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Why Building Product Companies Should Stop Exhibiting at the AIA Show

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Why Building Product Companies Should Stop Exhibiting at the AIA Show

I just got back from the AIA Show in San Francisco. I went there for two reasons.

First, I wanted to see if San Francisco really is as bad as the news makes it seem. Now that I’ve seen it for myself, I can confirm that it is.

But more importantly, I wanted to see if the AIA Show had improved since I last attended in 2019. It hasn’t. It might be a good experience for the architect attendees, but it certainly isn’t for the building material companies who exhibit at the show.

Two Observations About This Year’s AIA

1. There isn’t enough traffic on the show floor. For some manufacturers, that hasn’t been an issue – they reported a slow but steady stream of traffic. They were the lucky ones. A number of other exhibitors had no one to talk to.

2. Manufacturers are still giving away too much printed literature. I can understand the thinking behind this. You’re going to be seeing potential customers in person, so you want to leave them with something tangible they can hold and look at later. That’s a very optimistic outlook, however. The reality is that most of the printed materials end up in the hotel room trash can. It also shows how disconnected manufacturers are from architects. Architects are very environmentally conscious, and showing up with stacks of print-outs shows that you don’t care about sustainability.

Who Benefits from the AIA Show (Hint: It’s Not You)

The AIA Show is an excellent event for architects, but they’re not there for the exhibits.

When you exhibit at IBS, WOC or IRE, the show floor is the centerpiece of the event. Yes, there are speeches, field trips, and educational opportunities that attendees take advantage of, but they make the exhibits a priority. That’s because builders, contractors, dealers and distributors want to talk to trade show exhibitors.

For architects, that’s far less important.

The AIA knows this is a problem and has taken steps to improve traffic around the exhibits by locating educational classrooms on the show floor. But getting people near the exhibits doesn’t mean they’ll bother stopping at them. I watched as classes ended and architects hurried to their next scheduled events. Most didn’t even look up from their phones as they passed by the exhibits.

This year, the AIA even added a puppy petting area to encourage architects to spend more time on the show floor. But again, they’re there for the puppies, not the exhibits.

More promising was their Booth Bingo promotion. If you stop by certain booths and get your passport stamped, you could win a prize. But really, how many successful architects are going to be attracted to this? I’ll tell you how many: zero. Their time is far too valuable to bother chasing after $1,500. And even if they were trying to fill their bingo cards, manufacturers want to interact with architects who are interested in their products, not someone looking for a chance to win extra cash.

Why No One Will Stop at Your Booth

Here’s the big problem with the AIA show. Architects aren’t there to look for new products to improve the buildings they design. Most of their clients frankly don’t care about that. They ask for good enough and that’s what architects will give them. Their clients don’t want the best buildings, they want buildings that are completed sooner and with fewer risks. And trying out a new product introduces new risks.

Most of the time, architects don’t even give two thoughts to the building materials they specify because they can just cut and paste specs from previous projects. Unless a code changes, a client requests something different, or there is a noticeable problem with the current specified product, an architect has no incentive to consider your product.

If anything, they have a few reasons not to specify your product. If they anticipate the general contractor will object, they are less likely to recommend a change. If they have to revise the plans, those costs come out of their profits.

Simply put, architects rarely need to update the building materials they specify. Because of that, they have no reason to scope out the exhibits on the show floor. If you set up at the AIA show and no one stops at your booth, that’s why. Their success doesn’t depend on it, so they’d rather spend time in the puppy pen than see what manufacturers have to offer.

Do the Math, Save Yourself the Trouble

If you exhibited at the AIA show, take a moment to run the numbers.

How much did it cost you, including people’s expenses? Divide that by the number of leads you got to see how much each of those leads cost you. In my experience, most companies will get somewhere around 100 to 150 leads. Was it worth spending this much on 150 leads?

It’s easy to leave the show feeling great about it. You think back to all the conversations you had, the potential customers you met and you have a brand new list of people you can follow up with. But instead of thinking about the first few days after the show, I want you to think six months down the line. After six months, how many of those leads turned into sales? How big were those sales? Was the amount you spent at the AIA worth it to get those sales?

When they put it into perspective, most companies find that the cost of these sales were too high.

In fact, if you’re a small to medium-sized company, exhibiting at AIA can be a large portion of your marketing budget. You shouldn’t be gambling so much of your budget on a chance to sell some uninterested architects over two days. That same money would be far better spent on marketing initiatives that could reach far more architects, 365 days a year.

Should Anyone Exhibit at the AIA?

Now, there is one exception to all this. Large companies with big marketing budgets who are category leaders and want to defend their positions might benefit from showing up to the AIA. A large, well-designed exhibit makes a statement. It’s a big flex that tells architects, “you can’t go wrong with us.”

While a smaller company has to get real sales results for the investment to be worthwhile, large companies don’t have to deliver measurable results.

Unless you have a truly new product that will turn heads and can afford a program that will stand out from the rest, you’ll just be another exhibit architects ignore on their way to the next event.

If You Still Want to Exhibit at the AIA, Do It Right

If you really want to exhibit at the AIA despite all my warnings, here’s what you should do.

Do your research ahead of time to find out the top things architects are looking for. That might be energy savings, faster installation, better moisture control, lower maintenance costs, or a reduced carbon footprint. Whatever it is, if your product delivers on any of these, then you might have a shot of grabbing someone’s attention at the AIA.

If it doesn’t, don’t bother. You’re not offering something architects really care about, so they’ll have no reason to give you the time of day.

It will cost you a lot to put together a booth and exhibit at the AIA show. The least you should do is make sure it’s going to be worth your while. If it’s not, there are plenty of lower-cost and more effective ways to reach architects and grow your business.

Consider Sitting the Next One Out

After going to the AIA, I’ve come away with a good sense of who benefits from the show.

Architects do. The entire convention is geared toward them and there are a number of professional advantages and networking opportunities that come with attending.

The AIA itself does, too. They’re selling floor space, so the more manufacturers set up booths, the more they get to pocket.

But by and large, building materials companies aren’t benefiting much. They walk away with a few new leads, a tighter marketing budget and a stack of unused printed materials destined for the dumpster.

That’s why I recommend sitting the next one out. Instead, use those funds on other marketing efforts. That way, your investments will go toward growing your sales, not the AIA’s profits.

Contact me if you’d like to know more effective ways to grow your business than exhibiting at the AIA Show.


“Good article, Mark- and it makes a lot of sense.  I happened to help at our booths because we’ve been a bit short-handed with architectural reps. So I stepped in to help out a bit and had a number of solid conversations- but I do wonder what those conversations will mean to either myself, or the person I had them with 6 months from now.”   Steve Durbin, Regional Sales Manager, RMax

“Well said Mark.   I’ve been telling architects involved with the show about this for years.   I took a booth a number of years ago, and after watching about 50 architects walk by (most of them checking their phones for updates), I worked up the courage to stop one and ask if he used doors on projects.   “Nope, we don’t need doors on our projects” and kept walking.    I used to joke that the architects walked the show floor for the exercise. 

I think there needs to be an internal dialogue at AIA to recalibrate their perspective if they want to keep exhibitors at the booth.   Otherwise make call it an Annual meeting and don’t have booths.”  Jacob Kluger, CEO, GRANDOOR FRAMES

“Totally true. As a building material manufacturer of over a decade, this show never proved out ROI. It’s a waste.  As you like to joke, the best thing to exhibit at this show is super high-end, designer eyewear for the architects to try on.”  Co-Founder, Expert Concrete Training
“This is a sobering account of the exhibit floor value. However, it matches exactly what we experienced the two times we exhibited.”  Shannon Riley Perry, AIA, LEED AP | Midwest Territory Manager

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About The Author

I am the leading sales growth consultant in the building materials industry, I identify the blind spots that enable building materials companies to grow their sales and retain more customers.  As I am not an ad agency, my recommendations are focused on your sales growth and not my future income.

My mission is to help building materials companies be the preferred supplier of their customers and to turn those customers into their best salespeople. Contact me to discuss your situation.