SEMA Show First-Time Exhibitor Shares Tips

By Chad Simon

Clifford Leonard, founder/CEO of Fusion Brakes, was featured on the Velocity Network's 2013 SEMA Show special regarding the company's experience as a first-time exhibitor.
Showcasing your products installed on a vehicle at the Show is a great way to get a buyer's attention.
Fusion Brakes left last year’s Show with about 90–100 leads; at least 80% of them were qualified.

Clifford Leonard, founder/CEO of Fusion Brakes, based in Orange, California, found out at the 2013 SEMA Show just how much planning and preparation goes into exhibiting at the Show, especially when it's for the first time. Turns out all that hard work has paid off handsomely for the two-year-old start-up manufacturer of high-performance carbon ceramic brakes.

Recently, Fusion Brakes was featured in the Velocity Network's 2013 SEMA Show special regarding their experience as a first-time exhibitor. We caught up with Leonard to dig deeper into how he was able to successfully pull it off, the mistakes he made, what he learned from his mistakes and how he will apply this knowledge when preparing for his second time around at the 2014 SEMA Show.

Leonard had attended the SEMA Show for the past nine years exhibiting with his father’s company, Original Parts Group, but last year was the first time he personally exhibited with his own company. Fusion Brakes exhibited in a 10x20 booth in the First Time & Featured Exhibitors section. This year, the company is upgrading to a 20x20 booth.

“Because I’ve been going to the SEMA Show for so long, I already know how powerful it can be,” Leonard said. “I’ve been to other tradeshows and there is no other trade show that compares to the SEMA Show. The number and quality of buyers and people who attend is unreal in comparison. There is always somebody at the SEMA Show who is ready and willing to check out your booth and products and make that purchase.”

The SEMA Show is the No. 1 gathering of small businesses in the United States, according to Tom Gattuso, SEMA’s trade shows director. “It is the optimal place to introduce a new product to the industry as a whole. The top reason buyers attend the Show is to find new companies and new products,” he said.

As a first-time exhibitor, there are many opportunities to gain recognition. One of the best places to start planning is the Exhibitor Manual—an entire website of pertinent information for a successful exhibit. One of the best ways to gain exposure at the Show is entering new and featured products in the New Products Showcase. Exhibitors can register their first product for free. Another way is to apply for a feature vehicle on which to display your products.

“The main benefit that first-timers can really reap benefits from is participation in the New Products Showcase,” said Gattuso. “That gets their product in front of more than 3,000 media attendees and tens of thousands of buyers, and has been a proven method of driving traffic to an exhibitor’s booth.”

Being a first-time exhibitor was a learning experience for Leonard because he was introduced to buyers from a plethora of different markets he hadn’t yet tapped into.

“You really get a good feel for market validation when people come to your booth and they start talking about putting your products on the Nissan GTR, for example,” said Leonard. “It’s a car we hadn’t planned on doing; we were sort of on the edge. But after the SEMA Show, we got an overwhelming response. We dug up a little more R&D on it, and it turned out to be a rather big market for us to look into.”

Leonard also learned what the market demands and what products buyers were most likely to carry, which helped steer him in the right direction of what he technically should be doing to make money. According to Leonard, he walked away from last year’s Show with about 90–100 leads; at least 80% of them were qualified.

“We closed quite a bit of them and made some deals,” he said. “Even some of the other guys who are waiting on upcoming products, they’re still waiting, which is really cool. They’re willing to work with us and give us some numbers on what they want to order.”

Since Leonard had experience with his father’s company, he already knew some of the ins and outs of exhibiting at the Show, “But man, when you’re in charge and you’re the one doing it and it’s your own company and you don’t have anyone telling you what to do, I had never felt so clueless and unprepared as far as doing it for my first time on my own terms,” he admitted.

His game plan was to follow the SEMA schedule to ensure he hit all his deadlines, but it became complicated trying to manage all the Show preparation while booking appointments with clients and running his business.

Being a first-time exhibitor requires learning by trial and error, and Leonard said he planned to correct some of the errors he made last year; for instance, setting up more meetings, being more organized and starting preparations earlier.

“Last year we felt really up to the edge on deadlines and we felt like we were getting everything done at the last minute,” he said. “We even got behind on printing pamphlets, and in order to get everything printed, I brought my printer with me to the hotel and we were up until 2 a.m. printing out pamphlets.”

One of the most crucial things exhibitors should do is follow up on leads immediately after the Show because buyers want to follow up with you right away. Leonard admits he didn’t follow up with his leads fast enough. It’s the buyer’s job to complete budgets and figure out what product lines they want to introduce. So by waiting to connect with them, your products are not fresh in their head and they may find other products. If they fill their budget out and you’re not included, it makes it hard for them to make the deal. Leonard plans to reach out to his leads from the previous year since he’s already gotten some traction from them and also include more than just one product in the New Products Showcase.

“Once the Show sneaks up on you and you’re not ready, it can really bite you,” Leonard said. At the same time, you can prepare all you want, but I feel like you can never be truly prepared for the SEMA Show.”

For more information about the SEMA Show, visit