Success by association
You can’t have too many friends in high places, says Steve Napieralski, president at Oz Lifting. But you have to choose your memberships carefully, he warns.
Most people are familiar with trade shows: the large convention centres, happy hours for mingling, and many hours exchanging handshakes (now elbow bumps) and business cards, but others are not aware of how they differ or relate to associations. While they can be one-and-the-same at times, associations can provide more for your business than simply booth space at a trade show.
With over 30 years of experience belonging to and participating in associations, I’ve learned lessons on how to approach and utilise memberships that enable me to make connections I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to make. They provide a unique platform for my business to connect with our end users. My hope is these experiences provide you with a perspective on how to approach association membership in 2021 and beyond.
A little luck and wire rope
In 1992, I first participated in Associated Wire Rope Fabricators (AWRF) as a sales manager for a manufacturing company that sold lifting equipment. While working for the manufacturer, I went to just about every bi-annual meeting AWRF held. In 1995, I started a manufacturer’s representative business, and I eventually joined the association as a sponsor. It seemed that whatever I did, AWRF was a big part of it. As is the case for many people who have found success belonging to associations, networking has been the major reason for joining and then renewing membership each year. Meetings give members a chance to spend a number of days connecting with others in the industry, which is quality face time you can’t achieve on the road.
By the time I started my current business, Oz Lifting, in 2004, I felt very much a part of the AWRF community. It’s true that introductions become customers and those clients become pals. If you’re lucky, some of them turn into lifelong friends too.
Find the right fit and commit
When it comes to associations, quality is definitely more important than quantity. It takes a lot of time and money to engage with this activity meaningfully, and you have to approach associations not as an instant return on your investment but rather a long-term partnership. With that said, we have gone to shows to test the waters and found out that they weren’t for us. That’s ok as well. However, once you find a market that uses your equipment, you have to commit to it and participate in their future activities. Sometimes people only remember you when your paths cross for the second or third time.
In addition to our membership of AWRF, we also belong to Water Environment Federation (WEF), National Safety Council, National Federation of Independent Business, MHI (formerly Material Handling Industry of America), and the Winona Area Chamber of Commerce – a local association near Oz Lifting’s headquarters.
We recently joined the Web Sling & Tie Down Association (WSTDA), a technical organisation dedicated to the safe operation of all synthetic web slings and tie downs, and we felt very welcomed by its community.
More than a booth
Trade associations very often expand their meetings to include co-located activity, such as breakout sessions and exhibitions. These expos come in various shapes, sizes, types and durations. AWRF stages a Product Information Exhibition (PIE) every 18 months, which is effectively a tabletop-style fair, while MHI sponsors the larger ProMat and MODEX exhibitions that are held concurrently each spring in Chicago and Atlanta respectively.
It’s helpful to have a barometer by which to measure the likely success of participating in an event. Trade associations provide authenticity. Their expos might still be a major driver of revenue, but they’re constantly under pressure to deliver member value and that is effectively demonstrated in aisles full of useful connections and potential customers. Truth is, there is nothing like having a conversation with the people who use, or might use, your products or solutions. If you’re clever and actually listen to them, you can learn a lot from that interaction. Sometimes I hear trade shows unfairly criticised. It is organisers’ responsibility to present the opportunities but participants have got to take them. In other words, put your problem solving hat on, and don’t be afraid to be creative.
Customise for your niche
There are also lessons to learn from our participation in WEF—more specifically its Technical Exhibition and Conference (or WEFTEC). The event focusses on the wastewater industry where our davit cranes, for example, are used for pulling submersible pumps and mixers. Our stainless steel line of hoists, trolleys, and clamps are ideal for the corrosive environment found in this industry.
It’s an important point to stress that while trade associations and their events are a great tool to penetrate end user markets, it’s key that you apply your solutions to the audience in attendance. Sometimes you need to have different booth configurations and products based upon the market and the audience. Failure to do so would be a waste of money; exhibiting anywhere isn’t cheap. AWRF promotes interests common among companies manufacturing, fabricating, or distributing lifting, rigging and load securement devices made of chain, rope, and synthetic products, whereas WEFTEC attendees are a combination of water quality professionals and thought leaders.
Often, trade associations present a niche within a niche too. In 2019, we debuted at WEFTEC in Chicago, where we showcased not our entire catalogue, but a new Tele-Pro davit crane. This specific davit crane allows users to leverage the benefits of other lifting technologies in its range while telescoping the boom in and out under load. Our range of davit cranes, including the CompOZite and CompOZite Elite Carbon Fiber (Fibre) models were highlighted, but our focus was on the material handling needs of a delegation involved specifically with water and wastewater management.
As I stated earlier, the number of associations you belong to is less important than the quality of those memberships. Equally, exhibiting at as many shows as possible is only going to deplete your budget. In some markets, it’s possible to attend a different event or meeting every week, but that just isn’t practical. Pick your memberships carefully and challenge them to provide access to existing or prospective customers. Gravitate towards meaningful debate and standards-making. For example, the WSTDA is very active in writing recommended standards that relate to synthetic web slings and tie downs, which aligns with our ongoing efforts to contribute to continued improvement of industry best practices.
Trade associations and their events are not our only route to market, but it’s definitely a key one, which is why we’ve been happy to continue to support these groups during the pandemic. It has been challenging for everyone to see postponed and cancelled events, but I’m hopeful that many, like those referenced above, will be back – hopefully as early as later this year. I can’t wait to get back to face-to-face engagement- and hopefully back to handshakes in the near future!