by Leo Jakobson | February 01, 2012
Wyse's branded electric cars cruised San Francisco during the Citrix Synergy show.

Twice a year, Citrix Systems, a Fort Lauderdale, FL-based technology firm, gathers thousands of its customers, prospects, and channel partners together for Citrix Synergy, a three-day citywide industry show about cloud computing, virtualization, and networking services.

“Synergy is an open industry conversation around the key technology topics that are in our market,” says Naomi Miller, the senior director of brand awareness and engagement for Citrix. “We consider this show to be a significant branding tool and brand engagement platform, versus a technical show or a user show.”

As a result, she says, Synergy “has grown from a very specific user conference to a much broader industry conference.” Even competitors like Microsoft are welcome. The show also has grown in size since its beginnings in 1998, when it drew about 2,000 attendees; Miller expects a tide of 6,000 to 7,000 in San Francisco in May. 

When an event like Synergy grows to the point where it is a citywide meeting—one with thousands of attendees, using a minimum of four anchor hotels and a convention center—the size and scope can present a challenge. But for the company putting it together, as well as for the sponsors and exhibitors, the show also offers more tools and opportunities to build their brand and deliver their message.

The City Is the Medium
For a large event, the city itself can become a branding platform, with tools that go far beyond the traditional welcoming billboards in airport baggage claim areas, receptions hosted by local civic leaders, and banners hanging from streetlamps (although those remain an important part of the mix). 

In San Francisco last year, Citrix employed a branding strategy organized by relationship-marketer Aimia that included huge outdoor signs that covered the Metreon entertainment center across from the Moscone Convention Center. The company also wrapped taxis in its signage and put up bus shelter signs in that part of town—a fairly compact area of about a square mile, but encompassing many of the city’s key shopping and tourist areas like Market Street. 

The key to Citrix’s strategy was to concentrate its signage budget in a tight perimeter around the convention center while simultaneously extending the presence of its event beyond the facility. “Strategically targeting a part of the city creates an indoor/outdoor experience just as effectively as papering the whole town,” says Miller. “In that little part of San Francisco, the attendees can really feel us.”

Citrix is by no means the only company at Synergy pulling its brand message beyond the convention center walls. A key partner, San Jose, CA-based Wyse Technologies, is the second-largest exhibitor at Synergy, as well as the major sponsor and a content provider for the show. The firm takes the yellow color scheme of its exhibit booth outside the Moscone Center in a number of ways.  

“We look for areas of opportunity to promote and progress our marketing,” says Margaret Hughes, Wyse’s senior director of global marketing. At the past few U.S. Synergy shows, initiatives have included taxi-topper ads and off-site parties for clients and partners at top venues like the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the neighboring St. Regis San Francisco. Wyse, which specializes in cloud computing and counts 87 of the Fortune 100 as its clients, also employs creative marketing exercises like hiring a plane to fly a 30- by 100-foot banner around the Moscone Center—“up in the clouds,” as Hughes says. “The entire city becomes a venue for us.” 

Find the Right Fit
The first crucial step in developing a successful brand strategy for a citywide meeting or event is choosing a city that is able to handle the logistics of a large event and is attractive to potential attendees. 

“The venues we pick are very important to us,” says Miller. The destination should be “inspiring from an attendee perspective, where you get that combination of location, climate, and extracurricular [options],” she says. 

Similarly, the National Retail Federation (NRF) brings its 25,500-person annual convention and expo to New York City every January in no small part because of “its reputation for being a retail mecca,” says Susan Newman, senior vice president of conferences for the NRF. “We actually provide shopping tours for a certain number of attendees.” 

These tours, on the day before the show opens and on its final day, are educational, Newman stresses. This year, one is focused on retail innovation and technology, and another on trends at the city’s top department stores. Newman says: “We do try to get people out of the convention center so they can understand what’s happening in the retail environment here—what’s new, what’s exciting, because there is a lot of innovation here in New York City.”

CVB Partners
NYC & Company often works with Broadway theaters to provide attendees special pricing on shows, says Kelly Curtin, senior vice president of membership and destination services for the Big Apple’s marketing, tourism, and partnership organization. For the 2011 American International Toy Fair, which brought more than 25,000 attendees to the Javits Center last February, the bureau worked with the Toy Industry Association and local restaurateurs to create a game called Play Happens. 

“We went out to our New York restaurant members and asked each for a $100 gift card,” Curtin says. The show planners used the certificates as prizes for games in the show, such as trivia contests while attendees were in line. Attendees who checked in via smartphone from a participating restaurant were eligible to win a grand prize.

Another strength that convention and visitors bureaus bring to the table is their ability to cut red tape. 

“CVBs generally have a really good relationship with the various attractions, and officials in a city to make things happen,” says Steve Goodling, president and CEO of the Long Beach Area Convention and Visitors Bureau in California. 

For the 2012 TED Conference later this month, the CVB helped the group’s planners close a one-block stretch of Long Beach’s Pine Avenue for a block party. “We worked with TED, the city, and local businesses to draft, complete, and submit the permits,” Goodling adds. “We helped them with the process and integrated them with the police department, because you have to have public safety involved when you close an entire block to traffic. A CVB can really help with the legwork and expedite the process.”

Blend Outside and In
“There are many different ways you can give visibility to your event or your brand or your company name,” says Anita O’Boyle, director of event services at the Chicago-based association management firm SmithBucklin. “We brand key cards for hotel rooms, seats on buses, and the sides of buses. We have created airport greeting signs and placed people around town wearing T-shirts sporting the event logo on it. It’s important to figure out what’s appropriate and not waste your money.”

A key to that, she says, is consistently reinforcing the brand, whether it’s placing the logo in the lower right-hand corner of every sign, or using the color scheme of the company or association throughout the convention center. 

Wyse uses its corporate color heavily in its marketing materials, at off-site parties, and in its booth. Everything from the banners and staff polo shirts, to the beanbag chairs for presentations and libations at the booth’s Cloud Smoothie Drink Bar (complete with cloud-like dry-ice smoke), is the correct shade of yellow, as are the electric cars Hughes had drive around the Moscone Center neighborhood. “Anyone spotted in a Wyse shirt or carrying a special Wyse sign is given a lift,” she says. 

Ensuring that the brand message is on target at a citywide event requires getting everyone responsible for the event on the same page as soon as possible, says O’Boyle. “Especially at large events, [the brand message] lives in every aspect of the event,” she adds. “This has to be a part of the initial event launch conversations, because something may be happening at a corporate level that changes the way a brand is going to be perceived.” 

O’Boyle notes that it’s vital for the planner to be in the loop from day one, or else “marketing will be off and running, sales will be guiding their initiatives, and the planner hears about something eight weeks out and has to whip something together fast. Planners have to be engaged from the beginning, even though they might not be thought of as involved in marketing, because they are the implementer of that on-site.” 

Or, in the case of a citywide, off-site.