By April Dudash
No room in your company's 2012 budget for a booth at a military expo? You might want to crunch the numbers one more time.
If you had to put your money on just one, the safe (but pricey) bet might be the Association of the U.S. Army's Annual Meeting & Expo. Exhibitor spots sell like hotcakes for this one, and in fact, organizers filled all 2012 slots within days of opening them to the public last fall.
Top AUSA sustaining members get first dibs every summer followed by the general public, usually in October, so it's not too early to start thinking about 2013.
"For someone who doesn't understand the breadth of the Army, AUSA brings it all into perspective," says Jim McLean, director of Army operations for NCI Information Systems in Fayetteville and incoming chairman for the North Carolina Defense Business Association.
McLean spent 23 years in the Army. He goes to AUSA every year to network and connect with old comrades. And there are a lot of comrades: 21,440 attendees, guests and speakers were at last year's conference.
That kind of exposure doesn't come cheap. Businesses pay $49 a square foot for exhibit space. With the usual 10 by 10 space, that's $4,900. Military gets a special discount, $19 a square foot.
North Carolina may have started a trend by setting up a state "pavilion" to promote the defense industry. Mary Wille, exhibits and sponsorships coordinator for AUSA, couldn't remember any other state trying it before.
Wille said more states may join in. As for North Carolina, "They're going to get a bigger space (in 2012)," said McLean.
Where everybody knows your name
Jim Scott with Fayetteville's Construction Systems Inc. is routinely seen at conferences and expos around the region. He has been with CSI and the Fayetteville-Cumberland County Chamber of Commerce since 1995, and he feels strongly about using these newfound contacts and networking events as a way to promote economic development.
"I was very pleased with the participation from our region," Scott said about AUSA. "We got a lot of traffic."
His company started pursuing military contracts about eight years ago. The visibility of local businesses such as The Logistics Co. and RLM Communications encouraged CSI to go after the military sector.
Scott said when he attends expos, he's not just going after the military contacts. He's talking with vendors, too, to take note of their expansion and renovation needs.
The goal is to "meet those people who are going to be moving here," he said.
It's "finding out how to think outside the box and how to solve their problems," he added. "At the end of the day, when we understand those things, then we can serve better."
Fort Bragg hosts a number of military expos including the Special Operations Forces Symposium and Exposition. A staple every November, stay tuned for details from Fayetteville's Suggs Group. The 2011 expo saw 87 exhibitors. Each shelled out between $2,200 to $2,500 for booth space.
Jay Colson, who traveled all the way from Montana to represent Snowy Mtn Rifle Co. at SOFEX said he gained some personal sales from the event and is also in talks to do some bigger federal projects, which he could not reveal due to security reasons.
SOFEX 2011 was the first time his company ventured into the federal marketplace, and Colson thought Fort Bragg was a good place to start.
Co-owners Brian Goettlich and Jason Rigby agreed that the faster acquisition process for special operations is something they wanted to target because those units go directly to the source of what they need.
Circle your calendars, too, for the Federal Construction Summit. Held in October and organized by the North Carolina Military Business Center, the conference opened registration for last year's event in August and sold out in about three weeks.
Booths at last year's FedCon went for $300, a price that included two one-day FedCon passes plus table-top display with all the fixings.
The Military Business Center charges the at-cost price, according to Courtney Smedick with NCMBC Integrated Marketing & Training Development.
T.J. McDonald was one of the exhibitors representing Stay-Right Precast Concrete Inc. of Franklinton.
McDonald said the most reliable information he had gleaned from the summit was how much work and money would still be available in the federal market in 2012.
"We did do it in 2010," McDonald said of FedCon. "We had big success with it. We made an effort that we were in this every year."
He said Stay-Right was able to walk away with orders, and he finally got the chance to talk with the military personnel on his list. "We walk away with information, which is priceless, and we walk away with tons of contacts, so it's very well worth it."