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Loving and Hating Home Shows

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Loving and Hating Home Shows

Even contractors who dislike them concede that success is all in the effort

By By Jim Cory October 27, 2016
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John Gorman, owner of Save Energy Co., in Petaluma, Calif., decided three years ago that he was going to give home shows another chance. The window and door company had skipped the Sonoma County Home & Garden show, held in nearby Santa Rosa, for 10 years. Gorman bought exhibit space for the spring show, then again for the following spring. But, he says, his heart wasn’t it. “I hate them,” he says, “so we didn’t do well.”

Home shows are not for every kind of home improvement contractor. Sitting in a booth for three days, or having salespeople do it, makes for restlessness. Working the aisles takes gumption. So in thinking about his company’s marketing for 2017, Gorman has already made up his mind on one point. “No shows or events,” he says. His inbound marketing provides a steady lead flow.

Weather Factor

Other contractors observe a few things about home shows. For one, the head count is down from years past. Also, the demographic seems older. That said, even those with reservations are quick to point out that the quality of the leads tends to be high and, on a cost-per-lead basis, less expensive than radio or TV, though more expensive than canvassing. The thinking is that if people are there, a certain percentage, at least, are serious about a project, if not actively shopping for a contractor. That’s not the kind of prospect some companies feel they can take a pass on.

“Home shows are super important to us,” says Kevin Carmen, chief marketing officer at American Design and Build, a home improvement and solar company in Maryland. In fact, shows are the company’s third biggest lead source, right behind canvassing and previous customers. The problem, Carmen points out, is that of the more than 50 events the company works, only two or three produce consistent, reliable results. After that “you’re at the mercy of the weather and whatever level of promotion the show company does.” But hit or miss, a really good, top-tier home show—for instance, the Maryland Home & Garden Show, which this past spring drew more than 25,000 to Glen Burnie, Md., where it's held—“keeps a contractor busy for months at a time,” Carmen says.

Cost and Consistency

No one can control the weather, but there are variables to weigh when considering whether or not to sink marketing dollars into a show. Costs include exhibit space, construction of the booth, staffing, and miscellaneous costs, such as promotion. Paul Despenas, president of Midwest Construction, in Des Moines, Iowa, says that his company spent about $3,000 staking out space—including a fully built-out sunroom—at the spring Des Moines Home + Garden Show, which last year drew 15,800 during a three-day period.

Shows are a throw of the dice, he says, but produce very good leads. "The people who stop by our booth are ready to buy within 60 days,” Despenas says. A big reason, he and others point out, is that homeowners in the market for, say, new windows or siding, can get only so much information from online sources. A certain number, at some point, will want to see the company’s products and meet its people. But while Midwest Construction can generate some highly motivated buyers from the Des Moines and (the smaller) Mason City home shows, the company also invites passing showgoers to enter a sweepstakes and drop their contact information in a box. “That little box,” Despenas says, “produces a ton of money.” Seeking both active and future buyers helps make the show worth the expense.

Going Out

That expense can be as much as $10,000 or more in larger, denser markets, meaning that a booth would need to generate at least $75,000 in net good sales to hold marketing costs to 15 percent. So while numbers matter, so do demographics, as companies map out their marketing plans for next year.

“There’s a lot of shopping on the internet, and the younger generation may not be as inclined to go to a home show,” says Tony Hoty, home improvement speaker and consultant. He guesses that at the 20 shows he has been to around the country in the last few years, “the median age might now be about 50” where it was once about 45. The upside, according to Hoty, is that where home shows used to teem with window and siding companies vying for the attention of homeowners strolling down the aisles, today the number has thinned. Those that do best, he observes, tend to fit a niche category.

Show Strategy

Whether contractors love home shows or loathe them, none would disagree that, ultimately, success at shows is directly correlated to the level of energy, effort, and planning put into the venture. “You have to be dedicated to it to do it well,” Gorman concedes.

Scott Barr, owner of Southwest Exteriors, in San Antonio, describes himself as a big believer in the marketing value of home shows. Barr says that Southwest Exteriors has learned, by trial and error, how to be effective there. For instance, one change Barr made that produced noticeable results was when Southwest Exteriors stopped having its salespeople work the booth. “They didn’t like doing it, so we got the results you’d expect,” Barr says. Instead, three years ago, he recruited an event marketing team specifically to work the roughly 50 events, including home shows, where the company sets up its booth in the course of a year.

Separate and Exclusive

Some companies, such as Save Energy, opt for an inbound lead strategy. But more aggressive marketers won’t forsake the outbound lead, where companies reach out to homeowners via canvassing or shows and events to find those who might be prospects. For that type of contractor, home shows may not be the huge lead source they were years ago, but they remain important, and many have adapted so as to continue to make their show presence productive and profitable. Midwest Construction, for instance, which makes use of media, shows, and events plus online, responded to the gradual waning of fall home shows by launching its own annual fall event in the company showroom. Still, Midwest Construction continues to participate in lots of shows and events, and Despenas says its incumbent on show sponsors to figure out how to draw young people. In times past, Iowa farmers flocked to the big home shows, where “every tractor manufacturer in America” had a display and the tractors got bigger and bigger. Today, farmers are fewer.

“The shows need to offer something to Millennials,” he says. “Most exhibitors at the shows have recognized that we’re dealing with a new market.” That fact prompted Midwest Construction to switch to “digital stuff in our booth” and to have its staff come equipped with iPads and tablets. “The younger generation is more online and less home show–oriented,” Barr concedes. “But there’s going to be another 10 or 20 years where [shows] will be really strong and the concentration of interested homeowners high.”

written by

Jim Cory

Senior Contributing Editor

Philadelphia-based writer Jim Cory is a senior contributing editor to Professional Remodeler who specializes in covering the remodeling and home improvement industry. Reach him at coryjim@earthlink.net.

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