Beware of Games Gimmicks and Gadgets in Your Booth

by Traci Browne

Shiny Object Syndrome

A Shiny Object circa 1932 Creator/Photographer: E. F. Caldwell & Co.

Recently a very popular topic of discussion on LinkedIn was whether or not a company should use promotional models in their trade show booth.  I’ve also seen many posts about the use of QR Codes or Mobile App Games in trade show booths.  Someone else asked about good “passport” gimmicks to drive traffic to booths.

I think it is good to have these discussions but what I find lacking in most of them is a discussion of strategy.  People are very quick to tell you “don’t be left behind” and “everyone’s doing it” without ever talking about why.  Or, is it the right thing based on your goals and objectives?

Let’s take our LinkedIn discussion on “promotional models”.  Here is the question that was asked:

To use, or not to use, promotional girls at a trade show exhibition stand?
I have concerns regarding the associated brand reputation issues, however can’t deny they seem to work as an attraction. Considering researching the number of women decision makers attending the event to help me decide, but am interested in your opinions.

What I found fascinating were the 55 comments that this question spurred.  I would say about 99 percent of those comments were opinions simply pro/con the use of “promotional girls” in a trade show.  I watched with interest as no one seemed to care what business the originator was in, where the show was taking place, what was her target market, what were her show objectives, how was she planning on using the models, etc?

I’ve seen exhibitors embrace the QR code as the next best thing.  Instead of giving out product sheets or brochures, attendees could simply walk up and scan the QR code.  Sounds simple except most the attendees had never seen a QR code before.  They may have had Smartphones but they did not have the QR code reader.  Sales Reps and Booth staffers were spending all their time showing attendees how to download readers and then teach them how to scan a QR code.  Discussions quickly turned to how the attendees company might use this cool new tool.  No one was spending any time talking about the exhibitor’s product.  Had they been selling QR scanners they may have been on to something but sadly they were not.

Forget the gadgets and gimmicks.  Plan your strategy and make sure your efforts are integrated with the entire company’s strategy.  How do your goals and objectives get you closer to your company’s goals and objectives?  I’m not anti-technology, I just think it should be used to enhance what you are doing not take away from it.

If you find yourself wanting to spend a lot of money to be included in a shows passport program, ask yourself how will this help us achieve our goals.  And then double check your trade show goals are in line with your company’s goals.  If those goals involve affixing little pretend stamps on peoples’ pretend passports, then by all means, go for it.  If it involves educating people on your company’s products or services, then maybe rethink your plan.

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Jenise Fryatt March 23, 2011 at 2:22 pm

Wow, what a concept. Think of STRATEGY first. How does a gadget or gimmick fit in with what you’re trying to do? Sadly, I think that oftentimes we “progressive” thinkers just can’t wait go glom onto the next shiney new toy. The means rather than the end becomes the goal. Sometimes we even get a little fanatical about trying to make sure that everyone adopts the new “means”. Thanks for being a clear and saner voice, Traci. You make an excellent point.

tracibrowne March 23, 2011 at 3:46 pm

Thanks for commenting Jenise! Saner voice? Not so sure about that! I’ve caught myself a few times getting sucked into the “coolness” vortex. I don’t think there is anything wrong with getting excited with using these new tools or gimmicks…but when your getting all excited we just need to take a step back and really look at if it’s the right thing and/or how we can modify it to make it effective.

Here’s an example of a twist to the Passport game

Heidi Thorne March 23, 2011 at 5:52 pm

You can probably predict what I’m going to say about this one. If you use ANY booth gimmick, gadget, game or girl, it must be PURPOSEFUL and appropriate for your audience. We have a trade show locally that is lovingly referred to as a “beer and babes” show, primarily dedicated to schmoozing. For that event and that audience, it works.

Speaking of gadgets and gimmicks, while I’m active in social media and hope people will move to using tech such as QR codes, I usually get blank stares when I do post them in my booth locally. And usually, and I’m going to be exhibiting my iPhone snobbery here (sorry), I have to explain how to use them for Blackberry and Android users with, as you mentioned, the how-to-download-the-app instructions. The US is way behind other countries in adoption of QR code use, even in the Gen Y population.

It all boils down to what works for your audience, not you.

tracibrowne March 23, 2011 at 5:59 pm

Thanks Heidi – would love to see that show. Yes, we are behind on QR codes…Japan has used them for quite a long time. But you are right on the money…”It all boils down to what works for your audience, not you.”

Of course that does not mean we can’t teach them something new sometimes.

Lara McCulloch-Carter March 23, 2011 at 6:10 pm


Wonderfully said! I didn’t see it on LinkedIn, but I agree with you wholeheartedly. A lot of times the desire is to make a splash or to get a crowd. Unfortunately, what is missed is that very few in the crowd are left with the right impression of the company. Maybe they create the trends, bring global insights to their local audience, think pragmatically, provide unbelievable service. The essence of any business should be threaded through everything they do – including what they hand out at a tradeshow. Incentives /Promos can be a powerful way to reinforce what makes the company unique.

One of my favorite stories to tell (although not a tradeshow promo, but related) was receiving a delivered box from a courier company that wanted our business. When I opened it, inside was an egg. And accompanying the egg was a letter that stated (and I’m paraphrasing): “We know how much you value every package that leaves your office. If this egg has arrived intact, you know how much care and attention we put into every package we send for our customers.”. It was the antithesis of the ‘we’re the fastest’ and ‘we’re the cheapest’ messages we were getting from every other courier company. They left us with an impression that reinforced what made them different and we did business with them. I’m not sure the same could be said if they sent showgirls to our door :)

tracibrowne March 23, 2011 at 6:25 pm

Hi Lara, so glad you stopped by and commented. I love your egg story! That would definitely have gotten my attention and it does in fact clearly show what their value prop is. (not to mention you just gave every trade show shipping company that sees this a promotional idea) I’m also envisioning what their booth might look like at a show. Now there’s something you can work with and integrate into all your marcom.

Although I have to say…if a shipping company sent a bunch of show girls to my door…I would not understand what it was all about but I would definitely remember it…as would my neighbors…I work from home ;-)

Lara McCulloch-Carter March 23, 2011 at 6:37 pm

Good point :D

Michael Thimmesch March 23, 2011 at 7:08 pm

Ah, Traci, you again get to the heart of the matter with clarity and gusto.

I do not understand why people would hire a booth babe, when they can instead hire a crowd gatherer or a booth ambassador. Someone who is going to attract people not by their good looks, but by their charm and intelligence. So sure, there may be shows where a booth babe is appropriate to the audience, but a crowd gatherer is almost always going to help your booth staffers take more leads.

Any giveaway that falls under the “bright shiny object” category only is worthwhile if you are trying to attract everyone at the show. But then, your staffers have to be very disciplined in converting the interest in the giveaway into a conversation about how your company can help that attendee solve their business problems. Otherwise its just sound and fury.

We are going to try QR codes at EXHIBITOR2011 next week. I’ve felt that it’s hard enough to create concise, compelling graphics without adding even more visual clutter, and besides, if you’ve got a live person in your booth, why have them visit a website — talk to them face to face! However, we will have QR codes on individual products, with the small headline over the QR code that says, “See the movie.” If a visitor uses their smartphone to scan the QR code, they’ll see the movie we have on YouTube that demos that product in action. I set up links to track counts, too.

Thanks for your dose of sanity, Traci! See you soon at EXHIBITOR!

tracibrowne March 23, 2011 at 7:43 pm

Mike: Well gusto anyway…

My father, a contractor, and his crew seem to love the Makita Girls. I noticed he uses their tools as well. I cannot say whether the two are connected but for that audience it seems to work.

I would love if you would share your experiences after Exhibitor how the QR codes went. Let us know how you dealt with the education aspect of what they are (if there is any) and how you managed it. Sounds like a great post to me!

See you in a few days…

Tahira Endean April 2, 2011 at 6:54 pm

Traci, great post and to all the commenters – great comments. While my primary focus is corporate incentives and association conferences / their events, we have recently been brought into a trade show arena, and so I have spent a lot of time looking at all the many ways that people are building traffic, staffing and caring for their booths during a show, and generally what works and what doesn’t and I really appreciate the concise input from all. Of course I love the cool stuff and toys, and you know I believe that purpose must first be defined with strategy to support, so this for me is great news and great information. Thanks much!

tracibrowne April 2, 2011 at 11:24 pm

Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment Tahira (my Avatar Twin). Everyone, Tahira also has a wonderful blog Events, Life and Impact Points. Yes we all love to get those great gifts when we visit a booth. But I love how you say it, “that purpose must first be defined with strategy to support”.

Jamie Montague April 6, 2011 at 1:37 pm

I have booked models for exhibits before with success. But it needs to be targeted. My customer at the time was preparing food (which was also their product), and having them do the serving and minor food prep, was very sucessful. However, the uses are limited, and overkill comes off as cheesy very quickly.

People take things too far. I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if I were to see an exhibit that had scantily clad models wearing tshirts with QR codes on them.

tracibrowne April 6, 2011 at 1:40 pm

fan-freakin-tastic Jamie…Brand Managers all over are rushing to the phone to order their t-shirts and book their models right now! Way to throw out an idea…I expect to see these “ambassadors” hanging outside the convention center as soon as the weather breaks.

Michael Thimmesch April 29, 2011 at 8:10 pm

Hello Traci,

As a follow up, we came back from EXHIBITOR2011 where we had QR codes on our booth, and the results were not so bright-and-shiny.

We simply did not get enough out of it to make it worth repeating — not until the audience gets more tech savvy, the smartphones get smarter about not needing apps to scan QR codes, and the show hall doesn’t squelch loading the Internet from attendee’s phones.

Which made for a good blog post, which can be found here:

tracibrowne May 2, 2011 at 11:40 am

Just finally had a chance to read your follow-up post. That was very helpful and really appreciate your honesty. So often us marketers fear talking about the things that didn’t work. But it’s those things that don’t work, and learning why they didn’t, that bring us closer to the next big idea!

Jerry T January 24, 2014 at 6:30 pm

We were using a slot machine program called allj slots… It was really good for generating excitement and managing the prizes… I’d definitely recommend it

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