Mr. Wolfe Goes to Washington

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As luck would have it, the 2006 Greenbuild Conference was in Denver, the same place as the November Board meeting, so I went out a day early to see what Greenbuild had to offer. I did not attend any of the education sessions; instead, I devoted an entire day to prowling the exhibit floor, looking for magic bullets.

I don’t have anything remarkable to report. In fact, one of my first impressions was that the exhibits were pretty much what you would expect at a CSI or AIA convention, the most obvious difference being the addition of the word “green” to each vendor’s display. Well, I did see one exhibit I had never seen before - for cast iron pipe. It’s making a comeback! There it was, in all its black glory - labeled “green” of course!

Even though the overall feeling on the exhibit floor was about the same as at a CSI convention, there were some notable differences. First was the attendance. I have heard estimates of 13,000 to 15,000, but I don’t know how those numbers were calculated. For comparison, our Las Vegas convention had fewer than 1,000 paid attendees, and a total attendance of about 4,700. Greenbuild expects to see 25,000 next year in Los Angeles. Not bad, especially considering the registration fee of $575 for members.

I also noticed that the crowd was younger than at our conventions, with a larger percentage of women. Among the things that USGBC has going is that “sustainable design” is hot, sexy, and in the news. These are young people looking for a cause, while our members are interested in the more mundane part of our business - making things work. It’s not that our members aren’t interested in sustainable design; they are, but their experience forces them to be more critical, and to look beyond the hype of every new product and process.

The exhibits were similar to those at a CSI show, but there were a few differences. I saw more solar collection devices, some of them looking like props from a sci-fi movie, and more solar control louvers and films. There were many more products aimed at the residential market, and a large number of companies selling reclaimed or recycled wood products.

Perhaps the most interesting thing I noticed was the apparent inexperience of many attendees. There were a lot of college students, and I expect them to ask a lot of questions, but many of those who appeared to be out in the working world showed a surprising lack of basic knowledge about products and design. One well-dressed man, who appeared to be in his thirties, asked an exhibitor what types of products she was selling. After a brief description of her line of stair treads, corner guards, and crash rails, the man asked, “Do you use those in buildings?”

One exhibitor of a well-known roofing manufacturer told me she had been asked several times if they sold “green roofs.” The exhibitor patiently explained that her company sold roofing systems, which could be used as part of a green roof system. The question sounds reasonable here, but the way it was asked suggested those who asked the question thought a green roof comes in a box.

Without exception, the product representatives I talked with were impressed by the attendance; some claimed they had never had as many leads anywhere. Most qualified those comments, noting that while they had talked to a lot of people, the obvious lack of experience of many attendees meant those leads were not as valuable as those obtained in other shows - at least for now.

I couldn’t help but ask, “Why weren’t these people in Las Vegas?” I believe we have a perception problem. CSI is seen as a bunch of old fuddy-duddies, which is understandable given the average age of our members. The uninitiated don’t know that after a full day of exhibits and education programs, we’re a bunch of party animals, and they won’t know until we find a way to entice them to one of our conventions.

Coincidentally, one of the main items on the Board’s November agenda was a branding initiative. “Branding” is a marketing term, related to the way a company uses advertising, unique design or image, and other means to improve the way it is perceived, and to make consumers associate specific products with that company. With the aid of a consultant, we are examining how CSI is perceived both inside and outside the organization. The intent is to make CSI more visible in the construction industry, through promotion of the value of CSI membership, certification, education programs, and other CSI activities.

In many areas, the consultant report affirmed what we already know. Although CSI is seen as an organization that made important contributions to the development and consistency of specifications, it is also seen as an organization that is out of date, non-responsive to new trends and technology, and irrelevant in today’s world. While the industry is aware of what CSI has done with the organization of information and paper documents, our work with other organizations in the advancement of CAD standards and overall classification systems is little known.

We cannot grow if we are seen only as “those people who write specifications” and we cannot survive if we are seen as a herd of dinosaurs. Young professionals are products of the computer age - multitasking, always on the go; consumed by more demands from work, home, and relaxation than any previous generation; accustomed to instant response to every need, not willing to wait for a slow-moving organization that doesn’t look all that exciting.

Restructuring CSI’s website is an important part of the branding initiative. The Internet is where it’s at today, and if our website doesn’t immediately portray an organization that is current, active, and exciting, it does nothing to encourage membership - in fact, it drives visitors away. The current website has a lot of information, but it is difficult to access. The most frequently used part of the website is the member database, an indication that our own members either don’t know what is on the site, or can’t figure out how to get to it. The new vision is for a dynamic site, rather than one that is essentially a collection of static pages. One of the possibilities discussed is an interactive knowledge base similar to Wikipedia, which allows users to post and edit information that is then vetted by experts.

As the saying goes, “Perception is reality.” The CSI convention has all the exhibits and education I saw at the Greenbuild conference, and more. But until we actively promote the benefits of membership and certification, what we have will remain a secret, and our membership will continue to dwindle.

Sheldon Wolfe, RA, FCSI, CCS, CCCA
Institute Director, North Central Region, CSI

© 2007 Sheldon Wolfe, RA, FCSI, CCS, CCCA, swolfe@bwbr.com 


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