Roadshow of Strength

Business presentations are hitting the road. Whether an alternative to an exhibition or complement to it, roadshows offer an effective means of locating and interacting with the target audience.

SBHD: Business presentations are hitting the road. Whether an alternative to an exhibition or complement to it, roadshows offer an effective means of locating and interacting with the target audience.

Capitalism has always produced strange bedfellows, but UK marketers may be particularly surprised to hear that they have something very significant in common with Leon Trotsky.

During the Russian Civil War, Trotsky faced a problem that marketers will understand: how to get a complex message across to the masses when they haven’t time or inclination to come and listen.

His solution was revolutionary. You put a cinema, presenter and production crew on a train and tour the country to put the message across.

Today, the same technique is being used by UK marketers, except the trains have been replaced by trucks and the silent movies substituted with sophisticated audio-visual presentations and computer link-ups.

Roadshows give companies the opportunity to take their message wherever they want, rather than relying on trade shows and exhibitions at established sites.

It may also be much cheaper for a firm to stage a roadshow, although some are extremely expensive productions.

There are basically two types of roadshow. One is fully mobile, with everything needed to run the presentation – including the exhibition space itself – being carried on trucks. This offers considerable mobility because all that is needed is an accessible parking space large enough to take a trailer. The drawback is that audiences have to be relatively small, usually no more than 50 or 60.

With the other sort of roadshow, usually called a “static” roadshow, the exhibition equipment – stands, lights, overhead projectors, sound systems and so on – are transported from one permanent space to another. These sites are often rented halls, factory floors or shopping malls, depending on the type and purpose of the show and the number of people to be addressed at any one time. Depending on the space available, the audience could number several thousand.

It is not uncommon for companies to use roadshows to “shadow” major industry exhibitions or events which they do not actually want to attend. At this year’s British International Toy & Hobby Fair at Kensington Olympia, Sega and Hasbro rented their own exhibition space elsewhere.

Hasbro, the world’s largest toy company, has not actually attended the Toy Fair for some years. Indeed, it, and other major firms which have stopped coming, have been blamed for the decline of the event. It had to move from Earl’s Court to the smaller Olympia site last year.

A Hasbro spokeswoman explains that the company had become disillusioned with the whole idea of a single exhibition. “The Toy Fair is for the independent retail trader. But if you think about it, for someone in Scotland to have to come all the way to London is asking a bit much,” she says.

This year, Hasbro’s roadshow is going to be at rented exhibition space in Harrogate, Reading and Dublin – in addition to Westminster in London, where the show coincides with the Olympia fair. Regional retailers on Hasbro’s computer database are mailed with invitations.

Roadshow-based presentations of new product lines to retailers are also common in the computer industry. Mark Wallace, managing director of live event management company MWA, says: “It is unlikely that buyers are going to be able to free up their time to come to the other end of the country to see a new piece of software, so you have to take the product to them.”

Wallace’s outfit has worked for many of the larger firms in the computer hardware and software industry. It recently ran a multi-country show for software firm Lotus Development Corporation. This meant taking the same presentation to London, Paris, Madrid, Frankfurt and Milan.

Because it involved senior Lotus executives who were only available for a short period – a week and a half – it was necessary to have two identical presentations and technical teams so that, while one presentation was actually live, another was being set up at the next venue ready for the arrival of the main presenters.

The presentations were given from a lectern and supported by live demonstrations.

Each venue had its own unique problems, however. In Frankfurt, the show had to be adapted to use only one screen, while in London it had to accommodate a live camera facility.

“The advantage to Lotus was that they were able to communicate the same global message across frontiers,” says Wallace.

But roadshows do not always involve companies trying to sell products to their retailers. Crown Business Communications has run a number for organisations such as the Department of Trade and Industry and North West Water, with audiences such as the business community or general public.

CBC director of production Nicky Havelaar explains that the DTI roadshows were “the biggest in Europe”. The DTI wanted to contact the management of medium-sized firms around the UK (with a target of 18,000 people). The roadshow itself consisted of three vehicles, which linked together to form a fully-equipped auditorium, complete with 60 laptops tied into a central computer.

As with Hasbro’s roadshow, a major constituent factor in the success of the operation was making sure that the people the DTI wanted to reach were informed well in advance where the roadshow would be and what it was for. “With this sort of presentation you can’t actually just turn up and hope for the best,” says Havelaar. “If clients want to talk face-to-face they have to build up a database of their customers first.”

It is not always necessary for roadshows to be announced in advance, however, particularly if the target audience is the general public rather than a company’s workforce or retailers. North West Water (NWW) – another CBC client – has a roadshow that tours around shopping malls and fairgrounds in the North-West of England, aimed at enticing passers-by through its doors.

NWW, by its very nature, already had a database of customers. What it did not have was a high-street presence – its only communication channels being by letter or phone. “NWW felt that it wanted to educate the general public about the water business as a whole,” says Havelaar. “Most people take the water cycle for granted, without realising just how much work goes into delivering clean water.”

NWW has created a dedicated team to run its roadshow, which Havelaar believes is a major factor in its success. “That’s imperative. If no one within the organisation has `ownership’ of the roadshow it will stay in the garage.”

If the audience has to be enticed within, then the design of the units must be friendly and attractive, says Havelaar. “And not too corporate. The public is curious, but not too daring,” he says.

The NWW mobile unit has a five-minute, audio-visual programme telling “an interesting story about water”, says Havelaar, with two interactive programmes in an extendible pod – which is set up when the unit is parked. One is purely for fun – a trivia test about water – while the other is an “Ask North West Water” programme.

MWA has been running a roadshow for a slightly different audience – the MD’s Roadshow for soft drinks company Britvic. The audience for this presentation is the firm’s staff around the UK. Twice a year, the company’s managing director tours round 48 sites over the course of a month, supported by a small team with sound, lights, speakers and graphics.

“It’s very low key and small scale. The idea is that when the staff go to the canteen for their tea-break the managing director will be sitting there, ready to have a chat with them. To go actually to the grass-roots level is quite a bold move,” says Wallace.

He believes such staff roadshows can only increase in frequency as top executives discover that the process of cutting back superfluous layers of middle management has left them with the task of talking to their workforce.

Wallace believes that the audience is much more receptive to a roadshow than a presentation at an exhibition. “You have taken the effort to go to them, rather than waiting for them to come to you – and they appreciate that.”

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