Credit: Illustration: Ryan Snook

A year and a half ago, at a small rural fair, Larmco Windows, the Ohio siding and window company, set up a slot machine in its booth. Even vice president Joe Talmon was surprised at how many people came over, curious and eager to play.

Since then slots have been the center of action in Larmco Windows booths and will be at the 50 shows and events that the company has booked for this year. Larmco demonstrators "interrupt and engage" the flow of passersby, Talmon explains, by asking: "Have you tried the slot machine?" Then they hand show-goers three tokens.

Winners might get five new windows, a complete attic insulation package, or a houseful of windows. "We could wait for them to stop at our booth and tell us what they're thinking about doing with their house," Talmon says. "But 99.9% won't." So when show walkers line up to drop their three tokens in, Larmco demonstrators have a question for them: "What's the next thing you're thinking of doing to your home?"

Diplomatic Corps

Ten years ago Callen Construction, in Milwaukee, was short-staffed for an important show that was fast approaching. "We had a 10-day event we needed to staff nine to 12 hours a day," president Tom Callen says. Then he hit on an idea: hire customers to represent Callen Construction. The company has done that ever since. "We call them our 'ambassadors,'" Callen says.

The ambassadors introduce themselves as past customers of Callen Construction, and talk about their experience with the company. Callen calls resulting conversations "interesting." Two of the ambassadors were hired 10 years ago and still represent Callen Construction at shows and events. They are paid an hourly wage and work often enough that "they're really part-time employees," Callen says.

Go in With a Plan

What works or doesn't work depends on your company, your products, and how assertively you are prepared to seek business. Still, marketing expert Marc Slutsky, chief operating officer of Street Fighter Marketing, in Columbus, Ohio, says, "You have to go in with a plan. You can't just get a booth and hope for contacts." He also suggests working with noncompetitive vendors ? a roofing company, for instance, if you only do siding and windows ? to co-promote with them. Other suggestions for successful shows:

  • Four to six hours is the maximum time that people can work a show and be effective.
  • Whenever possible, have two people (or more) in the booth. "If the booth is empty, your investment is zero," Talmon says.
  • Owners need to be present. "People come to a [home] show in many cases because they want to meet the contractor," Callen says. "Let them know that you want their business."