Getting it right: The virtuous cycle

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After you’ve been in business a few years, you can trace the roots for things that seem to be routine parts of our lives.  The annual Merkley Supply Ltd.  (MSL) Show operated by an Ottawa building supply dealer who focuses primarily on masonry products (but sells plenty of other stuff) is a great example of this process.

The show, held in March each year, has become a “must attend” in the local calendar for architects, designers, building owners, and contractors (including the masonry subs of course.).  Merkley Supply rents out a convention hall and invites its major suppliers to support the event costs by renting booths.  Then invited visitors enjoy several hours of free food, an unlimited open bar (with free beer glasses) and plenty of networking.

The event improves year by year.  Merkely arranged the food and desert service to virtually eliminate line ups at the buffet table even at the peak lunch hour.  No drink tickets:  You can order what you want, when you want.  Attendance reached about 1,200 — the highest ever — Robert Merkley told me.

Robert Merkley (left) with Robin Fyfe of Routeburn Urban Development, Sheila Brady from the Ottawa Citizen and William Metz from Routeburn

Suppliers love the event, especially manufacturers seeking to connect with architects and specifiers, who make sure to attend.  So do general contractors and of course the subs and suppliers in Merkley’s market area.  Invitations are distributed widely but you need to be invited to attend so you won’t find many retirees, students or others who attend trade shows to collect trinkets and have no purchasing capacity.  Robert Merkley says that even with the support of suppliers, his business spends a significant amounts of its own money on the event.  “We spent $67,000 on food and beverages, purchased 2,800 mugs at $6  each, and paid $18,000 for the projection system.”

Of course the payoff is worth the investment.  “We had one home builder who didn’t know that we could provide light fill for their job sites.  That turned into a $300,000 order.”  Suppliers who pay $1,800 each for booths send senior executives to the event because the lead quality the event generates is so high it is worth pulling out all the stops.

I recall the roots of this show because the the origins trace to the roots of my own business (though MSL has been around many more years in total).  In 1989, a year after starting my first publication, a monthly newspaper for local real estate representatives, I attended the first Ottawa Construction Show.  The event blew me away.  Hundreds of exhibitors and thousand sof people attended — and Merkley Supply had one of the largest booths.

I thought;  “If this industry is large enough to support a new show like this, maybe it will be able to support a monthly newspaper.”  I contacted Robert Merkley and he agreed to advertise in the first issue of Ottawa Construction News (and his ad has appeared ever since).  I had a business.

A few years later, the original Ottawa Construction Show started running into problems.  For a while  competing shows including one operated by the local Construction Specifications Canada chapter and another by a commercial business sought the same market.  Exhibitors found the cost of setting up and attending didn’t provide enough return for the effort.  Merkley scaled back his exhibit, then decided he could run his own show by inviting his own suppliers to exhibit.  The event proved to be an instant success though the initial location was cramped and it lacked much growth opportunity.

MSL (like my own business) has seen its share of recessions, of changes in technology and business practices but some things remain consistent.  If you create an event or service where people find value and relationships, where everyone comes out ahead of the game, you win.  The annual MSL Show brings vendors, architects, designers, clients, owners and others together in a cohesive event which costs little for the net value it achieves.

Can you create your own client-focused event that brings people together, perhaps funded by your suppliers?  If so, you may truly achieve a Construction Marketing Ideas home run.  If you know of other similar successes in different markets, please let me know and I will be happy to share the news.

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