At stone industry trade shows such as StonExpo or Coverings, the one event I always make sure I attend (no matter how early it takes place) is the "Fabricator Forum," where industry members gather and present their issues to a panel of industry experts. These forums generally do not have a rigid agenda, and they sort of follow a "Town Hall" format, where people share their problems (and hopefully solutions) with their peers. I even used to moderate these forums, but I have found their content to be so valuable that I prefer to sit in the crowd, where I can fully concentrate on -- and record -- the pressing issues of our industry.

Back in the day (and we all know what "day" I'm talking about -- the glory of 2006 or so), these forums tended to focus on practical issues. They would focus on issues like polishing sink cut-outs, or water recycling, or templating methods. The one thing that people didn't really focus on was business, because it seemed as if they didn't really need to bother. The phone was ringing off the hook, and the only fabrication shops that weren't making money were clearly doing something wrong -- and they were few and far between.

Well, we all know what has happened since then, so I don't need to get into it. Suffice is to say that stone fabricators are working in a vastly different climate than they saw five years ago. As such, these Fabricator Forums have taken on a different tone than the ones of years ago. Attendees are now talking about business; more specifically, they are discussing how to stay in business.

Instead of talking about seam placement and rodding, fabricators are talking about marketing strategy, sales structure, showrooms/customer education, price structure and other business factors. Like I said, when your main goal each day is simply to keep the doors to your company open, your priorities tend to change.

Examples of some new business approaches are covered in the "How-To" section of this E-Newsletter, which summarizes a Fabricator Forum that focus on the topic. The full transcript runs for more than 2,000 words, and it is definitely worth the read, but here is a sampling of what was said:

On Social Media: "I think [Social Media platforms] are useful, but you have to be careful that they aren't overused, and suddenly everyone is sitting on Facebook all day long."

On customer relations: "We have walk-in customers, and for us, the most important thing is to make sure they are educated and they know what to expect."

On showroom technology: "We have flat-screens in our showrooms. We can click on jobs with different materials, different edges, etc. It is amazing to see how many people will change their initial choices once they have seen the alternatives."

On price structure: "We used to have builder pricing versus retail pricing, but all of that went away. We don't want to lose a job because we didn't give the best reasonable price."

On inventory management: "We have cut our inventory way back over the last five years, since there are four stoneyards in our immediate area."

Of course, this is just a small taste of the topics and discussions at the forum. I highly recommend reading the transcript in its entirety, because I can honestly say that such a forum has not ever taken place in the fabricator sector before.

The next "Fabricator Forum" is set to take place in less than a week at the Coverings exposition in Las Vegas, NV, and it includes several of the participants from the forum being published in this E-Newsletter. It will be on Tuesday, March 15. from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. (I know that 8 a.m. is painfully early in Las Vegas, but it's worth it.) If do you attend, feel free to walk up to me and say hello. I'll be the guy sitting in the front row scribbling furiously into his notebook.