By Gina Testa

When Blue Results, Bonita Springs, Fla., held an open house for its new digital color production press in September 2006, 192 people attended, 26 became new clients and 34 subsequently increased their business.

A similar event at Creative Marketing Solutions (CMS), Charlotte, N.C., in December 2006 drew 100 customers and contributed to 24 percent growth at the company over the last two years, leading to the acquisition of a second digital color production press, scheduled for installation by the end of 2007.

Open houses like these are among the most effective ways to build awareness and consideration among new and current customers, generating customer interest and sales activity.  This tried-and-true marketing technique provides an excellent platform for:

- communicating a new market position, such as transforming from a marketing communications services provider from a print company;  
- introducing new services and facilities;
- educating customers on topics like one-to-one marketing;
- celebrating significant milestones;
- generating market excitement;
- presenting your business at its best; and
- doing all of the above.

Following are 10 tips for organizing and running a successful open house. They come from the Xerox ProfitAccelerator Open House and PR Kit -- one of the many ProfitAccelerator tools and resources available to help print providers build their digital business and market their services -- and from the recent experiences of Blue Results and Creative Marketing Solutions.

1. Make it strategic. The way you stage your open house helps form your company's image, so carefully consider your approach. Ed Warren, vice president, Sales and Marketing at CMS, described his thinking this way: "We've been a production house forever, with a focus on getting the job done. In the last year, we've tried to shift our thinking to become a true marketing company, and to show our customers how they can get a better return on their marketing investment." So, CMS chose to hold its open house off-site, in the ballroom of a chic country club, moving the program's focus away from equipment and toward the new marketing messages.

2. Find a new twist. Do something memorable to set yourself apart. CMS, for example, featured an address by an independent industry expert. At Blue Results, the program's six presentation stations included several memorable displays: a blindfolded "guess-the-paper" contest, a quick lesson on spot color and ICC (International Color Consortium) profiles, and a personalized URL based upon preferences expressed when attendees signed into the event.

3. Put someone in charge of planning. For optimal accountability and organization, appoint one person as manager of the event. At CMS, a sales administrator was in charge. Blue Results made open house planning a permanent position --filled by Marketing Manager Brooke Tomlinson-- for an ongoing program with two or three luncheons per week for small groups of 10 to 20 customers. "The Xerox Open House Kit is her job description," said Kris Davis, president, Blue Results.

4. Budget several thousand dollars. Most of the budget goes for catering, and  CMS also paid a fee for the off-site space. Speakers sometimes charge, as well. Costs can be controlled by keeping a tight invitation list, holding the event onsite and considering options for food and event-timing --breakfast, lunch, hor d'oeuvres and so on.

5. Develop a compelling program. Getting customers to your facility is one thing, engaging them once they arrive is another. Your content should tell your company's compelling story and pave the way to future dialog and sales calls with useful information that generates enthusiasm and interest. CMS offered a topical presentation on the business value of one-to-one marketing by Peter Muir, president of graphic communications training company Bizucate. His talk also sparked interest in advanced CMS services, while positioning the company as a market leader. Blue Results lacks a large presentation space at its facility, so organizers set up six stations, each of which told part of the one-to-one marketing story. Visitors who had their cards punched at every station were eligible for a drawing. "The content really lent itself to this approach, because we had so much information that breaking it into smaller pieces helped us show them all of the sizzle," Davis said.

6. Enlist partner support. Why go it alone when your vendor partners may be willing to help?  Many can bring valuable experience in staging these affairs, as well as the expertise to serve as highly credible presenters. Both Blue Results and CMS made use of the ProfitAccelerator Open House and PR Kit to help them plan and run their events, and both turned to vendors for additional support. Blue Results enlisted about 10 representatives from several vendor partners to staff various stations at its event. CMS worked closely with their Xerox graphic communications representative, Scott Titus, who recommended the seminar approach and helped source the speaker.

7. Provide memorable giveaways. Providing attendees with something tangible that reinforces the event's theme helps ensure that your message has legs. Blue Results had visitors fill out a questionnaire as they entered, asking for their favorite color and three things they would like to bring to the beach. Later, they received a fun, branded print piece reflecting their preferences. CMS provided guests with personalized calendars and pocket folders that they can use in their offices.

8. Invite customers, prospects, friends, family and media. Different audiences get different values from your open house. Prospects are introduced to your services. Customers can learn about the wider range of your offerings and have a special experience. Friends of the business share your celebration and can virally communicate your messages to others. Including a session for family members can help build company morale by communicating that the company has a clear vision for the future. And inviting the local business media will keep your business on their radar and -- if you craft a compelling story for them-- can result in editorial coverage that extends the reach of your event exponentially.

9. Follow up. Following up is as critical to your overall success as good planning. Begin at the event by checking attendee's names as they pick up their badges, so you have an accurate attendance record. The day after the event, review key visitor reactions with the sales team, determine if actions are required --such as literature fulfillment and follow-up appointments-- and assign actions. Within 10 days, thank you cards should have gone to all attendees and all follow-up activities should have been initiated, including following up with people who said they would come but didn't. Thorough follow up ensures that you capture the value your event generates.

10. Re-use it. The materials you create for your open house can become part of your ongoing marketing program. Share some of the materials you created with no-shows to entice their interest. Re-use presentations for smaller plant tours and one-on-one sales calls. Build on your open house experience by opening your doors on a regular basis. Both Blue Results and CMS continue to use open houses and luncheon seminars to develop their status as thought leaders and to maintain a healthy dialog with customers. In other words, open houses are now an integral part of their marketing plans.

Gina Testa is the vice president, Channel and Customer Business Development, Production Systems Group, Xerox Corporation. She can be reached at [email protected]