The Open House Advantage -- Open house events at your showroom or warehouse represent a great way to keep in touch with clients and build a warm rapport with prospective customers.
Once your flooring store or showroom is ready -- and I do mean ready -- you will want to host an "open house" event to invite the trades and the public to see your wares. I would suggest that you divide the invitees into four general groups: the design trade, the building trade, the installation trade, and the public.

The reason for categorizing open house guests within specific groups is to allow you and your staff to focus on the business at hand. The approach you'd take in dealing with a specifier would be somewhat different than the tack you'd follow with a trade mechanic. Both are valuable to your business, so you want to be sure to treat each just right.

You may also want to have door prize drawings at your open house and, by separating your targeted groups, you can be sure that the prizes you furnish will be specifically suited to the background of the recipients - be they designers, specifiers, installers, or consumers. Scheduling logistics represent another reason to separate the groups. A breakfast for contractors, a wine-and-cheese cocktail party after work for specifiers, and punch and cookies for the public on a Saturday afternoon would be good ways to strategically target and entertain these diverse groups.

Keep the ball rolling with new and exciting ideas to inspire the public to visit your showroom. Watch your local newspaper for open house ideas that other types of businesses are using, and adapt them to fit your needs. I've come up with 30 get-them-into-your-showroom promotional ideas to get you started.

1. Clean-up team. Sponsor a team of volunteers to clean a city park or major downtown street. Take photos of your team in action and submit them to local newspapers for possible publication.

2. All-night sale. Hold an annual sale that lasts 24 hours. Promote this to your regular customers and through the newspaper and radio. Provide a continental breakfast, at some point, to promote a drawing.

3. Promotional place mats. Have an attractive illustration drawn of a town landmark. Add the name of your showroom, address and hours in one corner. Provide these placemats free of charge to local restaurants.

4. The live surprise. Feature some live animals in your showroom. Tropical fish work well and create an interesting diversion to keep children occupied while their parents shop.

5. Facelift. Even the slightest bit of remodeling on your building calls for some media attention. If it's an historical building, better yet! Take pictures and provide the newspaper with the details.

6. Take-home mailer. Every visitor will receive a simple catalog of mail-order items, an order blank and return envelope to take home. Feature small cleaning items for your products or unique accessories to complete the job.

7. City photo contest. Invite the public to submit their photography. Assemble an independent panel of judges composed of the mayor, city council members, or other local dignitaries. Display entries in your store and provide your community newspaper with photos of winners receiving their awards.

8. Sandwich board. Hire a student or retiree to wear an advertising sandwich board and walk through town during the noon hour or during special events.

9. Product-testing event. Test new merchandise in your store or have the manufacturers do so. To receive publicity, post the results and organize testing as an ongoing activity.

10. "Today Only" special. Keep customer interest alive by establishing a special discount on a particular product. Change the featured products frequently.

11. Public fair. Organize other showrooms with allied products to produce an annual fair for the education and interest of the public.

12. Smart shopper guide. Publish a booklet on how consumers should shop for the best buys in your field and in those of other allied businesses. Imprint the literature with your name and display it in a conspicuous location near the door of your showroom.

13. Expert resource. Offer to speak about your field before local groups. Invite reporters to cover the event and interview you about developments in your business or on the national scene.

14. Clothing item. Select an article of clothing and have it imprinted with your logo. Possibly have your employees wear the item during working hours. The item, which could be a necktie, shirt, jacket, etc., can also be offered for sale to customers.

15. Lollipops. Keep a stash of lollipops on hand for the little children -- and the big ones, too!

16. Sidewalk sale. Help organize an old-fashioned sidewalk sale. These are proven audience grabbers.

17. Raffle. Conduct a no-purchase-necessary raffle at your showroom. Customers who visit will fill out a card and drop it in a raffle box. The winners receive prizes. You receive a list of names.

18. Product demonstration. Host a special event during which an employee shows the use of a new item of merchandise currently on sale at your store.

19. Packaging news. Take advantage of the available space on your packaging, or add a flyer to each order. Produce news items about your showroom, advertising, coupons, etc.

20. Sponsor a team, walk or run. Provide T-shirts with your logo to all participants. Then watch how those shirts continue to show up all over town as silent salesmen.

21. Catchy buttons. Have buttons made with your store name and a catchy slogan on them, and hand them out to customers and other visitors.

22. Advertising pens. Have pens imprinted with your store name, address and telephone number. Pass them out to customers.

23. Welcome your clients. If you have a client returning for an appointment, post his or her name on a marquee or message board at the entrance of your showroom. When not welcoming clients, use the board to post any bits of information - like the dates of future home shows - that might be of interest to passersby.

24. Hospitality. To make them feel welcome, always offer coffee, tea, soda, or water to clients. Eliminate any potential disturbances that could intrude while you are working with clients. Hold all calls except for emergencies.

25. Highlight display. Use a display for different promotional efforts, such as your seminars, demonstrations or other promotional activities.

26. Awards. In the entry or reception area of the showroom, display awards, plaques or certificates that you and your staff have received. Also include any articles or photographs that have been printed in publications. These represent a wonderful third-party endorsement.

27. Evaluations. Have your clients complete evaluation forms and display them. Even an occasional criticism can be included.

28. Photo album. Include photos of your best jobs. But be sure to have the clients sign a release form for any photos you use.

29. Host an open-house event at least once a year. This should be a big party with food, gifts and door prizes. Open houses are a great way to keep in touch with your clients and meet them in a more relaxed atmosphere.

30. Use a "Dinner on Us" policy for those who bring you new business.

Education seminars

Educational seminars are another effective means of building credibility while showing the public that you care about them. Some ideas for educational seminars that you could host at your showroom include:

Product knowledge classes. For instance, you can explain the differences between marble, tile and limestone or between laminate and engineered floors.

Product demonstration classes. Show how to set a tile backsplash or install vinyl flooring in a powder room.

Product care classes. Demonstrate how to clean vinyl floors, or methods of sealing and maintaining tile and stone.

Seminars for student design groups. Put together general informational clinics, such as introduction to flooring products.

By all means, don't hesitate to think out of the box for ways to attract people to your showroom. Remember: the newer and more novel the idea, the greater is your potential for success. Here are some more suggestions to get you thinking:

Invite groups to use your facility for trade organization meetings.

Host off-the-edge programs like a Saturday brunch for perspective buyers.

Sponsor a scholarship or contest for students who, not so incidentally, represent prospective future customers.

It's vital to maintain a presence with your public. When you're out of sight you're out of mind - and your public may find your competitor instead! Next month, I'll veer off the topic of showroom management just a bit as I discuss resilient floor innovations for 2001. I'll hope you'll join me then.