Knowing it's not enough to sell a purchasing agent alone on the merits of products, Rite-Hite, a manufacturer of loading-dock equipment in Milwaukee, uses a fly-in program to educate its customers' quality and safety teams, as well as product users. When guests tour the factory they kick the tires of 100 pieces of equipment, including 40 competitors' models.

The tours help visitors identify their needs and explore possible solutions. About 90% of fly-in prospects eventually buy from Rite-Hite, says Robert Staehler, the program's director. In 1991 the company hosted 353 companies, which within a year purchased $12 million worth of equipment.

Costs, including follow-up after the tour, totaled $250,000. When $100-million Rite-Hite started the fly-in program, six years ago, it was a $40-million company. Staehler's advice:

Start small. Invite only those who will influence the buying decision. Stock a few key competitors' products, and expand as you grow.

Share the cost. Back in 1988 Rite-Hite reps invited just 37 companies and paid the entire travel bill; now they pay half.

Set benchmarks. "A minimum 50% closing ratio is good if you keep costs in line," says Staehler. "If you can't meet that, stay with more-traditional marketing."

Skip the frills. "This doesn't have to be lavish," he says. "They come because they're scared of making the wrong decision." -- Susan Greco

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