Trade (show) secrets

The show floor at IBEX

If growing market share is a top priority for your marine business, exhibiting at one of the fall’s major trade shows may be your best path to success.

“In the past few years, we’ve kept our participation rate at the key shows as high if not higher than in previous years because they’re so valuable to us,” says Bob Apple, vice president of sales and marketing at Volvo Penta. “Some companies have scaled back, but not Volvo Penta. We’ve kept a strong presence and we plan to keep it that way.”

Volvo Penta will commit time and money to exhibit at both the Marine Dealer Conference & Expo, Nov. 6-9, in Orlando, Fla., and at the International BoatBuilders Exhibition & Conference (IBEX), Oct. 17-19, in Louisville, Ky.

But, as the engine builder knows, if you want to maximize the return on your trade show investment, you need to do more than just show up.

The power of networking

Volvo Penta has been exhibiting at both shows for a number of years, so the company has learned through trial and error how to fine-tune its approach and tactics for participation, from preparing for the events to making the most of time spent at the venue
and effectively managing follow-up.

The IBEX conference floor is bustling with industry folks from all swaths of the industry.

One of Volvo Penta’s goals going into a show is to leverage the networking potential.

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“Personal relationships are key in the marine business and these shows allow us to establish new ones and maintain those that exist,” explains Apple. “In two or three days, we can meet up with the same number of builders and suppliers that it would take us six months to do if traveling on the road.”

A critical component of Volvo Penta’s strategic plan for company growth is to consistently come to market with high-tech, high-value offerings. The networking that occurs at these shows enables the manufacturer to improve its offerings and also educate boat builders and dealers about product features and benefits, according to Apple. The end goal is for the consumer to realize the value of its products, which allows the company to be more competitive and profitable.

IBEX, in particular, is the venue Volvo Penta chooses to launch new products, in addition to educating its supply chain partners about the new technology.

“If there’s one thing we’ve learned exhibiting at these shows over the years, it’s that new products have a stronger opportunity than those that have been around for a few years,” Apple says. “You have to stay current and competitive, and that’s true even in a challenging economy. We feel we have the best technology that’s available, and we want our customers to perceive and receive the value in what we’re selling.”

New products, new sales

Taylor Made Products has been exhibiting at IBEX since the show’s inception because it consistently drives sales. According to Mike Oathout, vice president for sales and marketing, 70 to 80 percent of the leads picked up at the show convert to real sales down the road.

The secret to the company’s success?

“We have a good game plan going in, and we showcase the right products at the right time,” said Oathout.

When it comes to product launches, Oathout says IBEX is the show. “We go in with five to seven new products each year. Because the show is in the fall, the timing is good for us. This year, many of our customers are in the decision-making mode for their 2013 line. At IBEX, we can show off our strength, which is design and engineering.”

Moving product and growing market share are things that can be achieved by exhibiting at a trade show, but some companies avoid a hard-sell approach.

Taylor Made uses its IBEX booth to showcase its investment in design and engineering.

“We don’t expect to walk out of IBEX with purchase orders,” says Bill Watters, president of Syntec Industries, a manufacturer and supplier of carpeting, fabrics, mats, adhesives and, most recently, steering wheels. “It’s not that type of show for us. But we do bring our full line of products, and we work hard to introduce our customers to the existing items as well as the new. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about IBEX, it’s that if you don’t show something new, there’s no reason for your customers to come back to the booth again.”

IBEX is the one U.S.-based marine trade show Syntec regularly exhibits at because it offers the company access to its main customer base of OEMs. “We can see 80 percent of the marine industry in three days time,” says Watters.

Preparation is key

To prepare for IBEX, Taylor Made focuses on getting key customers to its booth.

It extends invitations early on and creates e-mail blasts to the major players in targeted segments for which they’ve developed new product. For instance, the company has plans to go after the pontoon segment, which it perceives as a growth industry.

“We want to be a player there, so we’ll have new products on display that are specific to their needs,” says Oathout. “We contact the customer base in advance and invite them to the booth, and we’re working with our PR company to put out releases.”

The company also comes to the shows with renderings of products that are in
the works.

“We share those with our contacts in the specific segments we are targeting,” Oathout says. “Some of those customers come back to us to say they liked what they saw at the show, and then ask us if we can modify the design for a particular need. That’s translated to sales in the past.”

Syntec started preparing for IBEX in August. Prep work includes setting up appointments and connecting with customers through mailings.

“We sent the first correspondence in August and will follow-up with two more mailings after that,” says Watters. “We tell them about the new products they’ll see at the show in the final letter. If we tell them too much too far in advance, our competition could find out what we’re up to.”

Preparing for the show also includes planning the booth. Syntec first came to IBEX with a 10-foot by 10-foot booth that Watters says felt too much like a strip mall. Now the company exhibits in a 30-foot by 30-foot space designed to be comfortable as well as private.

“We don’t want our customers to feel like they’re getting run over by people passing in the aisle, and we don’t want them distracted by passers-by,” he says.

Syntec turns 25 years old this year, and to celebrate, the company will host an invitation-only event at IBEX. Watters chose IBEX as the venue for this event for a few reasons. First, he hopes the occasion will draw even more of his customers to the show and to the booth. Second, he feels it’s important to support the marine industry, which is where his company got its start. “There’s no better place for us to have a party,” Walters says.

A show of support

Showing support for the marine industry makes good business sense for other companies, too, including Monterey Boats, which will exhibit at MDCE for the third consecutive year. The Florida-based boatbuilder says its presence there goes a long way toward building better relationships with its dealer network – now 100 strong on the domestic front – as well as with potential dealer partners.

“By exhibiting at MDCE, we let the dealers know we support them and are committed to the retail environment,” says Martin Rusin, the company’s marketing manager.

The more than 140,000 square foot floor at the Marine Dealer Conference & Expo.

Monterey, which manufactures a line of boats from 18 to 41 feet, went into its first MDCE show in a big way, with a booth that was significantly larger than much of the competition.

“We perceived the value of that show, and we wanted to portray our company as one that gives 100 percent to everything we do,” says Rusin.

While Monterey doesn’t use the show as a venue to introduce new products, it does exhibit a selection of boats at MDCE for dealers and prospects who may not be familiar with the builder’s models.

A more pressing goal for Monterey at MDCE is to build on the dealer partnerships it currently has and to establish new partnerships.

“We have an active prospecting program we use to search out new dealers in new markets, and this show is one of the key features of that program,” says Rusin.

Building the brand

Naturally, one of the key objectives for any company exhibiting at a trade show is branding. Yet that goal is more pressing for some businesses than others.

ARI, a global provider of tech-enabled services in more than a dozen vertical markets, will return to MDCE on a mission to strengthen the marine industry’s knowledge about its acquisition of Channel Blade last year. Channel Blade provides website, lead generation and lead management solutions for marine manufacturers and dealers. ARI began that educational process at MDCE last year, but it will use the show this fall to continue to spread the message.

“We will emphasize the fact that we’ve integrated systems and people, and we are offering the same support for our customers that they had with Channel Blade,” says Cheryl Pabich, ARI’s director of marketing.

ARI will also use the show to emphasize its corporate identity, which Pabich defines as a “thought leader” in the industry. To achieve that, ARI will come to the show with a “dream team” of consultants and product developers.

“Our booth will function more as forum for consultation rather than for hard sales,” says Pabich. “Our designers will be on hand to offer advice to dealers and OEMs on topics such as how to make their websites more efficient, and how to streamline and improve the performance of the sites we have out there. They’ll also solicit feedback on the programs we provide. The show offers us an opportunity to get close and intimate with the dealers and OEMs.”

In addition, ARI Director of Education Bob McCann was invited to participate in the show’s seminar series, as he did last year. This further bolsters ARI’s identity as a thought leader, according to the company. In 2010, McCann offered a seminar on search engine optimization. This year, he will tackle the subject of managing boat show leads.

“These speaking engagements are important to us as a company,” says Pabich. “There’s value in getting in front of dealers and sharing ideas on how they can use our tools to grow their business.”

Like ARI, Dominion Marine Media came to MDCE in 2010 with a big branding story to tell. The company had just merged its properties (Boat Trader and boats.com among them) into one division and needed to get the word out to the industry. This fall, Dominion will retell that story while talking about its products and promoting the unique identities of each of its brands.

“We’ll also use the show to promote ourselves as a knowledgeable partner in the industry,” says Courtney Chalmers, director of marketing for Dominian. To wit: Chalmers will give a seminar on virtual merchandising; her colleague will speak on consumer marketing.

“Over the past few years, we’ve worked hard to become more of a reference and data source for our dealers,” she explains. “We want them to know they can come to us for information on how to grow their business.”

Like many trade show participants, Dominion believes in supporting its customer base and the marine industry in general. To that end, Dominion emphasizes its role as a sponsor of the Boating Industry Top 100 Dealers Program.

“The awards banquet for that program is held immediately following the close of MDCE, and we believe it’s been a real driver for attendance at that show,” says Chalmers. “We feel it’s important to be aligned with a program that celebrates dealers who implement best practices and are willing to share those practices with their peers.”

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