Without a grid work of aisles, square booths all in a row or salespeople leaping out to show you a product in the manner of most trade shows, The Super Show's new and highly touted World of Sports Innovation gallery swung open its doors for the first time to visitors at a pre-show VIP party on Jan. 19.
Despite being a crowd of media, buyers, exhibitors and other special invitees, the group seemed a bit unsure of what to do when they first walked down the grand-opening red carpet, past the flashing lights, awnings, banners, floor projections, sports displays on TV monitors, thumping music and a piped-in bugle call, and into the semi-circle entry arena to the exhibit designed to be part-playground, part-amusement park.
But it didn't take more than 15 minutes for attendees who first looked a tad uncertain to roll up their sleeves and dig right into the try-me, hands-on fun -- sitting on exercise balls, balancing on wobble trainers or plopping into camp chairs -- and the area's din went from muted to high-pitched buzz.
"This is great," said Stephanie Herrmann of the Think Tank product development company in Minneapolis. "I like the concept of having the product here, to use. I love this energy. People are walking around and you get too see everything instead of getting stopped by salespeople."
Unveiled as a concept in July, WOSI's goal was to offer a "level playing field," show COO Peter Haines said. No matter what size the company or whether it was exhibiting in the regular show halls, a firm paid $4,000 to display one or two products in the gallery, and an additional $2,500 for each extra product, Haines said. No salespeople were allowed. No literature could be placed in the exhibit area. The standard small show sign at each product allowed 25 words of description. No printed guide or product list was available.
In addition, the show provided 26 wandering "Innovation Guides" in standard black outfits to encourage visitors to try product and to help them use it safely or correctly. Companies were allowed to hire a model (to be dressed in the same guide outfit) if they felt their products needed more knowledgeable demonstration. Haines said 17 companies took advantage of that $1,500 option.
All in all, some 500 companies are partaking in the WOSI, Haines said, with about 750 products in a nearly 100,000-square-foot area that last Tuesday was a dingy, gray, cement parking garage. By Sunday, it was transformed into a bright playground for the sports enthusiast with seven sports "worlds."
On opening night as he stood at the entry and welcomed visitors, Haines told SNEWS, "Not to sound to corny, this is electrifying. It's an incredible adrenaline rush. The thrill was delivering what we said we could. Right now I'm the proud papa."
But not all was back-slapping and grins in the gallery on pre-opening night. Richard Wagner of the Tune Belt company, which had chosen not to be a part but was exhibiting in the regular aisles, said he questioned the ban on company staff being on-hand to show or demonstrate a product, and especially questioned the alleged prohibition on any literature. Standing with him, Jack Torbeck of Power Swing (a bat-like weighted swing trainer) who was a part of the WOSI show, seemed uneasy about not being able to help visitors know the specifics of his product or give them printed information. "Why not?" he asked. Still, he said, "it's our best shot, to be here" since the regular area can be so overwhelming.
For Andrea Barash of the one-woman Training Fan company (a narrow fan-like take-along exercise guide), who was wandering the grand opening party with product in hand taking any moment to show it to someone, WOSI gave her "a shot to be a part of the show without being tied to a booth."
To get more information about a WOSI product, attendees were instructed to go to laptop stations scattered in different sports worlds. There, they could swipe their coded attendee badge and request product information, then on the way out, stop at a second station to pick it up. In turn, exhibiting companies also could obtain a list of those who expressed interest in their product for their own follow-up. This innovative electronic lead retrieval system sounded slick and simple in planning, said Haines on the first official day of the show Monday, but was hanging people up because it was new, he added. Visitors didn't seem to know what to do, or where to do it, and the lack of signs the first day was a problem to be rectified by Tuesday, Haines said.
Indeed, other rules forbidding product literature and banning exhibitor staff seemed by the first day to be going out the window, too. In monitoring the area with other show staff, Haines said they were trying to make sure no one company was at a disadvantage -- even as rules were bent.
"Participants want desperately to be with their products," said Haines on Monday afternoon. "We're going to make it work better next year. We're learning, too. But what we're thrilled with is the attendance. We think we have something here."
Despite the problems, the majority seemed pleased based not only on informal interviews by SNEWS, but also by unofficial exit survey results shared by survey-takers.
"I actually think this is a great idea," said Roland Murray, vice president of marketing for Cybex who had stationed himself (yes, in violation of rules) with his equipment. "Hopefully it'll become sought-after, although some of the rules just need to be enhanced."
Initially, 11 sport worlds were planned, but, in the end, several were combined and culled down to seven, which were: Fitness, Human Performance and Ring Sports; Mountain, Stream and Water; Apparel and Footwear (both fashion and performance); Field Sports; Course Sports (such as golf, horse- and car-racing); Adrenaline, Street and Extreme; and Court, Rink and Indoor Sports (this is where the darts and games go).
Some fitness companies exhibiting are Schwinn (with a home gym and bike), Ivanko (with a display showing a history with product and literature called Urethane Grip Barbell Plate), Cybex with five Eagle strength pieces, a treadmill and the Arc Trainer, and BOSU (the half-ball inflatable balance trainer). But since the show promised "innovative," not everyone could opt in, Haines said. At least one of two requirements had to be met: Either the product had to be unique to the company (with patents, for example), or it had to be new to market and not yet on shelves or sold (introduced to trade was allowed but not to consumers).
"Maybe this is the shot in the arm The Super Show needs," said Cybex's Murray.
SNEWS View: Haines and The Super Show did indeed deliver a most unusual exhibit that lets visitors peruse and play at their leisure. Good show! We think show attendees (as seen during a quick WOSI walk-through on its first regular day Jan. 20) will bite at the ability to let their hair down, so to speak, and poke at and pickup new products without the fear of a salesperson popping into their face.
Still, although we can see the reasoning behind banning literature and company staff (level playing field and no aforementioned pouncing by sales folks), we noticed some scofflaws -- companies that indeed put out catalogs or cards, thereby taking one step ahead of those that had abided by the letter of the law. In this kind of exhibit, it must be all or nothing. And in fact we don't know what would be so bad about allowing one small handout (the show could standardize it, such as one 8 1/2 x 11 sheet max, printed both sides, black and white). In fact, we heard visitors asking for information, then being frustrated by the lack. We think visitors should know why something is supposedly innovative without either guesswork or a shrug.
And the lead retrieval/information retrieval system seems a bit complicated. Why mandate a visitor make several stops? Make it easy for them by putting a quick card-scanner at each display or -- if that's too expensive or complicated -- put a rather archaic (oh my!) piece of paper with the display number in each display. That way visitors can make one stop on their way out to retrieve information.
And the cost? We hear from exhibitors and non-exhibitors alike that the "level playing field" of $4,000 wasn't, well, level, with some companies being offered lower prices and some incentives and other breaks. Of course, anyone who opts in still has to join SGMA too, which adds a chunk to the cost.
Critique aside (and what project, no matter how good, is perfect, especially the first time?), WOSI has taken a bold step among trade shows. We applaud the effort and the outcome.