Leveraging the SEMA Show
How Four Returning Exhibitors Continue to Maximize Their ROI
By Mike Imlay
Returning live after COVID, the 2021 SEMA Show in Las Vegas was the nation’s largest and most successful trade event. This year’s Show at the Las Vegas Convention Center again promises to be a massive exhibitor opportunity. Take some tips from successful exhibitors to stand out in the crowd.
Anticipation is building for the 2022 SEMA Show, to be held November 1–4 at the Las Vegas Convention Center—and perhaps a few pre-Show exhibitor jitters, too. For newcomers and veterans alike, creating a successful SEMA Show exhibit takes dedication and planning. There is no abracadabra formula for a profitable Show, but there are tried and true strategies that winning businesses routinely employ to accomplish their goals, many with minimal or no cost.
“We understand that our exhibitors invest a lot of time, effort and money in their booths and Show marketing, but there are many simple, straightforward steps that they can take to maximize their return on those investments,” said SEMA Vice President of Events Tom Gattuso. “As an association, our passion is to offer all exhibitors the resources and tools needed to help control costs, develop effective Show plans, and generate quality leads to grow and prosper. Leveraging many of the Show’s built-in features lays the groundwork for a great Show.”
In fact, by using these tools, many exhibitors—both small and large—have catapulted their businesses forward. With the 2022 SEMA Show looming, SEMA News reached out to several past exhibitors who not only have enjoyed success but also view the Show as a continued driver for growth. In true industry spirit, they were eager to share their experiences and tactics with others.
Branding and Marketing: Harbor Freight Tools
Headquartered in Calabasas, California, Harbor Freight Tools first exhibited at the 2019 SEMA Show with a 30x40-ft. booth. This year, the tool manufacturer will return to the 2022 Show with a 30x90-ft. booth—more than double the size. According to Alon Mahller, Harbor Freight senior product marketing manager, the 2019 SEMA Show proved a highly effective venue for reaching the company’s market: tool users of all types.
“We don’t just sell automotive tools,” Mahller explained. “Although that’s a huge portion of our business, the guys who are in the shop Monday through Friday are cutting their grass on Saturday and Sunday, or they’re painting their house or building a deck.”
To leverage those crossover audiences, Harbor Freight will construct a booth that recreates the brand’s retail outlets. The displays will include the company’s professional automotive lines as well as a variety of other tools not so typical of the SEMA Show.
According to Mahller, the company has invested heavily in both the quality and breadth of its product lines. The result is a tool lineup designed to appeal to users at every level and price point, and that diversity will be on full display for SEMA Show attendees.
“We’re planning to bring a large portion of our store,” he said. “It’s going to look like a Harbor Freight store, with some experiences and opportunities for people to get their hands on our tools and to try them. Many people have been hesitant to try or use certain tools from us, and this is a good opportunity for us to put them in their hands and say, ‘Pull the trigger on this product and see how you like it. See how it stands up to the competition.’”
But Mahller knows that a large, interactive booth alone is no guarantee of success. His marketing team plans to add plenty of pre-Show publicity through its website, email and social-media channels to connect with Show attendees ahead of time. That publicity will also extend throughout the Show and include video features and a full event recap afterward. The idea is to share Harbor Freight’s brand not only with those on the Show floor but also with industry pros and consumers who can’t otherwise be there.
“While we’re [at the Show], we’re going to be doing announcements that ‘we’re here, come see us,’” Mahller said. “We’ll also do a landing page, where we’ll have interviews with our customers, with influencers, with our engineers and with our merchant leadership about the tools. So even if you’re not able to attend, you can still get that same experience. You’ll see some of the tool demos and customer reactions to using the tools on our website and our social channels.”
DRAWING A CROWD:
Hinckley Overlanding introduced its GOAT trailer at last year’s SEMA Show. Supplying its products for feature-vehicle builds in different Show locations proved an effective way to lead dealers back to its booth. The company is now growing rapidly.
While Harbor Freight is enlarging its Show footprint, the experience of Hinckley Overlanding proves that the Show can be big for smaller exhibitors, too. According to Hinckley Overlanding Owner and Operator Matt McIntosh, it’s all in the strategy. Last year his team aimed for a 20x20-ft. first-time exhibit space near a large, well-known off-roading manufacturer. That thinking paid off.
“We had been to the Show [as attendees], and we knew that it’s where we could get in front of buyers,” McIntosh said. “We had six individuals staffing our booth, and we were literally buried the whole time. We didn’t really get to see the rest of the Show because our exhibit was so well received. We were just piling into our rooms at the end of the day, and we weren’t going out to dinner. We were all hammered.”
Of course, having an exciting product with a story to tell doesn’t hurt either. Based in Salt Lake City, Utah, Hinckley Overlanding supplies, installs and designs products for the state’s growing overlanding community. But its biggest claim to fame is the GOAT, a compact “Go Over Any Terrain” trailer for smaller (including powersports) vehicles venturing into the backcountry. The product is based on the tough, solar-powered security and surveillance trailers deployed by the U.S. military.
Highly customizable, the units feature heavy-duty steel construction, 2,000-lb. half-axle torsion suspension for greater ground clearance, 8,000-lb. stabilizing corner jacks, heavy-duty mounting racks for tents or gear, and 64,638ci storage capacity. Add-ons can include water tanks, a road shower, a fully modifiable kitchen unit, a refrigerator and more.
“The Australians say that they started overlanding, and, of course, South Africans say that they started it, but that’s neither here nor there,” McIntosh said of the exploding market segment. “I think we’ve all been doing it our whole lives. We didn’t term it, but it’s a combination of remote travel, off-roading and camping. For us, it’s all about the journey.”
Being a first-timer, McIntosh admitted that the 2021 SEMA Show was a learning experience. The company didn’t take advantage of all the Show features and programs that veterans tap into to drive booth traffic. However, Hinckley Overlanding did supply some of its tents and products for feature-vehicle builds in key Show sections. QR codes on those vehicles guided attendees back to the company’s booth. That led to several conversations with dealer principals who expressed interest not only in the GOAT but also other Hinckley Overlanding products.
“We actually signed on a handful of dealers between Salt Lake to Las Vegas, to New Mexico, Idaho and Oregon,” McIntosh said. “And we just signed on another dealer in Spokane, Washington, since the Show last year. We’re growing rapidly.”
Taking a first-time dive into the SEMA Show “isn’t for the faint of heart,” he joked. “It’s a chunk of change for the unknown, especially for the first go—and yet I immediately signed back up for this year. Of course, we’re going to take full advantage of the Show this year. We’re going to have several trailers there, including possibly a Jeep-branded trailer.”
The company also plans to make use of the New Products Showcase, pre-Show publicity and more highly visible feature-vehicle builds this time around.
Going With a Game Plan:
Universal Air Suspension
For first-timers and veterans alike, move-in day at the SEMA Show can be exciting and, admittedly, hectic. Mocking up your booth at your own facilities ahead of time and rehearsing for the Show yields confidence. Adhering to Exhibitor Services Manual policies and deadlines will minimize move-in anxieties.
When Universal Air Suspension first exhibited at the 2019 SEMA Show, the company had a specific goal in mind.
“One of our biggest holdups had always been exposure,” said Universal Air Suspension President Zack Ratcliff.
Although the air-spring manufacturer began business in 2000 and had sizable orders from existing customers, Ratcliff felt that his company needed broader recognition.
“When we did the Show in 2019, we got a lot of exposure and definitely saw a huge increase in sales and customer base because of it,” he noted.
When the live SEMA Show returned in 2021, Universal eagerly signed on again.
“We got a really nice spot and even more customers,” Ratcliff recalled. “Just the booth location alone and all the advertisement we did outside our booth helped drive people to where we were. We were cranking busy the entire week.”
Ratcliff believes that success hinges on a solid promotional gameplan.
“If you just sit at your booth and expect people to come to you, you’re going to have a disappointing Show,” he said. “You have to go out and do the work and get people to come over to you.”
For Universal that meant press releases and taking advantage of some Show sponsorship opportunities as well as some feature vehicle builds. Placing product in the New Products Showcase also resulted in buyer traffic, not to mention some SEMA Show Global Media Awards, which raised the company’s international standing. Most importantly, when the buyers flocked to their booth, the Universal team was prepared.
“When we take leads, we actually notate how serious they are,” Ratcliff explained. “If it’s someone looking for a specific product that’s coming out in the future, we’ll contact them once it becomes more available or when we have more information on it. As far as the leads looking to buy our existing products, as soon as we get back [from the Show], we start contacting them. We’re also going to start mass emailing and directly following up and sending out flyers once new items become available.”
Controlling various costs also helps Universal maximize its return on investment.
“The ironic part is that everyone thinks booth space is the expensive part, but it’s not,” Ratcliff asserted. “The expensive part is building displays, transporting them to Las Vegas, your staff at the Show, your hotels, your food and all that kind of stuff.”
To save on expenditures, Universal produces all its own displays and transports them itself.
“And then, of course, it’s our own labor to set up the booth and break it down, so we don’t have those expenses,” he added.
The company also scrutinizes food and housing deals.
Building on Success:
Bubba Rope first came to the 2010 SEMA Show with a simple 10x10-ft. booth and a unique story to tell. The recovery rope won a New Product Award for packaging, and the rest is history. The highly successful company is now using the 2022 Show to debut several new recovery gear sets.
Jim Flowers, president of Florida-based Bubba Rope, attributes much of his company’s growth over the past decade to the SEMA Show—so much so that the Show now figures prominently in Bubba Rope’s annual marketing plan.
As the economy was souring back in 2009, Bubba Rope was bringing an unusual product to market: surplus coated helicopter rope re-adapted and packaged as off-road recovery gear. (The rope was humorously named after the “Bubba” moniker that’s bandied about in the company’s home state.) But would the off-roading community embrace it? Someone in the automotive press suggested that Flowers try introducing it at the 2010 SEMA Show.
“It was just incredible,” he said. “The Show was a Mecca of off-road vehicles. It had so much energy with everything that was going on, so we put our 10x10-ft. booth together. People started coming in and filling it on day one. Rather than just hanging a bunch of rope around, we wanted to demonstrate how it worked, so we spent a lot of time in our booth showing people what the rope could do.”
Bubba Rope also displayed in the New Products Showcase. To Flowers’ surprise, it won a best new packaging award at the New Products Awards Breakfast.
“We went back to the booth, and it was like magic,” he said. “I think it just captivated a lot of people’s minds and imagination. All of a sudden, we realized not only did we have a product but also a story to tell.
“You can have a 10x10-ft. booth and be up against booths that are 100 times bigger, but in the New Products Showcase, you’re the same size. If you come up with something great, it’s going to get noticed there.”
Like the others interviewed here, Flowers said that you need to have a plan to truly succeed at the Show, and that plan shouldn’t underestimate the power of the Show’s media presence.
“You want to launch your product, tell people about it, and get people excited about it, especially the press,” he said. “Their job is to find and tell stories, so fashion your product so it has a story. That’s huge.”
Now, more than a decade after its Show debut, Bubba Rope will turn another page at the 2022 SEMA Show.
“We’ve gotten to the point now where we have a really good array of products and we know where we want to be,” Flowers explained. “Our vertical category is off-road recovery, and that’s where we live, so we’ve come up with three different types of gear sets.”
Each set of gear is optimized for powersports, Jeeps or Broncos, and large trucks such as the Ford F-150 or Ram 1500.
In regards to the entire SEMA Show, Hinckley Overlanding’s McIntosh believes it to be the ideal place to showcase a product while discovering new trends.
“You’re always evolving as a company and as a builder,” he observed. “As things change over the next few years, we’ve got to stay ahead of the times. The Show allows us to go to market with all the other builders that are out there and get ideas on how we can make our product better. And you’re making connections you can’t make any other way. Honestly, we’re in the people business. We just happen to make, build and sell cool stuff. At the end of the day, it’s about the relationships that you build with buyers and customers.”
For Flowers, those relationships go far beyond the Show itself. He sees the trade event as the gateway to other SEMA services and connections that keep a business growing the rest of the year
“As we got to know SEMA better, we realized that it wasn’t just a trade show,” he said. “There’s so much more that goes with it. The people who go with it helped us learn not just how to project our product but also how to come up with the price list, how to manufacture, how to deal with the wholesalers, how to deal with the resellers, the jobbers, public relations and all those other important things.”
Some Proven Exhibitor Strategies at-a-Glance
- Have pre-rehearsed “elevator pitches” ready. Make sure they include an interesting and memorable story about your company and product.
- Don’t just display product in your booth. Demonstrate it. Make your booth interactive.
- Submit at least one new or featured product in the New Products Showcase before the October 7 deadline. The first product is free. Each additional entry is just $75.
- Utilize your SEMA Show sales representatives. They can connect you to many free or cost-saving SEMA Show programs designed to boost your success.
- Begin submitting press releases now about your product, company and Show activities to the SEMA Online Media Center [www.SEMAshow.com/press-release].
- If you can’t place a feature vehicle in your own booth, get your product on a vehicle build elsewhere at the convention center. Its QR code will lead buyers to your booth.
- Use social media to build buzz about your SEMA Show presence before, during and after the event. Post regularly, and use images and even live videos throughout Show Week.
- The Exhibitor Service Manual is your go-to guide. Reviewing its policies and deadlines contains costs and delivers a smoother Show experience.
Plan Now for Success
For registration and complete exhibitor, attendee and media information for the 2022 SEMA Show, visit www.SEMAshow.com.
First-time exhibitors will especially want to check out the website’s special resources, including the Exhibitor Service Manual.
In addition, every exhibitor is assigned a SEMA Show representative who can offer guidance and help arm you with the key tools for success. To contact SEMA Show staff, call 909-396-0289.