Mention roadshows, and most people imagine poorly prepared, watered- down events. But, as Simon Rines reports, technology advances and imaginative planning are shaking up the market, leading more and more companies to sample life on the road

As a marketing exercise, roadshows have always had an image problem. Traditionally they have either been watered-down versions of a larger event, or they have suffered the compromise of having to fit into a series of completely different venues.

So what are the benefits of taking presentations and consumer promotions on the road? And what have production companies been doing to answer the demands of today’s market in terms of cost effectiveness, technology and image?

One of the great advantages of the format, whether for presentations to invited audiences or to reach the consumer directly, is the ability to converse with large numbers of people in many different places.

Technological solutions are also being used to help those running roadshows to keep their presentation material up to date. Clearwater Communications and US-based EPG Multimedia Inc have set up Crosswater Multimedia to handle computer interactive production services, including the multimedia retrieval system which uses the Internet.

“Basically the service is a retrieval system which can be customised to our clients’ presentation needs,” says Paul Easty, production director at Clearwater.

“It is intended primarily for sales- forces using laptops to make presentations, or for teams running roadshows. They will be able to connect to the Internet to get updated material or material which is particularly relevant to their clients,” he says.

The technology uses standard PCs and modem links and, for security, it employs manual and electronic passwords. The key to the system, however, is ease of use and rapid data transfer.

“We have concentrated on making the process automated,” says Easty. “By using CD-Roms, we can programme the recipients’ computers to download automatically. Once connected to the Internet site, the existing programme takes over to retrieve the new information.”

Easty claims the service will not only help save the client time, but also improve consistency of message because all production will be sourced from a single centre, which also creates economies of scale.

The areas most likely to benefit from the service are obviously those in which information changes rapidly.

Financial services is one such example, especially as roadshows are becoming an increasingly popular option to get messages from this industry to the public.

One of the key reasons for this, according to Iain Liddiard, presentation director of Page & Moy Marketing Group, is time. He considers this factor to be one of the key reasons for a recent Barclays Life marketing initiative using the road show format.

“Time is one of the major strengths of the roadshow. A fixed site venue takes delegates away from their desks for an average of a day and a half. A lot of people cannot afford to be away for that long any more. The roadshow takes the event to the regions where, normally, delegates face little more than a short drive,” says Liddiard.

A common criticism of roadshows, however, is the appearance of the stage set and the content of the presentation. In many cases these elements seem to be either a diluted version of something much grander, or a compromise designed to fit all venues and audiences.

Liddiard believes that there is no justification for such half measures: “Using the Barclays events as an example, we took a modular set which was flexible enough to fit different sized rooms – from the Metropole in Birmingham to a small theatre in London.

“Indeed, one of the beauties of roadshows is that they can be adapted both physically and content-wise to the location. For Barclays, the core concept remained the same, but each was hosted by a regional sales manager who personalised it within the framework we provided.”

For longer tours, encompassing dozens of venues, there is, however, an argument for packing the whole exercise into a large truck which can be turned into a venue. The Hong Kong Conference & Incentive Travel Bureau recently toured Europe with two 40-foot trailers, which turned into a two-storey presentation area seating 60 people.

Although the production company involved, Commercial Presentations, appears to have been run over by its own juggernaut, and have subsequently folded, it was an ideal solution for HKCITB as European manager, Patricia Conibear, points out: “It gave us the chance to speak to over 150,000 people in 51 European cities but in an environment that gave us total control.

“The idea was to give people a taste of Hong Kong, which included an interior design featuring a video-wall, a giant model of the city area and a mix of Western and Chinese decor. Without a large budget, you can’t really create such an atmosphere in a Regency ball room, and to do so in 51 different venues would obviously be out of the question.”

Another benefit of the self-contained event, is that, placed outdoors, its size and design can create a big impression. According to Conibear, HKCITB’s structure even dominated Birmingham’s large Centenary Square.

Although similar in concept, it is doubtful if any travelling roadshow has ever had the impact of that designed by Park Royal for Wall’s Ice Cream. Again using articulated trucks, the structure was disguised as a giant fun palace by an inflatable cladding.

“The initial brief from Wall’s was to showcase the company’s leading brands in a way that was accessible for all the family in the form of a roadshow to tour such events as country shows,” says Park Ave nue co-chairman Derrick Tuke Hastings.

The plan now is that it will be a three-year project which has already been to such venues as Alton Towers and the BBC’s Big Bash at the NEC. Says Tuke-Hastings: “The structure’s exterior might look appealing, but crammed inside is a maze of entertainment and information to tickle virtually every sense in the human body.

“Apart from the sounds and smells, there are interactive displays, a helter skelter, and the so-called holographic microcosms which give the appearance of miniature people walking around a three-dimensional set. Each brand, including Cornetto, Feast, Calippo, Twister, Magnum and Vienetta has its own distinct environment and display, and at the end there is a stall run by local Wall’s concessionaires.

“The experience gives Wall’s an opportunity to have a conversation with its customers in a competitive environment, and it’s done in a way that is a fun and relevant experience to every type of customer profile, from kids and parents, to teenagers and young professionals.”

The benefits of making consumer roadshows part of an entertainment experience have not been lost on a few companies, which have put the cart before the horse and arranged events to cater for multiple clients.

INM, for example, recently produced a touring event for shopping malls with a game show feel, featuring seven clients including Shell, Rover, Reebok and The Sunday Express.

Against the backdrop of a video-wall and heavy branding, a live entertainer presented competitions and other related activities in half-hour slots, each devoted to one of the participating brands.

“The show has been to such places as Lakeside Thurrock, Dudley’s Merry Hill and Gateshead’s Metro Centre – the total audience size has been enormous,” says Rayne Tompson, marketing manager at INM. “And the fact that the clients shared means the exercise was very cost effective.”

Similar in concept is The Roar Group’s plan to bring a bit of Fifties American culture to Britain with a national programme of drive-in movies this summer. Entitled Mane Street Movies, the travelling programme will play in such venues as supermarket car parks. Although punters will have to pay an estimated 10 per car, Roar is running the programme with an eye on marketing budgets.

“We’re hoping to use the events as an opportunity for sponsorship, sampling, on-screen advertising and corporate hospitality,” says managing director Ian Shirley.

“For the consumer the idea has instant appeal, its drive-in convenience is in keeping with Nineties lifestyles and it also has the eternal attraction of American nostalgia. For the sponsor, which has an influence on which films are screened, there is an opportunity to have direct communication with the audience as well as the large amount of publicity we are planning for the events.”

The grubby image of the roadshow might not have been thrown off entirely, but it doesn’t mean that clients should shun the format. With enough commitment and a little imagination, a touring event can make a big impact and provide a return on investment.

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