Show or dough?

No matter the size, hosting your own trade show may no longer be about making a profit.

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.”



Educational insight

The law firm of von Briesen & Roper S.C. connects with clients and potential clients through education. The firm has hosted many informational breakfasts featuring von Briesen speakers on a variety of labor and employment topics. These are smaller, more intimate events that usually target specific clients.

For example, the firm hosted a PACE Conference (Property Assessed Clean Energy Financing) to educate people on the PACE program. “PACE offers a way of financing energy efficiency improvements to buildings,” notes Karen Brunow, chief marketing officer at the firm.

“At the time, only Milwaukee County had [PACE], so we assembled a panel of speakers in Milwaukee to highlight deals and networking,” she explains. Between 100 and 120 people attended the 90-minute breakfast event.

The company holds other learning breakfast events, as well, attracting between 30 and 60 people, on average. Many of the attendees already have relationships with the law firm.

“Our motivation is not to make money,” Brunow adds. “Often, we don’t charge anything. It’s really to provide exposure to clients and potential clients and present information.”

Most events are held at von Briesen offices. “Bringing people into your space provides a connection,” Brunow says. “I think that anytime you can do that, people appreciate it, and they appreciate not being in a large ballroom.”

Top-notch tent event

Top Promotions in Madison is a 34-year-old promotional products company with 67 employees. For years, the company attended the same traveling trade show until it decided to host its own about six years ago. “Our customers and staff were dominating the attendance,” remarks Top Promotions president Shannon Mayerl. “The last time, vendors confirmed that we were populating 80% to 90% of the show’s attendance. Why were we allowing our clients access to our competitors?” she asks.

It was time to strategize.

Top Promotions invites the vendors it wants to exhibit at its annual product showcase.

The company created its own event complete with tents, booths, and vendors. “This is a show,” Mayerl explains. “Our industry is so product-heavy, and we have a very targeted demo. There are 600,000 different items that we can sell and logo, so it can be overwhelming.”

Recently, the company rebranded the event to better reflect what it is, she explains. Now, the Top Promotions’ Annual Product Showcase is a one-day event attracting attendees from existing and potential clients, and some competitors, as well.

The Top Promotions event is designed to help clients visualize what a logoed item might look like by inviting vendors with a myriad of product ideas. Rather than sell booth space on a first-come, first-served basis, Mayerl says the company invites the vendors it wants at the event and assigns booth locations so that competing lines aren’t situated next to each other.

“We invite suppliers that have provided us with the best, most dependable service — those that make things price competitive for us — so that we can offer the same to our clients,” Mayerl states.

“In exchange, we direct a fair amount of business their way, so it’s a win-win.”

Top Promotions staff is involved at the annual event, as well. Five employees work with Mayerl on the planning committee, and everyone in the company has an important role on trade show day. “It’s always fun to do something different,” she says.

The company saves on expenses by holding the show on-premise. “We tent the entire parking lot,” Mayerl says. “We’re a down-to-earth company and this type of event wouldn’t have the same effect if it were in a ballroom somewhere.”

Attendees can walk through the Top Promotions production facility and observe products being made. “I call it a peek behind the curtain, and it really helps us and them understand the process and what is and what is not possible,” Mayerl explains.

A make-your-own T-shirt station is always a popular attraction, she adds.

The company also provides lunch at no cost to attendees, thanks to a couple of local food carts.

Vendor booth fees are held to a minimum, Mayerl explains, because the company wants to encourage them to take what they’d normally spend on a booth and apply it toward giveaways. Booth fees cover the cost of renting the tent, she says, while attendees pay nothing.

The five-and-a-half-hour event continues to grow. In 2016, 420 people attended, and this year the company expects over 500. “It costs us,” Mayerl admits, “but you have to balance its existence by asking, ‘Do I prefer to attend a trade show that someone else puts on and expose my customers, or do I prefer to gain the notoriety, name exposure, and exclusivity with my own event? What balances that cost? How does it weigh on my scale?’”

She also analyzes the costs associated with bringing people to the event. “We direct a larger percentage of marketing to existing and target clients, but most are people we already work with.”

It all comes down to ROI, Mayerl explains, and knowing how much needs to be purchased to offset that investment and tip the scale toward profitability.

“Knowing your number, just like any other form of advertising, is important. How much are you willing to pay per exposure? It is very easy for an event like this to get out of control with expenses.”

Not lost in the effort is Top Promotions’ commitment to give back to the local community. At past events, employees held a bake sale and donated the proceeds to a different nonprofit each year. While plans are still being formulated, one thing is certain for this year — the beneficiary will be Middleton Outreach Ministry.

After six years, Mayerl admits that it’s difficult to know whether sales increases are a direct result of the show, or a great salesperson, or a loyal company. “We look for any uptick we may get from vendors that attend versus those that do not, and we’re definitely seeing a rise from those who attend,” she notes.

This year, 36 vendors will represent over 60 product lines and Mayerl couldn’t be more pleased. “We’ve been told that competitors in other states have been scheduling around our event because it’s proven so successful, and vendors love it because they’re getting direct exposure to the decision-makers.”

Considering hosting a trade show?

Do’s, don’ts, and lessons learned

  • “Don’t pinch yourself on time. It takes a lot more planning than you expect it will,” notes Shannon Mayerl, president of Top Promotions.
  • Be clear of your objectives and your market. What makes your event so beneficial that attendees will want to return in subsequent years?
  • Scale the show and add things as expectations grow. “For example, we added a second food cart this year because the lines got too long last year,” Mayerl says.
  • Consider how people will move throughout the space. TASC scheduled employees for discussions throughout the day. “At any given time half the people were visiting booths while the other half were listening to panel discussions,” notes Stefanie Adams, director of marketing and communications.
  • Set an accurate budget, as costs can quickly spiral out of control.
  • Get help where necessary. For example, put audio-visual responsibilities on the shoulders of those who know best and can troubleshoot should something go awry.
  • Use social media to help promote the event.
  • Put as much effort into a small gathering as you would a large event. Keep company standards high.
  • Soon after, survey vendors and attendees to learn what went well and what needs improvement.
  • If able to stream events live with technology, make sure attendees get the best use of that information. TASC, for example, made its virtual trade show available for three months after the actual event so employees could revisit it as necessary.

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