Show or dough?
No matter the size, hosting your own trade show may no longer be about making a profit.
TASC employees learned from their own colleagues about the company’s future direction at a trade show designed just for them. In total, 550 employees attended the event, while 350 watched remotely.
Photo courtsey Beau Meyer Photography
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From the pages of In Business magazine
Whether they are massive Las Vegas-style shows, regional industry trade shows, or locally based breakfast presentations, trade shows remain an important business tool if well planned and implemented, and done for the right reasons. No matter where or how large, the goals are likely the same: to attract clients, generate new business and contacts, be exposed to new ideas, and hopefully, learn something new.
More and more, companies find that hosting their own events, whether directed at several hundred people or just a few, can be the elixir needed to boost sales, attract clients, and energize staff. IB has done this with its annual IB Expo, as have several area companies that were willing to share their experiences and rationale for events ranging from small breakfast meetings to companywide events.
With 900 employees, Madison-based Total Administrative Services Corp. (TASC) is in the midst of changing its modus operandi as it positions itself for the future. The third-party benefits administrator is working on a new platform that it believes will revolutionize the industry. While TASC always holds an annual company meeting that brings staff together under one roof, the significance of this year’s corporate event was enough to push the company to create more of a companywide splash.
So it upped the ante.
In March, TASC staged a trade show for its own employees to better explain the company’s multi-year redesign of its employee benefit administration.
TASC’s Chief Development Officer, Pam Reynolds, explains further. “To be successful, we knew that we [needed] the support and engagement of all 900 employees. We decided to use the annual company meeting to create excitement, to reveal why and how we [were] undergoing a dramatic shift in who we are and what we provide, and to give our employees an opportunity to experience the future and what it will be like to work at TASC.”
Stefanie Adams, TASC’s director of marketing and communications, adds, “We wanted our employees to understand that we’re not the same TASC anymore. We wanted to pull back the curtain and have an ah-ha moment. The message was that we are changing and in a good and positive way.
“The secret to keeping people interested is to do something different.”
Illuminate Expo, as it was named, was a half-day event that took place at Monona Terrace. Planning started last fall and involved about 100 employees who were trained to be experts at their assigned stations during the event. It was the largest contingent of employees to ever speak and participate at an annual TASC meeting.
CEO Dan Rashke and Lori Cross, board of advisor’s member, keynoted the event before the convention floor was opened up for a three-hour expo. Throughout the afternoon, employees received hands-on demonstrations from their colleagues, shared new design ideas interactively, and were exposed to continuous presentations and videos.
All employees were expected to attend, and those unable to in person could participate remotely through video conferencing. In total, 550 employees attended the event, while 350 watched remotely.
Booths, or “illumination stations,” included “Working at TASC,” “Client of the Future,” “Design of the Future,” “Selling TASC,” and “Converting the New TASC” to familiarize employees with the company’s changes.
There was a “Keeping the Lights on Café,” inviting and recognizing the 700 TASC employees who handle the day-to-day operations but may not be directly involved with the new platform changes. “It would be easy for two-thirds of the people to feel left out,” Adams says, “so we created a space honoring their critical importance, as well.”
A “Philanthropy Lounge” was staffed by the TASC Cares group who set out to make sure all employees were aware of the company’s agreement to allow them 40 hours per year to volunteer for a charity of their choice, and to encourage them to do so. The lounge also highlighted TASC’s local community involvement and displayed photos of employees volunteering around the country. “It was a brain break opportunity during the day,” Adams says.
Three vendors, including MasterCard, were invited to the event. As participants made their way around the Expo floor, each had a card that could be swiped for points at the individual stations, and prizes were awarded to those scoring the highest.
Meanwhile, remote attendees watched pre-recorded presentations, asked questions, and were able to converse with people at the expo via a live chat feature.
A cocktail reception, dinner, and awards ceremony capped the event.
TASC’s annual meeting is a budgeted item that typically includes costs related to rental of Monona Terrace and area hotel rooms each year. “We book out two Madison hotels for our annual meetings,” Adams reports.
Illuminate Expo was a big success and fulfilled its mission. “We did not charge vendors and did not make money on this,” Adams adds. “It was strictly about investing in our future.”
Planning has already begun for next year’s annual meeting, which Adams hints will return to more of a train-and-learn format. “It will still be called Illuminate, but it won’t be a trade show.”
First Business Bank: Connecting customers
Mark Meloy, CEO at First Business Bank, recognized a need to connect with industry sectors in manufacturing-heavy northeast Wisconsin, and decided several years ago that hosting a trade show would provide the perfect vehicle to do so.
Above, First Business Bank launched Manufacturing First, a manufacturing trade show, in Green Bay in 2012 and its attendance has doubled in size over the years. “We felt there was an opportunity to differentiate and do something unique,” states CEO Mark Meloy. Below, Mark King, Adidas president, addresses the crowd at Manufacturing First.
“As we examined the landscape, we looked at manufacturing as a predominant industry in northeastern Wisconsin,” he states. Manufacturing First started in Green Bay in 2012. “The industry didn’t have an event like it in the area,” Meloy says, “so we felt there was an opportunity to differentiate and do something unique.” The event also helped the bank to develop its brand in that quadrant of the state.
Manufacturing First has doubled its attendees over the years, now attracting as many as 1,200 people. First Business Bank also partners with a Fox Valley business publication as well as the Northeast Wisconsin Manufacturing Alliance to ensure its success.
“We’ve made a decent financial commitment to the event and have a meaningful seat at the table to make sure that the content is both meaningful and of high quality, but we really rely on the talent around the table, as well,” Meloy states.
Manufacturing First sells both vendor booths and sponsorships, but for Meloy the ultimate goal is to get more clients or convert prospects into clients more quickly.
“There are alternative ways to spend your money,” he notes, “but I look at the cost and the benefits of aligning ourselves with a quality event and it makes more sense for us up north than purchasing billboards.” Billboards are a great value in Dane County, he explains, but with the broad geography of the northeastern Wisconsin market, events provide a greater bang for the buck.
First Business has also launched Enterprising Nonprofits, another northeastern Wisconsin trade show, designed to help the nonprofit sector. “Nonprofits are businesses, too,” Meloy remarks. “They have to produce revenue for very worthy causes beyond making a profit.”
The company’s goal with this show is to provide solid, relevant information to nonprofits on a broad range of topics such as common management challenges, attracting and retaining employees, engaging community leaders on their boards, and strategic planning.
After several years in northeastern Wisconsin, First Business brought the event to Madison this year, relying on its partners to suggest topics and keynote speakers. “We have the final say, but we try to make it a committee decision,” Meloy says. The nonprofit landscape is broad, he acknowledges, and includes trade and/or member associations, as well. But in its first Madison appearance, he was pleased that the Enterprise event drew 275 people.
Hosting a trade show or attending someone else’s event have very different motivations, Meloy explains. “We send people to trade shows to learn new things, versus sponsoring our own events to get good, relevant information out to our prospects in industry categories. We’ve learned that that’s what they want.”
The bank will continue hosting and/or sponsoring these types of events as long as the value versus cost equation makes sense. Costs are the sticky wicket. “As Manufacturing First has grown — from 600 to 1,200 people — you have to be careful on keeping costs down,” Meloy advises. “That’s where the partner sponsorship opportunities help manage the risks. So far it’s worked.”