Case Study

How the Western Retail Lumber Association Built a Better Trade Show

Since 1890, the Western Retail Lumber Association (WRLA) has been an important forum for lumber merchants on the Canadian prairies. WRLA is proud of its history — but didn’t want its trade show to be stuck in the past.

Today, WRLA has 1,200 members in the building supply industry. Just as those early lumbermen did, the group comes together once a year to share tricks of the trade and form new business relationships. But unlike those early days, today’s members have high expectations for WRLA’s annual trade show — and aren’t shy about letting the organization know where it’s falling short.

WRLA Trade Show and Events Manager Jessica Cranmer was ready to push the organization’s annual Buying Show’s tech into the 21st century, and WRLA’s members were more than ready for the change.

“Attendees wanted a smooth registration experience. They had been to other trade shows and had seen what those shows were doing. And we were stuck in the past.”

– Jessica Cranmer, WRLA Trade Show and Events Manager.

Photos by Misty Pelican Photography

The challenge: Moving an established event into the 21st century

The WRLA’s biggest event is its buying show, an annual trade show that brings thousands of building material suppliers and retailers together for two days in Calgary. It’s the biggest event of its kind in Canada, with millions of dollars in sales done on the trade show floor every year.

WRLA brought Jessica Cranmer onboard in April 2018 to breathe new life into the event. Cranmer spoke with coworkers and read three years of attendee and exhibitor surveys. She noticed that both the WRLA staff and members shared a common emotion when it came to certain aspects of the Buying Show: dread.

“One of my takeaways was the customer experience — from the moment they registered to the moment they arrived at our event — was terrible,” says Cranmer. “They had been telling us that for quite some time, but we had done nothing about it.”

“The customer experience — from the moment they registered to the moment they arrived at our event — was terrible.”

– Jessica Cranmer, WRLA Trade Show and Events Manager.

For example, members would wait in line for two hours to collect their badges before being allowed into the Buying Show. Registration and check-in were so chaotic, members had created their own workarounds. “Members were keeping their badges year to year and just wearing them in so they wouldn’t have to wait in line,” says Cranmer. “We didn't even know they were at the show, or if someone at the show was even a WRLA member.”

Cranmer needed technology that made it easy for attendees to check in and navigate the tradeshow — and for WRLA’s staff to know exactly who was at the show and where those attendees were going.

But there was a problem. A small organization on a tight budget, WRLA was locked into a contract with another event platform for a year. WRLA could not afford to pay for duplicate services, so Cranmer needed to find a way to improve the onsite experience, even while burdened with an outdated registration system.

By the numbers

  • 4

    the number of full time staffers WRLA employs

  • 2hours

    the maximum time spent waiting in line at check-in in 2018

  • 3minutes

    the amount of time check-in took in 2019

  • 50%

    of exhibitors downloaded the lead capture app

Photos by Misty Pelican Photography

The solution: Transferring registrations to a modern event management technology

One of Cranmer’s colleagues had worked with Eventbrite previously and suggested that Eventbrite could find a way to help, even while WRLA remained under its existing contract.

Working together, Eventbrite and WRLA came up with a solution that allowed WRLA to use its pre-paid registrations with its existing vendor while moving to Eventbrite’s platform for the event itself. The night registration closed, Cranmer gave Eventbrite the raw data from its prepaid registration site. Eventbrite uploaded that data to its platform right before the event. When the buying show opened, WRLA’s data was on Eventbrite’s platform, ready for check-in.

It was an experiment — and it worked beautifully.

“They moved all of our data off another registration system that I hated, uploaded it to Eventbrite, and it immediately integrated with our event app, our lead-capture system, our attendance tracking, and our badge printing with Boomset,” says Cranmer. “It was like they hit a switch.”

“Eventbrite immediately integrated with our event app, our lead-capture system, our attendance tracking, and our badge printing. It was like they hit a switch.”

– Jessica Cranmer, WRLA Trade Show and Events Manager.

Using Eventbrite, WRLA could look up attendees by company and use the integration with Boomset to print badges right at the event. WRLA also worked with Eventbrite to build a mobile app for attendees that would track which classes were most popular.

Photos by Misty Pelican Photography

Improving the experience while staying within budget

Before approaching Eventbrite, Cranmer explored improvements with the organization’s existing vendor. WRLA had used the vendor’s event registration platform for seven years. When she asked the vendor for an upgrade from their basic registration service, its quote for equipment and software exceeded C$30,000— not including on-site staff or an app. WRLA simply could not work with this price.

“It was like going from a Chevette car to an Escalade. There was no Prius model,” she said. “You either had to spend a fortune or spend nothing for a limited system.”

WRLA’s package with Eventbrite included a store listing, attendance tracking, and a lead-retrieval app for attendees. The entire package came in at a third of the previous platform’s quote.

“At the end of the day, I hired Boomset, registration staff and I got our apps, and we paid less than our previous provider had quoted us for fewer services,” says Cranmer. The best thing was that she was able to select which services she wanted.

“What really was key was that Eventbrite was offering me an à la carte service.”

– Jessica Cranmer, WRLA Trade Show and Events Manager.

Cranmer was also able to use insights from Eventbrite’s platform to reduce costs elsewhere. “We offer all of our exhibitors and attendees a free lunch,” says Cranmer. “The staff had been guessing how many people go to lunch. They had been over-ordering lunches in the hundreds — and wasting money.” Now, staff uses their event app to more accurately predict catering needs.

Freeing up time for WRLA’s staff

In years past, WRLA’s small staff spent the two weeks before the Buying Show printing 3,000 badges on the office printer, stuffing them into lanyards, organizing them alphabetically, and shipping them to the trade show. It was a massive task, as was trying to find the right badges at the event. WRLA’s four-person staff would be trapped behind the check-in desk for hours, manually checking in thousands of attendees and exhibitors.

For the 2019 show, Cranmer wanted to release WRLA’s staff from check-in duty so they could do more important work.

“We needed to get out from behind the desk. I need to supervise the event. The rest of our staff needs to be doing other things, whether that’s communications and PR, or just being the president and talking to people.”

– Jessica Cranmer, WRLA Trade Show and Events Manager.

Eventbrite was able to connect WRLA with a preferred event staffing partner in Toronto. The partner sent a team to help WRLA with the opening and closing day of the event.

This additional staff handled whatever WRLA needed: processing payments, greeting attendees, and helping direct foot traffic. Most importantly, the additional staff liberated the WRLA staff from the check-in kiosk, letting them move freely around the show and provide the best experience possible for attendees.

“They came in and worked the entire system, and they figured it out in 10 minutes,” says Cranmer. “It was quite incredible.”

Photos by Misty Pelican Photography

Delighting vendors and exhibitors

Some of WRLA’s larger exhibitors, who have 50 people working at their booths, came to the check-in desk expecting a long wait. But this year, WRLA just looked up each company and printed the badges right there. The entire process took three minutes.

The WRLA went a step further in its mission to delight exhibitors. As a bonus, WRLA offered Eventbrite’s lead-capture mobile application, allowing exhibitors to scan interested attendees’ badges on the trade show floor and gather a list of potential customers on their phone, rather than collecting business cards.

Cranmer wasn’t sure all her attendees would take to the technology — the building supply industry can be pretty old-school — but she wanted to offer that feature to the younger generation of building suppliers. And it paid off. She was pleasantly surprised to learn that half of the exhibitors downloaded the application.

Moving the Buying Show into the future

WRLA’s switch to Eventbrite’s platform was a quiet success. The transition was so seamless that none of the attendees even noticed that the whole platform had changed when they arrived at Calgary’s BMO Centre to check in for the first day of the Buying Show.

They did notice one thing, however. “People were saying ‘But there’s no line, where is the line?’” Cranmer laughed.

“People were saying ‘But there’s no line, where is the line?”

– Jessica Cranmer, WRLA Trade Show and Events Manager.

After this year’s success, Cranmer plans to explore more of the features she can offer members in Eventbrite’s app, including gamification, chat, and the ability for people to have their badges on their app.

For WRLA, however, the most important thing was that Eventbrite was willing to help them by trying something the company had never done before — transferring raw data from one platform to another mid-event.

“They just said ‘Let us try it,’” says Cranmer. “And the outcome was incredible.”

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