by Jim Obermeyer
Time for a bit of a rant: I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the value of relationships in our industry—building and maintaining strong client relationships to build a business. More and more we are faced with responding to RFPs where we never get to meet the actual people involved.
It has become so impersonal. It has become a regurgitation of the same answers to the same questions asked over and over again with no personality and no personal connection. How can we hope to do our very best for a client when we never get to meet them, talk with them and get to know their needs? We’re more likely to be on the same page if we’re in the same room.
These “blind” RFPs completely eliminate the personal investment in the project and in the company and the people involved. They take the relationship right out of the equation.
Business used to be conducted by people. People talking to people. People building strong relationships with people. People building trust in people. Business is now conducted with computers. Computers talking to computers. Computers responding to generic questions asked by other computers.
The people behind them never meet. The people behind them remain anonymous until some computer algorithm decides which computer submitted the best answers to the questions asked by the host computer. To me, this is not fun. Maybe it’s not supposed to be fun. But it used to be…
I think back to some of the business relationships that I was fortunate to develop over the years. Relationships that led to years of doing business together: One of the first was with Mike Altobelli. At the time, he was an account executive at Kitzing, Inc. in Chicago; I was a tradeshow manager at McDonnell Douglas, a large defense contractor in St. Louis. Every time we did a show in Chicago, Mike would come by my booth for a visit. We had an internal exhibit department doing our booth and didn’t need his services. But that didn’t stop him from coming by every show. He would take me to lunch at cool places in Chicago. He would take me by his shop to meet his team and see their work.
Several years later when our company stopped doing exhibits internally, Mike was the first call I made. It made perfect sense; we had built a strong relationship. His company did our work for years after that. (Rest in Peace, Mike)
I met Joe Fugaro when he was in sales at Zenith LaborNet. At the time, my exhibit company had a relationship with another labor supplier. Joe would stop and visit on the show floor whenever he and I were at the same show, and he made trips to our shop to meet our team. As I got to know him and his company and some of his city managers, I started giving him some smaller jobs.
Then the Great Recession hit and money was tight everywhere. While our main labor contractor took a very hard-nosed, impersonal (read: legal) approach to collecting on invoices, Joe and his team worked with us on alternative payment options. It was very obvious to me that they valued the relationship and wanted to make it work for both parties.
The recession passed, we were able to clear our debt with both companies, but because of the way one group of people approached it, they earned 100 percent of my business. It was all about the relationship and the trust.
Lastly, I had a long-standing relationship with one of my clients—I had worked with them for close to ten years when a management change brought in a new marketing executive and tradeshow manager. Time to build new relationships.
I spent a lot of time visiting all of their shows and visiting their headquarters on the West Coast, learning everything I could about their new team. When I went to visit them at their facility to present a new design—in person—the marketing exec invited me to lunch with her team.
It was a beautiful, warm, sunny spring day. I made a comment that this would be a great day to be relaxing at a winery. She looked at me, turned to her team and said: “Clear your afternoon, Jim is doing his design presentation at the winery.” We spent the afternoon evaluating exhibit designs and tasting wonderful Oregon Pinot Noirs. Try that from behind your computer.
In an industry that is becoming more and more focused on the “experience” and the one-on-one engagement between the attendee and the exhibitor, and less and less on the physical architecture of the space, I find it befuddling that the beginning of that process—the selection of the right partner company for the corporate marketer to work with—has become less and less of an experience or one-on-one engagement.
How are we supposed to create that incredible experience for your audience to learn more about your product and your brand when we are not even allowed to meet you in person? When we are reduced to responding to generic questions in a small box on an Excel spreadsheet? When we are given really vague direction and then when asked for clarification and expansion on a theme, we are told this is all we get? How are we going to see things your way if we can’t even see you?
If you want us to provide you with the most creative, inspiring alternatives, the best ideas for experiential, then we need to be able to experience who you are, what your products and brands mean, the culture and voice and tone of your company. And the only way to do that with the best opportunity for incredible success is to do it in person. Face-to-face. With your team. At your facility or at one of your shows. How will we ever see eye-to-eye if we’re never face-to-face?
Certainly not with some computer-generated algorithm for selecting a vendor.
See you—in person—on the show floor.
Jim Obermeyer has been in the tradeshow industry 38 years, both as a corporate tradeshow manager and exhibit house owner. He is currently a vice president at Hamilton Exhibits and can be reached at email@example.com.
This story originally appeared in the January/February issue of Exhibit City News, p. 12. For original layout, visit https://issuu.com/exhibitcitynews/docs/exhibitcitynews_janfeb_2020