WAILEA, Hawaii — The brochures that advertise Hawaiian vacations show the blue waters, equally blue skies and sunny, fine-sand beaches.

The Mechanical Contractors Association of America’s 2015 annual conference didn’t have much of that.

It was unusually cloudy and rainy for the dry, southwestern part of Maui, where the March 8-12 convention took place. But what it lacked in weather, however, it made up in the many educational sessions and high-profile speakers that the sheet metal works and HVAC construction group booked for annual gathering.

From a former secretary of defense to a bestselling young-adult book author and the man best-known for finding the Titanic in 1985, the MCAA gave attendees plenty of activities to keep them indoors.

The March 9 opening session featured Leon Panetta, a former California congressman who served in the Clinton and Obama White House, most recently as Defense Department secretary. He also was CIA director in the early years of Barack Obama’s presidency.

In his speech, Panetta lamented the end of the sense of congeniality that was a hallmark of Congress for decades regardless of which party controlled the chamber.

Authors and more

The March 10 appearance by John Green, the author of such bestselling novels as Looking for Alaska and The Fault in Our Stars, which was also made into a film in 2014, was another popular event.

For the more business-minded attendees, the MCAA offered sessions on topics such as social media marketing, business ethics, leadership, construction technologies and liability issues.

The March 9 appearance by Bruce Weinstein, who bills himself as “the ethics guy,” offered a chance for the audience to explore their personal ethics and those of others.

Weinstein’s session started with him running through the audience, microphone in hand, reminiscent of Phil Donahue’s 1970s and 80s daytime TV talk show, asking attendees to discuss ethical quandaries they had faced. He said he was impressed with the size of the crowd.

“Ethics is a tough sell,” he said.

Weinstein gave the audience of HVAC construction executives five principles to guide them in making the right decisions.

  1. Do no harm. This is similar to the code most physicians attempt to live by, he said.“The very least you can expect of your employees and yourself is you would not hurt others,” he added.

  2. Make things better.

  3. Respect others. Keep things confidential if asked, and tell the truth. “Write down what your core values are and stand by them,” he said. He showed the audience examples of the business websites of MCAA members that do a good job of displaying their core values.

  4. Be fair. “To be fair is to give others their due,” Weinstein said.

  5. Care. “As we see over and over again, it’s really hard to live by these principles,” Weinstein said. “(But) you’re already doing this. Now you need to let people know.

Making your mark

How you define your company — aka your “brand” — doesn’t really matter, according to marketing expert David Arvin. What’s most important, Arvin said at his March 9 session, is what others think about it.

“If your brand is your reputation, then by definition it rests in the minds of other people,” he said. “We have no control of what other people think, but we have great influence.”

Arvin, who calls himself “the visibility coach,” is a marketing expert who speaks to industry associations and clients around the world. “Live Your Brand” was one of several presentations he made to MCAA members.

Arvin said many companies rely on trite phrases for marketing and are too complacent when it comes to ensuring their brand stands out from others.

Being good is not enough. Almost everyone in business today meets that low bar, he said.

“For the first time in history, everybody is ‘good,’ ” he said. Any companies that weren’t likely didn’t survive the Great Recession.

Many salespeople give prospects and customers personal cellphone numbers and tell them to call anytime and promise to value the relationship. It’s not enough to stand out.

“True does not equal compelling, and compelling does not equal persuasive,” Arvin said. “I think there is a mistaken (impression) that everyone is looking to make the best decision possible.”

Most people are looking for the safe choice. It’s why there’s a saying that nobody got fired for selecting IBM.

Don’t be ordinary

You need to market yourself as a specialist — and be specific. Never use the phrase “All things being equal.”  That’s an invitation to be considered a commodity.

Boasting that you have “the best people” doesn’t mean much, either. Instead of using the tried phrase, “Our people make the difference,” say what they do, exactly.

The least effective word in marketing is “passion” and related ones such as “passionate.” Other examples of what Arvin calls a “plague of blah, blah, blah” phrases include “We really listen” and in the case of restaurants and food companies, “We use the freshest ingredients.” You’re almost better off saying nothing.

Instead, use phrases that promote concrete examples: “We created” or “We are the only.”

He encouraged MCAA members to write for HVAC market magazines or publish a regular e-newsletter.

“If you want people to be interested, you have to be interesting,” he said. “When given a choice, we’re going to do business with people we like and people we trust.”

Arvin’s other recommendations:

  • Stand out.

  • Have an outreach plan. Define your audience.

  • Be very, very visible. “If they don’t know who you are, they can’t buy what you’re selling,” he said.”

  • Don’t ignore social media. “If you’re not on LinkedIn, you don’t exist,” he said. Put a professionally shot tour of your facility on YouTube or interviews with happy customers. Don’t use social media to sell. Use it to share.

‘Google yourself’

Many of Arvin’s recommendations were echoed and expanded on by Perry Monaco, the head of customer success for LinkedIn, the online professional social media site. In his March 11 presentation, “Google Yourself: The Importance of a Social Media Strategy,” he implored the audience to search their name and the name of their business online even if they don’t have an official website.

“Even if you think you don’t have a presence online, you probably do,” Monaco said. “The problem is you don’t own it.”

A good social media strategy has five key points:

  1. You know your business’ social media goals. Is it to increase your reach, attract new customers or promote your brand? You need very clear objectives; otherwise you’ll just flounder.  “When someone looks at your profile… are they correctly appreciating what your goals are when it comes to social media?” he asked the audience.

  2. Analyze what has already been done. Figure out what works. Look at what competitors are doing.

  3. Develop a content strategy. Establish a schedule for your social media activities. How often? What time of content? Who is responsible for creating it? If you use Twitter, Monaco recommended sending them about five minutes before the hour. That’s when people are typically waiting for something to happen and are likely to be looking at their smartphones to pass the time.

  4. Track your social media efforts with analytics. If you’re not sure where to start, Monaco said Twitter may not be the right place. The quick-updating platform, known for its short messages, is among the hardest to figure out a successful formula.

  5. Adjust, rinse and repeat. Keep at it. Eventually, people will find you and start looking forward to your tweets and Facebook updates. “Social media is really just an extension of what you should already be doing,” he added.