Many ASPE chapters rely on local product shows as a major source of income. The Saint Louis group found a way to make it work for all.

Several months ago, writing in a competing magazine whose name conveniently escapes me, an old friend Pete Warshaw lamented the poor attendance at some ASPE chapter product shows and educational programs. He specifically referred to an event earlier this year that featured presentations by the editors of two magazines serving the plumbing engineering community of which, naturally, I was one.

The people I met there were friendly and seemed interested in my remarks on the history of plumbing. Either that, or they had mastered the oh-so-useful art of falling asleep with their eyes open. In either case, I was grateful. But Pete's point is well taken. A speaker with a tiny audience feels as forlorn as a tennis instructor in a nursing home. After my presentation, I manned a booth at the product show, where I was the one on the verge of nodding away.

It's not that way everywhere, of course. Since taking over as editor of this magazine almost a year and a half ago, I have attended four ASPE chapter product shows, three of which had respectable attendance. For instance, the show put on by the Chicago ASPE is a major event each year in the local plumbing community. The Boston area show that I attended was another winner. I also had the privilege of being invited to speak at two ASPE chapter meetings, of which one, New York City's, was reasonably well attended. Of course, it's more likely that I'd find my way to the popular events rather than the marginal ones.

Patriotism and WIIFM

Pete Warshaw, a semi-retired sales executive from Delta Faucet's commercial division, is the plumbing industry's version of Nathan Hale. His perspective is that all of us ought to give our heart and soul to the industry that supports us, as well as cough up a few bucks now and then where required. God bless him. Our industry would be better off if everyone heeded his advice.

Yet, patriotism must coexist with a more hard-bitten view, which is that the WIIFM imperative ultimately drives commerce in every field of endeavor. "What's In It For Me?" are the magic words that apply to anyone buying a product, service or trade show.

The manufacturers, reps and distributors that buy booth space at industry product exhibitions have every right to expect tangible benefits in return for their time, money and effort. The people who come to view the exhibits and talk to the reps have every reason to believe they'll learn something that will benefit them professionally in return for several hours of their precious time. If it turns out that they'd rather sit home and watch a ball game, it shouldn't reflect badly on them. Rather, it's a sign that the show organizers haven't done their job in putting together an event with enough value.

Industry patriotism should exist in harmony with WIIFM, not take precedence over it. But that's what too often happens. Exhibitors get their arms twisted to buy a booth-not with a pitch about marketing value, but to show their support for the sponsoring organization. ("Oh, and as long as you're in the mood to give a thinly disguised donation to our group, buy an ad in the program book!") Visitors get bribed with free food and beer along with door prizes for their attendance. Whether they benefit professionally is an afterthought.

Strength in numbers

A good trade show is one of the most cost-effective marketing tools. Sales reps are lucky to average a half-dozen personal visits a day to customers and prospects. At a well-attended product show, they can contact hundreds in the space of a few hours. This ought to be the main selling point, not the fact that the sponsor needs money.

It becomes a hard sell, of course, when the sponsor can't persuade an adequate number of people to tour the show. That's when the pitch is apt to degenerate into patriotic pleas. The 19th-century English writer Samuel Johnson called patriotism "the last refuge of a scoundrel." I wouldn't go that far in describing the motives of product show sponsors. In this context, it's more accurate to say that patriotism is the last refuge of those with nothing else to sell.

One problem with many product shows is simply that the industry is fragmented by multiple groups going after the same exhibitor base. A good example was St. Louis. Until a couple of years ago the local ASPE chapter, Missouri PHCC and the Plumbing Supply Council, a wholesaler organization, all hosted their own separate product shows in the area. They drew about 25 tabletop exhibits apiece and would be lucky to draw more than a couple of hundred visitors. Exhibitors each year had to dig into their pockets for three fees and give up three evenings of their time. Leaders of the sponsoring organizations had to cajole members that it was their duty to attend, and constantly looked for gimmicks to bring them in when they had better things to do. WIIFM was nowhere in sight.

Then, a couple of years ago, they did the sensible thing and combined their shows. I attended their most recent effort, last Sept. 22, and was impressed with the turnout and the upbeat mood of exhibitors and visitors alike. Under the theme of "Chain Unity Among Contractors, Engineers and Suppliers," the show drew about five dozen exhibitors and more than 600 attendees. Space was sold out months ahead, whereas before the alliance, the sponsors were scrambling to sell booths right up until the show's opening.

Surely there are some struggling ASPE chapters who could benefit from a combined product show in their local markets. If you are one of the volunteer leaders and inclined to do a little soul-searching, here are some things to think about.

Product show tips

1. Paid staff helps immensely. The St. Louis show got a tremendous boost when Ray Hefner, executive director of the Missouri PHCC and St. Louis PCA, lent his organization's administrative support to the joint product show. Hefner's assistant, Joan Hecker, spends quite a bit of time pulling together the details and does a heck of a job.

Most product shows are organized by volunteer members of an organization. Even in St. Louis, a joint product show committee lends valuable assistance, but volunteers are always stretched thin in time and tend to learn the ropes by trial and error. To put on a truly first-class event usually requires the help of full-time staff.

Few ASPE chapters have paid staff. This is why it makes sense to ally with local contractors or some other trade allies that do.

I was surprised when Hefner told me that his organization does not get a cut for their efforts. Proceeds from the product show go to St. Louis ASPE and the Plumbing Supply Council, the third show partner. Hefner said they do it "to bring the industry together," and for indirect benefits, such as signing up an occasional exhibitor as a dues-paying PHCC associate member.

They can afford such generosity because the St. Louis PCA is a collective bargaining group with an industry promotion fund. A product show is in keeping with the spirit of such funds.

2. Location, location, location. The St. Louis "Chain Unity" product show was held in a suburban hotel with convenient expressway access. So was the Boston ASPE show that impressed me.

The St. Louis exhibits were in a hotel ballroom that was just a bit on the snug side, but that's more good than bad, in my opinion. Better to have people rubbing elbows than spread out in a way that makes it feel like nobody's there.

3. Educational programming. The St. Louis ASPE sponsored a seminar an hour prior to the opening of the trade show. It's a good way to put some bodies in the aisles in the late afternoon opening hours, when attendance normally lags.

4. Bread & circuses. The St. Louis crowd has not dispensed with crowd-pleasers, such as door prizes (top prize, a trip to Las Vegas) and free food and drink. And Joan Hecker shared with me some interesting twists worth passing on:

Their product show features a cash bar from 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. and again from 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. In between those times, it's an open bar with free beer and wine, coinciding with a deli buffet supper. She noted that company owners tend to show up in the early hours, while plumbers start showing up from 5 p.m. on, after they finish work. "In the first hour or two, it's a business function. After that the show becomes a social event," Joan says.

Lessons for the future

This is only the second year for the "Chain Unity" show in St. Louis. ASPE Chapter President Phil Zimmer told me that the joint show committee is working together in admirable fashion. In the future, they plan to increase educational programming in order to make the event more valuable to "the major players" in the local industry.

St. Louis has been chosen as the site of the 2001 ASPE Symposium. The St. Louis Chapter will play a big role in that event, and the experience they are gaining with the "Chain Unity" show will undoubtedly help them.