Achieving First-Time Success
Rookie Exhibitors From the 2019 SEMA Show Share Their Experiences and Offer Advice on How to Shine
By Chad Simon
The SEMA Show is back for 2021! Attracting more than 150,000 industry leaders, including 60,000 buyers from around the world, the annual Show, to be held November 2–5 in Las Vegas, is still growing. This year, it will expand into the Las Vegas Convention Center’s brand-new West Hall, providing an additional 1.4 million sq. ft. of exhibit space. Despite the Show having been canceled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many companies industry-wide (including those that were first-time exhibitors in 2019) are reporting record sales over the past year, and those that struggled are now starting to bounce back.
We contacted three first-time exhibitors from the 2019 SEMA Show to find out about their experiences, strategies, what they learned and what advice they would offer to exhibitors who will be new to the Show this year. They included Bruce Couture, owner of Modern Driveline; Mike Jercan, owner of MFR Engineering; and Steven Balusik, general sales manager/head of product development for Cam Motion.
SEMA News: Why did you decide to exhibit in 2019?
Bruce Couture: I’ve been going to the Show as an attendee since 2001, and we felt that it was the right thing to do for us as a company. We had grown to a point that we had enough product offerings and were prepared, so we wanted to take it to the next level. Before then, we didn’t feel that we were ready to take on that level of exposure.
Mike Jercan: I’ve attended the SEMA Show since 2014 or maybe even earlier. In 2019, I was opening my own business and trying to leave a footprint in this industry as a serious contributor to motorsports. It wasn’t something that we could avoid, being the new guy. A lot of people don’t understand why we use the material we use or why we do what we do, so we had to take that step and have a booth so people could come and ask the correct questions and not have social media kind of take over with the “he said, she said” type of thing. That’s why we pulled the trigger and invested the time and effort to do SEMA.
Steven Balusik: We’ve been exhibiting at the Performance Racing Industry (PRI) Trade Show since the beginning of time, but 2019 was the first year we did the SEMA Show. One of our friends over at American Racing Headers told us that he had good luck out there, and another friend from Scoggin Dickey told me that he didn’t see a lot of market overlap. He said a lot of the people he’s seeing at SEMA are a new audience for him, so he felt like he was reaching some people at SEMA that he wasn’t reaching at PRI.
SN: How would you describe your overall experience at the Show?
BC: Overall, it was a very good experience. We had a booth in the Performance Pavilion. The folks who worked with us were very helpful and made sure to stay in contact with us. The Exhibitor Summit we attended in June prior to the Show was also helpful, gave us a lot of information, put us at ease and got us to feel that SEMA was not this huge entity but an organization of people who cared.
I think having that information ahead of time and being engaged with the staff really made the difference in terms of being prepared, and having a timeline certainly helped us make sure that we were staying on track. Understanding what our requirements were for the booth was also helpful. We were encouraged to put products into the New Products Showcase, which we took full utilization of. In fact, we ended up winning that year’s Best Engineered New Product.
The New Products Showcase was beneficial to us because people may not have found us as a company, but they certainly found our products. We had eight products in the New Products Showcase; we took almost the entire display case.
MJ: It was a great experience as an exhibitor just being able to see what other industry people bring out, what their expectations are, who raises the bar and what’s next. We had a 20x40-ft. booth in the South Hall close to the Toyo Treadpass entrance/exit.
SB: We were in the Racing & Performance section, and it was a good Show. I think we actually had more new interest and fruitful interactions than we did at PRI, which was surprising. I fully expected to have to kind of develop into SEMA, but it just was an excellent Show right from the start. We came away with a lot of leads, and we got new customers that we hadn’t seen before going to the PRI Trade Show, so that was very nice for us.
SN: What were your expectations going in, and how did you prepare yourself?
BC: Our expectation was that the Show would be very good for us. It would certainly put us in the spotlight and give us more of an opportunity to interact with customers who perhaps hadn’t heard of us, and it certainly has done that.
MJ: We were mainly focused on making our booth as welcoming and warm as possible.
We spent a good amount of money trying to see what worked so that we’d know where we’re really going to focus and what to do differently coming into the next Show. We didn’t really have high expectations because it was our first year actually having a booth there. We didn’t want to have to leave the booth and go reach out and try to network with people because we might miss somebody who showed up at the booth.
SB: We really didn’t know what to expect. There were a lot of different types of products—everything from wheels to appearance products and truck accessories. We’re into hardcore racing, so PRI was always kind of our show.
The SEMA Show was so organized and had clearly defined sections, so if people are interested in racing and high performance, they can go straight to that section. Because they had done such a good job of organizing the enormity of the Show, I don’t think it deterred from our success. It was well enough sectioned and organized that we were able to reach the people we wanted to reach effectively.
SN: How did you promote your company to draw people to your booth?
BC: We did mailings with flyers, essentially to our database of people who we knew. We also had a vehicle outside the Las Vegas Convention Center. I believe we did do some type of advertising with SEMA, and we dedicated a page or a section on our website. We had just launched a new website prior to the 2019 SEMA Show.
MJ: We had three vehicles in our booth: a Porsche GT3 and an Acura NSX that we built, which actually got quite a bit of traffic, especially with Speed Hunters and a lot of the bigger social-media groups. We also debuted our widebody twin-turbo Challenger. Then we had a couple cars outside. I think there were a total of around 20 cars at the Show that we collaborated on, including a famous YouTuber’s car.
We also paid for banners outside of the Las Vegas Convention Center. We had a marketing team that helped us as far as networking at some of the post-Show meetings. We tried to make a presence. It was a stepping-stone for us and a great learning experience because now we know where to spend the money correctly. We did get compliments from a lot of big companies that we had one of the nicer booths at SEMA.
SB: We didn’t do anything differently. We let everyone know on Facebook and Instagram that we would be there, but that’s about it. We didn’t do anything beyond that. We simply had a 10x10, and this year we’ll have a 10x20. We had good results at the Show, and we were able to get into the main area. We were fortunate to be in the right place at the right time. The Show was packed. There were tons of people, and it was the right kind of people.
SN: How would you define a successful Show?
BC: I would say that we achieved all that we basically expected and probably a little bit more for our first Show. As a new exhibitor, to win a major award was really kind of surprising. I know that they’re changing the Show in the sense of the layout of the new hall that’s opened. I am hoping that our next experience is going to take us to the next level so that we can get exposed to more buyers who are in our field. I want to be a part of the core of the market that I am addressing.
MJ: Return on investment. I am pretty confident that our second experience will be even better because we will take advantage of what we learned for sure and the ROI will definitely be a lot better.
SB: A successful Show for us is always two things: First, we want to have an opportunity to see and spend some time with our existing customers; and second, we want to reach out and try to find new customers who are in our ideal target market.
SN: How do you think you can improve upon your experience at this year’s Show?
BC: We’ve looked into getting a different type of booth; instead of a 10x40 in an aisle, we opted for a 20x20. We’ll do whatever kind of promotion ahead of time that we can within reason and budget. I do intend to look at getting a hanging sign, like I see so many other companies doing, so at least when you’re on the floor, you can look up and say, “Hey, there’s a company that I need to see.”
MJ: I would definitely spend a lot more money and effort on directing people to our booth. I’d also look into the different advertisement options that SEMA offers.
SB: We’re going to have a bigger and better-quality display this year.
SN: What advice would you offer to a first-time exhibitor this year?
BC: I would certainly follow the path that I took, which is to get involved, be informed. I definitely would recommend entering a product in the New Products Showcase. It’s a big show to get prepared for as a small exhibitor. Try to pace yourself. Set your expectations on a realistic level. The Show is a top-quality, world-class-type show.
MJ: Be a little bit more open on the advertisement side. I’ve been doing SEMA for so many years, so I kind of went into this thinking I had the gist of it, but it’s a whole different ballgame when you’re an exhibitor. Let people know where you are, what you do, and drive people to your booth.
SB: Go to the Show first, get familiar with it, understand how it works and see how you can be effective.
SEMA News: How has your company been affected by the pandemic?
Bruce Couture: We saw a 25% increase in business last year. We also sell truck transmissions, and we announced a new product that has been selling like crazy, which has made us extremely busy. Our sales are up because people aren’t traveling. They’ve got time on their hands, and if they have money, they’re building cars.
Mike Jercan: It’s been a rollercoaster ride. We’ve been blessed not to have closed. We had continuous orders, but it’s been a little crazy. Some months are great, and then others we’re in the red because we don’t have enough traffic. Our products are on the higher end and are very niche.
A lot of the teams we work with weren’t racing because everything was shut down, so we weren’t producing products for the guys who were going out and beating up their cars. We pushed through, and we’re still pushing and hoping that we can continue to move forward. If certain things that we have planned work out, we’ll be back at the Show and hopefully stronger than we were in 2019.
Steven Balusik: I think a lot of recreational, outdoor and leisure companies have done quite well. It seems like the entire performance industry has basically been selling everything that they could make ever since the pandemic started. People who normally would have been busy doing other things spent time on their hobbies, and that included the high-performance and racing market. We just have literally been nonstop ever since the pandemic started.