The Scene Changer

Steve Jordan runs on adrenaline. Pure and simple. The 44-year-old is one of two crew leaders keeping the Alliant Energy Center (AEC) clicking from meeting to meeting, and his energy level is infectious. It's 8:30 a.m., and he's been on the job since 5. He doesn't drink coffee, though he admits to an occasional Diet Pepsi.

Most days, he whizzes by on his bicycle – pedaling from one end of the AEC to the other, to wherever he's needed. This morning, he will go home, only to return around 9 p.m. to work what will likely become a 12-hour overnight shift.

There's much to be done, he explains. It is AEC's busy season, and this day, a portion of the 100,000-sq.-ft. Exhibition Hall is hosting Market Square, a national, private trade show for the crafts and gift industry.
In his hand, a 12-page event plan for the next day's event maps out exactly what must be done and by whom – from the ushers and parking lot crew, to food service and set-up. At midnight, Jordan and nine others will tear down the Market Square floor and create a new configuration for the three-day Wisconsin Crop Management Conference and Trade Show. Another of his crews will be on hand during that event.

Floor plans map out exactly how each venue should be arranged, day by day, booth by booth, chair by chair, and Jordan strategically makes note of carpeted areas and the requested color scheme. By 7 a.m. the next morning, all must be in place before about a dozen gigantic agricultural vehicles are driven inside and displayed around the booth area. If Jordan and his crew do their jobs correctly, nobody will know the dizzying pace required behind the scenes to transition between events.

An unexpected and welcome difference this year, Jordan explains, is the early January weather. "Normally, there's so much snow outside and these vehicles (and visitors) track in all kinds of mud, meaning a lot of mopping and cleaning." This year, with sunshine and temperatures teasing the 50-degree mark, the floors will remain virtually spotless.

Before Exhibition Hall was built in 1995, the "Exposition Center" hosted about 100 events a year. AEC now averages about 550 events a year between Exhibition Hall, the Veterans Memorial Coliseum, the Arena, and Willow Island, the site of the 2004 ESPN Outdoor Games. Jordan and his staff of 13 full-time workers, and 60-80 LTEs, is responsible for preparing each of the meeting rooms and event venues appropriately.

Describing himself as a foreman, teacher, coach, and go-getter, Jordan says he leads by example in a particularly physical job, mindful to always approach matters with a positive attitude. It pays dividends. "I like to remind my staff that we're getting paid to get a daily workout," he smiles.

For the most part, he works alongside his employees, whether tearing down tables and curtains, or driving an end-loader. "I love the variety," he says. "One day, I'll be shoveling manure in the barns with an end-loader, the next I'll be making ice for the hockey rink, or bringing dirt in for a horse show, or setting up for a trade show, or putting up a stage for a concert." It's a never-ending stream of events.

Later this week, he and his staff will again work overnight to transform the 70,000-sq.-ft. agricultural conference in halls A, B, and C into a 75,000-sq.-ft. wedding wonderland in halls B, C, and D for the Bridal Show. Black and red carpeting will be replaced by a burgundy color scheme.

Over a four-day stretch in late January, staff prepared for an Eric Church country music concert at the Coliseum that was immediately followed by a three-day Monster Truck show. At the same time, Exhibition Hall was hosting the Lake Home and Cabin Show and a healthy living expo.

January through April, and September and October are peak months at the AEC, Jordan says, when numerous simultaneous events are common. "I don't question how many or how tightly spaced events are to one another," he says. "It's my job to make sure they happen and that everything is done correctly and on time." Sleep can be limited during those times, but the physical and mental workouts keep him ticking.

A county employee and union member, Jordan has held this position for 14 of his 16 years at AEC. During peak season, he might work seven days a week to assure nothing falls through the cracks, but any extra time can be converted to comp time during the slower summer months, and overtime after that. The work simply must get done.

"There are no excuses in this job," he says. "Tomorrow's show promoter doesn't care if I schedule 15 to 20 guys and only eight show up, or that we have eight hours to do 12 hours of work. They paid for their show, and they expect it to be set up and ready to go." It's that fear that keeps him going, he smiles, then praises the support of his employees and the entire AEC team.

"We make the most money from trade shows [versus concerts]," he says, "because we're like a store. We get paid [by show managers/producers] to provide labor, electricity, and equipment."

The AEC stores 432,500 sq. ft. of rental carpeting on its premises, in addition to 24,500 lineal feet of convention drape, 50,400 lineal feet of table skirting, 7,950 chairs, 2,670 tables and 8,500 sq. ft. of stage platforms. Behind nearly invisible doors, storage rooms – and even areas not originally intended for storage – are chocked full.

Jordan believes much more could be done if space allowed. "We might have lost out on some shows because we didn't have the extra space," he suggests. "We definitely need more space. I never realized before all that this facility does – how much business it brings to hotels and restaurants. It's amazing!" In fact, recent estimates put AEC's direct local economic impact at about $88 million a year, with events attracting over a million visitors. (A county task force was recently formed to explore AEC's expansion.)

Driving the push for more space is the importance of retaining the World Dairy Expo, which, like the Midwest Horse Fair, utilizes every square inch the AEC has to offer – and then some. This year, a new 26,000-sq.-ft. tent will be erected on the Dairy Expo grounds to provide even more. "We'll have to carpet it," Jordan says, "and hope it doesn't rain."

World Dairy requires a full two weeks of setup in advance of the start date, during which other AEC events continue to be scheduled. Indoor conference space is transformed and outdoor barns are converted for cattle. Jordan will assign 10 forklift drivers who will work 10-hour days helping exhibitors unload and reload their vehicles at a rate of $70 per hour – cheap, compared to larger cities, he notes.

"People come here in a good mood, usually, for happy events," Jordan smiles. "My goal is to hear nothing (afterwards).

"Silence means things went well."

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