Sunday, June 02, 2002

Opera wows audiences

Company's trade-show presentations perform online

By Jenny Callison
Enquirer contributor

        The story of Opera Portables is a work in three acts: product design, customer service and technology-driven sales. That combination has resulted in a great box office for the Erlanger-based manufacturer of portable trade-show displays.

        Innovation has been the watchword of the company since its founding in 1991 by Greg Dewald and Brian Carlson. The pair's first product, Ovation, consists of plastic panels on which graphic material is mounted. A few years ago, Opera premiered nVision, backlit plastic “skins” in which the graphics are embedded. Both Ovation panels and nVision skins fit over a flexible arrangement of metal supports.

        “We fit our clients, as opposed to forcing them to fit our mold,” Mr. Dewald said.

        A case in point: Opera got a call from a company that needed a three-panel, 10-foot display that could be shipped in one 4- by 2-foot container. A competitor, locked into standard panel sizes, couldn't accommodate that requirement.

        Opera obliged by adjusting the display's height about 6 inches, to 7 feet. When disassembled, the metal “bones” and rolled-up skins fit snugly into the carrying case.

        Opera Portables has had its name in lights since nVision earned the Buyer's Choice Award for best new product at the Exhibitors Show in Las Vegas three years ago. The company has received Ernst & Young's Crescendo Award, and Mr. Dewald was recognized as the runner-up 2002 Kentucky Small Business Person of the Year by the U.S. Small Business Administration.

        “Part of the judging is based on innovation,” said Nicole Christian, director of business development for the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, which nominated Opera Portables' co-founder. “Opera Portables entered the market with totally new concepts and designs.”

        “The awards have been so helpful,” Mr. Dewald said. “When people in remote locations see these things, they think, "These guys must be on top of it.' ”

See it now

        The company is reaching potential clients in locations far from Erlanger, thanks to its innovative use of Internet technology. A prospective client can view 360-degree renditions of designs on an Opera Web site as a salesperson explains a display's potential over the telephone.

        “Our mission used to be calling you on the phone and trying to set up an appointment,” Mr. Carlson said. “Now we call you on the phone and try to talk you into logging onto our site while we're with you.”

        Said Mr. Dewald: “We have dazzling presentations online using the same software as high-end Hollywood animators use. What we're able to accomplish is a realism that's almost breathtaking.”

        Breathtaking, too, has been the technology's impact on Opera Portables. The company was able to eliminate its sales offices in New York and Los Angeles and cut its other sales travel, because the world could suddenly come to Erlanger via telephone and fiber optic cable. Turnaround time for designs has gone from several weeks to several days because clients and designers can confer, brainstorm and complete design plans without meeting in person.

        “We design our displays online, and clients can get an e-mailed design within 48 hours. Once a display is complete, it's always online,” Mr. Carlson said. “Accounts like the fact that we're so progressive electronically. If everything has to be done in person, it's a couple of weeks between my initial sales call and coming back to them with a design. Then they have to send it around and get reactions from their decision-makers,” Mr. Dewald explained. “But if we can respond instantly to their needs, they stay engaged.

        “It's extraordinary. Now we can execute a sale within days rather than weeks, from right here in Kentucky. We're one of the few companies in our industry that has embraced technology, and it allows us to leapfrog the competition and win.”

Quick starts

        Mr. Dewald and Mr. Carlson, friends from college, are steeped in the display industry. Mr. Dewald's father was a founder of Cincinnati's Downing Displays, and he signed on with that company after graduation from Western Kentucky University.

        “I joined Downing as a salesperson during my last semester of college,” he said. “I stayed three years and was one of their top-producing sales reps. Brian was coming out of school and saw I was doing well and went to work for a competing firm — went right up the ladder.”

        “They took what they knew about their industry and really changed their marketing approach,” Ms. Christian said.

        And that marketing approach is driving Opera Portables' growth, which averages 25 percent annually, Mr. Dewald said.

        “You have to have an excellent product, but sales is what everything else is based on. You have to bring your better product to market.”


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