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Communication Was Key to Weathering East Coast Blizzard

Hil Anderson
, Senior Editor
February 9, 2016
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New York, NY – Paralyzing blizzards have become an annual rite of Winter for the trade show industry, but show organizers have become increasingly pro-active about preventing their events from being snowed under.

Travel of all types was grounded in late January by Winter Storm Jonas, which inundated East Coast venues from Washington to Baltimore to New York City, and created ripples within the air-travel network that were felt as far away as California.

Hastily rearranged schedules, some late hours and a digital blizzard of e-mails, tweets and website updates were the highlights of the strategies show organizers used to open pretty much on time and ensure that the customers who battled their way into town received their money’s worth.

“Despite going up against the second largest blizzard in the history of New York City, both Texworld USA and Apparel Sourcing showed solid visitor numbers,” said Dennis Smith, President of Messe Frankfurt North America.

Working Around Old Man Winter

Messe Frankfurt’s two shows were co-located along with Business Journal Inc.’s (BJI) MRKet, Project and Milano Unica at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, a convention center that has shouldered its share of foul weather. Messe Frankfurt and BJI employed the reliable strategy of billeting Javits staff and move-in workers at Manhattan hotels, and then extending the move-in period and the actual show hours; Sunday’s show opening was pushed to Monday to allow the worst of the storm to pass.

“The city’s shutdown and travel ban made it very difficult for our exhibitors to complete set-up on Saturday, so we had to make a difficult decision between opening on schedule, or focusing on the safety of our staff and exhibitors,” Smith told Trade Show Executive (TSE). “Javits ensured that the center was operating at full capacity. Their food service provider, Centerplate, was also operational and even more importantly, Starbucks was open.”

The changes were transmitted to exhibitors and attendees via e-mails, text messages and the various social media channels already in use by Messe Frankfurt and BJI.  Final attendance was below what had been expected at the Messe Frankfurt shows, but Smith said that was offset somewhat by the fact that pre-show registration had set a record high.

Texworld and the co-located shows marked the exit of Metropolitan Exposition Services from show contracting. It also bookended the history of a plucky company that serviced its first show at Javits Center on September 11, 2001 and its last as Winter Storm Jonas paralyzed the Big Apple. “I would underline the exemplary performance of the staff at Metropolitan Expo,” said Smith. “While knowing that this was their last event before transitioning to Freeman, they worked tirelessly to exceed expectations in every aspect.”

Reed Reaches Out to Travelers

There was not a snowflake in sight in Florida, but Reed Exhibitions was in full blizzard mode when the annual PGA Merchandise Show opened in Orlando January 26-29 with 41,000 attendees registered and around 1,000 exhibiting companies. To minimize the potential nightmares of missing freight or cancelled hotel rooms, Reed followed its companywide strategy of giving late arrivals everything they needed to have their booths teed up and ready for action when the doors opened.

“We’ve all travelled and we’ve all been there,” said Reed Vice President Ed Several. “Ideally, the exhibitors arrive on a Monday at noon for a Wednesday opening and are able to set up in time for dinner Monday night. But sometimes that 12 noon arrival turns into 12 midnight.”

Dragging into a strange city in the middle of the night because of travel snags is an early step toward a disastrous experience. Even Reed can’t change the weather, but Several and his team moved to address a wide range of details with the Orange County Convention Center (OCCC) and their other partners in order to make it as easy as possible for late-arriving customers to catch up.

The plan depended heavily on the use of social media to stay in touch with customers who were stuck in airports or waiting for trucks that were well behind schedule. Reed kept up a stream of communications on the show website and via text alerts aimed at visitors coming from states that were in Jonas’ path.  The messages urged travelers to contact their hotels directly and tell them that they would be checking in late. The phone numbers for every hotel in the vicinity were included, even if they were not part of the official room block. A number for onPeak’s 24-hour support desk was also listed.

The crowning touch was the inclusion of Several’s cell phone number in the various social media messages. That gave people who were having difficulties direct access to someone who had all of the answers. “It also gave me an idea of where there could be trouble spots,” Several told TSE.

The next step was to provide 24-hour access to the exhibit hall at the OCCC. The show’s exhibitor hotline allowed callers to get their name on a list that allowed them on the show floor at any time. “We had 11 exhibitors who took advantage of it, and all were set up in time for the show opening,” Several said.

Other show services were also extended into the late night, including food service and electrical services at the OCCC as well as airport transportation for late arrivals.  “We created a plan and it worked out,” Several said. “We also had created a slogan that summed up our goals for our customers:  ‘It may be stressful getting here, but it won’t be stressful once you arrive.’”

It was a catchy phrase and a worthwhile goal for show organizers who wanted their attendees and exhibitors to feel it was worth having braved both Old Man Winter and those long airport hours that come with him.

Reach Dennis Smith at (770) 984-8016 or dennis.smith@usa.messefrankfurt.com; Ed Several at (203) 840-5628 or eseveral@reedexpo.com

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