By Eric Colby
An exhibitor’s success at the SEMA Show relies on sparking personal interactions with attendees. In this article, returning exhibitors share some proven strategies they used as newcomers and how they will build on them this year.
When people hear about the SEMA Show, they think about cool cars and trucks, accessories and influencers taking over Las Vegas for a week. Their first thoughts most likely won't focus on a bank.
But Fifth Third Bank of Charlotte, North Carolina, is happily returning as an exhibitor for their third consecutive SEMA Show this October 31–November 3 at the Las Vegas Convention Center. The company also signed on again as a sponsor of the reception that precedes the Industry Awards Banquet, Thursday evening, November 2. Their story proves that with the right strategy, every brand can find success at the Show.
"It's a great opportunity, and it helped us align with SEMA and get visibility with the key decision makers in the industry," said David Morton, managing director of motorsports and automotive aftermarket for Fifth Third Bank, which also sponsors cars in NASCAR, Indy Car and NHRA. "We fully believe we're not just in this to write checks," said Morton. "We want to be immersed in the industry and the community."
Fifth Third Bank, which is also a longtime supporter of the Performance Racing Industry (PRI) association, has sent a team of attendees from a company branch to the SEMA Show for 25 years. The reasons behind stepping up to exhibiting in 2021 were twofold. "I felt like we needed to have a booth to put a stake in the ground aftermarket community," said Morton. "Where else can you go in one week and meet so many decision makers and start to build relationships?"
Even with all the visibility provided by outlets like YouTube, TikTok and Instagram, more than 130,000 people--including an estimated 70,000 buyers--chose to be at the 2021 SEMA Show. This made Fifth Third Bank's participation in the Show--the world's largest aftermarket event--more than worthwhile. This year's edition is set to occupy more than a million sq. ft. of space at the LVCC.
FuelTech’s unveiling of a new Audi drag car for “Street Outlaws’“ Daddy Dave drew plenty of visitors to the red glow of its booth. The company then capitalized on the opportunity for one-on-one conversations. Courtesy of FuelTech.
For exhibitors, this makes the Show an invaluable venue for interacting with thousands of attendees not only from throughout the United States but internationally as well. "The new people we met, connections with others in the industry, and the information we learned was priceless," Brandon Arpin, chief marketing officer at Valvetronic Designs in Quakertown, Pennsylvania, said after exhibiting at the Show for the first time in 2022. "The first year was an unbelievable experience for anyone on the team."
Added Jake Palladini, brand manager for bushings maker Powerflex USA after exhibiting in 2022 following a nearly decade-long absence, "This [was] my first time exhibiting at a Show meant for other professional customers to come by and see you. I've exhibited at other shows, but they were more geared toward the public and narrowed down to a specific market."
Investing in the Future
For Fifth Third Bank, the decision to exhibit in 2021 opened up other avenues to become more involved with the SEMA association as well as the SEMA Show itself. A good example is sponsoring the reception. "If we didn't' exhibit, that wouldn't have been an option," Morton said, adding that the sponsorship reflected a genuine partnership. "It was an idea we had, and they embraced it and put some creative thinking behind it that worked well for us and for them, too."
Like many other SEMA Show attendees, Fifth Third had experience at other shows, but the sheer size of the SEMA trade event can cause even seasoned event veterans to closely examine their goals. "You have many people walking by," said Morton--meaning that coming with a strategy for targeting leads is critical. In the company's second year of exhibiting, Morton and his team decided to add a large-screen TV to broadcast a video of the Fifth Third story. Think of it as another team member who attracts and filters potential clients.
Fifth Third Bank's goal is to become a business' primary bank and provide strategic advice, access to capital to finance growth. "With NASCAR, we showed all the different companies that we are the primary bank for," said Morton. "We won business from a large product distributor [that we met at SEMA] and got a nice piece of business."
Continuing, he said, "Success is ultimately based on the new relationships we earned through conversations we have at the Show. It might be three months, it might be six months, or two years from now, but being at the Show gave us the opportunity to talk to the owner of a business."
Additionally, Fifth Third is running ads in industry publications and on digital platforms announcing that it will be exhibiting at the Show. When the company is in Las Vegas for the Show, representatives from the bank attend as many events as possible, including the breakfasts and the SEMA PAC event. "You need to be present and participate in all of it," advised Morton.
Making the Right Noise
After exhibiting for the first time at the SEMA Show in 2022, Valvetronic Designs significantly increased its booth size for this year but is scaling down the number of products on display to make room for more personal interactions.
In 2022, Valvetronics drew visitors with several booth vehicles. This year the company plans to feature fewer cars to enhance its space for more product demonstrations and personal interactions. Courtesy of Valvetronics.
Valvetronics makes switchable muffling and exhaust systems that let an operator choose when to be loud and proud or when to quiet the situation. When the company started, its first products were for BMW 335s and M3s, and the core audience has been 18- to 35-year-olds. Arpin said a goal of attending the Show is to expand to a broader demographic. Last year, the company had a handful of cars in its booth, but Arpin said the focus this year will be on meeting more people--including both buyers and attendees it can convert into brand ambassadors.
"We're trying to go with a simple approach. We will have a McLaren P1 and an M3, but our goal this year will be meeting a lot of influencers in the industry. We want as much foot traffic and want to talk to as many people as possible."
Fifth Third Bank returns for 2023 as both a Show exhibitor and as a sponsor of the Thursday-evening Industry Awards Banquet reception, proving that all types of businesses can find success at the Show.
The company has relationships with many content creators and influencers, but Arpin didn't meet most of them until the 2022 SEMA Show. "It was nice to be there in person with the influencers," he said.
"There's a huge benefit of having someone with a million followers posting about being at your booth."
In addition to expanding booth space from last year's 400 sq. ft. to 600 for 2023, Valvetronics has an exhibit design that better lends itself to hosting more people to watch product demonstrations, since the feedback from 2022 indicated that many visitors had stopped at the booth when they saw demos from the show-floor aisles.
Arpin is also an influencer and creator, so he took advantage of meeting people he's communicated with online. One evening after the Show, he and other influencers went to see an EDM artist and exchange ideas and experiences. "Each team member made his or her own connections," said Arpin.
FuelTech is a 20-year-old Brazilian company that makes high-performance ECUs for just about any application imaginable, from cars to off-road trucks and even boats. Last year, FuelTech USA, which distributes throughout this country, exhibited at the SEMA Show for the first time.
"We did PRI for the past five or six years and we thought we had an idea of what we were getting into, but [the SEMA Show] was completely different," said FuelTech USA's sales manager Andre Nunez. "The vastness of it is impressive."
FuelTech is already firmly entrenched in hardcore high-performance niches like no-prep drag racing, the street outlaw world and drifting.
"SEMA gives us the opportunity to access a completely new group of people who aren't hardcore racing and different avenues that we don't get to interact with a lot," said Nunez.
The company's 2022 exhibit unveiled a new Audi drag car for Daddy Dave from the "Street Outlaws" TV show, which drew plenty of visitors. Once they were in the booth, the FuelTech team had the opportunity to tell guests more about the company and its products.
"We got to speak with people about the company itself and what we do," said Nunez. "It gave us a chance to introduce FuelTech to people and how the equipment is being used. We were pretty happy with the way everything developed, but [this year] we'll make our area more friendly to sit-down conversations."
While FuelTech is well-known among serious drag racers, the size of the SEMA Show lets the company expand its reach to what Nunez called the "next circle out from the hardcore racers."
FuelTech is also looking ahead with an electrification division called FuelTech Electric. "It's still in its infancy and we're about to release software with the ability to control electric motors," said Nunez. "We're making sure we stay on top of that so we're not caught behind when the transition happens."
Obviously, exhibiting at the SEMA Show is an investment, so a company has to look at ways to manage expenses for a great ROI. For example, FuelTech normally drives its own display and equipment to more local events, but getting it out to Las Vegas for a company based in Ball Ground, Georgia, presents its own challenges.
"It's more expensive, but it's worth it," said Nunez. The company's booth had an entire video wall, plus FuelTech expanded its Show presence by participating in the New Products Showcase with its ECUs and supplementary products like fuel injectors.
Coming into the 2023 edition of the SEMA Show, Nunez said FuelTech's focus will be sharpened. "When people see us a second time, it will be more about getting business done," he said. "Being at SEMA sends a message that we're serious."
A Promising Return
Let's be honest, it takes a special crowd to get excited about something like a suspension-system bushing, but that's why a company like Powerflex USA returned to the 2022 SEMA Show after nearly a decade-long absence.
"I've exhibited at other shows, but they were more geared toward the public and narrowed down to a specific market," said Powerflex USA's brand manager Jake Palladini. "This was my first time exhibiting at a show meant for other professional customers to come by and see you."
He continued, "We made a lot of meaningful connections that have turned into new accounts with us. It's hard to quantify return on investment this early, but the brand presence and awareness was great and we interacted with a ton of people."
The Powerflex USA team proved last year that sheer simplicity is yet another successful formula. LED lighting and an illuminated back wall helped control costs while pulling in traffic--leading to meaningful deals with strong ROI. Courtesy of Powerflex USA.
Powerflex USA sponsors some online content creators, but Palladini said the company sees more value in focusing its marketing on existing customers. For a few different reasons, Powerflex USA opted not to exhibit at the Show after 2013, but Palladini saw that the organization was missing opportunities by not being at the event. "We decided it was time to make a return and be out there on the biggest stage," he said.
Powerflex USA tracks its connections made at the Show, which SEMA makes easier with its lead-retrieval system, and Palladini keeps a running tab of the contacts to see which ones transition to accounts. As the other companies in this story found, the Show's in-person interactions cannot be duplicated on a Zoom or Teams call or in an email or phone conversation.
"You talk to 125 to 200 people and if you walk away with four meaningful accounts, you've returned your investment," he said. "Some of these customers are people I've wanted to talk to for a while but sending them an email or a phone call on a busy day isn't the same as them stopping by your booth."
Looking at the expenses, Palladini said that upgrading the company's display with new technology like LED lighting and renting furniture actually saved money from what Powerflex USA spent in 2013.
For 2023, the Powerflex USA booth will be in the Central Hall within eyeshot of the Barrett-Jackson exhibit. "More people are going to walk by and see our bright illuminated back wall," said Palladini. The company also plans to place items in the New Products Showcase after getting some good exposure by supplying bushings that were used in a Tesla control arm in last year's event.
The message for new, veteran and potential SEMA Show exhibitors alike is that personal interaction with industry professionals who share a passion for performance can work wonders for any business. Whether a company makes aftermarket products or is a bank helping the industry to grow, the key is a strategy to draw attendees in, spark a conversation and tell your brand's story. After all, attendees used to ask why Fifth Third Bank was at the SEMA Show. "We never get that question now," said Morton. "People know us, and we're part of the community."
Join the Show
The annual SEMA Show in Las Vegas is the industry's No. 1 trade event and a proven venue for taking businesses of all sizes and scope to the next level. If your company hasn't yet signed on as a 2023 SEMA Show exhibitor, there's still time to join the industry this October 31–November 3. Learn more at SEMAshow.com/exhibitor.