Filling the halls

Everything from log houses to sex toys can be found at the thousands of consumer shows held in Canada each year. A cottage industry that produced maybe 20 shows a year two decades ago has grown into a multi-million-dollar business - and with the advent of bigger, more numerous shows comes new challenges in breaking through to consumers without breaking the bank.

Everything from log houses to sex toys can be found at the thousands of consumer shows held in Canada each year. A cottage industry that produced maybe 20 shows a year two decades ago has grown into a multi-million-dollar business – and with the advent of bigger, more numerous shows comes new challenges in breaking through to consumers without breaking the bank.

‘The number of shows has grown dramatically over the last 20 years,’ says Kathryn Rasmussens, long-time show vet and president of Collingwood, Ont.-based organizer National ShoBiz. ‘If you just did a ballpark in the city of Toronto, there must be over 200 consumer shows a year now. It used to be that you could just put an ad in the Toronto Star and the Sun and buy one or two radio stations, but now with all the extra competition, you have to look at TV. You also have to go with more focused advertising, because you can’t cover off your whole market any more.’

Bigger ad budgets and higher stakes have resulted in more sophisticated marketing campaigns. Today’s show organizers carefully tailor their media plans to cut wastage and tend to use more sponsorships, cross-promotions and PR campaigns to get the word out.

All show organizers agree that in today’s increasingly competitive market, making use of a wide variety of media is crucial, no matter who the target may be. TV, radio and newspaper feature highly in most marketing plans, while the Internet is also commonly used to provide show details.

Steve Nichols is president of Toronto-based Creative Show Productions and publicity organizer for several niche shows, including the Canadian Aviation Exposition and the Golf & Travel Show. He agrees that Canada has seen a huge rise in the number of consumer shows mounted each year, thanks in part to new venues such as the National Trade Centre in Toronto, and more competition means more ad dollars spent in savvier ways.

‘We tried to cut out one of the major mass media channels one year and it really hurt us,’ he says. ‘You have to spread your money out to make the maximum impact.’

DMG World Media – an international company that annually organizes 48 home and garden shows in 25 cities across this continent alone – has refined its marketing programs over the years to put less emphasis on newspaper, and more focus on TV and outdoor media in order to reach its audiences.

‘Newspaper is still effective as a reminder medium and to give people general information about dates, but typically we are finding that people have less time for reading as they are dividing time between newspapers and the Internet,’ explains Carol Bell, DMG’s Toronto-based VP of home shows for North America.

‘Outdoor will always be a strong medium because people are always going be going outside and with TV you can’t lose because it’s such a broad medium.’

Kamloops, B.C.-based Interior Show & Event Management also uses a broad range of media to reach the local market when promoting its eight annual shows in B.C.

‘We try to own the airwaves and the newspapers, using free community newspapers and all four local radio stations,’ says Jim Rice, company owner. Outdoor garners the highest recall factor as a supplementary medium, he adds. Rice says his strategy helped to attract a crowd of 26,000 visitors to the Kamloops Spring Home & Garden Show this April, in a community of only 80,000 people.

Offering discount coupons through sponsors, exhibitors and newspaper ads also serves as a useful reminder mechanism, according to some organizers.

‘Nobody’s going to come to a show just because of a $2 discount, but the hope is they’ll stick it on the fridge and it will remind them about the show,’ says Nichols.

Sponsorships and co-op arrangements often help reduce marketing costs and garner free advertising. For Creative Show Productions’ Golf & Travel Show, held at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, one of the biggest marketing boons, Nichols says, is an arrangement with title sponsor the Toronto Star which provides free publicity. The show is also advertised through the Globe and Mail to reach the business community, which Nichols says forms a big part of the golfing market.

When selling a vertical show – a show which caters only to a narrow target such as golfers, brides-to-be or expectant mothers – marketing dollars have to be monitored even more carefully to avoid wasting ads on irrelevant parties. Nichols, for example, makes use of niche publications such as Wings in Canada and the Pilots’ Association Journal to promote the aviation show.

Still, local media and Toronto newspapers are also used to attract members of the general public who may have an interest in aircraft. ‘There are always those people who want to become pilots or just like to watch airplanes, so they provide a bonus to our exhibitors’ business,’ explains Nichols.

Nichols’ marketing budget of $60,000 helped to attract 10,000 visitors to the last show – which was a decline on numbers which sometimes reach as high as 20,000 – but wasn’t bad considering the show suffered three days of rain.

National ShoBiz is another organizer that’s very familiar with the challenges of marketing to a highly targeted audience. The company spends around $50,000 to market each of its two annual BabyTime shows, which target expectant couples and people with young children.

‘We use niche publications like City Parent and Today’s Parent to reach that crowd, and our TV advertising takes place mainly around morning talk shows, as that’s where you catch the young mothers,’ explains ShoBiz’s Rasmussens.

When it comes to the ad creative itself, many show hosts agree that simplicity and lack of clutter are key.

‘It’s Who, What, Where, When and Why. That’s all you need to communicate in your ad message,’ says Interior Show’s Rice. ‘We use a lot of black-and-white messaging to get the key information across in our print ads, and a catchy jingle on radio.’ He adds that consistency in advertising is important. ‘We stick to the same format each year so people recognize it immediately and associate it with the right show.’

In order to keep her ads free from too much confusing information, Rasmussens says they provide only the key details, while drawing the reader towards the show Website,, where more details can be found. Recognizable logos such as that of Treehouse TV’s The Big Comfy Couch, are used in print ads in order to attract attention.

Like many of his competitors, Toronto-based Showcase Marketing president Paul Newdick also makes use of mainstream TV, radio and newspaper advertising to promote his shows, which include the International Home Show and the Success With Gardening Show. He also encourages exhibitors to promote the shows independently, garnering extra advertising beyond his $150,000 to $200,000 marketing budget.

But when it comes to the creative, Newdick recommends going beyond the five ‘W’s and building the essence of the show right into the look of the ads. ‘For the gardening shows we try to give people a sensory experience of the flora and fauna that they will find at the show,’ he says. ‘You need to inspire them to come to the show through compelling creative.’