Smart distributors know that hosting special events for customers is one of the most effective ways to spark sales and cement relationships.

Events where customers talk to manufacturers or reps about products and see the latest offerings in a casual and festive setting should be part of your overall marketing strategy — coordinated with seasonal promotions, mailings and other marketing efforts. The mix of customers you target and your company's objectives will determine the number and type of the events you stage.

While doing your annual market planning, map out the next year's marketing events. Much of the event schedule will depend on which products and vendors you plan to highlight in promotions during the year, a decision often influenced by customer mix and marketing-group affiliations.

Your marketing staff should identify which segments of your company's customer base will be targets for the year's promotions, then determine what the objectives of the events should be.

Is the objective to develop market share with the existing customer base? Or is it to turn potential customers into new customers? Make sure you're targeting a market that will provide a return on investment and will meet your company's strategic growth goals.

  • Golf outings work well for cementing relationships and rewarding customer loyalty.

  • Trade shows and educational seminars can help introduce new or prospective customers to your company and its capabilities. Some distributors host major in-house trade shows featuring a number of vendors annually or every few years.

  • Buying shows, where customers receive special deals available only at the show, can be effective for eliminating dead stock from the warehouse or to introduce new products. Selling at never-to-be-seen-again prices creates a sense of urgency.

  • Counter days are also excellent venues for introducing new products. Most distributors with counter business hold regular counter-day promotions featuring products of interest to the small to medium-size contractor market. Factory or independent reps are usually on hand to talk with customers about product features and benefits.

    For electrical distributors with multiple locations, it may be beneficial to allow each branch manager to select the vendors for the branch's counter-day promotions. Just make sure each manufacturer gets a reasonable amount of exposure over the course of a year.

  • Festivities with food are always popular. Some distributors host annual parking-lot picnics or barbecues at every branch as a way of extending a “thank you” to customers. Try to give the event some flair — not just hotdogs and hamburgers. Bring in local flavor, such as sausages, chicken or special desserts.

The most important thing, though, is prior planning!

The Big to-Dos: Trade Shows and Seminars

A big trade show is a great vehicle for reaching bubble customers. Big trade shows beg for big themes, but it takes some creativity to sidestep the clichés. If you're going with a theme, embrace it in a big way.

With attendance the name of the game for trade shows, sporting themes are tried and true. NASCAR racing and gambling nights remain popular draws. If you choose a casino theme, you can even hire a company to provide dealers, tables, cards and chips. After spending some time at the blackjack tables, customers can cash in chips for promotional hats, T-shirts and other merchandise.

The best location for a major distributor trade show depends upon your objectives. Hosting it “at home” saves expense and strengthens customers' perception of your warehouse and operations, but it requires more detailed planning and can disrupt daily business. Venues such as hotels or convention centers add a touch of class and remove some of the hassles, but they cost money and may seem generic.

Still, for large shows that include many vendors and hundreds of attendees, reserve rooms at a local hotel with banquet facilities. This gets the show out of the way of the warehouse staff and into the hands of a professional banquet staff.

You many have to book the venue as early as a year in advance. Schedule events on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday. Mondays and Fridays are generally bad days to have an event because lots of people are elsewhere on those days.

Eight to ten months prior to a big trade show, sketch out the event's schedule and coordinate with manufacturers, enlisting their support and cooperation. Get your vendors involved in the theme.

More than clever themes, though, education is a powerful event draw. Many distributors say the most reliable way to bring in customers is to combine technical seminars with a trade show.

Seminars are extremely powerful for getting people to spend time at your event and giving them a strong sense of time well spent. Many customers will send people to a training seminar when they wouldn't as readily send them to a party. Seminars make your customers more knowledgeable about your products, lets you show off the best new stuff and enhances your stature as a an electrical distributor.

Consider charging a fee for a seminar. It may further enhance the perceived value, and you can give the money back in a credit if the customer later buys products.

Use a mix of hired speakers and experts, manufacturer technical aces and your own specialists to combine breadth, depth and personal contact. Knowledge really is the most important thing you sell.

Promoting Your Event

Fire up the marketing engines and put the word on the streets once the decisions regarding location, date, theme, structure and tracking mechanisms are made.

Fliers and other direct-mail promotions are clearly good ideas, but don't stop there. Think about invoice stuffers, music-on-hold messages, customer newsletters, and word of-mouth from delivery drivers and salespeople.

Some customers may be willing to put up promotional posters, especially if the show includes training seminars they want their people to attend. Use any device you can think of to keep the event fresh in the minds of customers.

Giveaways — such as Harleys or vacations — are a big draw. Promote giveaways in your marketing pieces.

Measuring an Event's Success

Give some thought up front to how you're going to gauge success when the table skirts are packed away. What you measure will depend on the type of event.

A counter event's success tends to focus on month-to-month and same-month-last-year sales figures for a particular product.

A trade show's success is often measured in terms of attendance, floor sales, seminar registrations, feedback forms and sales to individual registrants. Prepare for those measurements ahead of time.

Consider giving attendees coupons redeemable later for a discount on merchandise at the counter. This is one way to encourage bubble customers to give your company a try, plus tracking coupons will help you gauge an event's success.

Event registration is another step toward gauging success. Consider offering online registration through your Web site. Having the customer enter the data directly reduces the chance of registration errors and creates an instant database that will be useful after the show for tracking attendance and subsequent sales trends.

Put someone in charge of registration to ensure the accuracy is as airtight as possible. It's an important source of contact data for your marketing database, which feeds next year's event planning process.

Once you get the data from the show, wring all the knowledge you can from it. Your marketing team should carve up the marketing data in every way possible to get a clearer picture of the benefits of the show. Look for trends and indicators.

Take this data and begin planning next year's events while the memory of the show is fresh in everyone's mind. Look for new ways to leverage technology and knowledge to make your contacts with customers more effective.