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High Spirits, Optimism Frame New Business Initiatives at HTSA Spring Conference

The four-day event, held at the idyllic Hotel del Coronado in San Diego, CA, celebrated a highly successful 2016 and presented a positive look to the future, invigorated by new connections, initiatives, and ideas.

Jon Robbins, HTSA executive director, kicked off the conference with an affirmative state of the union address.

As he took the stage to deliver his opening address at HTSA Spring Conference, an emotional Jon Robbins paused, trying to fight back tears. Through a rollercoaster of fortune, he had fought his way back to the top—and the gathering of industry leaders embraced him with a powerful standing ovation.

“It’s not about me; it’s about everyone in this room,” he said the following morning, reflecting on his poignant introduction. “My standing ovation is really for you guys. We did this together, and together we’re going to have an even better 2017.”

Such was the spirit of the four-day event, held at the idyllic Hotel del Coronado in San Diego, CA, from March 27-30: celebrating a highly successful 2016—due in no small part to Robbins’ return as an energetic force at the helm of the buying group—and presenting a positive look to the future, invigorated by new connections, initiatives, and ideas.

Starting with a state of the union address, Robbins checked off the group’s 2016 goals, all of which were met or exceeded: increased education, with a successful series of vendor masterclasses; increased communication, highlighted by Robbins’ popular Saturday-morning “Java Notes” email reports; its partnership with the Nationwide Marketing Group, which included better membership business programs; and decrease in complacency, evident in the 125-percent increase in group rewards to members over the year. 

“Jonny’s come back and put in a renewed focus,” said Frank Sterns, VP of AV specialty and CI at Sony. “He’s done a great job, in my opinion, of getting the group to act like a group—getting the group to focus on initiatives, focus on direction, focus on brands—starting to grow the membership again, which is fantastic.” According to Sterns, Sony’s business with the group is up 30 percent for the 2016 financial year.

While last year’s expansion of vendor masterclasses (which the group plans to further this year) was successful in helping dealers become more technically proficient, new initiatives for this year are more focused on the business side of things. Just announced at the conference, and due to start in the summer, is a new program called the EOS Masterclass, a management training program based on the Entrepreneurial Operating System—a popular methodology created by serial entrepreneur and author Gino Wickman.

Introduced in a keynote presentation by author, speaker, and EOS implementer Mike Paton, the program is designed to get business leaders to rethink the way they run their companies, and to improve their ability to execute on their vision. Paton distributed sample workbooks to attendees, then guided them through the EOS formula for setting goals, assessing employee performance, and increasing accountability—steps that will be delved into at a much deeper level during the two-day EOS Masterclass, which HTSA will present to its members in Chicago this June. 

“This is outside-the-box thinking,” Robbins said. “We’ve got all these other initiatives to make them better AV guys and CI guys. Now we’ve got an initiative to make them a better entrepreneur.”

HTSA members and vendors network during the Tuesday night cocktail hour.
Helping members maintain solid business operations is no doubt a personal concern for Robbins, whose company Hifi House collapsed suddenly in 2014, after almost 40 years of operations. For him, though, the new programs aren’t just about shoring up business against downturn; instead, it’s about keeping yourself in a position to succeed. 

“The industry has always found ways of reinventing itself,” Robbins said. “Something is always going to open up, and if we have solid business foundations, we will always be ready for the next great thing.”

Another new business initiative presented at the conference involves the creation of co-branded videos and interactive advertisements to benefit vendors and members alike. Jamie Sasser, director of technology channels at Netsertive, presented how the initiative will foster increased customer engagement that extends beyond web search. Examples include “learn more” tabs on ads that lead to hero images of products, or having a map to the local member’s store pop up when a mobile user taps an ad. HTSA will facilitate production of professional-quality videos and content by Netsertive for vendors that can be adapted to play upon roll-over of web ads, and can be customized with member branding. 

“These ads have three times the level of engagement than regular banner ads have,” Sasser said. “They have 50 percent higher click-through rates, which is the prime measurement of the effectiveness of advertisements.” And Sasser said that the ads will be placed strategically in front of people who might not even be looking for technology, but are part of the target clientele—for example, people looking for yachts or fine wine.

In addition to presentations highlighting the group’s new initiatives, the conference was peppered with numerous discussions aimed at helping members run their companies better. Topics included best practices for taking over projects completed by other companies, and shifting your business from a culture focused on projects to one built around service—an important consideration as the industry transitions to a model of managed services. 

While discussions like these are undoubtedly a tremendous benefit for all who participate, the consensus among members is that the real draw of HTSA gatherings (and the organization in general) is the informal exchanges that occur spontaneously and often, and without reservation. 

“There’s so much knowledge on process and best practices, and what I’ve seen HTSA evolve into is just an idea-sharing organization,” said Joe Barrett, president of Barrett’s Technology Solutions and a member of HTSA for more than 20 years. 

Indeed, this atmosphere of openness is deliberate, and the exchanges that begin at the organized social events often don’t stop when members head back to their different markets around the country. “It’s very strategic,” Robbins said. “There’s very high criteria for becoming an HTSA member. So we evaluate each and every possibility very carefully because the end goal, the most important thing we do, value-prop wise for our members, is the info sharing. The info sharing, and best practices sharing—these guys call each other. It’s not just at these conferences; they feel comfortable sharing and learning more.”

To sum up the HTSA Spring Conference in one word, it would be “optimism.” Against the backdrop of 75-degree, sunny weather on the grounds of the gorgeous del Coronado and the fresh smell of the Pacific surf wafting through the air, all attendees seemed enlivened with new energy, ideas, and tools with which to seize the opportunities that lie ahead. 

Unsurprisingly, Robbins was perhaps the most sanguine of the group. Asked if he expected the same level of growth for his organization in 2017, he replied, “No; I foresee higher growth. Always have to. You always better have a goal of higher growth. It’s hard work. That’s why we’re here.”