October 15, 2015

Extended Warranty Conferences:

Both the show in Chicago and the one in Nashville last month were generally regarded as advancements over their 2014 editions, with better presenters, more people, and much improved venues. But they're still not in the same league as the conference held in March, according to people who have been to all three shows.

There is so much untapped potential in the show business side of the warranty and service contract industries that it makes little sense for groups to compete with each other when they're all competing against the darkness.

Yet for the second year in a row, two groups staged similar conferences within a week of each other. On September 16 to 18, the Global Warranty and Service Contract Association staged its second annual conference at the Palmer House in Chicago. On September 28 and 29, Strategic Solutions Network convened the Extended Warranty & Service Contract Innovations Conference at the Renaissance Hotel in Nashville.

People who attended counted around 160 people in Nashville and around 110 in Chicago. Both were up from last year's conferences, which we covered in the October 16, 2014 newsletter. And both conferences were well worth the price of admission, according to all the attendees we spoke with.

There were eight or nine people who went to both shows. We asked five of them to tell us what they thought, and how they would compare the shows to each other, as well as to last year's equivalents. All agreed to do so only if they were identified by vague job descriptions, rather than by name. We spoke with a service contract industry executive, a warranty industry veteran, a first-time panelist, an industry lawyer, and a marketing executive. Here's some of what they had to say.

Most Improved From 2014

The service contract industry executive said he thought the Nashville conference was significantly better this year than last, both in terms of the quality of the presentations and in the sequence in which they were presented. It seemed heavily weighted towards the vehicle service contract side of the business, but that's the dominant sector by revenue as well.

"There was a lot of rich detail," he said, citing the furniture protection plan presentation of Valspar's Stuart Graff and Tony Cerino as an example. "They were actually sharing percentages," he noted.

The executive also liked the presentation by Magnus Gustafson from Volvo Trucks, who spoke about how the company was harnessing big data and using telematics. "A lot of good information," he said.

He also said he liked the way the Nashville conference kept everything in one room, rather than splitting up the program into separate parallel tracks. That made it look busy, kept it focused, and increased the amount of interaction.

The executive said he also liked the GWSCA show, for different reasons. "I thought the subject matter that they were addressing was extremely current, very topical, and very substantial to our industry," he said. There was a lot of discussion about how to engage with young people, who don't typically spend as much time watching TV, listening to the radio, or reading the newspaper as their elders did. Instead, they use their smartphones, which also help them find dates, navigate streets, shop online, and exchange texts with their friends.

"However, I felt that there wasn't enough participation in those sessions to make it very interactive and dynamic." People could come and go, or branch off into breakout sessions, and it made the main room look a little empty at times. "It was very Spartan," he said.

"A conference, especially young conferences like Warranty Innovations and the GWSCA, would probably do better to mature before they start undertaking to split events out," he said. "If they had kept it as one series of events, they would have benefitted much more from the results of the engagement with the people there."

Back-to-Back Conferences

He also said he didn't like how the two conferences ended up with only a week between them. That made it hard to justify going to both. Two back-to-back conferences are going to split the available audience, he said.

"It's unfortunate that there's a little bit of tension and rivalry between them, in an industry that's small, with a limited number of participants," he said. "I would have hoped there was better collaboration, so that the timing would have been better, and there was more room between them, to take advantage of people who would have been willing to participate in two different events."

Also, given that the content of both conferences was similar -- in fact four or five of the presenters gave essentially the same speech at both events -- he said he couldn't cost-justify sending any of his staff to either of them. It would be better for them to wait until spring and go to WCM, which covers much of the same ground and then some.

"Conferences are not cheap. And travel is not cheap."

In fact, the executive suggested that some of this year's presentations could easily go out as webinars, or as livestreams of the speeches themselves. With people paying literally thousands of dollars for hotel, airfare, and conference registrations, some reluctant travelers might be quite willing to pay half as much to stay home watch it on a small screen, he said -- maybe even on their smartphones. "I think that would truly open it up."

Also, he suggested that the GWSCA could leverage this kind of technology to truly go global, and to set an example for other markets that are not as mature as the U.S. when it comes to warranty and service contracts. But, he warned, such an expansion is going to require a professional staff, a paid executive director, and more of the trappings of an industry trade association.

"It's a lot of work to put on a conference," he said. "There are a lot of logistical issues, there's a lot of planning, and if it's purely voluntary, I think it doesn't get the attention it could get from a professional body that can spend their time organizing it. If they want to take it up a notch, they are going to have to invest in resources that manage this kind of an event."

Not Much Warranty?

Meanwhile, the warranty industry veteran said he had the same problem with both shows: they were primarily about service contracts, and not so much about warranties. And even with the focus on service contracts, there was more of a focus on the up-front sales and profits than on the actual claims and costs on the back end.

"Service contracts can give you information beyond the normal warranty period about the reliability of your product," he noted. But it seemed like the interest was more about the sales data and the customer demographics than the failure data and the additional visibility that it can give to a manufacturer.

"There was a lot of legal content, and sell-side content, whereas my interest is more on the manufacturing/quality side of things," he said. "My focus is how can we make better products, how can we protect people from defective products, how can we keep people safer and make more money? I don't want to say that they're bad conferences for that reason, it's just probably not a great fit for my interests."

That criticism stands for both conferences, he said. They were more similar to each other, and both were very different from the Warranty Chain Management Conference that's held in March. "WCM is still the best conference for me," the veteran said.

Also, he didn't like the way traveling to and from the shows this year robbed him of some family time, because of the days of the week they chose. "One thing they both did wrong was butting up against a weekend," the veteran said. While the Warranty Innovations show began early on a Monday morning, the GWSCA show ended on a Friday afternoon. And a line of severe thunderstorms moving in on the airports caused a bit of an early exodus during that final panel discussion anyhow.

Better Audio & Video

Overall, he said, the GWSCA show this year was better-run than last year, but the content was similar. He noted that the Nashville event also seemed to run much more smoothly this year, compared to previous years. "I thought the flow was better and far fewer technical issues than have happened before," he said. Last year, he said, the audio was terrible and the screen location was horrible, so people could neither see nor hear the presentations.

However, as well-run as this year's shows were, he still noted that there was only a week between them, and that makes it difficult to justify going to both. "I still find it hard to believe that there's enough interest to have two very similar conferences, especially that close together. However, both of them grew this year," he said.

By our count, Warranty Innovations grew the most, from 110 to 160, while GWSCA grew more modestly, from 90 to 110. But both shows together aren't quite equal to WCM, which drew 295 attendees earlier this year. Back in 2012, WCM drew 375 people to its show in Orlando.

The industry veteran said he'd prefer if there were a spring conference and a fall conference. "I just don't know if there's enough interest to keep two fall conferences going," he added. Then again, he saw a lot of new faces, so maybe there is lots of untapped potential out there?

Also, he said he didn't see very many sponsors or exhibitors at either show. But in Nashville in particular, it seemed like the handful of exhibitors were essentially buying their speaking slots, which they then used to deliver a sales pitch -- something that almost never happens at WCM.

More Transparency

In contrast to some of the others, the first-time panelist said these were the first and second warranty/service contract conferences he's ever been to. So he really didn't have anything else to compare them to, besides to each other.

"I found the Chicago program to be a more open forum," he said, "meaning they were quite happy to share the attendee list and do the sorts of things that people that spend money on these events like to receive. Whereas in Nashville, it's a for-profit enterprise running the event, and it's more of a pay-to-play environment."

Both groups were very welcoming, he noted. He said he loved the boat ride in Chicago, both as a networking opportunity and as a way to see some of the sights that he doesn't always get to see when he's traveling on business. "And it's always fun to go to Nashville," he said.

Then again, he said the content of the two shows seemed to be very similar, including some of the same speakers. "But my main criticism of the two conferences is that they're too close together," he said. He added that he thought this wasn't as much of a problem for him as it might have been for others, because he travels on business all the time. "I think that generally, people who were aware of both of them picked one or the other."

He said if he wasn't a panelist with complimentary admission, and if the conferences were six months apart, he still might have gone to both. "But not if they were on top of each other, like this. I'd pick one or the other. I probably wouldn't do both."

Room for Both?

The warranty lawyer said he was pleased with the attendance at both shows -- in fact, he said he was a little surprised that both shows managed to increase the headcount from last year. Conventional wisdom said that one would vanquish the other.

"Both of them seemed to be comparable, in terms of quality of material, the number of attendees, and that kind of thing," he said. Also, he said both the locations were good -- easy to get to and not far to travel.

The lawyer said he's such a frequent business traveler that he's used to having his trips come close together. But he worried that it may have been an issue for others in the industry. "They're just too close together in terms of time," he said. "Companies have limited budgets. They're lucky if they go to one conference a year."

In fact, he said that although he didn't do a detailed comparison of the topics or speakers in Nashville and Chicago, he wouldn't have let any of his staff go to both. "I would have let them go to one."

Meanwhile, he said he sees the organizers of the Nashville show as more of a professional conference company when it comes to the business, while the GWSCA is more experienced with the subject matter. Yet both seemed to do a good job where one would expect they would be weaker. Nashville had good content and Chicago had good organization.

He said he would like to see the GWSCA grow into more of a traditional trade association, adding some lobbying efforts, different committees, and maybe some specialized conferences in addition to its annual meeting. And that might help them grow their membership.

Strategic Solutions Network, based in Boca Raton FL, is the parent company of the Extended Warranty & Service Contract Innovations conference. Later this month, they have a financial services show in Philadelphia, and they have health insurance and medical-related shows upcoming in both Nashville and Las Vegas.

Not Ready for Breakout Sessions?

The service contract marketing executive said he thought both shows this year were improvements over last year, with increased attendance, better content, and better venues. However, Chicago didn't do a good job with the breakout sessions, and Nashville didn't do a good job for their exhibitors, he added.

But even if there was a better room for the breakout sessions, he wonders if they're really appropriate for a small conference. "If you're going to have less than 200 people, it probably doesn't make sense," he said, "unless you have enough people where you can create some meaningful tracks, such as an international track, a marketing track, or a finance track."

Meanwhile, the marketing executive said he thought the boat ride in Chicago was a great idea. "That was a real good event, not only from the point of view of showcasing the city of Chicago, but also giving the attendees an opportunity to get together in a more relaxed environment, and do some networking and relationship-building," he said.

He said he liked the training sessions in Chicago this year, but thought the shape and size of the room was not the best choice. Then again, he thought the main conference room in Nashville last year was an awful choice, with the stairs in the middle and the big dip in the front, and that this year was a huge improvement over that.

The email marketing before the Nashville show was much more aggressive and pervasive, he said. In fact, he continued to get solicitations long after he registered. In contrast, the GWSCA needs to do more, he said.

The GWSCA was much more helpful in distributing the speaker presentations and lists of attendees, he said. However, he said there were still a few sales pitches delivered at both conferences, with perhaps those in Nashville being more obvious.

Almost Didn't Go

The executive said he almost didn't go to Nashville this year, because last year was such a bad experience. But then an opportunity for a client meeting came up and he decided to go after all. "I'm glad I did because it was actually a better conference than I had anticipated."

He said it wasn't much of a logistical problem to get to both conferences, even though there was only a week between them. This year, he drove to one and flew to the other. Last year, he drove to both.

He said he had a problem finding a hotel room in Chicago, but that was because of all the other things going on in the city that week. So he ended up having to spend a little more than he expected. He said he was thinking of staying in Chicago for the weekend, but ended up not doing so.

In regards to the early Monday morning start in Nashville, he didn't make it, because he drove in that morning rather than on Sunday night. "Mondays are typically not ideal days to be starting a conference," he said. But he actually had a conference call for part of the trip.

Next year, we should note, the GWSCA has scheduled its meeting for Tuesday through Thursday, while the Nashville show will run from Wednesday to Friday the following week. Will anyone stay in the Music City for the weekend? We shall see.

The marketing executive also suggested that one or both conferences would benefit if the gap between them were more like 60 or 90 days. "If I'm looking across my team," he said, "and next year I want to send a couple of my directors, and one of my marketing managers, I might send one here and one there and be able to bring all that data back and share it across the organization." But he might not do that if the shows were on consecutive weeks.

"Two conferences a year on top of CES is about all I can do," he said.

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