There's No Place Like Home Shows

Cailley Hammel Headshot
photo of a pool display at a home show

The pool and spa industry is always looking for good ways to reach consumers — and not just anyone, but customers with a bank account to support anything from a portable spa to a full-scale backyard renovation.

Home shows can offer a viable option. Thanks in part to the popularity of makeover shows on TV, homeowners are flocking to home shows more than ever. And for pool and spa dealers, they’re the perfect chance to encounter potential customers.

Someone who knows is Tara Onthank, vice president of sales and marketing at Rising Sun Pools in Raleigh, N.C. Here, we explore her home show strategy and find out why they’re a good idea — even if you don’t close a bunch of deals.

Choosing a Show

One of the keys to a successful home show is simply picking the right show for your business. For example, Rising Suns exhibits at the Southern Ideal Home Show, which Onthank enjoys because of its screening process that yields a showroom of high-quality exhibitors.

“The organizers of the show will call a similar contractor and say, ‘There’s somebody that’s looking into getting into the show, and they’re a swimming pool dealer. Do you know these guys, are they reputable, have you heard of them?’ And she’ll ask an opinion,” Onthank says.

While Southern Ideal charges a fee to exhibitors and a fee for attendees, Onthank says the costs serve as a quality control measure on both sides. For example, while a ticketed event may see fewer attendees, those attendees are more likely to have the funding for a backyard project of some sort, making them ideal candidates for your business.

photo of a pool display at a home show

photo of a pool display at a home show

Onthank’s team adds trees, plants and patio furniture to the booth display to create an entire outdoor environment.

Some are at the show because they’re ready to buy a pool, others have a longer timeline.

“Some people may come up to the booth and go, ‘Oh that’s pretty, can you tell me more about it and how much it would run for?’ A lot of times we’ll see those people a year or two later, and they’ll say, ‘We ran into you at the home show, we’re ready to move forward now.’

“The ones that sit down with us, get a packet and really go into an in-depth conversation are ones that are seriously shopping for a pool,” Onthank says.

Preparation

Onthank’s objective at a home show is to bring the backyard indoors. Planning begins about two weeks ahead of the show with conceptual drawings of the 400-square-foot booth display — Onthank likes to make each display different.

“I want to add that little bit of wow when somebody walks up,” she says.

Rising Suns displays a fully-operational pool at every home show: a vinyl-liner pool in the spring and a fiberglass pool in the fall. (The fiberglass pool is custom-made for home show purposes, measuring just 2 feet deep.) The team calls in electricians to hook up the lighting system and make sure everything, from the pump to the remote-controlled operation system, is in working order. Finally, Onthank’s team brings in full-sized trees, bushes and plants to give the set-up a true backyard feel. And all of that is accomplished in four days.

“To look at it on that fifth day and see that you’ve actually created a real backyard, inside, it’s really rewarding,” Onthank says.

In the days leading up to the show, Rising Suns purchases extra tickets to the show. These are distributed to potential customers and handed to loyal customers as well.

“Generally, we invite people and send them tickets. And we have them at the front counter so if somebody comes in and they’re interested, we say ‘Hey, would you like to go down to the show and take a look? And a lot of the time, they’ll take tickets.”

Anyone directly invited to the show will usually head right to the Rising Suns booth, she says.

Working the Show

Home show patrons, like customers everywhere, like to explore a space without dealing with a hard sale. Rising Suns makes a point of being friendly, but not pushy.

“Attendees get very nervous about getting into the booth, they’re afraid once they step in that they’re going to get pounced on,” Onthank says. “So we say hello and let people wander up and take brochures and literature and information. We usually give koozies and those kinds of things away, because typically if you’re giving away something for free, it gets them in.”

Of course, it’s more than having a friendly sales strategy — it’s who you have on your team that matters. In addition to bringing key members of her sales team, Onthank invites manufacturers to send representatives to work her booth, too.

“We have our vinyl pool representative, we have our fiberglass pool representative, we have our hot tub guy, so it gives them another layer of professionalism and they can talk in much more detail. It’s not just us trying to sell a product; somebody’s going to give them the complete background on the product they’re going to be buying.”

Not only does Onthank reap the benefits of having an expert on hand with manufacturer reps — it also leads to discounts.

“Manufacturers want to sell more pools also. For fiberglass, they typically extend us a little bit more of a discount or a freight break,” she says.

Rising Suns also offers their own discounts or upgrades to customers who make a purchase at the show or within a specified period, usually a few weeks after the show. One example: free patio supports.

Measuring Success

Between the exhibition fees and the cost of landscaping and building the display, Onthank estimates it costs between $8,000 and $10,000 to exhibit at a home show like Southern Ideal.

“But if we’re able to close two deals, that makes it makes it worthwhile, besides the fact that we’re reinforcing our brand,” Onthank says.

That’s where the home show differs from a big blowout sale: the former is more about the long-term lure.

“It’s not necessarily the closing ratio at a show that’s important. It’s just being there, planting the seed and having your presence,” she says.

It’s a game of patience, too. Someone who doesn’t buy a pool from you at a home show may say yes in a year — and if they do, you’ll be the ones they turn to, Onthank says. And an attendee’s original intention for his backyard may change as he sees the range of options; a plan for an elaborate deck can easily turn into a deck with a pool at the end of it.

“Sometimes those light bulbs go on,” she says, “and you want to be there when that happens.”

Comments or thoughts on this article? Please e-mail [email protected].

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