In the early days of my pool career, I worked for a builder here in Michigan. From the start, I constantly wanted to learn more. I pored over the magazines that came through the office, devoured the few books I could find on the subject and constantly bugged my boss about going to the trade shows.
However, he was more interested in keeping the status quo than expanding his horizons, and the pool shows were just not on his radar.
It's not that he didn't learn about new products. He relied on sales reps to chat him up about the latest pump or gadget, and if it looked like something that could make his life easier without having to adapt the way he did things, he would use it.
Meanwhile, I was always curious about products of all kinds. I wanted to be ahead of the curve and find new solutions to the challenges we faced in the field every day.
Several years later, after buying the company, we were struggling week to week just to keep our heads above water. At one point we owed a vendor a couple thousand dollars, and the rep came into the office to collect. I had to tell him that he'd have to wait a few more weeks because we were spending what little money we had to attend the pool show.
He was not happy. He couldn't see past the dollar signs and realize that by attending the trade show, we were investing in the company and committed to growth — which would mean a bigger account for him, too, if he could stick with us.
His reaction was a revelation for me. I realized he didn't have what it would take to grow with us. We paid him off, but did very little business with him after that.
Not going to trade shows is the same kind of shortsighted mistake that rep made. In my years in the business I've found three specific reasons to keep attending trade shows, even when money is tight or business is crazy busy.
Reason #1: The Products
When we attended that trade show — despite the lean circumstances we were in — I found myself blown away by the array of new stuff I saw. There was so much my sales reps had never showed me and so many things I never dreamed existed. The immersion in new products and technology was intense. It was a huge investment in my own knowledge base and worth the cost for that reason alone.
At another show, years later, I came across a product that beautifully solved an ongoing problem we were having with our concrete slides. This was early on in our work creating vinyl/gunite hybrid pools, and we didn't have a good solution for a finishing treatment.
We met a vendor that offered round penny tiles to surface a concrete slide. This tile was the perfect solution, and discovering them at the show was a huge wow moment for me. Once we got home, I took my crew back to six or seven previous jobs, stripped down the slides and resurfaced them with the penny tiles. The customers were thrilled with the result, and we were able to up our game and be ready for the next project.
Without speaking to this vendor face to face at the show, I never would have hit upon this particular solution. Industry shows give us the time to explore the off-book ideas or the "let's try this" moments that lead to breakthroughs.
Reason #2: The Relationships
In this industry, we walk that fine line between searching for the best price and getting the best-perceived value. For me, it's important to build a supply chain I can rely on so I can innovate and build with confidence.
One vendor we'd worked with for years was Kafko Pool Products. We started using Kafko liners through a local supplier and loved the product. When our supplier closed we went direct to Kafko for our needs, building a good relationship with the folks in the manufacturing division.
When Latham came along and bought up the Kafko line, we were concerned that we'd be too small a fish for them to pay much attention to us. We needed this product; it was a crucial part of our supply chain.
By getting to know the Latham execs at industry events, we were able to get them excited about what we were doing and create a solid relationship with them both on a business and a personal level.
Reason #3: The Hidden Solutions
Every once in a while you learn something at a show that completely changes the way you approach your work.
At one event I heard a presenter speaking about working with glass tile. He spoke about the science behind color theory, and my head started going a mile a minute. His ideas tapped into everything I had learned about art and design in school and gave me an exact answer to all my questions about why color works the way it does. It has dramatically changed the way I approach color in my projects, and there's no way I would be this successful without that knowledge.
I talk to a lot of pool guys in my area who never go to the shows and see no reason to do so. And I hear those same folks grumbling that there's not enough business or too much competition in the industry.
To them I say, "get out there." Educate yourself, build relationships, get inspired.
It not only helps your own business, it also raises the entire industry to the next level. Instead of being wary of our competition, let's work toward raising all of us up to the next level.
See you at the show!