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Exhibitors seek relationships, not hard sell

They came, they saw, and they left with bags of stuff.

For most attending the Triple I Conference, that summarizes the experience of working their way through the gigantic maze of 280 exhibits in the Riverside Center of the Hyatt Regency Chicago. But beyond the bags of popcorn, the pens and pencils, the key chains and the backscratchers, they also left with a sense of trust and friendship.

At least that's what many exhibitors were expecting.

Those exhibitors, many of whom have lugged their displays and give-aways to the Triple I Conference year after year, want this to be a time when board members can get to know them a little better.

Jim Bridgewater, of Blue Bird Distributors of Illinois, doesn't plan to sell a school bus from the exhibit floor. But he does want to keep the Kankakee-based company's name out there so that the next time the board or superintendent thinks about a bus, they might think of Blue Bird.

"We're here to show them some new things," Bridgewater said, like the new slope to the front of the traditional big yellow bus that provides improved visibility for the driver. "But we're also here to rekindle friendships ... like a reunion."

Those relationships can become very important, especially as superintendents and business officials move from district to district.

Another exhibitor, Richard L. Johnson, whose architectural firm Richard L. Johnson Associates Inc. of Rockford is a member of IASB's Service Associates, said he saw a superintendent he had done business with a few years ago. That superintendent is now with a new district, and their usual architect is getting ready to retire.

Johnson quickly reassured the superintendent that even though he was in a different area, his firm would be happy to talk about future projects. Just give him a call.

No hard sell; no signing on the dotted line. Just a smile and a handshake, with a little reassurance. Then it's on to the next guest.

"It's all positive stuff," Johnson said of the time he spends in the exhibit booth, "and we don't want to not be here."

John Paddock, a second-generation exhibitor for E.T. Paddock Enterprises Inc. in Lockport, echoed the sentiment. Paddock remembers coming to the conference as a middle school student to spend time with his dad, Gene, on the exhibit floor. Now that the elder Paddock is semi-retired, he leaves the big portion of the exhibit days to his son. But he can't stay away, either. They're both into building relationships, not just with board members, but with other exhibitors as well.

"It's good to be able to see old faces and past clients," the younger Paddock said. "And we deal with architectural firms, so it's good to bump into them, too."

Because there are so many aspects to running a school, board members should use their time on the exhibit floor to get just a little flavor of everything that's out there, he advised.

This conference is one where vendors can meet with all levels of school officials, including the superintendents, business officials and even principals who often are the primary contacts with the district for vendors, Paddock said. But it's also important to have that contact with school board members, because "people like to do business with people they know and trust."



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