Behind the Tradeshow Booth with Michelle Winfrey of C+A Global
As press covering the consumer technology industry, when we head to a consumer tech tradeshow, our method for attacking the show floor is probably pretty similar. Get into a booth, get the info we need—whether that’s press kits, some photos, maybe a quick interview—and get out. The same could probably be said for other industry professionals who walk around a show like IFA in Berlin or CES in Las Vegas. As these consumer tech shows continue to get larger and larger, there’s less time that can be spent in a single booth if you hope to walk the entire show floor before the end of an event.
That said, blitzing through a booth means you might miss some of the expert craftiness and decadent design that went into creating those experiences. Because while we’re trying to find the latest and hottest new tech, plenty of planning hours went into building those massive structures that brands use to showcase their latest and greatest products.
Dealerscope recently had the opportunity to sit down with one such professional—Michelle Winfrey, the trade show and events manager for C+A Global, a company that makes and distributes cameras and printers for some major tech brands like Polaroid, Kodak, Zink, and more. In a little over a year with the company, Winfrey has managed C+A’s brands at IFA and CES among other tradeshows. An outsider in the sense that her background prior to C+A Global was in the nonprofit world, Winfrey brings a refreshing look to the world of consumer tech tradeshows.
Beyond the logistical aspects of planning a booth for a tech show, our conversation shed some light on what goes into the strategy behind booth design and development, what this line of work is like, and it offers a unique look at the side of this business that not too many people would bat an eye at or concern themselves with.
Dealerscope: What drew you to the tradeshow business?
Winfrey: I come from a nonprofit background where I managed theater and dance companies for quite a long time. And, in the management of theater and dance companies, there's always an event—your life is pretty much an event of some sort. There's always a premier or a new ballet being rehearsed, or a new theater production.
When I made the switch to the business world, it was a natural segue for me to be in the Marketing Department handling tradeshows and events. It just kind of fell on my lap because it fell right into my area of expertise.
At C&A you're dealing with a number of tech brands. So what's different or more exciting about this industry that you're in now as opposed to the theater and performing arts industry?
In performing arts, my commodity or product is a person—my commodity is the dancer, and that's what I'm selling. I'm selling the dancer, I'm selling the artistic director, and I'm selling the choreographer, as well as a show. At the end of the day, I was providing a service – the service of entertainment. In the tech industry, this is not different. I am selling an object or product--something that can be picked up and used by the consumer. A product that can be used for entertainment in many instances. The audience and product may have changed but the skillset—the ability to sell, promote and entertain—remains the same.
The tech industry is exciting and challenging because of how quick it moves and evolves. A product today, may be obsolete in 12 months. A ballet, such as “Swan Lake” lives for many, many years.
We first met at IFA in Berlin in September 2017. As you know and saw, it’s a massive show. What was it like living and working out of New Jersey and trying to plan a trade show overseas and just of that size?
It takes a lot of logistical planning. It's understanding what you want; it's understanding what can go wrong that you need to plan for, contingencies, and a little bit of obsessive compulsiveness and over packing. When I'm out of the country it is not as easy to get a hold of something that I might need. For instance, if I'm in the United States and I need 50 cameras for the booth, I may bring only 60, because I know I can make a phone call and get additional product within a day. If I'm out of the country, it’s not that easy or quick. I am dealing with time differences and shipping logistics, so I may over pack a bit on certain things so that if something is needed, I will have it.
Wherever the show, I always need to have contingencies in place so that I can move things around to accommodate unforeseen issues. However, if I go to a show out of the country, I know that I need to go with a little heavier load than usual so that I'm buying myself more time to work through issues that may arise.
How about for the actual booth design—I know you work hand in hand with the different brands to come up with the concepts and the strategy around the actual booth design and development. What's that like building a booth for a show like IFA where it's almost like building a home on the show floor?
Frequently, there is a team of people involved in the designing of a booth. This team may consist of a design consultant, exhibit house, internal designer, and myself. Once the design is solidified, the booth is mine, and my job at that point is to work with the exhibit house on making sure that the booth goes up structurally and creatively as close to the integrity of the original design as possible—which is what you always want.
For me, I have two priorities. First, to understanding how people will move through the booth. You can have a beautiful design that ends up in a traffic jam. So my job becomes—after the design has been developed and done—to look at it and identify where I might have traffic problems, or if am I going to have an open area in the booth that has nobody in it because one area is overloaded with displays and so forth.
Second, to understand how people will interact with the product. Not every product is designed to be handled by hundreds of people during an 8 hours day. This has to be understood and planned for by me.
And even when you get to a show, anything can happen. Don't forget, everything we're doing up to that point is done on paper or on a computer! More often than not, when you show up at a show and you look at it built, you may have to make some adjustments. So my expertise is in knowing how to make those adjustments, knowing where my electrical lines are running from, understanding where my lights are hanging from, etc.
I should say though that not every tradeshow manager has the same responsibilities. Some tradeshow managers are strictly there to just manage the running of the booth during the show. Others are solely responsible for just building the booth. My job is both. Therefore, I really need to have a good understanding of all aspects of booth design, development, building principles and show management.
It also helps to have a great relationship with a great exhibit house. Otherwise, it can be very hard to succeed in this line of work.
When you think about planning for a booth for a show like IFA, and then most recently we saw you at CES—what are the major differences in planning for them, if there are any, aside from obviously being held on different continents?
You know what, to be perfectly honest, apart from the time allowances mentioned earlier, it really is not much different. The planning of the show—the physical booth planning—is pretty much the same. If I've done my job right, I can take a booth from IFA and drop it into CES. I may have to make some configuration changes with the size and shape, based upon the booth and the regulations of the host venue. If we have one design that we really like for a booth, we should be able to get three or four shows out of that base design. I just have to understand—depending upon where I am and the different sizes of the booth—how to move the pieces of the puzzle around. But it should not be to the point where I have to start from scratch and rebuild. It makes life a little bit easier, and it's a cost management factor as well.
Since you’ve been involved in the tradeshow business, how have you seen booth designs evolve?
I think booth designs today are absolutely spectacular. You go to some of these shows and you can't imagine that the booth was put up in a week or two. They are just amazing. I think a lot of it has to do with technology and engineering—the fact that we can engineer quicker, the fact that we can project problems in the structure faster, the fact that we can see where people are moving, and that we can do some of the absolute most amazing things at every scale. We can have so much fun with the design and with the way everything looks. With lighting and sound—I just think it's spectacular.
The fact that I can sit on the phone with my designer who's in another state or country has made the whole design development process quicker, more accurate and more demanding. I can ask the designer to turn a structure 30 degrees, or ask what happens if we make something two feet bigger—and see the impact instantly. These little adjustments can change how a booth will ultimately look. This makes a huge difference in what we're able to do as booth developers.
A crazy fact about you and your role at C+A is that your first full day on the job was at CES 2017. What was that experience like for you, and what knowledge or information did you come away with from that?
It was an amazing opportunity. For me, walking into CES, which was my first full day of work in a brand new position, and pretty much not knowing anyone who was there, and then being told, “This is yours to run” allowed me to take stock of everything that brought this company to where it was at that point in time. I got an opportunity to sit back and say, “OK, let's make a note of this for next year” and make plans to make things better.
So, going into CES this year, there were things that I was able to change and modify and correct because of what I saw during my first CES. I was told that the difference was night and day, but much of that was only made possible because of the time we took to step back and make bold tweaks here and there.
And you know what? Next year is going to be even better, because the innovation and the tweaking never stops now, does it? Each trade show is a new experience, much like that first day on the job attitude which I’ve learned to carry with me all the time. Because if you look hard enough and are willing to correct yourself, you will always be able to find something to improve to make things even more spectacular than you think it already it is.
Any advice that you can give to other trade show managers that could help them get the most out of their trade show booth or their role?
I think if the tradeshow manager looks at the booth as an embodiment of himself and not just the manager of the tradeshow that will give him an edge. This way he becomes more integrally involved in how the booth looks, how the booth runs, how the booth is perceived.
I also think it's really important that the tradeshow manager has nerves of steel and doesn’t succumb to the madness because tradeshows, as you know, are volatile. The energy runs so high that if the tradeshow manager stays cool, calm, and collected when something happens he will project an organized energy which will keep the team calm. As a tradeshow manager, remember that you're the focal point; you set the tone. If you're organized, everyone else will follow suit. I think it makes it easier overall. Otherwise, if everything is always on fire, guess what—when there's a real fire no one will come to the rescue! And no one would want that!
More importantly—and perhaps this is something I should have mentioned at the very beginning—no matter how impossible this may seem, BE HAPPY, because as I said the booth ought to be a reflection of yourself. So find time to sit back and enjoy the show, even if all you see is the view from your booth!