Every spring and fall, Americans nationwide go hunting en masse for the answers to their nagging home improvement questions. Home shows and open house tours draw thousands of homeowners; some are just curious or looking for a weekend activity, others just want to shop price. But, as a number of remodelers have found, there are real prospects among the crowds — homeowners who are serious about remodeling but need guidance, inspiration, and a contractor for the job.

After a decade of explosive growth in just about every home-related industry, home shows are everywhere. Tours of homes, modeled off the National Association of Home Builders' Parade of Homes, are now practically institutions in many places. And there is a growing, though still small, number of remodeled home tours.

Remodelers find themselves with a slew of options on the tour and home-show circuits, and though a relative few are aimed directly at the remodeling market, many companies rely on these events for a double-digit percentage of annual sales. Some companies are even putting on their own events, holding open houses, receptions, workshops, and seminars to raise public awareness of their companies and to sell in a controlled, intimate environment. ( See “Running Your Own Events”.) Still, whether or not to and how to participate in a tour, home show, or both is hardly a settled matter, particularly among upscale companies that serve narrowly defined market segments.

Lead-Generating Home Shows For some companies, tours and home shows, whether remodeling-specific or not, are a regular and necessary investment. Particularly in smaller or midsize markets, where successful upscale companies can enjoy a relatively high profile, these events are an important part of maintaining consumer awareness.

“If you have a presence in the community, you have to be in the home shows to maintain that presence,” says Tom Poulin, who has entered Poulin Design Remodeling into Albuquerque home shows for 20 years. “The people who are getting ready to remodel go to those shows, so you have to be there. It's the same thing with the Parade of Homes.”

Gary Potter, owner of Potter Construction in Seattle, participates in the twice-yearly Seattle Home Show, the privately run Remodeling Expo, and local tours.

“The home show is just one of those drivers to keep the wheel moving,” Potter says. “Whether you have a ton of leads or none, or eight projects in design, you still have to go to the home show.”

Potter is anything but ambivalent about the benefits of participating. Last year his company earned more than $300,000 (almost 20% of its revenue) in show-generated sales. Indeed, for remodelers who know how to work them, tours and home shows can be lead and sales bonanzas. In his best year, 2002, Potter earned $860,000 in show-generated sales. In Albuquerque, the four shows that Poulin participated in last year scored him 215 leads that led to 52 appointments and sales worth $417,000.

“People are out there actively looking for ideas, or maybe considering moving versus remodeling,” Poulin says. “If you're there, you can help them make that decision.”

Potter says his leads are often homeowners who are serious about remodeling (“60% to 70% of the people who leave their names will come in to talk with us,” he says) but simply aren't tapped in to a social network that provides good referrals.

“I think it's tough for the consumer to figure out how to find a good remodeler,” Potter says. “The No.1 way for most people is to ask their neighbors. We get a lot of people at the shows who don't have neighbors who have remodeled. They come because they don't have another resource.”

Client-Reaching Home Tours Some companies, notably those who work in larger markets or on ultra-high-end projects, find that shows aren't likely to draw their ideal clients. For these companies, home shows are not the answer.

“Our job size averages $400,000,” says Michael Menn, a partner at Chicago's Design Construction Concepts. “We're just not going to find our clientele at home shows.” Tours, on the other hand, appeal to Menn. Just this year he, along with DCC partner Andrew Poticha and nine other Chicago remodelers on the Greater Chicago Home Builders Association's Remodelers Council, put together the city's first Tour of Remodeled Homes.

Menn, interestingly, finds in home tours benefits that are very similar to those cited by his show-endorsing peers — namely that the event provides the chance to engage hundreds of legitimate prospects at once. And the tour adds the benefit of providing an ideal controlled environment in which to sell.

“The customer gets to see a finished product, and you get to walk them through and show them the details yourself,” Menn says. “It can become an interactive thing. When you have a potential client in a finished space, there's a different interaction. You're looking into their eyes, you're looking at their body language. Plus they can hear the interaction of other people” who might point out a detail they hadn't noticed.

Jeff Metke, owner of Metke Remodeling in Lake Oswego, Ore., also wrote off home shows, having participated in a few that produced negligible results. The Portland Remodelors Council's Tour of Remodeled Homes, on the other hand, is a huge part of his business. The Portland tour (which served as a model for the new Chicago tour) is now in its eighth year. It usually shows between 12 and 15 projects and receives between 1,000 and 1,500 visitors. A participant since the tour's inception, Metke has sold, in his best year, more than $1 million worth of work through the tour.

“The opportunity to have 1,000 people walk through our projects and see our work is invaluable,” he says. “And the neat part is, people who spend the money and the time to go on the tour are already qualified leads. They're looking for something, for ideas or for someone to help them. The leads we generate will have at least a 30% to 50% close.”

For Metke, the essential difference between a home show and the remodeled homes tour is the tour's specificity.

“My market is pretty small with regard to where we focus our service,” Metke says. “The home shows serve too big a geographical area. The tours are in our local market and the people who come to see us are in our market.”

To take full advantage of the chance to show off a project, Metke holds a private reception at the house on the weekend of the tour. He invites up to 150 past and current clients, prospects, and trade and design partners.

“I personally get a lot of mileage out of those events, even more than on the tour itself,” he says. “You have a captive audience. On the tour they see 10 other projects, but here they're just looking at your project, talking to your clients and your partners. Often that's what cements a deal.”