by Peter J. Marcucci

Photos provided by Knoxville’s Stone Interiors

-Everyone’s heard of home shows. Many of you have visited one. Some of you have even participated. But as a stone fabricator, do they work? Do they improve sales or get you where you want to go?

Many think these events are well worth the investment and commitment. That said, my curiosity was peaked after speaking to a friend and former co-worker about a local show he’d participated in a while back. Overall, he had garnered excellent returns for his hard work.

-So read on. You may be surprised to hear what 5 shops located in different markets and regions had to say on the subject. Participants are: Jon Rathke, Artistic Stone Design in Richmond, Virginia; Josh Spencer, Stone Spectrum in Arcadia, Illinois; Kelly Milligan, Knoxville’s Stone Interiors in Knoxville, Tennessee; Irini Kroll, International Artistic in Stone, Sarasota, Florida; and Chip Gleine, Distinctive Marble & Granite, in Plain City, Ohio.

SRG: Have you ever participated in home shows?

-Jon Rathke:

 No. Generally, there are many fabricators at these shows and it’s a lot of time and energy to put these displays together. It’s also an incredible amount of follow up, and you are competing with 8-10 fabricators. The bang for the buck isn’t there in my opinion, and that’s why I don’t do it. Artistic Stone Design has been around for almost 16 years, and as far as marketing efforts go and relationship building with our builders and contractors, we have a great following. 

Josh Spencer:

Yes, we have. We started home shows in 2005-2006 to try and get more exposure for the company. It worked out good until about the last 2 years, when we began spending more time at the shows and the costs went up for booth space. We kept on trying to outdo the previous year by putting more money into it. So the last 2 years were a bust compared to the previous years. 

Kelly Milligan:

 Yes, we have. In fact, we had a home show booth about 2 weeks ago. Originally, we started this business as a big box service provider, and it was the bulk of what we did for 6 years. When it was time for us to dissolve that relationship, nobody knew our name – everybody thought we were Home Depot. So, the first time we did a home show it was to get our name and brand out.

Irini Kroll:

 Yes, we have. It was in Sarasota, Florida and we went hoping that people would see our product and become our customers. Unfortunately, none of them came back to us. Our experience was that visitors came to the show just to spend time, but not really shop. They were just looking around, did not leave us any information, so we couldn’t call on them. We had to wait for them to call us back. 

Chip Gleine: Yes, we have. Our home shows are usually in March and January, and it is a good boost to our volume. This is our 4th year participating. Many of our customers (cabinet shops and remodelers) are at these shows, so we support them. We also sell retail, so it’s a good boost in the winter months.

SRG: What kind of display, size of booth and signage have you used?

Josh Spencer: Originally we had a fairly big booth, but they started consolidating booth space to bring the home & garden people in, which kind of put those home & garden people in front of us. This gave us a little less exposure, but I don’t think that was the whole problem. Our booth space was 40 feet by 100 feet. There were always four to six other fabricators that would attend as well. You also saw a lot of cabinet shops attend, and they often were ones that we supplied tops to.

Kelly Milligan: We are very selective on which shows we do. Knoxville has many shows, and the ones that we do are ones where we can be a shining star and stand out from other exhibitors. Also, we like shows that are within 15 minutes of our showroom. The ones that we avoid are the ones that are big, because we don’t stand out. We do two shows a year in a 10 foot by 20 foot booth, and our spring show in a 20 foot by 20 foot. I always try to have a corner booth with two open sides; that’s very important for exposure. Our 20 by 20 has four open corners. What makes us unique is that we put squares of countertop material on the floor, so people can view a bunch of different colors in the horizontal position. We also display some form of cabinet with a countertop, such as a vanity, kitchen or outdoor kitchen. 

We’ve also learned that visitors like to meet the owner. It makes a big difference, especially since I’m a woman. We pick up a lot of business once people realize that it’s a woman in business and go, “Oh! You’re a woman, and you’re the owner. Okay!” It also gives them an extra level of confidence knowing that they’ve met the owner. So I’m always there.

Irini Kroll: I believe we had a 20 foot by 10 foot booth. We displayed artistic work, a stone table and countertops with edge details.

Chip Gleine: This year we actually did a bigger booth. I believe it was a 10 foot by 20 foot which allowed us to display two book-matched slabs. The two slabs were exotics and really caught people’s attention when they walked by. In years past we had only done a 10 by 10 with an arched piece of stone, but it wasn’t as effective as 2 massive book matched slabs. It stopped people in their tracks and they would say my, that’s gorgeous! We also displayed an engineered stone island in the middle and a tower with samples.

SRG: Can you offer an opinion on the positives or negatives, such as networking with builders, customers?

Jon Rathke: It really depends on the fabricator, and what their focus is.

Josh Spencer: The biggest advantage was being able to network and talk to other companies that use our service. The direction that we’ve gone in the last couple of years found us as almost competitors of the companies that we build for, so we now just display our work in our vendor’s booths. Last year we had our products in 12 other booths, so they were out there selling and of course, we were selling, but not getting the sales directly. What we found at the end of the day was that most of the people attending were looking to get the whole job done, not just countertops, over the last 2 years. They were looking at new cabinets, or looking for a handyman guy to do the whole bathroom or the kitchen.

Irini Kroll: No, not really, because we could see that these shows weren’t for us. That was 10 years ago. 

Chip Gleine: The positive is that it gets our brand name out there. The negative would be that you might get a different type of client. A lot of the customers are buying from home shows because they are doing projects, so it is very competitive. Most are educated customers that can be tricky to deal with. We try to staff it with 2 people on weekdays and with 3 people on the weekends. 

SRG: Do you consider home shows a good return on investment?

Rathke: Sharon, our marketing director, was at a show – it think last weekend – and saw one of our competitors just sitting there and playing with their phones. 

So there is one example of a company that wasn’t getting any return on their investment. You’ve got to know the shows. Some shows are good and some are not so good, and you’ve got to look at every bit of your expense to decide if it will be worth it: the cost of the booth, your printing, the labor to run the booth, and the setup cost both to and from the show.

Josh Spencer: That’s a two-edged sword, because the first 5-6 years we did great and could see a good return on our investment, but the last few years we questioned it, and it was not a good return.

Kelly Milligan: Yes, it’s been a good investment for us. But it’s not an immediate return. The number one reason people drop out of home shows is that they get back to their office and begin calling people back, and don’t get any immediate sales. You may not get any for a year or more. It is not instant gratification, and you rarely sell anything at a show. Our clientele is mostly homeowners, but we usually pick up at least one builder or remodeler that we didn’t know existed; usually they’re another exhibitor. 

Irini Kroll: No, I don’t believe it worked for us.

Chip Gleine: Some years yes, some years no. I think your success is based on who you have working that show, and what you’re offering. If you just want to go there and sell granite at normal, everyday pricing, I don’t think you’re going to get much turn, but if you have someone there who’s willing to work deals or run a promo, yes, you’ll get a good return.

SRG: Do you see yourself participating in future home shows?

Rathke: Probably not. I think there are three of them here in Richmond—they contact us all the time. A single booth is in the $1,000 range, but if you’re going to have a decent display, you’ve got to have more than one booth. Then there is the setup and teardown as well. You also need to pay your people, so there is a lot of money that you’ve got to put into it. The booth is just a small percentage of the cost. I’ve talked to our sales staff about it, and we just don’t want to participate at this time. On the other hand, there are a couple of our contractor and cabinet shops that we fabricate for that do go to these shows and display our work, and we see return from that. So, in a sense we are there.

Spencer: As of next year we won’t be going to the shows. We’ve given up our booth space. We will continue to put out our products with our label, but we are standing by our vendors rather than going ourselves and being their competitors. We’ll be giving them free countertops and displays, spending time with them and shaking the hands of their visitors. It’s about half the cost, and 10 times the value, by far. So we’ll always be visible at the show, but as for us taking our own booth out there, as of 2015 we will not be having our own. 

Milligan: Yes, we are already signed up for next year.

Kroll: No. No more home shows for us. 

Gleine: Yes! Absolutely.

SRG: What advice do you have for those thinking about participating in home shows?

Rathke: I’m very indifferent about the effectiveness of home shows. It may be because back in my previous careers I had worked a lot of conventions, and you had to be there the entire time. So be prepared to spend the time.

Spencer: If you don’t have something that is new, eye-catching and extremely different, such as a new quartz or granite, you’re probably going to have a difficult time because it is less efficient. Unless you have something that nobody else has and you can stop them and get their attention with it, you’re probably going to be spending more money than you’re going to get back and working against yourself. 

Milligan: If you participate you need to network with other exhibitors. They also need to stay in their booth and work it. Even if it is slow, they need to look ready to welcome people. 

Milligan: The last show we did, there were times during the day where there were literally no visitors, but each of us stood there and stood there, being ready, making eye contact, and being available for people who walked up. 

The guy across from us, who also does countertops, was just leaning and looking at his phone texting or playing a game, whatever. We, however, got 5 sales leads by just standing there ready, and he missed every single one of them. One day, when it was slow, a lady visitor showed up. We greeted her with eye contact, made conversation, and she chose to make a purchase with us, and she wasn’t even looking for a countertop! So if you’re sitting and playing on your phone, you’re not going to get any sales—I’m 100% sure of that! 

Kroll: Well, every company is different and each one provides different ideas and products. So if they would like to try, just because we didn’t get a good response, doesn’t mean that they won’t.

Gleine: Make sure you have the right person working the booth. You cannot just have a warm body there. You have to have someone that can work deals and follow-up. As people walk by they need to be able to say, “Hey, how are you doing?”