Convention


In mid-July, I packed up the Prius and headed to Tampa for the 2010 Independent Funeral Directors of Florida conference and expo.

This was our fourth year attending the show, so I didn’t know what kind of response we would get.  Here were my major questions:

Would our customers need any more covers? 
Would there be any new customers left for us to sell?
How would our new dressing table skirt systems be received?
Would we sell any dressing table skirt systems?

I left my facility on the morning of the event.  Exhibitors would be allowed to begin loading at noon, with the doors of the hall opening for visitors at 5:00 pm that evening.  The trip to the convention center took about two hours, allowing me to arrive just as they opened the loading dock for exhibitors to begin setting up.

Because I registered late for the show – hadn’t decided by mid-June if we’d attend again – I did not have the best choice of booth space.  In fact, the organizers had sold so many spots that the only space left was in the lobby near the registration area.  I was concerned about this setup, but I convinced myself that we’d still see everyone, even if we had to work extra hard to get them to hang out with us outside of all the main action.  I was beginning to rethink this strategy at the end of the first session.

Basic tenant of trade show booth placement:  don’t be too far away from the main action.  In fact, I would rather have been in the hall on a far wall in the corner than in the lobby.  Why?  Because everyone rushed past the eight booths in the lobby so they could get into the exhibit hall, which, incidentally, was the location of all the food, the bar and their friends.

So the typical attendee spent an hour or two in the exhibit hall, shooting the breeze with his friends, until his wife says, “Let’s go,” and he moves to leave.  By this time, he’s disengaged himself from the trade show, and just as he has closed his mind to looking at any more products, he walks out the door and sees 8 more booths. 

Needless to say, most of these guys were not going to stop to talk to any of us.

Our first day was very slow, with very few people talking with us.  The exhibit hall was rocking, but the exhibitors in the lobby were starting to wonder why they had paid the same amount as the people in the larger room.

We ended the evening with no sales.  First convention I’ve ever done where we sold NOTHING during a session.  As you might imagine, I was concerned and, if I’m truthful, a bit depressed about it.

It’s hard enough to risk hundreds or thousands of dollars and days away from your business to generate sales, but spending money and producing nothing is terribly discouraging.

(NOTE:  This post has been hard to write, since I haven’t been posting here regularly.  Sorry for the crappy writing.  Hopefully it will improve as I “up” my writing frequency.)

Luckily, I didn’t spend lots of money on a hotel room, since my sister and sister-in-law live in Tampa.  After a short drive and a “healthy” double-quarter-pounder meal (supersized, of course), I arrived at my sister’s house and crashed for the night.

The event started again the next morning and our results were better.  First, the organizers, to their credit, moved the desserts for lunch to the lobby, giving the attendees a reason to visit us after they finished their lunch.  Second, the day was less rushed, with visitors having more time to chat with vendors. 

Fortunately, several of my old customers stopped by to see what’s new and we showed off our new dressing table skirt system.  Orders started coming slowly, with our first being to a funeral director who had seen our product but held off because he had questions about durability.

As the day went on, we slowly added orders.  By the close of business and the end of the show, we had written more orders than the previous year.  I breathed a pretty big sigh of relief and started packing up to head home.

Here’s how the show finances ended:

Booth:  $375
Fuel:  $25
Food:  $50
Misc.:  $50

TOTAL EXPENSES:  $500
TOTAL SALES:  $2000 (10 items)

Typically, I budget $50 for trade show marketing from each item I sell.  So, spending $500 to attend the show meant I needed to sell 10 items.  Which we did (barely).

For contrast, the last IFDF show we attended (IFDF 2009 Wrap-Up) cost $242, meaning we’d have to sell 5 covers to meet the budget.  Of course, I received a complimentary booth for that show, which, had I been required to pay the full cost, would have made our expenses more than $600 and meant we needed to sell 12 covers.

We sold 11 items at the 2009 IFDF show and 10 this year.  I think we’re staying on track with IFDF.  And I can’t stop going to this show, since it’s usually in my backyard (next year?  Orlando) and I know the funeral directors so well.

As for the answers to those questions?  Here we go:

Would our customers need any more covers?
More than half of our sales were to customers who had ordered before.

Would there be any new customers left for us to sell?
We did, indeed, meet two new customers who were excited to try our products.

How would our new dressing table skirt systems be received?
Our previous customers loved the skirts and ordered right away.  They even ordered additional covers to match.

Would we sell any dressing table skirt systems?
We sold two systems, with two more orders coming in the next weeks following the event.

In all, it was a good event, despite the near heart-attack the first day’s response gave me.

In early March, we loaded up the convention Prius (I traded the convention wagon for one with better gas mileage after I figured out that everything would fit in the new car) and headed to Atlanta for a chance to sell our quilted cot covers and a new item, our dressing table skirts, to the gathered funeral directors.

We left around 11:00 am on Sunday, February 28th, with a plan to hit I-75 by noon.  As my traveling companions know, my favorite fast food places are Chipotle and Zaxby’s.  As luck would have it, there’s a new Zaxby’s at I-75 near Ocala, Florida, so we pulled in and split a chicken finger plate (they make awesome chicken).

On the road again by 12:30, we spun up the Prius (0-60 in less than 15 seconds!) and headed toward the bright lights of Atlanta.

We dropped our bags in the hotel room by 6:00 pm – the Prius takes a while to get to cruising speed but it doesn’t mind keeping up with traffic once it gets there – and decided on dinner.  If you remember my last few trips through Atlanta, you’ll know that my favorite restaurant in the state of Georgia is Pappasito’s Cantina (2009 Georgia Expo Day 2 and Results).

My fellow roadtripper, Robin Richter, who went with me to the 2007 NFDA Convention in Vegas (Robin Richter Shares “My Experience at the NFDA Convention”), had never been to Pappasito’s, which made it all the more enjoyable for me to share the great place with her.  She called her husband afterward to tell him that if they got close to Atlanta again, they had better stop at Pappasito’s!

The expo wasn’t scheduled to start until Monday at Noon, so I was happy to get into town a day early and rest before the big two-day event.  I prefer to have everything set up the day before, but the Georgia Railway Depot is easy to access and I new that setup would only take about 1.5 hours.  We got finished early and had a delicious breakfast at the Waffle House at Underground Atlanta.

I’ll share more info soon about how many covers we sold and what our expenses looked like.  In the meantime, here’s a picture of our booth:

Order of the Golden Rule (OGR) is a trade organization of independent funeral homes.  Here’s how they describe themselves:

Founded in 1928, OGR’s mission is to make independent funeral homes exceptional. We do this by building and supporting member interaction, information exchange and encourating professional business development through a wide range of programs, services and resources.

OGR also negotiates discounts for their members with various industry suppliers.  I recently received an email from a company that is a Golden Services Group supplier (OGR’s designation for companies that participate in their discount program).  This email was sent to many GSG suppliers, including our company, because we currently offer a discount through the program.  Here’s the text:

Has anyone else read the last sentence of the paragraph that I’ve copied from the OGR’s email?  I’ve written Connie and Diane an email as I think this goes against the commitment that we’ve made over the years to OGR as being a representative in our respective product offerings.  If all competitors are allowed to attend, the distinction as a GSG Supplier is gone.
 
EXCERPT FROM OGR’S EMAIL:  “As a GSG Member, you have the first option to select a tabletop in this year’s showcase. Please make your reservation using the Supplier Showcase Registration Form. Also included is a floor plan to make your choices, preliminary conference schedule and other details about the showcase. After February 26, OGR will open this year’s showcase to all prospective industry suppliers.”

In effect, the writer is concerned that opening the show to competitors hurts the GSG supplier that has faithfully supplied a great discount to members for several years.  I tend to agree with the writer and voiced as much in a reply.

Then, OGR wrote eveyone to clarify the issue.  Here’s a snippet from their email:

The practice of opening up the Supplier Showcase to non-GSG suppliers was started last year at OGR’s Annual Conference in Nashville. Last year GSG suppliers had first option to purchase a tabletop. We had 5 new companies exhibit who were not in the GSG group because they paid to exhibit in the space that GSG suppliers did not purchase. Again this year, GSG suppliers will be given preferred placement, along with special signage recognizing their company as a member of GSG.
 
There are 60 GSG supplier members to fill the 35 tabletop exhibits at this year’s conference.  Your commitment to participate in the showcase and provide options for the products and services our members ask for and need is essential. Providing the space and related events for a Supplier Showcase is a costly and involved endeavor on the part of any association, but it is one that allows OGR members the opportunity to explore new products that will help them be better at what they do as funeral professionals. Our role is to help make them and their businesses exceptional. Your support of the Supplier Showcase is also toward that end.

So here’s my response:
Ms. Haymes:

It is unfortunate that you are unable to get even 35 of the 60 suppliers to exhibit at the show and, therefore, need to open the expo to outside companies.

 Perhaps you’d find it beneficial to have the perspective of one of GSG suppliers about this situation?  If so, here’s my take.
 
Our company gives a great discount (15%) to your members.  I’m also required to pay a percentage to GSG for the pleasure of selling to your members. 
 
In return, you occasionally mention my products to your members through the magazine, your annual resource book and in faxes and emails.
 
I’m glad that this has been a percentage arrangement, because if I were required to pay you a flat fee every year, I’d have ended our relationship after the first year.
 
How much business do I get from OGR members?  Less than 1% of my annual sales come from your group. 
 
As a marketing plan, being active in OGR has done little for my business.  Your magazine ad rates are comparable to other trade publications, but your distribution is MUCH, MUCH less.  I can’t offer a “hurry, sale ends soon!” call to action in your magazine because your members already get a substantial discount.
 
We plan our trade show attendance by factoring things like cost, location and attendance.  Frankly, even a simple review of your show tells me that I can’t make my money back.  Consider, first, the cost of travel.  Two of us attending will cost $850 for travel (air, hotel, car) if we stay in the cheapest place and drive the economy car.  Then, we’ll have to pay $749 for the first person and $450 for the second to attend the show.  Factor in meals ($100 if we stick with fast food and IHOP) and we’re over $2000 without putting gas in the rental or other incidental costs.
 
All that to reach a few hundred OGR members from behind a 6′ table for less than 1 hour of uninterrupted time on Friday and during a 90 minute lunch on Saturday.
 
To contrast, I recently spent half that amount to get five hours of uninterrupted time with over 400 funeral directors in South Carolina.  And I had a real 10’x10′ booth.  The booth itself costs me less than $600.  And the show planners quickly filled every space.
 
I don’t mind paying for high-quality leads.  I spend thousands to exhibit at the NFDA show each year.  But I expect value for my dollar, which means space, uninterrupted time and adequate foot traffic.
 
Right now, your show’s numbers don’t cut it, so I won’t be exhibiting.
 
But I like OGR.  I have good friends who are members.  I think you are trying to do good work.  It’s just not beneficial to your suppliers (at least this one) right now.
 
Best of luck in the future.
I’ve got issues with a few suggestions they make in their email.  In the second paragraph, there’s an attempt to shift blame with the line “your commitment…is essential.”  Then, an explanation of their inflated prices by claiming that “Providing the space and related events for a Supplier Showcase is a costly and involved endeavor,” while ignoring the basic math involved here.
They’re charging a minimum of $749 for one person to exhibit at a 6-foot table.  Multiply that by 35 spaces and you have over $26,000 in fees.  Imagine, then, if half the exhibitors bring a second person.  At $450 for an additional attendee, there’s an additional $8000.
I’m sure they’ve reserved a nice room for the showcase, but did it cost between $26,000 and $34,000 for three days?
The number one reason we’re not attending?  It’s extremely overpriced.  Like, ridiculously overpriced.
But surely there’s a great opportunity to interact with OGR members and sell lots of product, right?  Here’s what the online schedule shows:
Friday, April 23rd
1:55 – 2:55 pm   Diversity Panel
2:55 – 3:45 pm   Break/Supplier Showcase
3:45 – 4:45 pm   Concurrent Sessions
5:00 – 6:00 pm  Happy Hour/Scholarship Drive
Saturday, April 24th
11:15 – 12:30 pm  OGR Annual Meeting and Officer Installation
12:30 – 2:00 pm   Lunch/Supplier Showcase
2:00 – 3:00 pm  Concurrent Sessions
2:30 pm  Supplier Showcase Closes
That’s 50 minutes of scheduled time on Friday and 90 minutes on Saturday.
A good expo adds content and value to the attendees.  A minimal entry fee, in the form of conference fees for funeral directors and exhibit fees for vendors, pays for the space and services required.  In a perfect world, the showcase charges just enough to suppliers to break even.   
I feel that the amount OGR is charging to vendors is far too much.  As a supplier, I don’t mind paying my fair share.  But I will not attend shows that require me to pay everyone elses share, as well.

It’s been a whirlwind around here lately, with planning for two conventions and a monster opening month for 2010.  Doing all of it leaves little time for talking about all that we’re doing!

We had our best January ever, with the combo of January-February shaping up to the be the best two month period in our history, outside of a national convention.

Helping out our February numbers has been our trip to the South Carolina Funeral Directors Association Expo, held in Columbia on Tuesday, February 2nd and Wednesday, February 3rd.

The EXPO, which featured a wide range of vendors, attracted a great crowd of funeral directors from South Carolina and a few from neighboring states.  I even saw Bill Wappner, current NFDA President and one of our customers from Ohio.

We entered the show with a goal to sell 20 cot covers.  Our goals, which help us measure success during and after the show, are based upon our expenses for the event and the expected turnout.  I normally budget $50 per cover sold toward the cost of attending.

While I initially planned on spending about $1000 to attend the EXPO, our final numbers look like this:

BOOTH:  $600
FUEL:  $75
MEALS:  $130
OTHER:  $50
——————-
TOTAL:  $855

By my $50 standard, we needed to sell 17 covers to pay for the show.

Any wonder, then, that we sold 17?

Now, I don’t count sales by our wholesale customers, even if they are generated at the show, but one of the companies that retails our product did sell two covers to a customer. 

So we fell short of our goal, but we were still able to pay for the show with sales.

Here’s a list of the conventions we’ve attended, which includes the costs for each and the goals we set because of those costs.  You’ll see that the two conventions where we missed out goals by a wide margin were two years of the Kentucky show.  Also, the last three convention are in the future, so the expenses are only educated guesses at this point.

CONVENTION DATE BOOTH HOTEL TRAVEL MEALS PROMO MISC. TOTAL GOAL ACTUAL
Kentucky FDA 6/25/2008 $570 $490 $420 $240 $90 $187 $1,997 40 32
NFDA 10/12/2008 $4,800 $280 $100 $300 $100 $100 $5,680 114 153
Georgia Expo 3/1/2009 $550 $248 $110 $165 $50 $50 $1,173 23 22
Ohio FDA 5/25/2009 $650 $360 $325 $200 $50 $100 $1,685 34 46
IFDF 6/12/2009 $0 $102 $40 $65 $25 $35 $267 5 11
Kentucky FDA 6/24/2009 $570 $500 $300 $360 $50 $150 $1,930 39 15
NFDA 10/22/2009 $2,500 $550 $800 $300 $150 $600 $4,900 98 113
SCFDA 2/2/2010 $600 $0 $75 $130 $0 $50 $855 17 17
Georgia Expo 3/1/2010 $500 $250 $70 $70 $0 $60 $950 19  
Ohio FDA 4/27/2010 $625 $360 $175 $125 $50 $60 $1,395 28  
IFDF 6/10/2010 $300 $0 $25 $50 $0 $50 $425 9  

Since our biggest non-booth expense for most of our conventions is lodging, finding a place to stay in our host cities is a nice benefit that saves serious money.

In South Carolina, I was fortunate enough to have family living in Columbia.  For the IFDF’s 2010 show, I’ll stay with my sister in Tampa.  I may be able to save money on the Ohio convention, if I can convince my good friend Albert to let me crash on his couch.

No matter how the next few conventions shake out, we expect to be able to continue getting close to our goals (or exceeding them) because of the great response we’re getting to our quilted cot covers

Of course, I’ll continue to closely monitor our progress and adjust accordingly.  Stay tuned!

HERE’S SOMETHING I WROTE AND PUT ASIDE ABOUT A MONTH AGO:

Many of you have enjoyed the video interviews I’ve done at other conventions, including the 2009 Ohio and IFDF shows, and the 2008 NFDA Expo in Orlando.

Here are a few examples, to jog your memory:

Seems my ‘amazing’ interview skills and my casual style has caught the eye of my friends at NFDA, who called to discuss a joint project to give their exhibitors greater web-exposure at the next expo.

Basically, we’re talking about doing 1-2 minute interviews with exhibitors at the show and posting them on the web.  As the interviewer, I can impart a sense of “objectivity” so that it doesn’t look like an NFDA endorsement.  NFDA brings their considerable network and industry “bandwidth”, which means, in effect, eyeballs.

Since there are only so many interviews we can do without overwhelming viewers, we’re probably going to limit this to 25 participants and charge a fee for the service.  We are talking about enhancing an advertising opportunity that NFDA already offers on their website, the Featured Exhibitor listing on the Biz Exchange, by adding the video. 

The Featured Exhibitor listing currently costs less than $500 a year, so this new video function will probably add a few hundred bucks to the total, but that means having a “video demonstration” of your product online for at least a year (until the next expo) for all NFDA site visitors to check out.

Why video?  It’s a completely tangental answer, but I can offer these three dreaded words:  long car trip.

Here’s an experiment:  put a child in a car seat and drive 6 hours with nothing to occupy them but the scenery.  Recipe for disaster, right?  But something magical happens with video:  children (all people, for that matter) are placated by moving pictures and sounds.  Heck, some people can be mesmerized by the dumbest things.

Not that the interviews we shoot will be dumb, but the video component turns a static NFDA website into a multimedia experience, creating a desire to “drill down” into more content and encouraging repeat visits.

Plus, it makes NFDA’s site look that much more professional.  And it gives great exposure to companies trying to cut through the noise of 400+ exhibitors.

We’re still working out the details, but I expect that we’ll sell 25 of these things in no time.  I’ll get to make contacts with great people, my company and this blog will get awesome exposure on the NFDA site and NFDA members will have one more reason to check out the Biz Exchange, a great place for suppliers and funeral professionals to talk about their current needs and offerings.

Is it a win-win?  I’m hopeful about this one.

NOW FOR THE UPDATE:

We’ve labeled these our “Man On The Street” videos and we’re now offering them to vendors at the 2009 NFDA show.  For my part, I’m hoping to meet up with at least 10 exhibitors and shoot some great interviews that can go out on the NFDA website and be listed on Youtube for anyone searching for funeral-merchandise-related content.

Interested in more info?  Call Andy Werner with NFDA at 800-228-6332.  There are limited spots available.

Since I didn’t attend the 2009 show – I sent two of my workers, instead – I had to wait until talking with them to find out how the show went and what their impressions were.

So how was the show?  In a word:  disappointing.

We attended last year’s show and sold 32 of our quilted cot covers.  This year, with the same number of hours to exhibit, we only sold 15.

Additionally, Linda reports that most of the other exhibitors she talked with were equally disappointed and felt that the show was, to quote one gentleman, “a disaster.”

So what went wrong?  Here are a few of the comments Linda made and my observations:

“We saw a lot of students.”  This is good for our business, as many of the students were excited about our products and will, one day, be in charge of buying decisions.  But that doesn’t help the bottom line for this show.

“People already had our covers.”  Yes, we’ve sold well in Kentucky, including last year’s show, but did we sell to everyone?  I probably miscalculated how many of the funeral homes in Kentucky would need another cover so soon.  In some states, the funeral homes are large and have several cots.  In hindsight, the smaller nature of Kentucky funeral homes (60-80 calls a year for most of their members) should have raised red flags for me.

“People weren’t buying from anyone else either.”  The economy, coupled with a slowing death rate (damn cyclical industry!), has encouraged people to hold on to their money.  And maybe quilts are a “winter” product?

“The guy across from us was badmouthing our covers.”  That one really angers me.  I would never go to a trade show and tell visitors how much I hate the guy across the aisle.  I’m tempted to make my anger known to the folks who organized the show.  At the least, we’ll ask not to be situated near him at any other expos.

“There weren’t as many working funeral directors there as last year.”  That seems to be true of both the Kentucky and IFDF shows we attended this month.  I just received the list of funeral homes from the 2009 IFDF show and was dismayed to see that only 46 different funeral homes had been represented.  Take away the ones who had already bought our covers at previous shows and I’m amazed that we sold even 11 covers at the show.  I have a feeling that the Kentucky show will turn out to be a similar situation, with few funeral homes attending that we hadn’t sold to previously.

In the end, we sold 11 covers at the 2009 IFDF show to just 25 funeral homes that had not previously purchased from us.  That’s a pretty good conversion rate, but shows the diminishing returns that attending this show again (at least without interesting, new products) will continue to offer.

The 2009 IFDF Expo and Conference was easy for our company since we operate in Florida.  The show, held at the World Golf Village just outside of St. Augustine, started on Thursday, June 11th and ended, for me, on Friday, June 12th.

My compensation for presenting two seminars was a free booth space.  The 8′ x 10′ space would normally have cost me $375, so I was happy for the trade-off.

Here’s how our expenses stacked up:

FUEL:           $   40
LODGING:      102
MEALS:             65
MISC.:                35
———————–
TOTAL:   $ 242

Had I paid for the booth, we would have incurred $617 in costs, making our pre-show goal, calculated at $50 per cover sold, 12 covers.  Interestingly, we sold 11.

The show was sparsely attended, as far as I could tell.  There were quite a few people missing from previous years, but whether they were kept away by the economy or the location, I can’t say.

Still, we only sold to 2 new funeral homes.  Everyone else was either ordering to replace covers they bought from us at previous shows or getting covers for cots that had not been draped with one of our georgeous cot covers yet.

So was it a good show for us?  Not surprisingly, the answer is both YES and NO.

First, the negative.  I learned that by the time we’re attending a show for the third time, we’ve already exhausted the audience of new funeral homes that attend.  If we sell items on our third attempt, it will be reorders or orders for a new product.  That means we’ve got to keep developing new products and having those ready for funeral directors to buy.

And why not?  We obviously sell a good product – I know that because funeral directors constantly tell us how much they like them – and people now trust us.  In fact, I was excited to see how many of my past customers hang around the booth and even ask “what’s new?”

The positive part is that seeing funeral directors for a third time reassures them that our company is for real and will be hanging around for many years to come.  In turn, that helps clients when they decide who to give their money to.  It’s a trust issue, and I’m glad that we’ve been building that trust so effectively.

So we’re working on getting our dressing table skirts shipped.  We’ve prototyped it, and it works.  But now we have to figure out how to make them in bulk.  We’ve got four orders already, so getting them out within the next few weeks is a big concern.

We’re also working on a casket cover that funeral homes can use for long distance travel or for in-town transport when they want to cover a casket with something prettier than a moving pad.  They won’t be anywhere near as cheap as one of those grimy moving pad covers, but we think there’s a market for them.

In the meantime, we’re planning our next convention, which is the 2009 KFDA show in Louisville next week.  I will not be attending that show.  Instead, I’m sending two of my employees.  Here’s hoping they sell a whole bunch of cot covers!

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