I attended the AIA show in New York City and I learned a lot about the people attending and the exhibitors.
As usual, I wasn’t just looking at the products, but at the exhibits themselves – not what people were selling, but how they were selling it. And like every trade show I attend, I saw some good things and some misguided things. I paid attention to which booths drew crowds of architects and which ones were just passed by.
I want to tell you what I learned so that you can know your customer better, get a better sense of how to sell to them and avoid some of the mistakes I saw.
If there’s one thing that makes the AIA show so promising for building material companies, it’s how well attended it is. That was especially true this year because architects love New York City and its diverse and interesting architecture, both historic and modern. There were lots of architects in line to register and sign up for classes and field trips.
Before the show, I spoke with a number of architects. I found out that they were most excited about learning new things. They were mainly looking forward to field trips, classes and networking with other architects. Unfortunately for the exhibitors, not one of them told me they were really looking forward to walking the show floor and seeing the exhibits.
Now, that doesn’t mean they intended to avoid the show floor altogether. When I pushed, some of them would say, “Well, there is a type of product I’m interested in learning more about and I saw some exhibitors in the program who might be able to tell me more about it.” But no one said, “I’m going to walk up and down the aisles and see what there is to see.”
And sure enough, there was very little traffic on the floor – at times, you could almost say it was dead.
The result was that I saw too many booths where the poor sales people had nothing to do but look at their phones.
I also noticed that the exhibits upstairs had a lot more traffic than the ones in the basement. There also seemed to be times when the traffic picked up, but even at it’s busiest, it was still very weak.
GAF did well upstairs but still nothing like the traffic they get at the builders or roofers show. They were smart, like many other companies in that they “right sized” their booth to match the show. It was smaller than you would think it should be when you look at the number of architects who attend. I’m sure it would be larger if more architects spent more time on the show floor.
Armstrong also did well upstairs. Armstrong is a good company to benchmark yourself against, as they always do a great job of matching their message to the show attendee.
The AIA knows that too few architects actually check out the exhibitors. That’s a problem for them because the show won’t keep going if manufacturers decide it isn’t worth setting up a booth. It’s the manufacturers exhibit fees that pay for many of things that make show great for the architects.
The AIA has moved a number of classrooms onto the show floor but they architects still seem to rush into and out of these classes without visiting any booths. I thought this was an interesting approach where there was a well-attended class with no walls.
Two Mistakes to Avoid
1. Make Sure the Attendees Care About Your Product
The first thing that stuck out to me were companies that didn’t seem to belong at this show. I just couldn’t understand why they came.
For example, there were companies that sold products for commercial buildings. Architects matter to them because the architects have a role in specifying the type of product to use. But these companies were selling products that were, to my mind, not very important to the architect, things like sealants, adhesives and other “taken for granted” types of products. Those are all critical components of a building – they’re just not going to be on the architect’s mind. With all the things they have to worry about, they’re more likely to just rely on the contractor’s recommendation instead of having a strong opinion about which kind of sealant to buy.
Even if you invest the time and money to get the architect to specify your product, the contractors can quite easily break the spec and the architects won’t defend it.
If those companies realized how little architects are concerned with these categories of products, they could have put the money they spent exhibiting at the AIA to much better use.
2. Make it Easy to Understand What You Are Selling and Who You Are
What is this company selling? What is their name? There are always one or two companies at every trade show who are so enamored with their products that they forget the need to tell what it is and who they are.
This was an extreme example but there were many exhibits who didn’t communicate what they were selling or why the architect should be interested.
The Best Message At The Show
Homasote had the best message at AIA. Too many exhibits rely too heavily on a beautifully designed booth and do not pay enough attention to the message.
Here’s what’s right about this message.
1. I know its a sound barrier
2. They giving me two benefits and not features – Less Material and Less Labor
3. They are telling me where to use it. Metal and Steel Studs. Multi-family, Home Theatres, Hotels and Dormitories.
4. They are showing me where it goes with a cutaway drawing.
Another Message I Liked
Assa Abloy had a very timely approach to the security their products provide with the simple bold “Attack-Resistant Opening” message.
A Smart Way to Grab Attention
Larson used this display of bold colors as a way to draw attention and more traffic. They probably sell very few of these colors but that doesn’t matter. Dri-Design also used this technique very effectively.
More Sound Control Products
With the growth of multifamily and interest in occupant health, the sound control market is poised to grow and there were a number of sound control companies at the show. Does your product do anything to help control sound?
Architects Always Want it Bigger
I don’t know how tall it was, but this sliding glass door was huge and attracted a lot of attention. A very simple exhibit that got this company more than their fair share of attention.
My Favorite Giveaway
Sto has always done a great job with their branding. If you spend any time on job sites you will frequently see their iconic yellow bucket. What a creative take on the typical literature bag that is sure to be used over and over by architects at home.
Those were some of the lessons I learned from specific booths, but I also want to leave you with three general takeaways.
1. Consider Whether It Even Makes Sense to Go
The first thing you should do is consider whether exhibiting at the AIA show is worth it. Exhibiting is really expensive, so if you’re not likely to get a whole lot in return for it, you’re better off spending your budget elsewhere.
The beauty of the AIA is it doesn’t get sold out, so there’s no pressure to commit right away to get a good space. Some exhibitors even told me they made the decision to attend just two months before and still had great spaces on the main floor.
It’s a sure sign that they have space available when they sell booth space to the cookie ladies.
2. Use the Show as a Research Opportunity
A lot of companies don’t realize that trade shows are excellent opportunities to do some research. After they’re done, they look at how many leads they got but they don’t stop to ask what they learned.
After spending your time on the show floor, stop to consider what the architects asked about. What were their concerns? What could you have done better to address those concerns?
Get everyone who was involved in putting the exhibit together – whether they were at the show or designed the booth – and debrief about the event and find out what you can learn from it and how you can improve your approach or designs for the next one.
3. Your Follow-Up Program Matters
How many leads you got doesn’t really matter. In the end, what really counts is how many of them turn into sales.
If you’re just mailing a brochure or sending a quick e-mail after you get back in the office, you’re probably not doing enough. Nurturing leads takes more dedication than that.
It can take your leads months before they’re ready to buy. If you’re giving up on them too soon, you need to revamp your follow-up program.
Keep communicating with your leads and be patient. If you do it right, they’ll be ready to buy when they have a new project that could use your product.
If you aren’t using marketing automation yet, turning trade show leads into sales is one of the things it does best.
If you’re going to exhibit at a trade show (and I’m not saying you should), make sure you’re getting what you want out of it. You’re investing a lot of money and resources into this, so measure the outcomes so you can accurately compare costs vs. benefits. How many dollars are you getting back for every dollar you invest in exhibiting at the trade show? Or are you coming out of it with less money than you had before?
So, follow up on your leads and then take stock. Getting 200 leads sounds great, but how many of them were you able to get a meeting with? And of those, how many resulted in specifications? And how many of those specs turned into orders?
Depending on the numbers, you might discover that it isn’t worth your while.
But if you do want to set up a booth at the next AIA show, remember the advice in this article. Avoiding a few easy mistakes could make a lot of difference.
What Others Are Saying
“The AIA should be renamed the AIA Funding Session or the AIA Entertainment Revenue Source. The AIA sticks its fat finger in the eye of its key support base. I spoke with our competitors and most are thinking of a revolt. We’ll see.” Anonymous Exhibitor
“I want to thank you for your this article you wrote about the AIA show in NYC. It was great.” Brian T. Conroy, Sales, MasterWall