in more off-the-floor event marketing at Comdex 2000? Maybe, maybe not, according to Lund. "Our main effort this year was to capture the reseller audience and really explore disk drives at a much deeper level than you usually see at trade shows," she says. "Frankly, part of the reason we did all this is that we already had the space budgeted for and reserved. A year ago, we had a very big presence, made a splash. I didn't want to step down from that, so we decided to get off the floor and go into the meeting rooms." She adds that activities like building the reseller database are relatively easy to measure, but that using events and trade shows to promote the Seagate brand are much harder. If Seagate returns to brand promotion next year, participation in big, horizontal shows such as Comdex or CeBIT or Networld+Interop--all shows Seagate has had a presence in for some time--may depend on the show operators' willingness to help solve the measurement problem.

"I think trade shows in general--this is a terrible thing to say--do a great job of charging you a load of money for very little service," she says. "We pressed hard on Ziff-Davis this year, and they gave us tremendous service on this show. But to demand a lot, and get a lot, means really having focus, really elaborating on your message and what you hope to get out of it."

Kathleen Noce concurs, and says she can foresee a day when Seagate will be in Las Vegas during Comdex, but not in the convention center at all.

As the publicity machine was ramping up in September for Comdex 99 in Las Vegas, the buzz among tech contractors was that Seagate Technology was going to run a fiber-optic cable from the Las Vegas Convention Center across town to the Four Seasons Hotel, to demonstrate Seagate's ability to stream video from a conventional low-end PC desktop hard drive. But it never happened. Here's why:

"Our statement was that even our low-end drives are so fast you can stream video off them," says Stacey Lund, executive director of marketing communications for Seagate Technology. Most people associate streaming video with high-end video drives, a market that Seagate dominates. Seagate product marketers thought it would be impressive to stream video from one drive over a fiber-optic cable to a remote drive and then onto a video monitor. There was just one problem: It didn't really matter as far as Seagate product performance was concerned. "It would have shown how fast the data could travel from one position to another--three miles in this case--over fiber. That's of interest, but it doesn't really demonstrate the speed of the drive," says Lund.

Actually, there was a second problem. "People tout these capabilities, but they can't actually go that far," says Kathleen Noce, Seagate's corporate events manager, marketing communications. "The fiber channel works fine; the streaming works fine; the networking vendor [Smart City Networks] knows what's going on. The problem is working with the phone company to get all that stuff running." She says that the situation was better than the year before, with phone company vendors having more experience at laying cable and connecting it into different cable formats. "The technology is there, but when it's time to implement, the vendor isn't ready, even though they say they are."

In the end, the demo worked fine without the fiber-optic connection.

"Here's the problem," says Kathleen Noce, corporate events manager, marketing communications, Seagate Technology. "We used to get stuck with customers' rooms because we'd reserve them under our deposit and our room block. Then the customer wouldn't show, and it would go against the Seagate master account." A few years ago, while holding off-site customer events at the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas during Comdex, Noce figured out how to resolve the problem: She got the hotel to agree to let her operate more like a travel agent. The hotel agreed to take Seagate customer reservations. Then, Noce sent out literature to customers offering them rooms at the hotel at a discounted group rate, giving them a special phone number to call. "I told the customers they could have the room at the special rate, but they'd have to give their own credit card numbers and be responsible if they were no-shows," she says. "It saved me a ton of money."

"Most marcomm [marketing communications] people are service people," says Stacey S. Lund, executive director of marketing communications for Seagate Technology. "[Product marketers] tell them what they want, and they'll provide the service. My background is in technology, product marketing, and channel marketing, which gives me a different perspective."

The greatest advantage of knowing the product technology? "You can argue with people," she says. "Somebody may tell me what they want, but I want to know why they want it, and how we're supposed to get out the right information in the best format."

In fact, to work in marketing communications at Seagate means being willing to learn the products and the technologies. "That's the entrance fee to come into my organization," says Lund. "You cannot be just marcomm. You can't put on blinders and say, 'I know how to run an event, but I have no idea what it is you're trying to say, nor do I care.'"

This hard-nosed approach goes for outsourcing vendors, too. "Most partners I've run into are just focused on putting on a really great event, and they don't understand where the value is. It's not good just to have the coolest event in the world. It's cool to have an event that provides the best information, and to know that whatever you put into it will come back with a good return."