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2023 HTSA Spring Conference – Success Through Tech and Relationships

The buying group’s annual spring event brings members and vendor partners together for networking and education.

Last week, the HTSA held its annual Spring Conference for members to network with one another and HTSA vendor companies, sit in on educational conferences, and get a snapshot of the current state of the industry — and predict where it will be heading in the near future.

HTSA Spring Conference 2023

According to HTSA executive director Jon Robbins, that future is looking pretty good. “For 2022, we finished the year in total purchases up 18.9 percent versus 2021,” he says. “Thus far, we are up 10.1 percent over January 2022. February was off 8.9 percent versus prior year, but then March came back up 6 percent. We don’t have all the numbers back yet for April, but all indications are that it will be similar to the growth we experienced in March.”

HTSA members echo Robbins’ optimism. According to the groups’ “Crystal Ball” inquiries, where members predict how their businesses will fare throughout the year (and which in previous years matched up exactly to the companies’ actual overall performance), more than half felt that their companies would grow in 2023.

  • 8 percent predicted a significant increase
  • 45 percent predicted that business will be up
  • 43 percent predicted their business will be the same as it was in 2022
  • 3 percent predicted that business will be down compared to 2022
  • 1 percent predicted that business will be significantly down over 2022

Optimistic indeed, but what about the housing market and the threat it implies to custom installation businesses?

“It sounds like the housing market is not as soft as people thought it was going to be,” says Robbins, before making a bolder prediction. “Believe it or not, the next 10 years are going to explode. There’s going to be an abundance of housing stocks. We are short-housed as a country and people are working, so they have the ability to buy houses.”

HTSA Spring Conference 2023 - Jon Conference
HTSA executive director Jon Robbins

The Growth of Lighting and Power

In February, HTSA produced its second annual Lightapalooza — a lighting event tailored especially for custom integrators — which was a huge success with around 750 attendees.

“It was good for good for custom installers and its vendors,” says Robbins. “I think it was the most newsworthy event our industry has had over the past year.”

As early proponents of lighting as a category that custom installers should offer, HTSA is aware of the need for information and education in order for it to become accepted throughout the industry, which is why it created Lightapalooza for the entire industry, and not just HTSA members.

“We were concerned about lighting because we know the ramp-up is not quick,” says Robbins. “It has a learning curve. If you want to do lighting right, you must get educated first. We have the resources to make that happen. You can’t just create a lighting lab because you hear that lighting is getting people into projects earlier — which is exactly what’s happening for members who are fully in that space.”

So, after more than five years of HTSA promoting lighting to its members and the industry, is it finally having its moment? “It’s been building and it has incrementally accrued an audience,” says Tom Doherty, director of technology initiatives for HTSA and the major force behind Lightapalooza. “Plus, more and more manufacturers now recognize the opportunity that this channel offers, and the reps that traditionally do AV are waking up and understanding that they better not miss this train.

“I now have a number of members who have a lighting designer on staff,” continues Doherty. “That person’s only job is to help support the company’s desire to offer lighting fixtures to a client. In fact, just a couple weeks ago, one of our members who has a lighting designer has run out of capacity and has hired a second one!”

Related: HTSA Leads With Light

With lighting underway, Doherty sees the next logical step for dealers is to include power services for their clients. “I see power becoming an eventuality,” he says. “I see more and more integrators wanting to understand batteries. Sonnen and RoseWater are early to the game, but I think Lightapalooza can have a segment of the show that focuses on power. Because more and more of our dealers have electrical contracting capability in-house, and so it makes a lot of sense — and provides a big convenience for the builder, architect, or client. The integrator can do it all.”

Doherty is also keeping his eye on AI and learning as much about it as he can to see where it can help members in their businesses. “I used ChatGPT to write a lot of the descriptions for my Lightapalooza courses and generate questions for my panelists — at least, I used it as a draft and then edited it. This is not an inflection point — this is a nuclear fission reaction point that’s happening, and it’s like nothing ever before.

“I gave a presentation on it here at the Spring Conference to members, and I asked it to write a thank you note to a client for allowing me to complete their project, and it did it well. I also asked it to recommend the correct gauge of low-voltage wire for a 24-volt system that was 100 feet long, and it provided the right answer. The audience was amazed.”

People Person

As important as technology is to an integration business, it is only part of the picture, with people — both staff and clients — taking up another large piece. That’s where Keith Esterly, HTSA’s chief learning architect, comes in. In addition to hosting several panels at the Spring Conference, he also is a road warrior, taking customized seminars directly to members’ businesses throughout the year.

HTSA Spring Conference 2023 - VendorFest
VendorFest at the 2023 HTSA Spring Conference.

The most common problem Esterly has seen in his travels are businesses that don’t know exactly what they want to be. “In a lot of cases, the companies themselves haven’t staked out what they’re all about,” he says. “They want to get better with their clients, but first they need to decide who they are — what clients they’re all about, how they service them, and, most important, why they do this.

“The whole paradigm of our industry is going to start to change. If you know your why, then the how doesn’t matter, and the what certainly doesn’t.”

Esterly also warns against getting too caught up in the technology, even though it is the part that many dealers enjoy the most. “Another thing that most dealers struggle with is that they get too involved in product and price too soon,” he says. “At the end of the day, every client is going to buy some product and they’re going to pay a price. I think, as an industry, we need to focus not on what the clients think they need to buy, but what they know they want to experience. When you talk about that, you’re talking about a certainty. When you talk about brands and product and gear, it’s all vague and uncertain and guesswork.”

Being ‘The Guy’

Overall, it is about the technology and the service working together to please clients and to bring dealers the success they deserve.

“We want to be their tech person, and we want them to tell their friends, ‘I got a guy,’” concludes Robbins. “And so we’re working all angles. We’re working technology, which is Tom’s baby, and we’re working relationships with Keith, talking to our members about all these things at the same time.”

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