Finding the value in trade shows and maximizing your time
By Michelle L. Cramer
In 1996, Jennifer Landi purchased what would become Landi Pools & Games in Vineland, New Jersey. Her husband, Tom, says neither had much knowledge of the products and equipment available, but that changed when they attended the Northeast Spa & Pool Association’s Atlantic City trade show.
“We realized that, if someone had an open mind and wanted to be unique, it could be done by looking and finding different products than what is sold by everyone else,” says Tom Landi. He also recalls meeting vendors who were excited to talk to business owners focused on offering quality products to their customers. “Not only was this refreshing for us, but refreshing for the vendor representatives,” he says. “This is where our excitement for going to trade shows started and now, after more than 20 years, we still go with the excitement of just finding one thing that will make our business better for the upcoming season.”
For a hot tub retailer, trade shows have several benefits, with the most important being connection, says David Carleton, owner of Spa Pool Marketing Success in Portland, Oregon. “It gives you the opportunity to get to know the top management for your vendors on a more personal level, outside of the daily issue of running a business,” Carleton says. “You can see new products, talk about sales and marketing strategies with vendors, and ask other dealers how they are handling a problem or issue common in the industry.”
Landi gives his vendors first dibs for his time. “Prior to [The Pool & Spa Show], we schedule appointments with our distributor reps and key spa manufacturers to show us what may be new for the upcoming season,” he says. Additionally, meeting with vendors and attending social events with other retailers gives Landi a chance to hear different ideas and approaches. “We are very open-minded and are willing to make changes to keep our business ahead of the curve.”
Don Riling, president of Olympic Hot Tub in Seattle, Washington, agrees that these discussions with vendors and other retailers have value. “It gives you an opportunity to brainstorm, share ideas, discuss issues and identify a plan to get resolution,” he says. “You get a chance to meet folks you may not have, have nice personal interactions that don’t have to be limited to business discussions, and talk about the industry in general.”
Norm Coburn, owner and president of New England Spas in Natick, Massachusetts, says these meetings — especially with vendors — are out of convenience and should not replace annual dealer conferences or regularly scheduled store visits from your vendor reps. “Although,” he says, “if the venue [for the trade show] has good local restaurants, it’s an added bonus.”
Don’t try to attend all the educational opportunities and seminars offered at the trade show. Many of them may be information you already know, so examine the seminar schedule before arriving and attend those that will benefit the growth of your business.
Landi attends business-related seminars and sends staff members to those that will help improve upon their daily job requirements and advancement within the company. Riling’s team, on the other hand, doesn’t spend a lot of time in the seminars unless they are on fresh topics. “But, if we have someone new to the industry or new to our company who may not yet have a lot of experience in our category, we would likely have that person attend seminars that seem to make the most sense,” Riling says.
While Carleton expresses value in seminars provided by vendors and industry peers, he also believes attending seminars offered by those outside the hot tub industry can be invaluable. “Outside experts get to see things from a different approach and can bring a totally new perspective to your way of thinking,” he says. “Some marketing consultants, for example, work with many types of clients in many different industries, and can bring to the table successful strategies they’ve implemented.”
Canvas the Trade Show Floor
Vendor booths on the floor are going to take up a majority of your time; there is simply so much to see. Coburn sets aside most of one day he attends for walking the entire trade show floor and returns to some of the booths for more time to explore. “If I want to learn more about a product or discuss pricing and available territories, I will either set a time with the booth rep or come back on my second round,” he says.
Jim Bishop, owner and president of PoolMart & Spas in Clarkston, Michigan, recommends knowing what you need before canvassing the trade show floor. “Be sure to walk the entire show because sometimes you will find a unique product at a small booth off in the corner,” he says. And be sure to visit the booths of your current vendors, too, because they may have something new they’re unveiling. “We sell ProTeam chemicals, but we learned of a really great new product of theirs to offer with our hot tubs because we were introduced to it at a trade show.”
“Seeing all of the products in one place makes it easier for me to compare,” says Brian Wasik, owner of Spas of Montana in Missoula. And when you find something that interests you, talk to the vendor reps about it, he says: “You’ll find out about products and services that work in other markets that you can use.”
That’s been the case for Riling as well. “I remember us becoming one of the very first — or perhaps we were the first — U.S. hot tub companies to sign up as a dealer for SilkBalance at the 2009 trade show,” he recalls. “We’re one of their biggest dealers today.”
Coburn found the Big Green Egg and Infinity Massage Chairs at past trade shows. And Bishop went to the International Pool | Spa | Patio Expo in Las Vegas about three years ago with a specific goal in mind as he walked the show floor. “We were looking for a new line of hot tubs to add to our product offering because our current line could not fill the mid-price point very well,” Bishop recalls. “We found Artesian Spas and added their products to our floor.”
Riling makes attending trade shows a team effort, including the services and operations manager and the inventory and purchasing manager for his company. It starts with prep before they even leave. “We meet ahead of time and look at the exhibitor list to decide if there are specific products we need to search for at the show,” Riling explains. “We also work to reach out ahead of time to make appointments with vendors that we might want to do business or spend additional time with.”
It costs money to attend trade shows, including time away from the daily workings of your business, but Coburn believes it to be worth it. He recalls how, early in his career, attending trade shows was an opportunity to see the entire industry at a glance, shop competitive brands and educate himself on the differences.
“If I can bring back value in either pricing deals, new technology or information that my staff can take advantage of, then it’s a good investment,” Coburn says. To get the most value out of that investment, you need to be prepared, he says: “Organize your time so you can spend it with key vendors and peers. Often, the most value comes from discussion with others who deal with the same opportunities and challenges that you face.”
“Any dealer who signs up to attend a trade show has just committed a lot of time, money and resources away from running their business,” Carleton says. “Getting away from the business can actually be a good thing on its own, but you need to ask yourself why you are going.” A great trade show location can make for a great “business vacation,” as Carleton puts it, which means there isn’t a lot of pressure: “But if you’re going specifically to help grow your business, decide what you want to accomplish beforehand.”
Carleton recommends asking your team about issues they may have with a vendor so as to aim for resolution in person. Additionally, he notes that signing up for seminars ahead of time will help you manage your time better and force you to mix in both floor time and education.
Expanding your network is also a wise use of trade-show time, Carleton says. “Don’t just hang out with the same people you came with or the same people [and vendors] you see every year,” he says. “Try to meet new people to expand your market and your mind.”