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February 2007
Trading on a Great Name
By Lisa Hoffmann

     Fifty percent of trade show attendees plan to purchase at least one product at a show, according to Exhibit Surveys, an exhibition and event research firm. A full 80 percent of the people who visit trade shows have one or more roles in purchasing products touted at the trade shows they attend and almost 40 percent have final say in the decision-making process. For businesses that don’t know where to begin in leveraging these statistics, stepping into the Apple Rock showroom brings it all in focus. Apple Rock provides everything needed for trade show success. And when they say “everything” they really mean it, even when the advertising strategy involves helicopter rides or a killer whale.

 

The Customers’ Customers

The plainness of the exterior of Apple Rock’s Charlotte showroom belies the artistry of its interior where visitors are immediately struck by the colorful and contemporary displays, showcasing everything from home improvement products to vacation getaways. Vibrancy stretches from floor to ceiling in a sea of fabric, metal and painted wood. It’s clear you’re seeing the work of inspired experts.
    
Apple Rock is very much about demographics, about knowing who a client’s customers are, what they like, and what they do, and targeting those customers, says Eric Burg, the company’s owner. And it does much more than just create high-impact event displays. It is a full-service event-planning firm that draws customers in like panning for gold.
    
“We make sure we know who your customers are,” Burg explains, “then we target them with pre-show promotions, get the attendee lists, and target those folks to get them to the exhibit. It’s not about quantity, it’s about quality and we want to make sure that clients’ best prospects show up at their booth.”

     “I was impressed with Eric and his staff right from the first meeting,” says Kitty Spence, a corporate communications and marketing specialist for Siegling America, Inc. in Huntersville. “Each one of them has their own talents to contribute and together they create such a cohesive and effective team.”
    
Burg created a vertically integrated company, one that makes, sells and ships displays, rents displays, stores them, repairs them, refurbishes them, and designs and creates all the graphics. “We try not to outsource anything,” Burg says. “We do it all.” And he really means “all.”
    
Sometimes big promotions involve a hospitality party or pre-show targeted program. Burg boasts, “We’ve had boats going around Chicago, we’ve arranged helicopter rides over the Grand Canyon, whatever we have to do to get the right people to the right place for a face-to-face introduction—that’s what our job is.

     “In this business you’ve got to know your clients’ business and their customers and you’ve got to know who’s coming to the event and what they would enjoy. That’s when we can make magic.”

 

Fruits of Their Labor

In the ’80s, Burg sold and produced television for an ABC affiliate in High Point. He loved what he did, which helped him do it well. He impressed a local RV dealer, who approached him with a business proposal.
    
“He was an RV dealer before RVs were really hot,” Burg recalls. “He wanted me to oversee his advertising. I used to watch ‘Thirty Something’ and I just thought that whole advertising agency idea was the coolest thing. So I told him ‘I’ll be the agency and you can be my first client.’”
    
And so, in 1988, Apple Rock was born as Russell, Burg and Rowell. As a partner, Burg created the first RV-only trade show in North Carolina in 1990.

     “I thought it would be a way to grow the market,” he explains. “I added a show in Greensboro the next year and then added Fayetteville and then Charlotte. I had four RV shows and was doing agency work too.” By 1991 he had bought out his partners and renamed the company to Apple Rock.
    
“I had a lot of fun as a kid running around and playing in the streams around the Apple Rock area of New York,” Burg says. “So the name is a reminder to me, every day, of why I work. If you work hard enough you get to enjoy the things that you like. It’s inspiration that motivates me.”
    
Burg was doing all the things advertising agencies do—corporate videos, logos, mailers—while also organizing trade show events. So he came up with the concept of being an advertising agency for the event business: “There are thousands of agencies out there and people were gravitating to me because I specialized in face-to-face marketing. It made sense to focus on that.”
   
Apple Rock created the largest RV shows in the mid-Atlantic, serving more than 600,000 people over the past 19 years. As his client base grew, Burg grew his showrooms. He opened a Raleigh showroom in 1995 and the Charlotte showroom in 1996. “We started out just selling the actual hardware,” Burg says. “Opening the two other showrooms and then expanding our services to the point where they’re now all-inclusive has allowed us to outpace the industry growth rates.
    
Apple Rock’s typical client is a headquarter-based regional company with $25 to $50 million in annual sales that’s been around for 9 to 15 years. Usually, it’s trying to open up national and international markets. If a company wants to establish a global reach, Apple Rock is ready to help. Setting up international shows can be much easier than American shows in many cases, Burg claims. “American unions can sometimes present a real challenge. The only real challenge we face with international shows is the time difference and logistics.”
    
Apple Rock is expanding its number of employees who work exclusively with Fortune 500 companies. Lowe’s Home Improvement, a Fortune 50 company, is one of its biggest clients; the company staffs exhibits, handles travel and hospitality, and coordinates many events for Lowe’s.
    
Tom Lamb, Lowe’s vice president of marketing for Lowe’s, is quick to praise: “Apple Rock Displays has consistently developed and executed exhibits for Lowe’s that reinforce our brand and create a unique and enjoyable experience for our customers. Plus, Eric Burg and the whole Apple Rock team provide excellent customer service.”

Apple Rock has been growing steadily and itself was voted a Fast 50 company in 2005.

 

Creativity Made Easy

Apple Rock’s biggest challenge, according to Burg, is to continually come up with fresh ideas for clients who often come to the showroom complaining that sales are flat and budgets have been cut. As he describes the strategies Apple Rock employs for coming up with new and exciting event displays and planning, Burg lapses into “we” mode, as if he is the client or at least a close business partner. “If someone comes to us and says, ‘Help us come up with something that’ll make us the buzz of the show,’ we’ll put everything we’ve got into it.”
    
A year or so ago, Apple Rock worked on a trade show plan for Decision One Mortgage, a wholesale lender serving the non-conforming market. Decision One wanted to figure out how to separate itself from all the other mortgage lenders out there.

    “When you think of mortgage companies you think of guys in suits and ties,” Burg explains. “Since it’s a mortgage company that lends to credit-challenged customers, we created 3-D branding displays with an extreme sports-based theme of ‘Challenge Accepted.’ The theme said, ‘We’ll do whatever it takes to get you a mortgage loan, including jump out of airplanes.’” Decision One was awarded best of show and had the most profitable show in the company’s history.
    
Companies use all kinds of strategies to attract prospects to their trade show booths. They may send one earring, or half a show ticket, promising its mate or other half if the customer stops by the booth. Sometimes a company will conduct a raffle or have a celebrity guest available. It can come down to something as simple as handing out branded bottles of water. Whatever they do, it’s all with one goal in mind: engagement.

     “It offers the opportunity to strike up conversation,” Burg says. “Informed consumers increase the demand for your product.”
    
Before Apple Rock can help bring prospects in for a face-to-face, a company needs to define its wants and needs in the trade show arena. That’s not easy these days, Burg says.

     “Our business has gotten so complicated that the individual who has to make a purchase has to wrestle with getting more with the same or less money than what they had last year,” he explains. “Our designers and sales people have to create a product, service or event strategy that’s going to deliver more for less money.”
    
All this brings Burg to another challenge he regularly faces: finding the right employees. “I look for people who are extremely bright and creative who can challenge all the things they know because they have to continue to find new and better ways to serve our clients.” The characteristic Burg finds most important—and least prolific—is the true belief that it’s all about what’s best for the client.
   
“We came to Apple Rock when our former display house priced us out of our budget,” Spence says. “At Apple Rock they’re always looking for new avenues to offer better at a high value price.”
    
According to Burg, there are about six other event planning and trade show companies in the Charlotte metro area that he considers competition, but keeping clients’ best interests in mind gives Apple Rock an edge—that and a true passion for what they do. “We’ll take as much time as we need to so that people can understand their own needs, staying with the discussion long after other companies may become bored or impatient. Coming up with endless creative ideas is the ultimate challenge, and I live for it. It’s all about doing what you love to do.”
    
Burg sees the Charlotte showroom as the hub for North and South Carolina operations and plans to continue focused growth here. “I see this office growing in the future as the region grows in size over the next three years. We’ve put in all the right things: marketing, hard work, and the best people. We want to reach out to the entire region.”
    
Burg is expanding his manufacturing facilities in High Point in order to effectively support future growth. “Our graphics production is growing by leaps and bounds. Our fabrication team needs more room. We have 70,000 square feet at the High Point facility right now and we need to get it closer to 100,000 square feet.” Burg is keeping his feet planted firmly on the ground throughout this rapid expansion.
    
“When all is said and done, customers buy from people they like,” he says, “Our approach to business is to treat the customer the way we would like to be treated. It’s that old golden rule. It never goes out of style.”

Lisa Hoffmann is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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