Last summer, Shiloh Kelly moved into a “green” home just a mile from her old one. Partly driven by a need to ameliorate her daughter’s asthma, Kelly says she really moved because she knows too much.
“Your indoor-air quality is worse than just stepping out the door into a polluted area,” she says. “If you know anything about it, it’s really scary.” This isn’t just about where Kelly lives, but what she does for a living: She’s the communications and national sustainability lead at BlueLinx, a building-products distributor that takes sustainable living very seriously.
“Our main resource is around wood,” Kelly says. “If you want wood to be able to build more houses in the future, you need to look at sustainable forestry.” BlueLinx had its epiphany in 2005, she recalls, and “going green” soon seemed like common sense. “We started down that road to make sure we had resources to service our customers, because that’s good business in general,” she says. “We want to be good stewards of the environment.”
BlueLinx has 72 branches nationwide, nearly two-thirds of which typically host local shows to introduce new products. In 2008, to promote the launch of a sustainability program and brand of ecoproducts called PureBlue, the company considered a two-day event for all its customers. Preliminary cost estimates for the event were astonishing: conference space, $160,000; hotel, $180,000; booths and materials, $5,000 to $10,000; and additional costs for food, entertainment, and activities.
That was a steep recession-era tab—and BlueLinx also had to consider the expenses its attendees would have to bear. Yet the undeniable appeal of a nationwide event prompted a search that led to Unisfair, a provider of virtual events and trade shows. BlueLinx launched its first national conference in March 2009—online.
With the physical event, BlueLinx expected 20 exhibiting vendors at most and perhaps 350 attendees. The virtual show, however, had 50 vendors set up “booths,” and a whopping 1,400 people attended over the initial two days. (BlueLinx kept the environment open for 90 days to serve as a resource for the building community—and saw another 900 attendees.)
Worried about attracting a non-tech-savvy audience—or what Kelly describes as “lumbermen in overalls”—BlueLinx was impressed by how intuitive Unisfair’s environment turned out to be. Attendees were unable to preview the environment, so had there not been a Second Life–like feel, she says, “it would have been real trouble.” On the event’s first day, the pace of company sales was 12 percent above average; by the second, the pace was 19 percent above average, likely due to increased familiarity with the virtual environment.
Kelly says the marketing impact may be unquantifiable given the inherent social and viral attributes of the environment. Promotion on social networks such as YouTube, LinkedIn, and Facebook reached people who may not have known BlueLinx but were interested in the industry.
“The best thing about technology today is not only the sustainability aspect of it,” she says, “but the viral aspect.” Overall, 5,150 documents were downloaded, eliminating paper and printing costs of nearly $7,000—and 410 tons of CO2 emissions.
The event also reached an entirely new market—an international one. BlueLinx had limited Mexican distribution, Kelly says, but no facility there. Yet among the avatars of the online participants, she recalls, “we had Mexican flags everywhere.”
And the effort raised BlueLinx’s profile. Before, Kelly says, calls on green issues “were few and far between.” Now vendors, customers, and media outlets see BlueLinx as an authority. “[They] solicit us for information around sustainable building products and the various programs out there to help them gain the knowledge to position themselves more effectively for upcoming opportunities,” she says.
The recession had one silver lining, Kelly says: The pause enabled the industry to develop plans for building better, smarter, and more effectively. Noting the industry’s pace of innovation—and government support from the stimulus—BlueLinx is already thinking about its next virtual event.
“There are a lot of things going on that customers may need help with,” Kelly says. “We want to be able to answer those trends—and virtual environments are a great way to get that done.”
With Unisfair’s virtual events, BlueLinx was able to:
- increase its sales pace by 19 percent;
- save at least $350,000 in estimated conference costs;
- save an estimated 410 tons of carbon emissions;
- accommodate 50 vendors (instead of an estimated 20) and 2,300 attendees (instead of an estimated 350); and
- enable 5,150 downloads, eliminating costs on paper and printing that would have run to nearly $7,000.