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Posts Tagged ‘custom houses’

If You Only Have a Hammer . . . : Word on the Street — April 20th thru April 25th

April 27th, 2014 COMMENTS
Kevin Carty, VP Classic Exhibits

Kevin Carty, VP Classic Exhibits

If you only have a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.

— Abraham Maslow

Pointing your finger is almost a rite of passage in sales. It’s always the “other guy” who has a limited set of tools or your competitor who doesn’t listen to the client. Unlike the “other guy,” you would never guide your client toward a product or solution that “just so happens” to fit your product assortment.

Or would you? We are all a little guilty of steering customers toward products where we feel more comfortable or where the margins are better. In the exhibit industry, there’s some history to this. Twenty years ago, not only was there a significant split between those who sold portables and those who sold custom, but there were even finer divisions among the portable and custom folks. Some sold primarily panel systems. Others pop ups. Some custom houses would only work with Fortune 500 companies. Others concentrated on environments and museums. And then there was the perceived pecking order with its own set of problems . . . One of which was the creating of a perceived “class” division within the industry.

Just a few years ago, there was a very divisive line between those distributors who sold online and those who sold face-to-face. You couldn’t go to an industry meeting without hearing accusations about the bathrobe wearing Internet jockeys destroying our industry. Who can blame them. They were scared. I understand that, but in hindsight, there were far too many Luddites who needed to walk away from their looms and embrace technology.

The Shifting Playing Field

Economic hard times have a way of shifting the playing field and opinions. During the Great Recession, Classic Exhibits saw a surge of custom houses knocking on our doors for affordable inline and island solutions. We were delighted. We had been knocking on those doors for many years, and although we enjoyed modest success, our success skyrocketed post-2008 (there’s something to be said for being the pursued rather than the pursuer). Post-recession, the smarter custom houses have recognized the value of having a full toolbox when working with their clients. And, to be fair, that’s most of them. It’s clear we are sitting at the same table these days when it comes to meeting the needs of the corporate exhibitor.

042314 20x20 View 3Along the same lines, the portable/modular distributors went two directions. Who can blame them for heading downstream and promoting $99 banner stands and $799 pop ups? Customer’s were demanding inexpensive displays, even if they knew those displays were not ideal or would not last. But, what was surprising and perhaps shouldn’t have been, was that the portable/modular distributors also headed upstream. Many distributors recognized that custom exhibitors were being ignored by their custom house when it came to budget-friendly displays. Many exhibitors were unable to purchase another $150,000 exhibit, but they could convince their CMO to spend $65,000. Those same portable/modular distributors have since added design, storage, and exhibit management services to their arsenal.

So what does that mean? There’s some blurring right now between what it means to be portable/modular and custom. That’s not to say that anyone is confusing a $300 million dollar custom house with a $6 million dollar distributor. No one is that naive. But, what is true, now more than ever, is that the $300 million dollar custom house can’t neglect their clients who want to add inline hybrid displays to their exhibit inventory. And, it’s no longer unusual to see a traditional portable/modular distributor win large island orders ranging from $50,000 to $225,000.

Design and Capabilities Always Win

In the end, design and capabilities win business. Whether that design or those storage services are handled in-house or through leveraged partnership relationships. Custom Houses with in-house design are winning more “budget” conscience opportunities by having their manufacturing partners build smaller footprint exhibits. And portable/modular distributors, leveraging design and services provided by system partners, are winning larger budget island opportunities.

Yes, some lines are blurred. But not the idea that great design, account management, and customer service wins business. I personally like the growth and diversity the Great Recession created in our industry.

Do you agree? How did the Great Recession change your business?

Be well.



Calling all Distributors to EDPA ACCESS 2012: Word on the Street — August 6th thru August 10th

August 12th, 2012 COMMENTS
EDPA Access 2012

Word on the Street by Kevin Carty


It may seem early to chat about an event that is not slated until late November, but I would challenge you that it is not. Particularly for Classic Distributors.

As you have probably gathered over the years, I am a passionate advocate for EDPA (for what it represents and for what it has accomplished for our beloved industry). ACCESS is a huge part of why I am so passionate about the association.

This year will be NO different. As a member of the Board of Directors, I take pride in ACCESS and how it represents our industry. The association has shown positive growth, and education is a big reason for that growth.

Years ago, EDPA was perceived as an association for custom houses, system manufacturers, and service providers. And years ago, that may have been somewhat true. But not anymore. That I can promise you, without hesitation. EDPA and ACCESS are for distributors. It’s a place where you can sit side-by-side with representatives from all facets of the industry. A place to focus and shape how we work toward the common good of our common customers. A place to forge new partnerships and deepen existing ones. All without the distractions of a larger show experience.

Many of you have shared your frustrations, feeling that you not have a voice within the industry. EDPA is your opportunity to have that voice and to shape how the industry evolves. ACCESS is not EXHIBITOR. The show floor is limited. There’s no CTSM education tracks, and no end-users. Just education sessions on design trends and business, roundtables discussions, and social events with your peers. It’s casual and meaningful, where one conversation can change your perspective on how you conduct your business.

This year, your participation is critical. The Distributor/Dealers who attend ACCESS will help create a future track within the conference tailored to your needs and wants. So this year make the decision to put it on your calendar. Don’t wait. You will not be disappointed.

If you have any questions, please feel free to call and ask me about ACCESS.  I’ll share my experiences.

Have a great week ahead. Be well.

–Kevin Carty


Registration For EDPA ACCESS 2012 Is Now OPEN! Introducing Early, Early-Bird Incentives: Save On Your Hotel Today!

EDPA is proud to announce that the 58th Annual Conference & Showcase is now open for registration at our special early, early-bird rates. Join us November 28 – 30 at the Renaissance Esmeralda in Palm Springs, CA for three days of learning, networking and growth.

For many, EDPA’s ACCESS conference is a must-attend. So why not register early?

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This year’s theme of ‘Connect & Create’ could not be more important. Business is rebounding and there’s no better time to get together with your fellow industry leaders to exchange ideas and walk away energized and inspired for the year ahead.

Sign-up today and lock in the lowest rates of the year (a $300 savings total) and save on your room nights!

Register Now!

For more information, contact:

Melissa Nemitz, Member Services Coordinator

p: 203-899-8491 | e:

Open Letter to Custom Houses: Word on the Street — Feb 6th thru Feb. 10th

February 12th, 2012 1 COMMENT
Open Letter to Custom Houses

Word on the Street by Kevin Carty

An Open Letter to Custom Houses

This week, I want to address a particular group: Custom Houses.

Classic Exhibits has been in business since 1993. Over those years, Custom Houses have been some of our best customers, not only for Classic Exhibits, but also for ClassicMODUL and Classic Rentals. For that we are very thankful. But I have a question for this group — How do you view “system sales” and manufacturing as we roll into 2012? Whether it’s simple systems like a pop-up, modular systems like the Euro LT Laminate, or more complex systems like custom hybrids?

I had a conversation this past week with someone whom I respect not just professionally but personally. He owns a well-respected custom house on the East Coast, and I feel fortunate to call him a friend.

We were talking about adding a new employee to his organization. This person would be responsible for handling system sales for their existing accounts as well as regional outreach to new sales. In the course of our call, we chatted about the current impression of “systems” with his AE’s as well as within other custom houses in his area. His comments were both refreshing . . .  as well as bewildering.

As the owner, he was interested in adding someone to lead systems sales in his company. His reasons? First, he views 10×10, 10×20, and 20×20 sales as foundational business, meaning, in his words, “Someday that client will grow with our help and will need a large custom build.” Secondly, because custom AE’s will often take a lead on a smaller exhibit but not pursue it aggressively, he needs someone who would — especially for their in-house clients. Just that week, one of his custom AE’s got three system leads on Monday but hadn’t contacted them by Friday. Thirdly, you never know when one of your in-house clients will go elsewhere for their smaller exhibit needs. The “elsewhere” may be able to handle their larger custom needs as well. Then he loses the client entirely.

I don't get it!

Confused and Bewildered

I’ve been at this for 17 years. During that time, I have grown to appreciate our custom house distributors. Not just for the business they bring to Classic, but also for the challenges they bring us, challenges that force us to think outside the box and grow our manufacturing capabilities. But I have also always questioned the mentality that says a 10×10, 10×20 or small island is not a viable sale for a custom house because “that’s not what we do.” That bewilders me particularly when looking back at the past 36 months.

So, respectfully, I ask why? Why not see the value in smaller sales? For revenue purposes, current client retention, and/or new client development? I know many of you know what I am talking about because you do see systems as valuable. But some of you don’t, so I am curious why?

I’m going to offer some advice, not because I’m smarter than you, but because I’ve worked with more than 100 custom houses over the past 17 years. If you own a custom house, manage a custom house, or simply work for a custom house, AND you care about retaining your customers and you care about selling display solutions, regardless of the size, here’s what I’ve learned from those custom houses that are successful.

Rule #1:

I know this is going to rub some folks the wrong way, but margins are margins. Successful custom houses want to make money and recognize that 40 percent for doing very little such as processing a $9000 portable hybrid is $3600 they didn’t have before. Plus, if they store the exhibit, the money just keeps rolling in. I’ve never fully understood the logic of turning away business if the business doesn’t “turn saws.”

Rule #2:

Closing a sale, whether it’s a custom sale or a portable/modular sale, takes expertise. You have to know what you’re talking about, and you have to engage the client. Successful custom houses designate someone in-house as the “systems expert.” That person either does the selling or serves as the project manager for system sales. They know that the Perfect 10 assembles without tools, and that Aero Table Tops pack in a lightweight shoulder bag. They understand the difference between a Quadro S and a Quadro EO. It’s their job to know and that knowledge makes portable/modular sales painless and profitable.

Those custom houses that expect a custom AE to know about portables . . . and to care about portables . . .  always fail. We’ve seen it time and time again. I can show you example after example where an in-house systems expert leaves and annual sales plummeted from $800,000 to $80,000. Some days I think I could make a living just consulting custom houses on how to make $600,000/year just by hiring a $55,000 sales person.

Rule #3:

Relationships matter with your manufacturer. Many custom houses view portable/modular manufacturers as necessary evils. They don’t respect what we do, and frankly, that attitude is insulting. It’s our job to make your job easier. Truly. We want you to sell our products, which is why we provide you with free design services, project management, and comprehensive marketing tools. When you bounce around from manufacturer to manufacturer, tossing an order to this one or that one, never learning the products or developing a working relationship, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Systems sales become bothersome and hard.

Yet, they aren’t. Those custom houses that work with us all the time tell us that we make their lives easier. We get to know them. They get to know us. The communication shortcuts develop and the work is fun. Over time, they rely on us for rentals, aluminum extrusion, economical custom components, and systems. We become partners.

Rule #4:

We’re not all the same, any more than custom houses are all the same. Each company has a distinct culture as well unique products and designs. You need to find a company that matches your culture and your client’s needs. We hope it’s us . . . but it may not be. We can’t be all things to all people, nor does our style fit all custom houses. That’s OK.

Rule #5:

This isn’t really a rule, but a promise. We work our asses off every day. Our designers are creative, our project managers organized, personable, and smart, our production team inventive and caring, and our administrative staff loyal, knowledgeable, and helpful. We can’t convince every custom house to see us as “partners,” but we can (and do) operate our business as if they are partners. That’s our promise. That’s who we are.

I would love to hear from you whether you agree with me or not. Please share your comments.

Let me leave you with something someone said to me at TS2 in Chicago back in 2009. I asked them how business was and how they were still maintaining sales in the recessionary economy. At the time, they managed one of the largest locations for a National Custom House. The answer, “I woke up one morning after we had lost a few big opportunities to shrinking budgets, looked in the mirror and said ‘I am a systems sales person’. And it was hard, but if we were to maintain sales levels I knew we had to do it.”

Many of the clients they gained during that period now have larger budgets and are buying very large custom programs in the new recovering economy!

Hope you all had a great weekend!

–Kevin Carty