I HAD THE PRIVILEGE OF ATTENDING the 36th annual Airborne Law Enforcement Assn.'s conference, which was held in July in New Orleans, for Rotor & Wing. As always, there were some excellent lectures and workshops, as well as an exhibition hall full of the newest products, services and aircraft.
Among the many people who stopped past the R&W booth to say hello was a friend of mine who was there staffing his company's display. I'll call him Frank (not his real name). He introduced me to some fellow exhibitors who had walked over with him.
Hands were shaken, pleasantries were exchanged, and Frank got straight to the heart of a matter that had been bugging him for some time.
"We're worried, because we don't get as much interest at the police shows as we do at the other helicopter shows," he said. "We're thinking about not doing any more police expos."
"I can take 10 orders at Heli-Expo," said one of the other gentlemen. "But I'm lucky if I get one here!"
"That's easy to explain," I replied. "Ninety-nine percent of the people at ALEA-including me-don't have the authority to buy a box of paper clips, let alone $15,000 worth of new gear!"
As I explained to the three exhibitors, many of the people who visit non-specific helicopter shows, such as the Helicopter Assn. International's annual Heli-Expo, have the authority to buy whatever they need on the spot. It isn't uncommon for the chief financial officer of a big company to be there and sign a contract for two $3-million helicopters. On the other hand, the line pilots and observers who grace the exhibition hall at an ALEA show need a four-page requisition, three formal price quotes and seven signatures just to order a pair of $25 flight gloves. In other words, it's all about who has the big checkbook with them. The three vendors nodded thoughtfully, as if unaware of how little purchasing power law enforcement aviation crews have, not to mention how poorly police aviation events are attended by agency money-handlers.
"Then maybe we should stop coming here if we can't sell anything to anybody," one of the gentlemen said, more disappointed than angry. "I lose money if I don't make at least one sale, or develop some leads on one of these trips."
"Hold on," I said. "Just because these people aren't buying anything right here and now doesn't mean you won't get a sale later on. Once an agency finally decides to get something for their air unit, it will probably be something one of these cops saw at your booth here, since ALEA is the only show many of us attend."
I could tell by their faces that they were still skeptical about spending money on airfares, lodging, meals, and shipping just to come to a show that seems to yield few sales. So I just came out and asked them a question of my own. "What would you as vendors like from public servants who have very little spending authority?"
Their answers were consistent, and echoed by several other vendors I quizzed. In short, here's what they said:
Communicate-Exhibitors want to know what our intentions are. If we're serious shoppers, they'll give us their undivided attention. If we're just browsing, we're just as welcome. They'll hand us some brochures and try not to crowd us. Either way, they'll be cordial and will know how much time and effort to invest in "selling us" on their product.
Be candid-They said not to be embarrassed if we don't have the final say-so on the purchase of an item. If they know that we aren't the ones with the power to spend government money, they can help us schmooze the people who do.
On the other hand, if we lose interest in a vendor's product, or our administrators flat out reject spending the money, sales people want us to know that it doesn't hurt their feelings. Just tell them the idea has been dropped, and they'll divert their phone calls, mailings and visits elsewhere.
Give feedback-When we stop past a vendor's booth at a show, they really want to know what we think about their products, good or bad. (They were quick to ask that we not criticize their product in front of a potential customer, though.) They said that with the number of people who attend ALEA (sometimes a couple of thousand) it's an excellent time for them to get some good feedback on what our special market wants and needs.
Okay, let's say that we honor their requests. What's in it for us?
According to the vendors, what we'll get out of the exchange is the right level of sales pitch for our level of interest (and maybe lower costs, since the more efficiently they spend their marketing dollars, the less they'll have to raise prices). It will also ensure that they'll keep coming to conventions like ALEA, where we can see and compare a variety of products suited just for us.
Personally, I don't think they're asking for too much. The majority of the vendors I know seem to be good, professional people. I also think they can be valuable allies in our never-ending quest for the newest, shiniest toys!