“Why attend the HARDI conference in Hawaii?” was the straightforward question I recently asked longtime supplier member Richard “Dick” Foster, president of Elmwood Park, NJ-based ZONEFIRST.
Foster paused for a few seconds, and I wondered whether he thought I was asking an obvious, if somewhat dumb, question. You almost got the feeling that Foster was going to say, “You have to ask?”
The reason, of course, is that from a narrower perspective this year, the conference is in Hawaii, which implies more travel time and greater expense. And in the broader picture, do conferences or any trade shows still matter?
Foster pointed to the recent past before turning to the future. He recounted his memory of the most recent conference in Houston with its information-and power-packed speakers (Jeffry Gitomer, Michael Marks and economist Jeff Dietrich) that should serve as a springboard for what to expect at the Hawaii venue. “I was blown away by the quality of speakers, one after another, and it actually became information overload in a good way,” Foster says of the Houston conference. He expects the same in Hawaii.
Indeed, he puts it in basic terms. There is simply no conference that is as relevant to wholesalers and manufacturers and that has as much depth as the HARDI conference. “How can you not take advantage of it?” Foster asks.
But Foster also looks at the subject of attending conferences from a broader perspective. He recalls attending his first ACCA meeting in northern New Jersey in 1974. He met a manufacturer's rep and asked him why he attended because the topic was obscure and not particularly relevant to his business. The rep told him that he was there for several reasons. The first was “because my customers are here.” He also noted that it was the ideal venue to network (before the word became so commonplace) with attendees who would spill over into the hallways, bars and restaurants afterward. Foster acknowledges that conferences and trade shows, with the HARDI venue topping the list, have always been a pillar of his own marketing.
“Sometimes I talk to wholesalers who don't attend the HARDI conference, and I try to explain what they're missing,” says Foster. “Some businesspeople get so involved in running their business that they never get out to see what the rest of the world is doing.” Foster also emphasizes that he's never met a wholesaler who was unwilling to share business practices in his region, unless there was a direct competitor in the vicinity.
But for Foster, the whipped cream that lies atop the planned events are the spontaneous meetings that occur. He recalled taking a client out to dinner at a Boston restaurant while attending a trade show. They bumped into several more HVACR attendees and ended up commandeering several tables and exchanging ideas and general conversation throughout the evening. “How can you possibly plan for this?” Foster asks. “You have to be there for it to happen.”
Some suggest the lifespan of conferences is diminishing, with the Internet as an undeniable threat, he says. But he is a fierce defender of the effectiveness of face-to-face contact, which you cannot duplicate on the Internet. For Foster, the spontaneity factor, and taking advantage of it, trumps the convenience and ease of the Internet.
Foster does offer a suggestion that he feels would improve the attendance at HARDI's conference, which has hit high numbers in recent years. He urges wholesaler members to increase the number of staff they send. “It's fine for the top person to attend, but what about the territory managers or people who will have executive roles in the future?” he asks. “They'll have the opportunity to work, learn and unwind in paradise.”
When asked why his competitors attend the HARDI conference, the irrepressible Foster says: “Because I'm there.”
Tom Pericˊ is the editor of HVACR Distribution Business. Contact him at 856/874-0049 or [email protected].