Close to a million people visited the Wisconsin State Fair last summer. Although most went to admire the animals, spin on the rides, and gobble the famous cream puffs, exactly 34 Wisconsinites went to generate leads for their remodeler, Callen Construction. Working four-hour shifts in the company's two booths, one for its remodeling business and the other for its Gutter-Topper product, these clients proved a successful twist on marketing through consumer-oriented events.

The 11-day fair had “132 shifts in all, 66 for each booth,” says Tom Callen, co-owner of the Muskego company. With one minor exception, “we never had anybody show up late, and we ended up writing more leads than we've ever written.”

Callen says he got the idea from a seminar that emphasized the need to staff a booth with two or more people at all times. Using clients instead of employees “was the twist I took.” To do this, he sent a letter to all past customers, inducing them with a brief training session, $10 an hour, two fair tickets, and a Callen Construction golf shirt, which they then wore in the booth.

Another twist in Callen's approach was exhibiting at a state fair instead of the usual home and garden show. “Obviously at a state fair, people aren't necessarily looking for home improvement,” he says. But in an agricultural state like Wisconsin, the fair's crowds dwarf those at home shows. Moreover, the state fair — and the three county fairs where the company also exhibits — is a great way not only to get new business but also to renew relationships with past customers, many of whom make a point of dropping by the booths to say hello.

Callen Construction's customers will again be on duty at the 2005 Wisconsin State Fair. This year, however, the company will spend more time training customers in products and “things to say and not to say.”