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For many years, manufacturers have relied on mobile displays to help sell products and train contractors to install and troubleshoot them. Last year’s COVID restrictions, however, threw a wrench into the highly effective strategy.
Restrictions prevented in-person interaction or restricted it by imposing safety standards, like wearing masks and maintaining social distance. As a result, many companies moved all their training online while others adopted a hybrid approach combining virtual training with live interaction among individuals or small groups.
Viega LLC, for example, pulled The Viega Roadshow, its promotional truck with displays and demos on it, right after the pandemic hit. Kristen White, manager of PR and communications, reports the move made sense.
"For the safety of our colleagues and the communities as a whole, we felt it was best to temporarily stop those face-to-face interaction,” she explains. “Plus, we were already building a new truck with updated displays, so now we are waiting for the new truck to be complete and then we'll get the Roadshow back on the road."
The new Viega truck, an F650 with an 18-foot box, features slide outs on both sides and a presentation stage and entrance. The truck shows the full range of Viega products, from the Viega ProPress for copper tubing to the MegaPress line of fittings and its radiant heating and cooling solutions. The modular displays can also be swapped up as new products are released.
“When there are less COVID-19 safety restrictions in place, we expect our truck to be on the road throughout the contiguous United States almost every week of the year,” White adds.
Some rolling demos, however, never left the road during the pandemic. Mike Hook, the marketing communications manager at U.S. Boiler Co., called his fleet of four demonstration vans a “vital” resource during the COVID-19 lockdowns. With trade shows canceled along with displays at distributor events, the vans became a conduit for displaying products to decision makers in on-on-one meetings – but the boiler manufacturer did it safely outside.
“We designed our vans so the high-efficiency, condensing boilers extend outward on rolling brackets, so people can walk around the vehicles to view our lineup,” Hook explains. “Viewing the products outside, instead of inside the vehicle, takes away any concern about social distancing in an enclosed space.”
The mobile unit’s original design allowed customers to safely view products months before they’d be able to see them at an industry event or factory tour.
“The best part about these vans is the ability to introduce new products to customers right away without having to wait for a big trade show or trying to market the equipment on a website or with a piece of literature,” Hook adds. “We can let people peek under the hood and show them how the boilers actually work. The vans are a cost-effective and non-intrusive way for people to see our equipment firsthand and understand how it works. Then, when they’re comfortable using it, they are more likely to buy the products.”
That just so happened to turn in very handy last year, and helped the company create a groundswell around a new product release during the pandemic.
“Certainly, when we came up with the idea for this platform five years ago,” Hook says, “we didn’t envision that they would be the best, and in some cases, the only method of doing demonstrations for contractors as they have been during the pandemic.”
Hook adds that the vans have always functioned as a way to easily transport three condensing boilers that could be rolled inside a trade show hall, appear outside for a counter day event at a wholesale distributor or taken directly to a contractor for an in-person demo.
“Well, we didn’t do any of the first two of those things this year,” Hook adds, “but we did a whole lot of the last one.”
The result for U.S. Boiler was that the vans stayed even longer on the road well into the winter months.
“That’s not something we did previously, but the demand warranted it,” Hook adds.
U.S. Boiler’s demonstration vans have been so popular and effective that the company plans to add a new one to its fleet every two years until there is a dedicated vehicle in each region. (In fact, the company was just starting to outfit the interior of a new vehicle at press time.) The oldest van has 56,000 miles on it, which means there is still a lot of serviceable life remaining, Hook says.
ROI on the road
As pandemic restrictions begin to ease throughout the country, some companies are already on the road or looking to hit the road again, citing the tremendous ROI of these units.
“Rolling demos provide a huge advantage in the market because you can take the solution to their backyard or jobsite,” White says. “The true ROI comes in the form of the relationships and trust we develop with customers.”
Lochinvar turns out to be a pioneer of sorts since the company created the industry’s first mobile showroom in 1987 to show its Power-Fin product.
Its newest vehicle head out from Lochinvar’s corporate office in Lebanon, Tennessee, with a 30-foot box van traveling throughout North America, with plans to someday travel into Alaska and Canada. Upon arrival, a staircase flips down to create a grand entrance through two double-glass doors into a climate-controlled vehicle complete with a 60-inch television and Wi-Fi access to videos and data.
“You get a high-class feel when you enter the vehicle,” says Jeff Vallett II, Lochinvar segment marketing manager. “Everyone is comfortable in it no matter the time of year.”
Saniflo, based in Edison, New Jersey, has three vans on the road serving separate territories in the Midwest, Northeast and West Coast. The company has relied on mobile demonstrations since 2007 to assist in sales and training efforts. The firm also uses vans to help vocational schools and unions teach apprentices how to install systems.
“The vans are beneficial because our products aren’t what people typically find in a showroom,” says Christopher Peterson, Saniflo’s national sales manager. “There is nothing like showing people how something works so they can see the product in action.”
As a result, hands-on training is vital to Saniflo’s success with products that are relatively new to the American market.
“Our technology is different from traditional plumbing because we can install our product virtually anywhere and it pumps out waste,” Peterson adds. “There is a blade inside that chops everything to create a slurry. Our products have wide acceptance in Europe, but we need more people here to see our products in action to understand what they can do. People see how reliable our products are and how quiet they operate compared to traditional systems. They get confidence in the product by watching it perform exactly how we say it will.”
Even with mobile demos hitting the road again, there’s been a paradigm shift. No longer can a van rollup without any thought about occupant health inside.
Lochinvar’s van was on the road for about six months before COVID restrictions went into effect. The firm initially took advantage of the downtime to perform routine maintenance on the vehicle. However, by September, it began touring again when people were more comfortable meeting in person.
“We wanted to get back to face-to-face meetings as quickly as we could while doing so safely,” says Vallett. “We make sure anyone entering the truck wears a mask, and the equipment is sanitized after each visit.”
Despite advances in video and graphics technology, in-person visits remain Lochinvar’s preferred way to get people to appreciate the features and benefits of its products.
“People are generally hands-on learners, so to get them in front of the actual equipment where they can touch it, press buttons, and see how systems react when a pump turns on or off, is much more effective than videos or PowerPoint,” Vallett adds.
NTI rolled out its first demo van in 2018; today the company has four fully equipped vans on the road: two Dodge Ram 3500s and two Ford Sprinter vans. Things have changed a bit, however, because of COVID.
“Only the trainers touch the controls, everybody must wear a mask, and we keep a supply of NTI-branded masks and sanitizer on the truck that we pass out to the people who attend,” says Dave Walsh, vice president of sales for NTI.
The company also allows fewer people in the vans than before the pandemic. Employees park mobile units in an area for longer periods of time and schedule contractors visits.
“We let contractors in one at a time to maintain social distancing,” Walsh says. “In the past we’d have people crammed into a van looking over each other's shoulder to see and touch the equipment. Now it's more one-on-one, but that's been effective.”
Walsh adds, “This is a hands-on industry, and the demo vans give us the ability to provide hands-on training on our products.”
The NTI vans come equipped with two TRX Series and FTVN Series heating boilers and two combi furnaces. Walsh explains it’s important to show the TRX and FTVN products to customers as their Wi-Fi-enabled capabilities allow contractors to adjust and monitor boilers remotely.
“These products are perfect during a pandemic,” Walsh says. “Instead of having to send a tech to a home or commercial building, they can adjust the boiler remotely to protect occupants and technicians.”
Lochinvar relies on its sales representatives to deliver the van from one area to another. But Saniflo regional managers deliver units to the next stop. The firm may hire a driver if the distance is too far away.
“When we are driving the van long distances, we want to make sure we aren’t passing up certain territories and markets, Peterson explains. “So, we set up a schedule and travel a route throughout the year. We try to keep the van out of colder locations because we don’t want the plumbing inside to freeze.”
Once they set a date for the van’s expected arrival, Saniflo representatives can schedule specific stops, sometimes six weeks to two months in advance. His team may send out e-blasts or distribute flyers and posters advertising the display date as well as promote it on social media.
“We want to ensure there is enough time to advertise the event and promote the stock at wholesale distributors,” Peterson says.
U.S. Boiler assigns the vans to specific regional sales teams for several months at a time. The reps determine which customers to visit in their territory. The vans are small enough that anyone can drive them with ease.
Moving the van between locations usually involves a handoff from one team to another, but auto transporters are occasionally used to shuttle vehicles long distances.
Viega schedules The Roadshow by region through the marketing and sales departments. The sales team schedules visits through a web portal based on local customers’ needs.
Hook says his vans have global positioning systems installed, which relay the vehicle’s location and odometer reading. When it’s time for routine maintenance, like an oil change, Hook finds a repair center near the vehicle and asks the sales rep to get the work done.
“A van lost a windshield in a hailstorm one time, and others have had things lodged in tires, but we could dispatch a mobile repair service to take care of the problems,” Hook says.
Because boilers bounce around on the road, the displays and slide out rollers need periodic adjustments. That requires an annual trip to the company’s headquarters in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where they can also retrofit displays with newer products.
Since 1987, Lochinvar has owned six different vans that have evolved over time. The van makes up to 60 stops per month at various locations as it zig-zags across the country. One challenge is to keep the vehicle properly maintained so it can keep up with its rigorous travel schedule.
“We keep maintenance logs in the van, and the people receiving it must confirm all work was done when they accept it,” Vallett says. “But, if work still needs to be performed, we must do it before the van moves to a new territory. For any major repairs, we bring the van back to Tennessee.”
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