Open houses and plant tours serve as viable marketing tools for precasters.
By Bridget McCrea
Bridget McCrea is a freelance writer who has covered manufacturing, industry and technology for more than 11 years.
While schmoozing with suppliers at this year’s NPCA Winter Conference in Orlando, Fla., Greg Ouimette landed on a great new business strategy. “I was talking to a manhole step vendor, and off the cuff he says, ‘Hey, you guys should have an open house,’” says Ouimette, president at Frederick Precast Concrete in Greencastle, Pa. “He said he’d been to a lot of plant open houses, and that they went over really well.”
Ouimette took the comments to heart and decided then that an open house would be a great way to educate his customers and potential customers as to what goes into his products.
Back in Pennsylvania, Ouimette and his management team started planning their first open house for May 2007. With two locations and 100 employees, the precaster first made up an invitation list of representatives from the county and the state agencies that it worked with, as well as contractors and other employees who might benefit from an inside look at the firm’s operations and products.
“It took on a life of its own, and before we knew it we had nearly 300 RSVPs from interested parties,” says Ouimette, who called on other precasters outside of the company’s geographic area for help setting up the event. “I got some pointers on what to do and what not to do.”
The “to do” list included calls to local caterers (to get food and drink on site for the visitors), ordering T-shirts and hats (for goodie bags) and calling vendors to set up a schedule of presentations for the full-day event. The company also set up a staging area for vendor products, which began arriving several weeks in advance.
“We wanted them to just show up, and be able to go right to that area and utilize the items,” says Ouimette, whose team put much time into the administrative aspect of the event. The company’s office manager, for example, handled the invitation and RSVP list. “She hounded our sales force daily, asking them to follow up and see if customers were coming or not.”
On the day of the open house, visitors were given plant tours and shown how Frederick Precast’s products are made. Manhole risers, for example, were set up to look like they were ready for the concrete pour, which meant attendees could look in and see the steel placement, hole formers and other materials. The setup evoked questions, particularly from state and county government agencies. “Any time you can get state highway or county guys talking and asking questions, it’s a good thing,” says Ouimette.
During the planning stages, Ouimette says he and his team put a lot of time into the scheduling aspect of the event so as to avoid too much “down time” for attendees. Seminar timing was critical, for example, as was the notification process for letting people know what was going on and when. “We had NPCA (National Precast Concrete Association) here for a certification seminar, and basically walked around with a bullhorn letting everyone know that it started at a certain time,” says Ouimette. “I was worried that not everyone would get there, but the room was so full that I couldn’t even get in there.”
Opening the doors
The days when manufacturers hid their secrets behind closed doors, not letting anyone but employees and management into their plants, are long gone. In today’s business environment, it has actually become beneficial for vendors and customers to know what goes on behind those doors, how the manufacturing process works and what additional capacities the precaster has (beyond the typical “laundry list” of products).
That’s where the open house comes in. By bringing in vendors, customers, local government agencies and the general public for a half- or full-day view of the inner workings of a new or existing plant, precasters can strut their stuff while attendees enjoy themselves in a relaxed environment.
Sherman-Dixie Concrete Industries has been using open houses for years, according to Eddie Mesta, technical marketing engineer for the Lexington, Ky.-based precaster. “We think it’s a good idea for everyone to see what goes on here,” he says. “We want to show everyone what goes into the product that they’re ordering.”
Most recently Sherman-Dixie held an open house at its Dayton, Ohio, plant, which had been completely renovated and retooled. The company invited public officials ranging from the mayor of Dayton to the city’s engineering staff, and combined plant tours with a cookout for the attendees. It took about two months to plan the event, with the most time spent setting up the catering, invitation list and the day’s schedule.
For its open houses, Sherman-Dixie gives each visitor a gift, such as a day planner, as a thank you for attending the event. To round up interest in the open house, the precaster sends out a flyer that includes the event agenda. Invitations are sent via e-mail and through the company’s outside sales reps. “I give them a stack of invitations, and they hand-deliver them to the contractors,” says Mesta. “We also post it up on our Web site.”
A few days before the open house, employees clean up the entire plant while managers decide who will lead the event’s plant tours, which at the Dayton event found more than 100 attendees going through the plant during a two-hour period. Positioned at different stations within the plant, employees give demonstrations of production techniques, such as reinforcing steel fabrication and use of the mixer.
Coordinating the events isn’t easy, says Mesta, who after several such gatherings learned that too many people in the production areas at one time is not a good thing. Instead, he suggests breaking the visitors into smaller groups for the production segment of the tour while keeping the masses occupied with seminars, entertainment or food. “If you have a group of 35 people that you’re trying to herd around (in the production facility), it’s just too much,” says Mesta. “We try to limit it to groups of 10 to 15 people.”
Having the space for people to be able to see what’s going on during the demonstrations is equally as important, says Mesta, who adds that Sherman-Dixie’s newest plants include “tour-friendly” features, such as larger mixer platforms, that were built to accommodate plant tours. “We want people to stand up there and get a bird’s-eye view of the products and the processes,” says Mesta, who sees open houses as a good way for precasters to show off their wares to a large group of people at once.
“We’ve had very positive feedback from our open houses,” says Mesta. “Engineers and specifiers, for example, get a good feel for what they’re specifying and the product that they’re specifying, while contractors see that we’re making a quality product. It works out very well.”
Ready, set, go!
It seems like Clifford Hahne had just wrapped up an open house in Houston when he set off for Longview, Texas, for another one. As Grand Prairie, Texas-based Hanson Pipe & Precast’s South Central Region president, Hahne says his goal with these events is to make sure that the public is aware of the company’s accomplishments and achievements within its customer base.
The Houston event involved a new state-of-the-art concrete pipe plant, which Hahne calls “the first one of its kind in the world.” Hanson invited local economic development councils, politicians, press, engineers, customers and suppliers. The event included a morning press conference, a mid-day tour, entertainment throughout the day and an evening gala.
To set up the event, Hanson worked with a public relations agency (which set up the catering, tent, air conditioning and executive schedules) and other firms that helped with the signage, plant tour setup and other details. “We wanted to create the best effect for our dollar, so we worked with these professionals to make sure the event is the best that it could be,” says Hahne.
Ultimately, Hahne says the most successful events are those that focus not on the “concrete and steel,” but on the technical process that goes into making the products. “We’re talking about millions of dollars in equipment used to take a drawing and turn it into an engineering product,” says Hahne. “When you can show how the cage is manufactured, where it’s placed, how the concrete is poured over it and then how the product is cured, you up the chances that local municipalities, engineers and customers will want to specify your work.”
In the wake of his firm’s first open house, Ouimette says the benefits were both instantaneous and overwhelming. “I couldn’t believe the number of thank-you notes that arrived in my e-mail inbox the next day,” says Ouimette, who received comments like “Now we understand what steel placement means” and “Now we know why you use that type of hole-former.”
“The event went over very well, and I was almost busier the day after it, answering e-mail and fielding questions,” says Ouimette, who advises all precasters to use open houses as a way to educate current, past and potential customers about their operations and products. “It’s a great way to do it.”