After Do Not Call laws made cold-call telemarketing untenable, Phil O'Reilly went out and got himself an education. Not a degree in English, math, or science but a thorough schooling in event marketing. Three years later, he has gone from two events per year to 30, and from a negligible number of leads to 11% of his lead total. The owner of P.F. Reilly and Co., in Chico, Calif., likes to think he has learned a few things about how to work public events to produce new business.

First lesson? It's not as easy as it looks. For instance, there was the time that P.F. Reilly show manager Peter Jarmillo set up a display at the Red Bluff Roundup rodeo. Good demographic. The problem? Rodeos serve more booze than a minor league baseball game and, according to Jarmillo, “you can't talk business with a person who has a beer in his hand” — for the simple reason that they usually forget the conversation. Scratch that.

Then there was the time Jarmillo was working the InterMountain Fair in McArthur, Calif. He decided to pack up and close a bit early but found, while breaking down the booth, that people kept coming by asking questions and wanting to talk. Jarmillo set several appointments. He set several more while outside giving away the last of the helium balloons. Lesson learned? In event marketing, it isn't over 'til it's over, and even then, with inquiries that need to become leads and leads that need to become appointments and appointments that need to become demos, it isn't over.

Right Way, Wrong Way Considering event marketing for your company? Done right, it can become a linchpin in your lead program, build recognition and brand awareness for your company, and start and strengthen relationships with customers. Done wrong, it can be an expensive waste of time.

There is no single “right” way to plan and execute an event marketing program. And since shows and events come in all types and sizes, there are no typical costs. You can pay less than $100 to participate in a neighborhood block party or in excess of $10,000 for booth space at the state fair with its thousands of potential inquiries. Then there's the question of how to present yourself: a professionally designed booth can easily run to six figures. On the other hand, you can effectively work an event with just a table, a backdrop, a sign, and some photos of your work. Virtually any home improvement contractor can put together an effective event program, even with limited resources and budget.

That said, here are a few things to remember if you want to get the best out of a program:

  • Find a crowd. Once you look into it, you'll discover that the number and variety of events is huge. These might range from street fairs to private wine-tasting events, from block parties to home shows. In many areas, outdoor public events are seasonal. Depending on where you're located, most will occur in a relatively restricted time frame of, typically, several months.
  • Tri-State Home Improvement in Branford, Conn., works approximately 130 shows/events a year. In addition to 10 or 12 home shows, the company exhibits at baby expos, men's expos, log cabin shows, boat shows, flea markets, carnivals, and swap meets, plus sports events such as farm league baseball games and the annual Greater Hartford Open golf tournament. Owner Brad Pompilli even works chamber of commerce meetings on weekday evenings, where he picked up 11 leads one night at minimal expense. Cost of that? “Thirty dollars and a guy's time.”

    O'Reilly goes to craft fairs, county fairs, car shows, gun shows, a salmon festival, and the occasional rodeo. “We look for shows that will have the same demographic as the person who'd purchase our windows,” he says. “If that demographic is there, and they'll let us in, we consider it.” P.F. Reilly's show manager, Jarmillo, finds many of these events on the Internet or by networking with other exhibitors. (Key question to ask: What kind of traffic does the event draw?) Pompilli uses the Internet, newspapers, magazines, and word of mouth, especially from salespeople.

  • Know who's there. Fair and festival type leads most resemble canvassing or telemarketing leads. Essentially, you've paid to put your company in a place where people are. Those people are not necessarily in the market to buy windows, siding, or a sunroom. But they may be at some time, and who knows, you could bring them into the market. A home and garden show, on the other hand, draws serious window/siding/sunroom prospects as well as the curious. They've paid $10 to get in and $7 to park. Consequently, contractors rate these leads as high-quality. “Show leads are regarded as premium because you know upfront what's going on,” says Sven Kramer, general manager at Stanek Windows in Cleveland. “They've invested time and money for a reason.” The downside? “There is that immediate competition,” says Phil Sutko, CEO of Innovative Siding & Window, Lincoln, Neb. In other words, those serious (i.e.,“now”) buyers are probably going to be leaving with not only your company's marketing materials but those of a half-dozen competitors as well.
  • Whether it's home show or salmon festival, “now” or “future” buyers, your demonstrator needs to quickly discern the prospect's level of interest, get complete and accurate contact information (especially an e-mail address), and either set the appointment or indicate that someone else from the company will be calling shortly to do so. If the prospect is still information-gathering, your rep or demonstrator's job should be to position your company as the logical choice once a decision to buy is made.

  • Know your purpose. Are you there to set an appointment or to build your database, adding names (inquiries) that can, at some point, be converted to leads? Some contractors, such as Tri-State's Pompilli, go to events intent on setting appointments. (Tri-State will do 130 shows this year and generate 31% of net sales from show/event leads.) To get appointments, it's wise to offer incentives.
  • “We offer a 15% discount to make the appointment then and there,” Pompilli says. If prospects won't set an appointment, they're encouraged to enter a drawing for a $500 gift certificate. At that point the company can remain in touch with them, and they become potential future buyers.