Rhiannon Andersen is Co-Owner and CMO at Steelhead Productions, a company that designs exhibits and tradeshow environments, customizes displays to the clients’ specifications, rents out the components, and oversees shipping, setup, onsite union labor workers, and teardown.
Many companies sell complete exhibits or tradeshow environments. Steelhead Productions has been in the “rental business” since Rhiannon’s father started the company 22 years ago near Seattle. Rhiannon and her business partner, Sean, bought the company in 2006. In 2007, they decided to move to Las Vegas, thinking that, although they were doing well in Seattle, opportunity would be much greater in convention-rich Vegas. They arrived just in time for the economy to take a dive.
Riding out the 2008 through 2010 economic downturn by providing a lower-cost “rent vs. own” option for cash-strapped exhibitors, Rhiannon believes today’s “collaborative consumption” (e.g., Airbnb, Uber) is transforming how people have access to they want and is “right in line” with Steelhead’s rental philosophy.
Steelhead buys infrastructure components and maintains its massive inventory (and some of its high-end clients’ properties) in a 50,000 square foot warehouse near the Las Vegas convention center. The company provides flooring, infrastructure components, backdrops, furniture, specialty lighting, video screens, monitors and more—everything tradeshow and event managers need for temporary, impactful, and sustainable branding. Each display is customized to meet the renting client’s requirements. Rental exhibits have another advantage in addition to lower cost and curated setup—flexibility. Because companies don’t buy high-cost displays, they can easily update and refresh their “image” with every show.
Due to high fuel costs, the cost of crating tradeshow infrastructure and shipping it long distance can be prohibitive. Rhiannon recommends that exhibitors or tradeshow marketers develop relationships with exhibit rental companies like Steelhead near where they are exhibiting.
Rhiannon has found her company’s membership in Entrepreneur’s Organization and exposure to other entrepreneurs has brought an increased understanding of smart ways of being a business owner.
She feels that the future of the tradeshow industry does not rest on techno-glitter as much as on the human-to-human connection and bonding that can happen on the tradeshow floor.
Rhiannon can be reached on her company website at exhibithappy.com, which resolves to: https://www.steelheadproductions.com/. On LinkedIn, the company shares thoughts on industry trends. Instagram and Facebook speak more to how the organization works.
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I am excited to be joined today by Rhiannon Andersen, Co-Owner and CMO at Steelhead Productions based in Las Vegas, Nevada. Welcome, Rhiannon.
ROB: It’s great to have you here. Why don’t you start off – and I think our audience is really going to enjoy this – by telling us a little bit about Steelhead Productions and what makes Steelhead great?
RHIANNON: Sure. We help tradeshow and event managers create really impactful and sustainable events. We do that through the use of a rental system so the event manager doesn’t have to buy the infrastructure needed to brand or outfit any temporary space that they want to represent their brand specifically.
ROB: If somebody is not in this space, help us – we don’t even know what we don’t know. Tell me all of the things, or at least some of the things that I wouldn’t even think about logistically that I need, that you would help out with, that I would say “I didn’t even know you needed that thing.”
RHIANNON: If you can envision a tradeshow hall, typically it’s a big, open space, and it’s a concrete floor and maybe some lighting suspended from the ceiling. Well, if you’re a marketer that wants to take your product or service and market it at a tradeshow, you would need everything from the flooring all the way to the specialty lighting to create a space to communicate what it is you’re bringing to that particular marketplace.
Steelhead designs the entire environment – all of the flooring, all of the infrastructure. If you wanted to do a presentation or you wanted to have a conversation space or serve a snack, our designers would design an entire space.
What makes us unique? There are lots of companies that would build out an entire exhibit or tradeshow environment and they would sell it to you. That would have a huge capital expenditure associated with it. It’s a custom-built space.
Now, Steelhead believes that that’s not really necessary because a marketing environment which is temporary should be able to be changed frequently because people’s brand and messaging and services change. That’s where we have designed into our model, we buy all of the infrastructure components and then we work with the clients to figure out how they want to customize the look and feel to suit what they’re going for.
ROB: When I look at your website – which is a motivational journey; when I look at your website, I just want to figure out how to afford any or all of these at some different time. What I would say is looking at the different exhibits that you’re showcasing on your site, they don’t look like somebody else’s leftovers. It does not look like, “I got the same tired backdrop.”
So, it seems like there’s an extent to which you all are sort of remix artists with these different pieces and parts. There’s a tremendous degree of imagination, it seems.
RHIANNON: Totally. I think that there’s a little bit of a misunderstanding around rental. I believe, though, that the methodology or the thought process around it is changing pretty significantly.
First of all, you think rental – rundown, dingy, used. That’s not necessarily the case in today’s day and age. I’m not saying that that doesn’t exist, but it doesn’t have to be that way. We like to look at our inventory as essentially the bones of the environment, which then can have anything applied to them to make them customizable.
The flexibility of our system lies in the imagination of the end user and then our designers, because they can take a registration desk – which a lot of people have registration desks – and they can completely transform it with the materials that they outfit it with.
RHIANNON: We in our company say that we design exhibits and build out tradeshows, and we get a lot of blank stares. Unless you’re in at as a marketer, it’s not familiar to many people.
Actually, my father founded our company 22 years ago, and quite frankly, I really didn’t want to have anything to do with the family business. I went to college and became a social worker and really poured myself into that profession for a few years, and got burnt out.
I needed a break, and I went to my dad and sort of begged him for a job – which he gave me. Then I started working in the marketing department and really found that I have a passion for it. I stuck with the business and worked inside the daily operations of the business, and then in 2006 my dad was ready to retire. My business partner now and I decided that we wanted to buy the business from him.
So that’s what we did, and that’s how I ended up in the tradeshow industry. We actually started in Seattle. We were started in the Pacific Northwest right outside of Seattle. That was during a time where the economy was booming. It was late 1990s and there was a lot of money flowing into marketing budgets.
We were able to have a really healthy small business in that area. When Sean, my business partner, and I decided to take over the business, our first big entrepreneurial mark was to move the business to Las Vegas because we thought if we can survive in a non-tradeshow metropolitan city, that we would really thrive in Las Vegas.
If you think back – 2007 maybe we did the move – 2008, 2009, and 2010 was where the economy was completely falling apart. So here we find ourselves, these two young entrepreneurs – I was 30, he was 32 – business in Las Vegas, and completely being knocked around by the economic challenges that were facing pretty much every single business in every single industry.
Quite frankly, it’s what we had, so we stuck with it and were able to ride an economic downturn that so many of our competitors weren’t able to. I think a lot of it was attributed to our fresh thinking. We were able to make quick and really rapid decisions that scaled our business to where it needed to be given the times that we were dealing with.
ROB: During that 2007-2008 downturn, was the model still the same? Were you still renting equipment to people, or was it different in some way?
RHIANNON: Actually, our model was perfectly positioned to serve the marketers who still needed to exhibit, but may not have the budget necessary to build a great exhibit. We were able to show up with a proposition that met everybody in that marketing space where they were at.
ROB: Got it. Some people are worrying a little bit that we may have another downturn in store for us. Is there anything you’re doing differently this time, where you would be perhaps differently prepared for a downturn should such a thing show up?
RHIANNON: Yeah, we’re really doubling down on our philosophies around rental. If you think about the nature of collaborative consumption right now – the Airbnbs and the Ubers – it’s really transforming the way that we go about having access to what it is that we want.
We believe in that model for the tradeshow marketing industry, and we believe that it provides the best value, the most flexibility, and really does offer quite an equivalent amount of creativity as building something new and only using it for a short period of time.
ROB: It’s sort of like a really ginormous vision of Rent the Runway. People don’t think about Rent the Runway as being slummy coach. You can rent a really nice dress for a really special occasion, and you’re like the business version of that.
RHIANNON: Totally. It’s manifesting in every industry. People don’t want to own as much as they’ve wanted to in the past. I believe we’re in this funny transition place with that concept, because those who are maybe in a different generation look at this new model with a little bit of skepticism, where millennials are coming in and they don’t want to be burdened by ownership of stuff. We think it’s the right way for tradeshow marketers, for sure.
ROB: You even have to figure out where to put all of this stuff. Do you have a giant warehouse somewhere on the outskirts of Las Vegas?
RHIANNON: Yeah, we do. We have about 50,000 square feet. Not too far from the convention center, actually. We store mainly our inventory, and then we do have some client properties, such as graphics or really high custom items that they want to store with us while they aren’t doing a tradeshow cycle.
ROB: What are some of the other hidden and unexpected things that someone more naïve like me in the industry wouldn’t even think about? Are you handling transporting something from Las Vegas to New York for me? Are you handling dealing with five different unions that have to set the thing up? Tell me a little bit about that.
RHIANNON: Yeah, of course, there are so many unique needs that unless you’re in it, you really wouldn’t know about. But you have to essentially create this really spectacular environment from nothing to magnificent – so from the concrete floor to the images that you see on our website, which are these really beautiful environments – in about 3 days.
There are lots of moving parts associated with that. We have a team of people that go onsite and oversee union labor, typically, in the convention centers, and put these environments up in a matter of 48 hours. It’s quite amazing.
Then you spoke to transportation. That is a major factor, because fuel costs are relatively high these days. To take this infrastructure, to pack it up, to put it in crates, put it on a truck, and ship it across the country can get quite cost prohibitive. So, it really does benefit those exhibitors or tradeshow marketers to find relationships and partners with companies like ours near where they’re exhibiting. It does keep the cost down for sure.
ROB: That’s interesting. I had no idea, and I love learning some of this. You mentioned some of how you dealt with the downturns; what are some other things you’ve learned from building Steelhead that you would do differently if you were starting from scratch? Would you join it sooner? Would you do some things differently as you’ve grown in terms of team or strategy?
RHIANNON: I am thankful that I bought an existing business, because I was able to see that there was a need. Sometimes if you were to start from scratch, you are putting yourself out there and you’re not really sure if it’s going to stick. So that was a nicety for sure.
The one thing that I would do differently is creating an executive management team earlier in our buying of the business. That’s an add that we have looped into our system, with an executive leadership team having strategic meetings offsite, doing planning, checking markers to make sure the business is staying healthy – and we started that about 8 years ago.
ROB: We talked a little bit before in the pre-call about you being a part of Entrepreneurs Organization. Were you involved in EO at that time? Is that where some of this execution and meeting cadence DNA came in? Or did you find that at a different time?
RHIANNON: No, actually we started our executive leadership management prior to being involved in EO. However, EO has been pretty transformational for our business. Being surrounded by entrepreneurs who are trying to run their businesses similarly has added a lot of depth to our own understanding around the smart ways of being a business owner.
ROB: What is coming up in the world of tradeshows, in the world of displays, in the world of conference marketing that we should be paying attention to? What are you excited about?
RHIANNON: It’s really funny that you ask me this question, because I try to keep a pulse on the happenings, and I’ve been seeing a lot of talk around human-to-human engagement being enhanced in the exhibit environments.
I’ll rewind a little bit. Technology, yes, is this super amazing opportunity to incorporate. You can have VR (virtual reality) opportunities in your exhibit or in your booth. You can put on amazing presentations, and you can have digitized content on all of the screens. But it doesn’t replace shaking hands with somebody who you may decide to do business with.
So there’s a lot of talk right now about incorporating opportunities for human-to-human connection in the exhibit environment.
ROB: For sure. Maybe it’s just being connected with you on LinkedIn for the past month or so, but I’ve seen some really interesting conversations. Your content really ends up showing up because it’s visually appealing, because you’re talking about a lot of things that people don’t know, but a lot of things that people are interested in.
I think I saw things talking about stripping down to creating spaces for people to talk, couches, that sort of thing. It’s almost at the other end of VR, right? Putting on a helmet and not talking to anybody.
RHIANNON: Yeah. I really think that our society is calling for it, because we do have so many ways to engage in the digital space or to engage with technology. The majority of us sit in front of a computer all day. To be intentional about this space being designed perfectly for human engagement, it really makes sense.
And quite honestly, I kind of feel like the future of the tradeshow industry rests on our ability to harness that human-to-human connection and bonding that happens on the tradeshow floor in reference to business.
ROB: One thing that’s kind of a weird anachronism of tradeshows, when I think about it, is this very peculiar – you were talking about human-to-human connections – the very unhuman question of, “Can I scan your badge?” Is there any end to that coming in sight? Are we going to get past that sometime?
RHIANNON: Yeah, there are technologies that already exist. Sometimes there’s beaconing technologies, so you’re given a wristband that contains your data. Then if you come within a certain amount of feet from a beaconing device, you’re automatically registered.
I prefer to take the permission marketing approach. I think that feels really natural and comfortable when you exchange information with somebody, because they want to hear from you again.
ROB: Some of it, I think the blame can probably be put more on the people exhibiting than anyone else. There are people, as I understand it, who are measured on badge scans.
RHIANNON: Yeah, for sure.
ROB: It creates some pretty strange incentives.
RHIANNON: Yeah, it does. I was just going to say that people talk about metrics on the tradeshow floor, and yeah, I think the traffic inside an exhibiting environment is pretty important.
I think what’s more important or what could be a better measure for success is engagement and the amount of conversations that are being had or the amount of people who participate in the activity you’ve decided to host within your environment – a coffee bar or giving away a snack or having some sort of game or something like that. It’s a much better indicator of success in terms of tradeshow marketing.
ROB: You’re talking about things that sound a lot more pleasant to me as well. [laughs] Rather than throwing my card in a giant pile and filling out a Bingo card so I have a one-in-a-million chance to win a Tesla or whatever – which I’ve seen, and I still wanted to win the Tesla – but it didn’t feel very human. I was at an ecommerce show, and I’m talking to packaging vendors and wasting all of our time, because I don’t need packaging and they don’t need me. I’m not shipping anything anywhere.
RHIANNON: [laughs] Yeah.
ROB: I probably should’ve asked this sooner, and I’d really love to get a context on it. I’ll let you fill in all of the blanks. If I am a decent size company and I am going to fill out a decent size booth at a decent size conference – I know this is very vague and there’s infinite combinations here – but if I were going to go and try to build a booth, what is that going to run me? And what does that alternate arrangement look like if I’m renting from you?
I think people truly don’t know. So give us a size, give us an idea of a cost we would pay for something reasonably nice, and then tell us what it looks like to rent it.
To try to still contextualize it a little bit, though, suppose I come to you and I say I have a 20×20 space – well, I don’t come to you, because I would rent from you. But if I were going to build something with someone, I have a 20×20 space and I have $50,000. What can I get for that? What does that get me? I’m just trying to picture it a little bit.
RHIANNON: I can tell you that you would get a good-looking custom exhibit for that price. The bells and whistles would vary on which components are important to you. That’s a very reasonable budget for a well-appointed 20 x 20.
Now, if you were wanting video screens and monitors and LED and hanging lighting, then you’re talking something much more expensive.
Alternatively speaking, if you were to own it, there are so many variables with the ownership piece. It’s not really our area of necessarily expertise, so I’ll refrain from giving what I think you could buy that for because we think that rental really is the way, and that budget does work for 20×20.
ROB: Okay. But to your point, I had not even thought about insurance, insuring my booth. If I’m spending $50,000, I understand why I want to insure it, but I had not thought about it. I do not want to think about it. It sounds like that’s why a lot of people call you.
RHIANNON: Right, exactly. Yeah. And that’s one cost, because then you have to store it and you have to refurbish it, and it gets costly. Also, I think that it’s costly because people’s attention spans are short. They don’t want to see the same thing they saw the last time you exhibited. They want to see something fresh and new.
ROB: For sure. Rhiannon, when people want to find you and find Steelhead, how should they find you?
RHIANNON: I think the easiest is our website, exhibithappy.com. We’re on pretty much the major social platforms as well, so we can be found there. Like you mentioned, we try to be active on LinkedIn. It’s an opportunity for us to share our thoughts on the trends in the industry, and then we use Instagram and Facebook to speak more to how we work as an organization, which we take a lot of pride in.
ROB: Excellent. Thank you so much for your time, for sharing your knowledge and your journey. I think this has been a really unique story. I’m glad to be able to hear it and share.
RHIANNON: Awesome. Thank you so much.
ROB: Thank you so much. Take care.
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