By Reginald Tucker When it comes to virtual conferences—events that have become much more commonplace in the sequestered, COVID-19 world in which we live—the general rule of thumb is that they typically draw a fraction of the amount of people who would normally attend the same in-person event in a normal year. But that wasn’t the case with the 2021 Fuse Alliance virtual conference held earlier this month. Show organizers reported more than 680 people registered for its first-ever virtual event—almost three times the number of contractors who normally attend the group’s physical conference.
“We’ve had, by far and away, the biggest turnout we’ve ever had,” said Geoff Gordon, Fuse Alliance executive director. “Typically, our conferences are attended by leadership and business owners—usually 200-225 people. But this year we have a lot of salespeople, project managers, coordinators, job superintendents and other office personnel participate. There could very well have been more than 680 in attendance because some of our members held ‘watch parties’ during the convention. For example, there may have been only one active computer linked to a particular registration, but they may have had 10 people sitting in the same room watching.”
The potential benefit of that expanded exposure, Gordon said, is it gives flooring contractors’ employees a view into the educational opportunities traditionally available only to managers and higher-level workers. “I think the challenge of any organization like ours is when you’re dealing with business owners and top management, you don’t know if they are really advising their employees about the benefits of Fuse,” he said. “Some probably do but a lot probably don’t.”
The same can be said for vendor personnel. As Gordon explained: “A supplier can talk to a business owner and ask for more business, but the business owner is not the one who’s writing the business—it’s the salespeople. So, to be able to drill down into the organization, to show them the benefits of Fuse and then provide access to the suppliers all in one place made the trade show so effective. It’s great for the suppliers, because they were dealing with people who actually promote their products.”
For Fuse Alliance, the prospect of a record-breaking virtual conference was not exactly in the realm of possibility given all that has transpired over the course of the past 12 months or so. In 2020, the group was able to hold its in-person event in Southern California just days before shutdowns became the norm (this time last year the coronavirus had not reached the pandemic proportions in the U.S. that we’re seeing today or even six months ago). Fast forward to the run-up to this year’s event—when it was clear a physical conference would not be possible and/or advisable—a virtual conference seemed the necessary, albeit less-preferred, option.
“We made the decision, probably during the second quarter of last year, that this year’s event would have to be virtual—based on what we were seeing with the pandemic and all that,” Gordon told FCNews. “For me, personally, when we made the decision to go virtual, I was so bummed because I love seeing everybody at the show. I love being on stage and making it fun. Then, as we started working with the meeting planners, they presented an idea where, if we spent enough money and did it right, we could make it dramatically different than any other event.”
Fuse Alliance said it accomplished that objective by offering attendees not only a forum to network with other members, but also the tools and technology to: view new product demonstrations; take part in virtual round table discussions; and hear informative keynote presentations from sought-after guest speakers. (Members can access the archived sessions for 30 days.) According to Gordon, it was made possible only through a collective effort of the entire Fuse Alliance management team, customer service reps, administrative and tech support staff.
“This was way more successful than we could have ever imagined,” he explained. “For a group that had never done it before, I think it ran relatively smoothly.”
More importantly, Gordon noted, was the value the conference provided members. “Usually, with virtual trade shows, you’re invited to link virtually to a supplier, but all you were really linking to was their website,” he explained. “We wanted it to be more interactive. I’ve talked to a lot of the suppliers in the trade hall—which was held three separate times—and they said they couldn’t believe the amount of traffic they saw. We had over 200 people each time the virtual trade show opened. Attendees could either text back and forth or video back and forth, and our members could also download documents. One of the suppliers told me they had a thousand documents downloaded over the course of the event.”
Strength in numbers
The measure of Fuse Alliance’s success goes well beyond strong attendance figures. The group also reported membership growth in the pandemic—during which time several key commercial end-use markets were hammered by shutdowns, postponed contracts or stalled renovation projects. “We added 11 new members in 2020, which is the most we’ve ever added in one year,” Gordon told FCNews. “There are a lot of good independent companies out there that want to be part of a bigger organization. A big benefit of being aligned with Fuse is members can call other members and ask for advice.”
Case in point is Raleigh, N.C.-based David Allen Company, which became a Fuse member in the fall of 2020. “We joined Fuse Alliance to partner with other installers to share our knowledge base and learn from this successful and talented body of membership,” said Chad Love, director of carpet, resilient flooring and ventilated façade systems. “Being a Fuse member also allows us to enhance our relationships with suppliers and provide quality, continued professional development to our employees.”
That was also the inspiration for Braid Flooring, a Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada-based contractor, to join. “In order to build upon our success in the commercial market, we knew we would need to lean on industry leaders to helps us,” said Christian Braid, president. “Being a part of Fuse Alliance gives us access to valuable development resources and an incredible network of commercial flooring experts who will help us to achieve our full potential.”
There was certainly a fair amount of information sharing and exchanges taking place when business—outside of what was already in the pipeline—came to a halt for many contractors. Amid so much uncertainty, Fuse said it really strived to come through for its members. “We were doing weekly calls with the members and the board for the first four months of the pandemic,” Gordon recalled. “We were very active in sending out communications about best practices, what to do with COVID-19 in the office, what to do on the job site, how to secure your business with declining sales, talking about making cutbacks when you need to, etc. We also helped a lot of our members who had questions about PPP loans. We also helped members find alternate places to go for the funding they needed to stay afloat. I’m glad to report we haven’t lost any members because of financial issues.”
Quite the contrary, in fact. With the rise in its membership, Fuse Alliance has increased revenues from roughly $1.8 billion in 2019 to $2 billion today. And, despite continued softening forecasts for especially hard-hit end-use market sectors such as hospitality and retail, Gordon said he feels optimistic about other segments, such as corporate/workplace. “Even if companies shrink their corporate footprint, building owners and managers aren’t going to let the building stay empty,” Gordon said.
While he predicted business will be flat for the industry as a whole for the year, he said he’s looking for Fuse to be up a couple of percentage points. “We’re pretty optimistic as a group,” Gordon said. “We actually set our budget at 10%, but we recognize that’s not going to come all organically. That’s going to come from adding members.”
(Look for more on the 2021 Fuse Alliance Virtual Conference in upcoming editions of FCNews.)