In this day and age where the Internet reigns supreme, contractors still see value in connecting with customers personally at home shows. For some, it’s not so much about the quantity of shows participated in anymore, but more about the quality of the events.

Butch Welsch, owner, Welsch Heating & Cooling, St. Louis, has been in the HVAC industry for 51 years and remembers going to home shows as a kid in the late 1940s. Welsh’s company has gone from exhibiting at three shows per year to just one. Five or six years ago, at one of the homeowners association’s large shows in downtown St. Louis, Welsch counted 19 HVAC booths. “The biggest change over the years is how contractors have felt it’s something they should do,” Welsch said. “We said to ourselves, ‘it’s not worth it.’ We’re not the low-priced supplier. You can find a cheaper price at these shows, but you can’t find a better job done or better service.”

Many factors come into play when trying to decide whether or not to exhibit, but cost is probably the largest. “We talk about the worth every year,” Welsch said. “You have to weigh the cost. Is it important to keep your name out there? Some companies feel it is, some feel otherwise. Sometimes manufacturers will pay half of the fee as long as you display their products; that covers a big chunk of the cost right there. It’s a good way to reduce the cost of the show — and it gives you something to display. Overall, they’re fairly expensive, but you need to weigh all the factors.”

While Welsch stresses quality over quantity, Joe Kruger, vice president of sales and marketing, Isaac Heating and Air Conditioning Inc., Rochester, New York, insists home shows are increasing in popularity.

“In 2014, there are more home shows than there used to be,” Kruger said. “That does, to some degree, lessen the traffic at the events because there are so many. There’s only so much pie, you know.

“There are so many over the last couple of years, they’ve actually watered down the amount of attendees per show. So, we concentrate on the bigger, well-known shows in the markets we’re mature in and attend some of the less lead-producing shows in the other markets just for branding.”

Overall, many contractors believe home shows can still be a valuable tool for business. “The nice thing about these shows is that it adds a personal touch where prospective customers can actually talk to somebody from our team without inviting them out to their homes,” said Rich Morgan, owner, Magic Touch Mechanical Inc., Mesa, Arizona. “If they’re in the market for HVAC services, for example, let’s say they’re considering a new installation and the timing is right, it’s an opportunity to go out and meet 13-15 different companies, talk to their employees, and just kind of do a meet and greet. It helps them narrow their selection down.

“We usually bring in one of our trucks, and we have a lot of signage and logos all over the place. People remember seeing your logo, seeing your name. I hear a lot of that. People will do some online research and then tell our people, now that I think of it, I remember meeting you at a home show or seeing us at a home show, that kind of thing. So, I do think they’re worth it. It’s not as effective at call-to-action marketing as the Internet is, but it’s definitely good branding and top-of-the-line awareness.”

Attention Grabbing

Morgan is of the philosophy, ‘the bigger, the better.’ After a decade of exhibiting at seven to eight home shows a year, he determined there were only one or two shows that performed the best for his company, and he turned his focus to those. “When we go, we go big,” Morgan said.

In January, Morgan’s seven-booth exhibit included a frame of spiral ducting with Darwin plating. Inside the booth, he mounted flat-screen TVs, which were hooked up to PlayStations and Wiis. “While we were talking about mounting the TVs, somebody said, ‘Well wouldn’t it be cool in between the ebb and flow of the crowd if you guys could play some video games on the TV?’” Morgan said. “And it just kind of struck us. There are all these kids at the show, and what better way to draw their parents into the booth than to keep the kids occupied for a moment? We’ve always had TVs in the booths, running a loop of installation pictures and stuff like that, but this was the first time we’ve ever brought in video games. They loved it. It worked as planned.”

That show was, by far, Morgan’s best ever. “We walked away with 60 quality leads with our foot in the door,” he said. “That has not been our experience in the past. Typically, we were happy if we got two dozen immediate leads.”

For his next home show, Morgan is going even bigger, renting out a whole island, or eight booths. There will be trucks and equipment displays, and, of course, TVs and video games.

Isaac Heating and Air Conditioning, which has been attending home shows on and off for about 30 years, has the art of exhibiting honed down to a science. Kruger advises contractors to have some type of equipment on hand to draw attention and engage visitors. “We’ve tried everything,” Kruger said. “I don’t profess to know everything about home shows, but, creative-wise, we like to have working equipment there. Something that usually attracts and interests people is displaying functional state-of-the-art equipment — things that people may have heard about, but haven’t seen firsthand. This is a good way to attract attention. We’ve experimented with how many sales people should be in booths and how dense the booth should be with display materials. We’ve also experimented with different backdrops and lighting fixtures. We’ve pretty much honed down on all of those things over the years.”

Measuring Success

Judging success is very difficult, according to Welsch. “Usually, during a three-day show, we set up 20 good leads, and our close rate gives us 10 sales. That’s worthwhile if the cost is $2,000 for the booth. At $200 per sale, it’s a pretty good return on investment. We also need to factor in the benefit of exposure, getting our name out there. Plus all the free handouts: pens, koozie cups, and magnets. We also give out hand fans, which is really just paper on wood sticks. It’s hot here in St. Louis and those are one of our better promotional items.”

Kruger said just remember to book leads during the show. “The important thing is to try and book the leads right on the spot, not just collect names and phone numbers. We’ve found trying to get back with these people can be very difficult,” he said. “With all the electronic devices we have today, we can book appointments right there on the spot and have an opportunity.”

Going Forward

One good tip, according to Welsch, is to make sure the booth you put together really presents the image that you want to portray. “It’s hard to differentiate yourself in a 10-by-10- or 10-by-20-foot booth,” Welsch said. “It’s really important to maintain this through the years. The booth keeps the image you want to project. There should be no handwritten signs. Quality is important. It’s not something you throw together in 15 minutes. Your booth should be as professional as the image you want to project.”

Contractors should also be careful about any promotions. Welsch advises only giving away something related to your business. “We gave away a free humidifier installation, with a retail value of $650, which only cost us about half of that price,” he said. “Once, we gave away baseball tickets and we got people signing up just looking for free stuff with no interest in our products and services.”

Morgan also suggests contractors not focus on just one type of lead. “In the past we’ve focused a little bit more on new equipment leads than service leads, and, quite frankly, I think we were leaving money on the table.”

The home show, in essence, remains all about interacting with the homeowner. Contractors should see these shows as opportunities to build a lasting relationship with new customers and work to differentiate themselves from the competition. One way to do this is to become experts in emerging products and technology and share this knowledge with interested homeowners.

“I see us incorporating more and more of the cutting-edge products to be able to explain to people what the possibilities are and how we can advise and help them really get the most out of the comfort and controls of their homes,” Kruger said. “There are so many things on the horizon that people are going to have questions about and we’re aiming to position ourselves as a provider of all these new technologies. A big part of our home show is educating people, advising people, and hopefully engaging them with the things that we have to offer.”

Publication date: 8/18/2014

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