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How Did We Get Here?


Exhibitors and suppliers seem to be called to this industry in mysterious ways.
No matter who you talk to, whether it's an account executive, an exhibit designer, or a fellow face-to-face marketer, nearly everyone has an intriguing tale of how they came to be a part of our charmingly odd exhibit-marketing family. This reality struck me at an industry event a few years back while chatting with a handful of veteran exhibit designers. As we randomly invited others to share their stories of how they came to be involved in the industry, we realized that every story was downright fascinating.

Former Editorial Advisory Board member Judy Volker, for instance, segued directly from a position as the food-service manager for Steelcase Inc. into a role with the company's trade show and events department. When a co-worker mentioned he was looking for a way to encourage attendees to stay in the company's booth longer, she suggested serving espresso and biscuits in the morning and ice cream in the afternoon. Then she amped up her strategy to include a conversation area with some soft jazz, fostering a coffee-house atmosphere to encourage attendees to linger. But this was when in-booth hospitality included little more than a pot of stale coffee, so her idea was initially met with a sense of "What on earth could a food-service manager know about trade shows?"

When the event director finally decided to take a chance, Volker's hospitality-centric exhibit won a Best of Show award, attracted a record number of attendees, and more than doubled the amount of time visitors spent in the booth, compared to previous years. Oh, and Volker was promptly offered a position in the company's event department. The rest, as they say, is history, and Volker is currently the marketing director for Iatric Systems Inc.

Then there's Bob Milam, who has affectionately come to be known by the moniker Trade Show Bob. But even Trade Show Bob has humble beginnings. After being laid off from his job, he became the owner of a deli business that went belly up.

He then took on some odd jobs to make ends meet, and was fired twice. While in Utah for a family wedding, Milam did a little job hunting and arranged an interview for a position in marketing communications. When the potential employer asked if he had any trade show experience, Milam thought of his wife, five daughters, and two dogs who were depending on his income, and said, "Oh, sure. I have lots of experience. No problem."

The next thing he knew, he had a part-time job and was responsible for a 20-by-50-foot exhibit at a major international trade show only seven weeks away. At about the same time, a copy of EXHIBITOR magazine came across Milam's new desk, promoting EXHIBITORLIVE. He snuck away from work – and used his own money – to spend two days at the educational conference. The knowledge he acquired helped him exceed his company's expectations for the show, and he was soon offered a full-time position. "I just fell in love with this industry," Milam says. "And thanks to my lie of desperation, I've made a pretty good living ever since."

Stories such as these aren't the exception; they're the norm in the trade show industry. Unlike doctors and lawyers, who often follow a predefined path, exhibitors and suppliers seem to be called to this industry in mysterious ways. Because we're riveted by these stories, we're inviting readers to tell us their own tales. Just visit our Facebook page or LinkedIn group and tell us how you ended up in this intriguing and ever-evolving industry. In exchange, you'll be entered in a drawing to win a free eTrak online learning session to help you write the next chapter of your exhibit-marketing career.

So what's your story? I can hardly wait to hear it. E


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