There was a moment during CEDIA’s Business Xchange in San Antonio when I completely understood the value of attending such an event. It was during the final gathering on the closing night of the conference.
Idea Xchange in action
Before you start thinking that I’m making a joke, (Question: “What’s the best part of CEDIA Xchange?” Answer: “The end.”) what I mean is, that’s when I finally felt the full power of industry camaraderie sinking in. We had spent the previous two days together attending seminar classes, group discussions, dinners, and bonding events, but it was on the final night, at an extremely entertaining new driving range facility called Top Golf, where it all coalesced for me.
What I realized was that, sure, the paid presenters are important headliners for the event, but they’re really just the bold print lost leaders to a much more valuable feature of Xchange. The real value comes from the one-on-one or small-group networking time (branded “Idea Xchange” at CEDIA’s annual business conference) and after-hours social events. That’s when you catch a little winning tidbit from a colleague, an idea for an article (for me), or make a new friend with whom you can share best practices throughout the year.
Buddy Hughes pontificates
During the opening night dinner and River Walk boat tour last Wednesday evening I chatted with old pal Ron Wanless, owner of Technology Design Associates, in Bend, OR, and noticed him checking his phone. When I asked Wanless if everything was OK, he told me, with a sparkle in his eye, that a new plug-in on his company website texted him and his in-office service tech whenever a visitor stayed on the website for more than 30 seconds. A pop-up window would ask the visitor if he or she needed assistance, and Wanless or his service tech could respond through a live chat. While we noshed on sliders and chips and salsa, Wanless told me that his new live chat tool already had led to six conversations with potential clients and three actual projects, just in the first three weeks.
That was just one very specific gem that I picked up, and that was only on the opening night and there were many more to come.
For CEDIA, it was a bold move, three years ago, adding a business conference to the already-crowded landscape of buying group meetings and trade shows. CEDIA leadership (CEO Vin Bruno, in particular), association staff, its volunteers, and manufacturer sponsors truly believe that Xchange needs to exist on the industry calendar. Despite the great benefits that buying groups provide, those are membership-only events, and in many ways, cater to driving sales to their member manufacturers, rather than strictly for business education purposes. CEDIA Xchange has sponsors, and they’re given a little time to pitch their wares, but that event’s primary focus is on business education and peer-to-peer networking.
Rochelle Carrington in discussion
Day one of Xchange featured an “I Am CEDIA” presentation from Buddy Hughes, owner of Crown Audio Video, a Texas integration firm that learned the hard way about bad website design. Hughes began his career working at Circuit City, and it took a few years to realize that he should no longer try to sell everything to everyone, and that custom integration meant building relationships with a one or two key vendors in each category.
“Building relationships with vendors was just as important as relationships with clients,” he said.
Hughes emphasized the importance of personalizing his website using photos of his team and actual project pictures, rather than “stock” images. Many of his clients, he said, have mentioned basing part of their decision to hire his company on the quality of his company’s work in those photos. Because of his company’s more focused approach and greatly improved website SEO, it has gone from a quarter-million-dollar company three years ago to $3-4 million one now.
Xchange-goers fervently brew custom BBQ sauce
The bold-print presentation of the day was a three-hour session led by Sandler Training’s Rochelle Carrington, called “Using the Sales ‘Force’: Jedi Mind Tricks for Master Every Sale.” The key message of the discussion was about how our emotional responses to events in the first six years of our lives continues to affect our decision making as adults. People, she said, “buy emotionally” but “make decisions intellectually.” In other words, we buy because of the way something makes us feel, but have to justify it to ourselves later. So, if you can help a customer reach an emotional state about what they’re looking to buy, then they will often pay more for your services.
Essentially, it’s best to engage what’s called the “natural child” in a customer when selling. It is a mistake to engage “the adult” via tech talk too early in the conversation. Save that “information presentation” until later. Instead, engage the natural child by asking emotion-related questions such as, “When you walk in this room, how do want feel?”
At the CEDIA Business Xchange Barbecue (left to right): Peter Aylett, Dennis Erskine, Jeremy Glowacki, Ron Wanless, Patrick Hartman
The end of day one was another highlight of the trip. As a bonding activity, the conference was divided up into several groups of eight or nine, and we were asked to compete in a barbecue sauce-making contest. Each group was given a gas burner, a sauté pan, key ingredients, and a stack of play money to use for auction items that could handicap an opponent. It was no secret that we had a trained chef in our group, so we were immediately sabotaged when our normal-sized pan was replaced with an auctioned-off “cooking utensil” that was hardly big enough to fry an egg. Another group had to cook with Spaghetti O’s, another with canned oysters. Yet another had to complete its assignment while tied together. The event showcased the creativity of our industry (groups were judged as much on cooking as their presentation) and I loved it because my team won. Our sauce tasted OK, but what really convinced the judges to give us the top prize, I believe, was that we created a Twitter handle for our sauce (@TinyTXBBQ) and falsely claimed that liking our sauce would earn you three CEUs from CEDIA.
Day two featured another compelling “I Am CEDIA” presentation from Amanda Wildman, co-owner of TruMedia in Michigan. She told us about how she and her husband have evolved their company from a DISH TV installation firm to a fully realized integration business. Wildman said that her clients were always more comfortable with her company because the price point of satellite services was less intimidating, and allowed them to earn their clients’ trust through the quality of their work and the product that they installed. TruMedia started its CI business modestly with builders in the $350,000 custom home range, but have found that high-end builders of $1-2 million homes are showing more interest as they struggle to compete with tech offerings by mid-market competitors.
The remainder of the morning session focused on lead generation expert Jason Falls, who discussed branding, web design, and company vision, before the room split off into a second round of Idea Xchange groups—curated discussions on various industry topics.
That’s when the rubber met the road for most attendees. Industry events are most valuable when integrators, vendors, and reps can openly discuss business, tech trends, and challenges in small groups, sharing best practices and theories. I moderated a session on working with Millennial employees and clients, and was pleased at the thoughtful suggestions and real-life experiences that came out of our three half-hour group chats.
Teeing off at Top Golf
The conference wrapped up with the aforementioned closing event at Top Golf, where the most competitive game of adult-sized Jenga led off the night, followed by a buffet of bar food, complimentary beer and wine, and laid back “teeing off.” That’s when it really hit me—at this low-key shared activity, away from the hotel ballroom, out in the cool night air, chatting with old friends, making new acquaintances, and sharing a our common experiences and interests—that we were all part of a community and not just “doing a job.” As a natural introvert, it takes me a while to warm up to a new place, so maybe that’s why, at the end of day two, I was finally feeling comfortable. But I think it’s more than that. I think that all of us were feeling the same way. It was a bonding moment. #IAmCEDIA.