Some dealers are tapping into a platform that makes it more likely they will be included in the planning process of new construction, capturing additional sales from the get-go. By offering American Institute of Architects (AIA) accredited courses, dealers are getting better acquainted with architects, turning them on to the products dealers offer and playing matchmaker between architects and core builder customers.

One such dealer is Shepley Wood Products, a four-unit Hyannis, Mass.-based dealer serving Cape Cod, Nantucket, Martha's Vineyard, and southeastern Massachusetts. Shepley offers roughly 15 classes per year. Each program lasts about two hours, and the vendor provides lunch. Meanwhile, Evanston Lumber in Evanston, Ill., has had a program in place for nearly three years. Each event attracts 35 to 50 people, including architects and builders.

At both companies, the gatherings carry an added benefit for the architects: AIA continuing education credits. All architects must receive a certain number of hours of continuing education per year to keep their AIA statuses current, and the requirement varies by state. In Illinois, it's 32 hours; in Massachusetts, it's just 12 hours.

"They have to maintain their standing, so it's a lot more pleasant to do it over a free lunch," says Robert Fisher, president of Evanston Lumber. Other venues require architects to pay for the AIA credit, so "another benefit is that our courses are free," says Sarah Conover, director of marketing at Evanston.

Following the session, the vendor submits the program and architect's name to the AIA so the architect may obtain a certificate of proof that he or she attended the seminar and earned accreditation. This helps in case the AIA audits them, says Leah Kosnack, Shepley's director of marketing. Since offering the AIA sessions, Shepley has seen an upswing in architect attendance for its education sessions, even the dinners that don't offer credits. Architects simply want additional education while mingling with builders. "Everyone shares an interest in installation techniques," Kosnack says. "Products have become more difficult to install, so they are sharing knowledge."

Building code changes also have prompted architects and builders to work together. Since initiating the program, Shepley has found itself included more in project planning stages. "The architects are comfortable with us," Kosnack says. "They know they can come to us and specify a product that we know, and we can work with them."

There are strict rules to the presentations that vary by state. In Illinois, the session cannot simply be a commercial spewed out by the vendor. In fact, the vendor is not even allowed to mention its company's name or specific products during the presentation. For instance, a skylight manufacturer can discuss the lighting and the benefits that skylights might bring to a structure. Such was the case in a recent presentation by Velux at Evanston Lumber. But Velux could In Massachusetts, the first 45 minutes of the presentation must be about a specific building topic, such as how to avoid mold when installing masonry. For the final 15 minutes, however, the vendor can mention specific products.

"That's how they get that product in front of the architects," Kosnack says.

"For the vendors, it's a no-brainer," Fisher says. "It's a great audience for them, with potential buyers or specifiers in the architects' case."

Shepley has used a pool of resources to notify both architects and builders about upcoming sessions. About 500 contacts receive e-mails, and a monthly newsletter is sent to nearly 2,000 contacts. The dealer also posts notices at its locations and reminds its salesforce at weekly sales meetings to spread the word. Additionally, a core group of architects receives direct mailings.

Evanston Lumber reaches out to about 100 architects on average, and at least 80 show up for the course.

Vendors also get in on the act. While promoting a new entry door, Marvin Windows sent a direct mailing to about 250 customers and architects on Shepley's mailing list.

"This is a relationship business and if we can enhance the relationship with the architects, hopefully we become their source," Fisher says.