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Hands-on construction at an experiential event.

Experiential training – Is it worth it?
By Jeremy Martin

I’m a firm believer in training. We can’t expect our crews to install correctly or efficiently without training. But what kind of training is best? Here are some methods to train your crew.

Day-to-day training. Every company already does this. It’s how we train new employees and train existing employees for new tasks. At Willow Gates Landscaping, we use SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) and the process of “tell, show, observe.” We tell the new employee how to do it, then show them how to do it, and finally observe them doing it.

Lunch & learn events hosted by a local distributor. These often include a rep from a company demonstrating how to install their product. These are usually informal, free and can be a good resource. Content tends to be basic.

Installer certification courses. I’ve been a long-time fan of these courses, as Willow Gates Landscaping would certainly not be where it is today without that foundation. Courses are usually 1-2 days and primarily classroom based. All our employees take at least the basic paver and retaining wall courses.

Industry events like Hardscape North America, Northeast Hardscape Expo, and MAHTS. These events offer exposure to new products, equipment and installation practices. HNA especially is an event every hardscaper should attend at least once.

Experiential training. These events combine hands-on training, classroom presentations, and networking on a completely different level. These events are about work, but they are also about having fun! Your memories and lessons will last the rest of your career.

I’ve been involved in several experiential training events. One was a 3-day event planned by a distributor in Maryland at the home of one of their contractors. I was the primary instructor, and we included classroom time as well as building a patio with various features. There were no sponsors, no “next level” equipment onsite… just a distributor willing to invest in their contractor base. While attendees paid to attend, the distributor subsidized some of the cost.

I’ve also been involved in the 2023 and 2024 Outdoor Living Mastery (OLM) events in Pennsylvania. These week long events are PACKED with content and activities. They are also expensive! I’ve been asked, “How do you justify the investment for an event such as OLM?” For the record, I’m one of many instructors and I don’t help plan the event.

However, I know enough about these events to say that the average attendee has no idea of the time and expenses involved. Imagine planning an event for 50 to 70 contractors from across the country, designing a project with 8,000 to 10,000 sf of pavement and multiple features, having all the time calculated so every team gets to spend time on every aspect of the project… and the project is wrapped up in a week!

Equipment. Venue. Truckloads of food to feed a huge group day after day. I’m still not sure who works harder, the guys managing the build or the crew in the kitchen! From the perspective of the hosts, I understand why these events are expensive.

What about from the contractor’s perspective? How can they justify spending thousands of dollars just for training? Before I dive into the benefits, let me state this: I’ve never met an attendee who complained about the cost. Without exception, everyone said it was well worth it!

Why attend?
New product & equipment training. While I’ve never asked the cost of all the equipment at these events, it’s safe to say that it’s well over a million dollars. Sure, you can go to a trade show and see some of this equipment. But at these experiential events, you’re actually operating them. Is a $60K attachment on a $120K+ excavator worth it? Here’s your chance to find out!

Same for new products.… Some are expensive and difficult to install. Are they right for your market? Can you install them successfully? Here you can install them without risking your reputation on your own projects. Mess up? You’ve got an instructor there to show how to fix it!

Classroom training. Instructors at these events have decades of experience. Some are at the peak of their career. Some are nearing retirement and sharing lessons they learned over the last 30 - 40 years. There is a wealth of knowledge here. Sales, marketing, managing employees… soft skills that too many contractors neglect in their early years.

Sales is a skill that needs to be refined constantly. I remember the first $10K project… then $20K, $40K, $100K and $200K+ projects. Projects keep getting larger and more complicated. Multi-million dollar projects exist in our industry, but the sales skills that won the first $50K project probably won’t be enough to win these $1-million-plus projects. Again, you learn from very successful designers and contractors at these events.

Level up your projects. If you’re not already designing and selling projects that include structures, kitchens, lighting, artificial turf – here’s the place to learn how. Few companies have the bandwidth to complete all these components with their own teams, and most shouldn’t even try. Sub-contract experts in those fields, manage the process, and keep your crews building what you do well. The extra profit from just ONE project with multiple subcontractors could easily cover the cost of your entire team attending one of these events!

Networking. These events include breakfast, lunch & dinner. There are evening activities as well, perhaps a motivational speaker or a team building exercise like a corn hole tournament. At the start, you’re assigned to a team and spend the rest of your week with that group. On Monday, it’s like starting a new job. It’s awkward and you don’t know the other people. At the end of the week, you’ve forged friendships that may well last a lifetime. You spend a week learning, working, eating, and yes playing together and you can’t help but make new friends. FYI, I’m a terrible corn hole player and you do NOT want to be on my team!

Morale booster. These events are held near the end of winter, but before the spring rush hits. They are a great way to stoke enthusiasm for the upcoming season. The Great Pizza Cookoff was absolutely a highlight. Teams had less than an hour to purchase the ingredients, then 45 minutes to prepare their pie to be cooked in a wood fired pizza oven. Pies were then judged by a panel. Winners or losers, every team had a blast. It’s impossible to place a dollar value on building team spirit. But if I could, the Great Pizza Cookoff would have a very high price tag.

Within Willow Gates, in 2024 we’re mostly focused on expanding our crews’ skills and doing what we do even better. We’re not trying to offer new services. We’re working at perfecting what we already do. So for the complementary features (stone veneer, decks, pergolas, plunge pools, etc.), we will continue to include them in our designs but use our normal subs to complete them. Even if my crew didn’t walk away from OLM with a lot of new skills that they can immediately implement, they refilled the morale tanks that tend to get drained throughout the season. Bottom line? It was worth it!

While OLM is certainly not the only such event in the country, you can learn more about it at In closing: Companies ranging from new startups to established contractors with 100+ employees thought it was worth attending. Some were so excited they brought their crews back for the second time. Is there a better testimonial to value, than to have repeat attendees? There are similar events in the landscape lighting and water feature worlds, with strong attendance. There’s a demand for these events because they can be life changing. Have I piqued your interest yet?

Jeremy Martin co-founded Willow Gates Landscaping in 2005. He became an ICPI instructor in 2016, NCMA in 2018. He also founded Dust Killer Tools to help his company meet 2017 OSHA silica standards. Email Visit and

Digital Edition
June/July 2024