Every year, the SEMA Show fills the Las Vegas Convention Center with exhibitors eager to display their product. Some are seasoned pros, some are first-time exhibitors. But all bring the same hope with them to the SEMA Show: To gain the valuable exposure needed to grow, or in some cases to establish, their business, and make their product and name known to the specialty-equipment industry.
SEMA eNews had a one-on-one with two SEMA Show exhibitors willing to share their insights on how they make their investment a success. Bryndon O’Hara, general manager of bedliner manufacturer DualLiner, is a 13-year veteran of the event who witnessed his company's most successful Show last year. Lane Smith, owner of Tennessee-based trailer hitch manufacturer Tilt-A-Hitch, was a first-time exhibitor in 2007 and found the experience priceless. O’Hara and Smith will both be at the Show this November.
Bryndon O'Hara displays DualLiner's product.
Lane Smith (middle) with SEMA President Chris Kersting and SEMA Chairman Jim Cozzie at the 2007 SEMA Show.
SEMA eNews: What is your main incentive for exhibiting at the SEMA Show?
Bryndon O’Hara: SEMA Show is where the automotive elite meet. If there is only one show you are attending in a year, SEMA has to be the one.
Lane Smith: I had never been to the SEMA Show [before last year], but understood the significance of taking a good product there, especially with a completely new invention like the Tilt-A-Hitch. It simply is a hitch that converts any ball-mount trailer into a tilting trailer. It had never been done before. Now the problem of being first: I must build a market. I have a product without any competition, but the simple fact is that no one knows to look for one until they hear of it or see it. I knew that I could gain more quality exposure in these few days at SEMA than working for years using other marketing methods.
SEMA: How successful has the Show(s) been for you?
O’Hara: Each one is stronger than the one before. 2008 should be the best ever!
Smith: It was better than I could have ever imagined. I showed up at the convention center Sunday afternoon lugging over 100 pounds of bags, not knowing anybody, and I will never forget the feeling as I got my bags from the cab and got my first live look at SEMA. I was in shock, and wondering what to do next. Thanks to help from some of the finest people I have ever met, it all came together like a charm.
Fast forward to my trip back to the airport. I was thrilled by the opportunities I had encountered on my trip. I couldn't believe how wonderful the week had been and was eager to get to work. Yeah, I'd say I felt it was a pretty successful trip.
SEMA: How do you gauge your success from the Show?
O’Hara: Leads and connections made.
Smith: I was in a pretty unique situation. I had a newly patented, tested and proven product [that] I felt just needed exposure, but how exciting can a 30-pound chunk of steel be? I had already shipped the Tilt-A-Hitch coast-to-coast with just my website exposure, but I knew I needed more. And quickly.
Now add another twist: I had signed a manufacturing agreement with a major company the Friday before SEMA began, and was unable to take orders at SEMA due to our production changeover. My success was truly not from orders written at the Show, but the overwhelmingly positive response of the crowd to my little hitch, with me having to explain why I couldn’t ship immediately to so many promising contacts.
SEMA: Do you know immediately whether or not the Show has been successful for your company? Or does it take some time to see the return on your leads and contacts?
O’Hara: A little of both. Number of leads is an immediate window, but only time tells if the leads pan out.
Smith: I knew right away on the first day that I had made a wise decision coming to SEMA. This was compounded the following morning when I got a visit telling me to be at an awards ceremony, something about a Global Media Award. I didn’t know what that was, but I learned it was something very special. I had arrived in town knowing not a soul, but that was changing rapidly. Again, the fine folks at SEMA made the big events user-friendly, and I came out of the awards ceremony having kindled friendships I hope to have forever.
SEMA: What was your game plan(s) for the past SEMA Show(s)?
O’Hara: Show up in force, and make a big splash.
SEMA: Is your game plan the same as the year(s) before? Or do you approach each Show differently?
O’Hara: Each year we get stronger. Our game plan has always been to be bigger and stronger and to let it show.
Smith: No, I am actually working now to improve my own performance, which is substantially more time than last year's two-week prep time. Yep, I really decided to go two weeks before it started, so any success I experienced I can’t take credit for. That wonderful success came in spite of me, rather than as a result of my efforts. I wish I could take credit for it, but the truth is SEMA did it for me.
SEMA: How well in advance do you prepare for the Show?
O’Hara: We start planning months in advance, but like most companies, crunch time is the last few weeks before the Show.
Smith: I have just begun laying out my work and how I want to improve this year.
SEMA: How much manpower do you invest in preparing and exhibiting at the Show?
O’Hara: Preparing varies depending on what we are doing with a Show truck. For exhibiting, we average eight people for nine long days.
Smith: Not a lot, and truthfully I have learned that wise planning is the key. I have wasted more money on regional shows than it would have cost to do SEMA, and there is no comparison dollar-for-dollar. SEMA wins that race by a mile.
SEMA: What percentage of your marketing/advertising budget do you spend on the Show?
O’Hara: That varies depending on too many factors to clearly define.
Smith: Last year, probably 70%, because I had done so little before SEMA.
SEMA: What is the most valuable thing you have learned from doing the Show?
O’Hara: Nothing is as easy as you hope. No matter how prepared you are, be ready to adapt to the changing landscape.
Smith: As a person in average small-town America, sometimes it's hard for me to visualize the vastness of potential markets, and how I can be a part of the bigger picture in business. This is common among small-business people and impedes us in many ways.
I saw that SEMA is a perfect example of an average American that had a dream, and it came true. Behind each of the thousands of fancy displays was someone who was just like you and me: An individual that had an idea, and who had the wisdom to pursue it. You can’t underestimate that kind of value. It’s just too great.
SEMA: What mistakes have you learned not to repeat?
O’Hara: The correct image and impression makes a huge difference.
Smith: Make sure my booth help is well-prepared, rested and on time.
SEMA: What is one of the more effective strategies or techniques you have applied at the Show?
O’Hara: We switched from an in-line booth to a peninsula to an island. The island definitely has the most impact.
Smith: I had none. I was so unprepared. It was simply Ready…Fire…Aim.
SEMA: What is the key to your success at the SEMA Show?
O’Hara: Being there in force with a strong image.
Smith: I am so lucky to have such an innovative product, but it's just not very exciting, so perhaps that just averages out. I recognized quickly that if I had the skill to learn the SEMA system, there was always someone there to help this beginner find his way. From Kate and Michelle and many others too numerous to name helping me find my way around registration and beyond, to Linda Spencer making me feel at home at the awards ceremony.
One wonderful lady (I failed to get her name) even tried to stand in the new products line for me so I could sit for a few minutes. The key to my successful first visit was not me, but SEMA itself. The same big organization that I had felt was too big and expensive for someone like me to try turned out to be the very key to bringing my little Tilt-A-Hitch to the most people in the shortest time. This is super marketing on a worldwide scale.
SEMA: How do you make the most out of your time at the Show? Specifically, how do you separate those who are “just looking” from those who are willing to forge profitable business relationships with you?
O’Hara: We try to take every attendee seriously. The toughest part is that there are often people who give you a big story at the Show. Realistically, the stories don’t help either side. We try to define their basic needs and interest level while at the Show and classify them for follow-up.
Smith: There is no difference in “marketing” or “qualifying” a prospect at SEMA than at any other venue. Go to any flea market on Saturday morning and you will see some of the finest assessment and negotiating techniques ever, sometimes over knives, dogs or anything else of interest. The skill level rivals that of any corporate negotiator, just the dollars are different.
SEMA: What are your goals and expectations for this year’s Show?
O’Hara: Stronger leads leading to more growth.
Smith: Due to our manufacturing agreement before SEMA 2007 with Buyers Products Co. (Mentor, Ohio), we have a strong position now and are able to move into worldwide markets as quickly as needed. We are now shipping coast-to-coast in the United States and Canada, and have world-class, top-quality manufacturing, shipping and service.
SEMA: What advice would you offer companies who will be exhibiting for the first time this year?
O’Hara: Don’t hold back. If you aren’t there to play hard and win, then don’t spend the time and effort.
Smith: I know it’s a worry. You can’t decide if it’s the right thing for you to do. It's money you can’t afford to waste. First, do a careful review of your product because no amount of exposure will fix a bad idea. If your product truly is marketable, you will never find a more absolute, sudden and opportunity-laden [event] than the SEMA Show. More bang for the buck than all the others. You just might be the next big one.
Tilt-A-Hitch won a Global Media Award, and if it can happen to a total stranger like me who isn’t part of a big company, it can happen to anybody. Just one final note: Like I said earlier, I didn't know anyone. My booth number was 50721 and I was in overflow tent number three, looking at the back wall, scared to death. [Yet] that decision to go to SEMA was one of the finest business decisions that I have ever made.
For information on the upcoming SEMA Show, visit www.SEMAShow.com.