Discover your free Construction Marketing Ideas Email Newsletter

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Fixing tradition

When you have a long-term success that is faltering, what should you do? When traditionally effective marketing approaches stop working, how do you handle the situation? I asked these two questions of the organizers of the CSC Toronto Chapter No-Frills Trade Show yesterday, and gained some insights but no clear answers. (And if you see the contradiction in the previous sentence, you'll appreciate how challenging this situation is.)
For the first time in recent memory, the show failed to 'sell out' in advance. In fact, the organizers had 19 unsold booths and table tops -- so they spaced things out a bit to make it look less than empty. By many standards, the show continues to be successful; It has dozens of booths and table tops, and thousands of dollars are raised for the local chapter and natioonal CSC initiatives. (CSC is the Canadian counterpart of the U.S. based Construction Specifications Institute -- CSI -- or, in simple language, the "spec writers".)
As the show concluded, I asked voluntary show co-ordinators Bob Mercer and Steve Ieannides for their observations.
Bob Mercer said show committee members had been noticing in the past few years (the show has operated for 30 years) that they were achieving 'sell out' later and later -- when I first exhibited, the waiting list started right at the end of the previous year's show. In the boom days, the show organizers decided not to enlarge it beyond the single large convention centre floor space -- probably a wise move, because the scarcity -- and possibility of not being able to get a booth if you didn't sign up early -- caused people to waste no time to renew. After all, the show 'connected' with some of the most important people in the industry locally and didn't requrie expensive set up or time-consuming preparation from exhibitors.
But now the show is straining; and the questioon is 'why'?
Could the show time, the first Monday in February, be the problem? Maybe -- the committee decided to move it a month later so it wouldn't be in the middle of winter, next year.
Could the show organizer's inflexibility about proceedures -- exhibitors had to meet exact specifications and could not determine where their booth was located in the hall -- be the problem? Maybe -- so the show will allow exhibitors to recomend and reserve specific spots.
Maybe the issue is industry consolidation; with mergers, fewer companies are out there; and so there simply is less demand for the booth space.
Or perhaps, as Mercer suggested, the voluntary committee is getting older; and new blood is not replacing the existing people.
Maybe any or all of these reasons are the cause. But having just come through a rather jarring business survival exercise, I now look for two primary root causes of problems in any business or organization: The spirit and openness of the people involved within the enterprise; and its relationship with the people outside it -- especially clients and potential clients.
"Spirit" -- drive, motivation, or whatever you wish to call it, can break-down over time, interests change, (mental) sores are opened and don't heal properly, and somehow, somewhere, the passion disappears. In the case of the CSC show, the committee had been operating the same show, the same way, for year after year, almost on auto-pilot. "If it ain't broke, why fix it," may have been the line. I think the current problems might have been averted if the committee invested (in the good years, now past), at least one radical idea/departure from the norm in the show processes each year. In fact, I would challenge every aspect of the show each year to keep things fresh and encourage new ideas.
But the bigger issue, I think, is the show organizers lost touch with their market. They assumed they knew what exhibitors and visitors wanted, but didn't listen closely enough. I suggested they waste no time in surveying everyone -- and especially receiving feedback from people who didn't renew. The survey should be an annual thing. Surveys are easy to set up now with truly inexpensive online services, and you can ask key questions about satisfaction, effectiveness, even invite ideas. (For example, before changing the show date, they could give exhibitors in a survey a choice of available options and receive their feedback!)
This show is by no means 'dead' -- in relative terms, it is much better than my business was two years ago, when I failed to see the glaring warning signs all around me and carried on my 'old ways'. Fortunately, I learned -- the hard way --that the cure to some rather big business problems is close at hand -- and by looking inward to the passion of our team; and outwards, to understand the people we serve -- we have rebuilt it even though our product is still, in many ways, "old" and traditional. I'll be happy to help on a voluntary level the CSC Toronto Show committee in this important revitalization challenge.

No comments: