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Under the Big Top

OK, so maybe it wasn’t as cool as the original Lollapalooza, but AVAD’s Vend-o-Palooza, in its second year, was a lively and worthwhile event for 250 attendees and the manufacturers who were invited to participate in the Van Nuys, California, stop of the national tour of 20 of the value-added distributor’s local branches.

Having missed the table-top “trade show in a tent” last year, I jumped on my invitation to fly out to the LA area last month for a first-hand perspective of 35 exhibits, four business training workshops, and vendor raffles (including a grand-prize AVAD custom-painted Schecter electric guitar).

I came a long way to see the action in Van Nuys, so after saying hello to my host, AVAD cofounder Wally Whinna, I went inside the tent and hit the ground running.

Most refreshing to me was the combination of laid-back attitude and upbeat enthusiasm from the 15 or so manufacturers with whom I spoke. It probably didn’t hurt that we were basically outdoors on a relatively warm southern California early spring day, or that those folks with whom I spoke hadn’t been awake all night before building a trade show booth from the ground up.

My first stop inside the tent was Middle Atlantic Products, whose western regional team member, Whitt Adams, said that he found value in the AVAD event because he not only meets brand-new dealers but “top guys” as well. Adams noted that he often learns about installation challenges that his company may not have encountered. “You learn more from them than what you teach them,” he said.

At the midway point of my six-hour visit, I attended Bob Smith’s popular “Law & Mortar” workshop on the legal pitfalls and rewards of running a custom installation business. Smith, a former Panamax employee,

licensed general contractor, and former litigation attorney who now serves as dean of AVAD University, offered advice to a roomful of attendees on what any contract with a builder or homeowner should contain.

After Smith’s session and a meaty lunch back outside in the SoCal sunshine, I met with one of AVAD’s newest members, Martin Logan. During my conversation with national accounts sales manager, Allan Tarrant, I learned more about the company’s Helos in-ceiling speakers, which, he said, Vend-o-Palooza attendees were surprised to learn had been around since 2004. Tarrant said that AVAD is helping the manufacturer supplement sales lost by the demise of certain retail partners and to draw attention to products like the Helos, which are more custom- friendly than its artfully designed electrostatic speakers.

What I realized as I wrapped up my day was that my old impression of “distribution” had changed completely after one day in the sun. Although tough times indeed make interesting bedfellows, I think that the custom install channel and the role of distributors have been evolving for a long time. Martin Logan’s Tarrant said it best when he explained that although the company is counting on AVAD to boost its numbers, the manufacturer won’t completely relinquish control of its dealer base by turning to distribution. It will only offer select lines through AVAD, and the manufacturer still must approve all dealers. “We don’t want to disrupt our current dealer territories,” he said.

After that intriguing note, I picked up my much-coveted Vend-o-Palooza shirt, bringing this thought to mind, “I was there, man! Van Nuys 2009!”