The Atlanta-based lighting manufacturer brought its 2021 product introductions to its customer base in a unique way.
By Linda Longo
With the pandemic of 2020 continuing to greatly impact market attendance into 2021, lighting showrooms and manufacturers alike have been challenged in trying to make the “new normal” as close to the old normal as possible. And since the 1970s, that has meant seeing new products in person at a twice-yearly trade show like the Dallas Market/Lightovation.
While business owners have become accustomed to relying on Zoom for meetings, the video experience has fallen short – from retailers’ perspective – when it comes to making such a significant investment as buying new product.
Many lighting manufacturers spent considerable dollars in creating high-quality videos of their new 2021 intros, and while that helped provide a more well-rounded presentation of a product’s size and finishes than a paper or digital catalog could, it lacked the three-dimensional certainty of an in-person inspection.
Georgia-based manufacturer Savoy House embarked on a nationwide adventure during February and March, launching a traveling road show – referred to as a “Product Tour” – to showcase its 2021 introductions. The tour recalled the promotional truck tours of the late 1990s from Tiffany lighting manufacturers to entice consumers to shop a special sales event — but with a pandemic twist.
While Savoy House’s Product Tour was not geared toward consumers, but to the decision-makers at retail who were unable to attend the customary markets, the idea of bringing products to the buying audience instead of vice versa was at the heart of the idea.
I sat down with the Savoy House Product Tour team – specifically Troy Lee, President, General Manager Chris Fancher, and Mike Bush of Progressive Lighting – during its New York City Metro area stop in February to discuss how this all came about.
As we all remember, the pandemic hit in Spring 2020 and forced the postponement of the June Lightovation show. “By July, we realized that people didn’t feel safe traveling or staying in hotels. We also knew that our customers needed to see and interact with new product as a part of the buying process,” Troy Lee explains. There was another important factor in coming up with a safe alternative to the usual market experience. “We missed our friends in this business. The lighting industry is about relationships,” he affirms.
“We discussed the concept of taking our products to the decision-makers with our reps in September, and the feedback ranged from, ‘Why not do it virtually?’ and ‘That’s too expensive’ to ‘It’s too much trouble’ and ‘We can sell out of catalogues.’ Some even said, ‘Are you crazy?’ All of these observations are true, but we were determined! In October, we began to logistically plan how we could do this,” Lee states.
Launching a nationwide “tour” from scratch is complicated, not only from a logistics point of view – the states had different gathering restrictions and quarantine requirements – but also a financial one. Not to mention that the whole plan might have to be scrapped at any given time if the rates in COVID-19 cases rose significantly in a region where the tour was headed.
Mike Bush is a relatively recent hire for the company, having joined Progressive Lighting in August after a 20-year career with Macy’s luxury products division. His prior experience in logistics as a district manager for the department store’s high-end jewelry and watch categories came in handy when forming the national tour.
“We first had to research which facilities were able to host our event depending on state, county, and municipal restrictions,” Bush recounts. “Since the information was frequently changing, our local reps proved to be the best resource for this, directing us to specific areas that met our geographic requirements and suggesting event spaces that could accommodate our pop-up showroom,” he explains. “In many cases, the target cities were locked down or had quarantine restrictions, but we were able to find locations in immediate suburbs that met our requirements. Each locale had different social distancing and food service protocols, but since our goal was to keep our customers and event team safe, we gladly adapted to each city.”
Once the tour stops were decided – Northern California, Chicago, New Jersey-New York City Metro, Nashville, and Washington D.C. Metro – there were multiple details to work through to ensure all elements of the pop-up showroom would work at each destination.
It was a team effort to figure out logistics from the design of the bins and the custom-made carts to carry the product to making sure everything fit snugly inside the 53-foot semi-trailer and mapping out the route for each leg of the tour.
“We really wanted to show as much new product as possible,” Bush states. “Not only did we fly in new samples specifically for the pop-ups, but we had to retrieve some fixtures that were in the Dallas showroom so our customers could see, touch, and feel as much newness as possible. While great care was taken to secure everything between stops using the custom carts built for the show, there was still wear and tear and parts that had to be replaced. Our warehouse team was instrumental in quickly getting us replacements and supplies, often shipping to our next destination just before we arrived.”
The saying “Timing is everything” is certainly true when it comes to setting up and taking down booths efficiently in a hotel ballroom. In the months leading up to the first show, the Product Tour team practiced loading the truck, setting up, and taking down booths. The entire pop-up could be off-loaded in about 60 minutes; set-up typically took 5 to 6 hours; and tear-down was accomplished in 4 to 5 hours. “It was exhausting, but amazing how we could transform an empty ballroom space into a showroom and back again so quickly,” Bush notes.
In addition to their regular jobs with the company, Savoy House employees jumped into new roles to help Product Tour get underway. “When employees go above and beyond the call of duty, their work experience is more meaningful for them as well as the company,” remarks Chris Fancher. “The Road Tour crew exuded this incredible work ethic, making our organization and this unprecedented event operate very efficiently from its conception by Troy Lee and the customer relations effort of my [reps] to the endless work with the venues by Mike Bush and Charisse Lackey. It was a complete team effort to logistically pull off this seismic event.”
Reps booked appointments at each stop well in advance, taking care to observe social distancing and occupancy limits. Masks were required and appointments were spread out across three days in each city. “We were drawing from a wide area at each event, typically from 60 to 70 miles away,” Lee remarks.
For the Nashville event, retailers traveled great distances from Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, North Carolina, and Indiana, while the Northern California venue also drew retailers from the southern part of the state. “It was really nice to update our relationships with customers [like we would at market],” Lee comments.
Retailers in Texas and the surrounding region were able to view Savoy House’s new products and meet with the team in its expanded permanent showroom at the Dallas Market Center during the March edition of Lightovation.
In all, the Savoy House team was able to meet with 150+ showrooms in person nationwide. In addition to those appointments, reps were also able to conduct product tours via Facetime on their phones and tablets. “I didn’t realize how well people would embrace this,” Lee states. “People were excited to see us as well as the new product.”
When asked if the product tour could be considered profitable, he explains, “You cannot put this event into profit and loss terms. There is the component of selling new merchandise and the anticipated re-ordering that multiplies the success of an endeavor, and then there is the personal and relational side of the equation in understanding more of your customers’ challenges and how we can [provide] solutions that make their businesses successful. The cost of logistics and taking care of our associates and customers in this [pandemic] environment outweighs any anticipated profit from the sales of product during the show. This was about customer outreach during a very challenging time. We need to come together to meet this challenge and our tour was one way of doing this. We love this industry and this is more of a labor of love instead of a profit venture.”
As the vaccine roll-out continues and domestic air travel has opened up, the summer markets will understandably have greater attendance than they have over the past 18 months. Lee and Savoy House don’t anticipate having to create another massive road show in the future, but their pandemic-era solution was much appreciated by customers.
Sean and Tiffany Sauter from Light Gallery Plus in Encinitas California were pleased with the Product Tour. “Even though COVID was on the forefront of everyone’s minds, both Savoy and our reps made us feel very comfortable,” Sean Sauter says. “We were the only customers in the space and all precautions had been taken to make us feel safe. The opportunity to see the product first-hand is invaluable when it comes to deciding which products we want to bring to our customers. We can’t thank everyone enough for their efforts.”