Long before the recession forced businesses to slash travel budgets and ground their globetrotting workforces, ABB was bringing the trade show to the people. Since 2006, the company’s Automation Products Division has been diligently traveling the country with its road show program and bringing all the bells and whistles of a traditional trade show experience right to their customers’ doorsteps. What started out as humble beginnings—a couple of pull-behind trailers and some static displays—has become a slick, well-oiled mobile marketing machine responsible for accelerating ABB’s lead-to-sales conversion process and penetrating new markets it couldn’t reach by any other way.
The program is so slick, in fact, that this year it’s getting a serious infusion of cash—to the tune of five times its budget from last year. Today, ABB’s award-winning program is not only a model of efficiency for b-to-b road shows, it’s delivering direct access to hundreds of its products for prospective customers—lunch included. “With budgets for trade shows and travel under incredible pressure, as well as the fact that many organizations are running short-staffed, they just don’t have the money or time to take off and go to trade shows,” says Mike Brown, director-commercial marketing at ABB Low Voltage Drives. “The tour allows us to bring that information and knowledge straight to them.” And it’s giving the company unprecedented access to new and existing customers (on their own terms) without the cost and the crowded sea of competitors at industry trade shows. “Trade shows have their place and we’re big supporters of them, but at a trade show you’re constantly battling for the time of the attendees with respect to competitors,” says Brown. “The road show allows us to tailor the event to the customer that we’re visiting. We’re able to set the date and we’re able to control the experience.”
ABB is a $35 billion global company based in Zurich, Switzerland, that specializes in electrical energy. It’s to Europe what GE is to the United States. But over the last few years ABB has been gaining mindshare and growing its brand in North America, partly due to its successful mobile tours. For its Automation Products Division, which brings in about $9 billion a year in the U.S., the demand for its ABB Low Voltage Drives Tour was so high last year that this summer it added two new vehicles to its fleet. With this year’s new, improved and renamed Automation Products Rolling Road Show, ABB traded in one of its two 24-foot pull-behind units and upgraded to two sleek and sophisticated 40-foot self-propelled expandable 60,000-pound trucks.
The tour kicked off in June and is currently on the road. ABB is one of the largest manufacturers of motor drives in the world and also manufactures a range of controls products, including push buttons and circuit breakers. The leading industries where the company’s automation products are used include water/wastewater, chemical, oil and gas, solar and wind. The mobile experience helps bring to life the company’s performance improving and energy efficient industrial drives and HVAC (heating, ventilation and air-conditioning) applications, including motors and generators and low voltage drives. Sound complicated? It is. But ABB’s automation products are all around us. The company’s switchgears, circuit breakers and drives help heat our homes, cool our businesses and innovate ways to save energy through a variety of sustainable products.
ABB’s customers work in a variety of vertical markets, including building, manufacturing, transportation, food, distribution and engineering. They include OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) and MROs (maintenance and repair organizations) and channel partners who distribute the products. The company customizes the road show experience to suit the distinctly different needs of each of its customer types. “The mobile tour allows us to actually get to meet the individuals and get a very defined captive audience for the amount of time we’re there,” says Dan Carroll, vp-commercial marketing at ABB Low Voltage Drives. “If our target for the day is the engineering staff, we get a very large percentage of the total of that staff at a given company. With other methods we might get one or two touchpoints. It’s penetration, really.”
And it’s working. ABB’s winning strategy is so effective the brand increased its investment in the program five-fold while simultaneously cutting back on its traditional trade show investments. “We have invested significantly more funds into this strategy because we see the ROI. We can point to a significant increase in sales in the geographies where we used the mobile vehicles,” adds Carroll. Dubbing its program a “trade show on wheels,” ABB is upping the road show’s reach and sophistication with bigger and better vehicle exhibits, too. Because if the customer can’t come to the trade show, then the trade show must come to the customer.
When ABB first put its tour in drive nearly three years ago the concept proved to be strong but the execution needed some tweaking. In 2007, the team brought on board Rochester Hills, MI-based EEI Global to shore up tour logistics and transportation and help improve the quality of the experience. “We started out with unsophisticated vehicles and limited coverage, but the demand was an up-swell—grassroots if you will—from the field sales organization saying this is an effective means of reaching our customers, we need more of it and we need a better version,” says Carroll. For starters, EEI contracted and trained full-time drivers and added a project manager with experience in mobile marketing to the team. They upgraded the personnel that managed the site visits and made sure that all mechanicals were up to par.
The next step was improving the vehicles, inside and out. For a more seamless look they purchased two white heavy-duty trucks to pull the existing trailers. The trailers got a face-lift including everything from new axels and electrical to renovated floors. Then, in 2008, ABB overhauled the program once again, purchasing two new 40-foot expandable trucks and dubbing the new rigs the Automation Products Rolling Road Show. “With the new larger vehicles in particular we can create more of an event around the mobile tour and essentially draw larger groups,” Carroll says. “There’s significantly more functioning displays versus static displays. We put fairly large generators in the trucks so we can run true-to-life dynamometer simulations and run anything in a free standing environment, which is nearly impossible with a normal vehicle.” Although the new trucks are in high demand, one of the tour’s original pull-behind units is easier to maneuver and still gets dispatched to three or four events a day. The new trucks are reserved for more-high profile all-day events.
TRADE SHOW ON WHEELS
Though the tour is bigger and better these days, the overriding goal remains the same: to penetrate new markets and reach a greater number of customers. The tour’s efficient and flexible nature—it is driven almost entirely by requests from ABB’s field sales force—continues to enhance the attendee experience by giving customers access to products where and when they want it. On the backend, the management is just as efficient. “We’ll get a variety of people within a company, like engineers and buyers, to come out for the event,” says Tricia Meye, marketing communications and trade shows coordinator at ABB Low Voltage Drives, who handles the day-to-day field operations in cooperation with EEI Global executive producer Kevin Smith. “Our sales team often tried to reach out to these individuals, and oftentimes weren’t able to get their attention, but when we have a vehicle and a tool and we can pull right up to their doorstep, it’s a real door opener.”
In each market, district managers request road show dates via a web-based calendar that ABB uses to manage the trucks’ stops. Sixteen district managers set the tour according to the needs of their respective markets. The vehicles are in each district (a district is comprised of two states) for about four to five weeks. The district managers and their sales teams start working months in advance to reach out to their channel partners, who invite their customers to the event. When the truck rolls into a district, the in-market sales team staffs the vehicle, which travels with a product and technical expert. At any given time ABB has three vehicles traveling simultaneously on opposite sides of the country. On site, the channel partners invite their customers to walk through the exhibit. Customers can touch and feel a variety of static and functioning product displays. Live presentations include easy-to-follow high-tech interactive demonstrations of products like an AC/DC Dynamometer (not that AC/DC, sorry), which highlights performance capabilities of ABB Drives, as well as a Conveyor demo that shows a working conveyor featuring the company’s material handling and automation solutions.
Customers can learn more about products on their own via self-guided touchscreen kiosks inside the trucks. Competitive products are also on display to show how ABB’s solutions trump the competition. The roomy new trucks allow the company to provide services it couldn’t before like training and on-site seminars. Outside the vehicle, the company sets up branded pop-up tents where the sales team can continue the conversation with potential customers. Staffers play music and set up a grill to provide folks with lunch before or after they check out the exhibit. Plus, the tour engages tomorrow’s workforce by stopping at local universities and exposing its products to researchers and students. “It’s a very easy way to park and invite a customer to walk through the truck, cook a hamburger, and they can go back to work and have only invested an hour of their time,” says Jim Clark, director at ABB Low Voltage Motors. “It’s more effective than getting the same guy to get on a plane and fly across the country.”
The rolling road show is also an excellent complement to ABB’s company-wide regional road shows and trade shows. At the Power & Control Road Show in Kansas City this August, for example, the company had three mobile units on the ground (from various divisions), including one of the expandable trucks from the Automation Products Rolling Road Show. The trucks are usually set up in the parking lot adjacent to the hotel where the regional road show is being held to give attendees an up-close-and-personal look at some of the products they just learned about inside the event venue. “This approach gives our channel partners or distributors who attend our regional road shows an opportunity to see the tool that they’ll have access to in two or three months,” says Carroll. “It gives them a real jump-start to understand what kind of customer to target.”
THE BOTTOM LINE
Through a tracking system dubbed the Lead Central System (Growth Point Inc., Clarkston, MI, handles) ABB can directly link new business opportunities back to the mobile tour’s activities. The Lead Central System is a tool that measures the number of people the company touches, the dollar value of the potential business and then connects the dots to actual closed sales. It tracks direct touch, or the number of actual attendees, versus the number of registrants. On the backside the system tracks the company’s sales activity, which puts pressure on the sales team to make sure they have followed up on each lead. The tool also measures marketing activity for trade magazine ads, trade show events, regional road shows and other marketing tactics. Through this process the company can compare the effectiveness of each strategy—like the average value per lead at a rolling road show versus a magazine ad—and come to certain conclusions. “If I compare the print ad expenditure to a rolling road show, the ROI on the road show is 10 times that of the ROI from a print ad,” says Carroll. “It’s dollar for dollar.”
And because the new trucks are equipped with a wireless router, leads can be collected on the road in real time, which means that if a pre-registered customer comes into the vehicle, the staff can search his or her name on the touchscreen kiosk and the system identifies that the person showed up. This is instantly recorded in the system as a lead for follow up. Visitors can also return to the kiosk at any time to pull up their names and request a brochure on the products—yet another way to track them as a prospective customer. “Real-time allows us to get that lead into our nurture programs quickly, into our newsletter programs and to generate a lead to the representative in the territory,” Carroll explains. At the end of the visit the sales team has access to all of the information acquired in the Lead Central System. They can then report back if the activity resulted in an opportunity and ultimately in a sale. Talk about closing the deal. ABB’s tactics couldn’t be more timely. It’s as if the company peered into a crystal ball back in 2006 when it kicked off its tour and saw the current recession coming. Being nimble and responsive to customers’ needs before disaster struck poised ABB to be on the right path with its industry leading mobile program. In 2008, the tour made 11,451 direct interactions. On the road since June, the company projects that the 2009 tour will have touched 17,000 customers by December. Sounds like it’s geared up for another year of success. EM