hat do White Castle, 7-Eleven, Hooters, and Waste Management all have in common? Well, aside from consuming roughly 22 percent of my monthly earnings, these four well-known companies have all been featured on the new CBS reality series "Undercover Boss."
In each episode, a CEO, owner, or founder goes undercover as a blue-collar employee within his or her enterprise. For example, when Dave Rife, owner of fast-food burger chain White Castle, went undercover, he worked at a variety of restaurants, bakeries, and food-prep facilities. During one scene, his poor performance at a bakery resulted in 4,800 damaged buns, an experience that underscored the difficulty of the job.
The reason I bring this up is not because I'm a reality-TV junkie. It's because just as I see a value in having a company's CEO experience the daily life of an entry-level employee,
I see significant potential in having upper management experience their companies from an exhibit manager's and trade show attendee's point of view.
Few C-level executives ever set foot inside the corporate exhibits that become three-dimensional representations of their brands. Nor do they have any concept of the blood, sweat, and tears that go into making an exhibit-marketing program work. And it's difficult to respect something - and practically impossible to manage it effectively - if you don't have a base-level understanding of what that something entails.
A CEO who doesn't understand the value of trade shows, for instance, is more likely to cut your exhibit-marketing budget without first considering the repercussions. A manager who has no concept of how taxing it is to work an exhibit for four days straight is less likely to approve travel for the number of people you need to maintain a functional, congenial staff. And a boss who has no clue how many balls you keep in the air at any given time is less likely to understand when a couple of the many balls you're juggling drop - and also less likely to reward you when they don't.
For the most part, exhibit managers are lucky. According to data from EXHIBITOR's 2009 Salary Survey, 38 percent of companies' upper management teams give trade shows "strong" support. But in 17 percent of companies they offer "token support" or no support at all. And assuming my personal conversations with attendees at EXHIBITOR2010 are any indication, far too many exhibit managers work for out-of-touch bosses who have never overseen an exhibit in their lives, and subsequently are more like clumsy puppet masters than learned leaders.
It's unrealistic to expect the CEO of your company to put on a disguise and work as a staffer in your next exhibit, but you can start by doing everything in your power to encourage key stakeholders to attend the shows at which you exhibit. Schedule a tour of your booth, introduce them to your staff, and ask them to observe any presentations or activities you've planned.
During your time with those stakeholders, highlight some of the behind-the-scenes work that goes into your program. Discuss your goals and any past successes your program has generated for the company. Help them to see you as a strategic and highly valuable member of their team who moves marketing mountains at every show you attend.
Following his experience inside White Castle, Rife remarked, "This journey I've gone on has made me realize that . it's easy to sit behind my desk and make decisions based on numbers. Now, every time I look at those numbers, I'm going to put a face to them and try to think about how the decisions I make will impact those faces." Similarly, educating your internal stakeholders about what really goes on behind the scenes just might result in a greater understanding of - and increased respect for - you and your program.e