From the Rubble of 9/11, JD Events Creates a Lasting Legacy

Andrea Doyle, Executive Editor
The Plant Based World Expo team in celebration mode following the close of PBW North America in December 2021 at the Javits Convention Center.

SLIDESHOW: Click here for a look back at 20 years of JD Events

“When life looks like easy street, there is danger at your door,” sings Jerry Garcia in the Grateful Dead song, “Uncle John’s Band.” Two years ago, these are the lyrics that popped into the mind of Joel Davis, Founder and CEO of JD Events (JDE). It was January 2020, and my wife and I had just traveled to Cambodia and Thailand for 15 days, the longest vacation we had ever taken. The future looked extremely bright for JDE at that time,” he said.

A few days after returning home, COVID-19 took the industry by storm and everything dimmed. Davis is no stranger to adversity. He founded his company in January 2002, a few months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Davis sat down with Trade Show Executive on January  18, the 20th anniversary of the formation of his company, to talk about what it has been like to be a small business owner the last two decades. “As a businessperson, you’re always looking around the next bend, but you are mostly looking for what can go wrong in the market you serve, what can go wrong with your show. I never really considered the whole world shutting down and people not being able to congregate,” Davis said.

One thing that has not wavered is his optimism. “I’m very bullish on the future. The pandemic — a global shutdown, the inability to gather — has been the ultimate test for the trade show industry. It has taught people how important it is to be face to face, how valuable it is to do business in person and that it’s an incredibly resilient industry.”

Two decades after starting JD Events, there is still talk about virtual replacing in-person gatherings. Davis doesn’t pay it any heed.

“Virtual shows have had a two-year opportunity to demonstrate that they are able to replace or replicate face to face, and it’s clear to me that they are not. It has been proven that exhibitors don’t do well at virtual shows. Virtual can work for some educational events, but it can’t replace meeting face to face with buyers and sellers — being able to see, touch, smell, taste products, and look people in the eye and do business in person.”

JD Events spun off from Imark Communications in Janary 2002, with a show called ad:tech.

“After 9/11, so many shows, especially tech shows, were in trouble. The internet bubble had just burst and the economy was in the tank. Then 9/11 happens and there was the fear of more terrorist attacks and the drumbeat had started for war in Afghanistan. There was a lot of worry and gloom-and-doom out there. I proposed to Imark that we spin off ad:tech and I would manage the show for a management fee. Thus, JD Events was born with cash flow and a seasoned team in place from day one. I started my new business based on a concept I called the incubator model.”

He had been devising this business plan for months – starting new shows in emerging markets, turning shows around, and buying fixer-uppers that he would make profitable and then sell to larger trade show organizations.

He was taking a risk. “I was rolling the dice at a precarious time. I had a group of friends and family investors, but I was also using the majority of our life savings to start this business. It was a contrarian thing to do in that environment. The fact that it worked and that we proved the concept that an incubator model can be successful, and we’ve been doing it for 20 years makes me so proud.”

JD Events started with a team of six and has never had more than 14 full-time employees. “The whole concept of the incubator was by design to always be small — to stay nimble and entrepreneurial so that we could be capable of launching and building from scratch,” Davis explained. “I always wanted to be in no more than three or four markets at a time. I believe in the power of focus, and that’s why our team has never gotten that big.”

Has Davis witnessed a great deal of change the last two decades? “I feel like the more things change, the more they stay the same,” he said. “The fundamental principles of trade shows haven’t changed in that we create industry gatherings where buyers and sellers meet face to face in an educational and networking-rich environment. How we do this has changed due to the emergence of technology. We have new tools to use to engage with our industries digitally year round, and we have more data and analytics to sell and market more intelligently. This didn’t exist 20 years ago. At that time, we were basically creating a mailing list and sending out a ton of mail and crossing our fingers. We’ve gotten smarter, we’ve gotten more tech savvy, we’ve gotten more efficient.”

He considers navigating the past two years as one of his proudest accomplishments. “We were really moving in a good direction in the winter of 2020, and then seemingly overnight we were facing an existential crisis and fighting for our survival,” he explained. “There were some dark times during that, I won’t lie, but the fact is we have a special team that stuck together through furloughs and salary cuts, and everyone sacrificed personally. Everyone believed in our business and our brands held up through all this. We were in good markets and those markets stayed healthy, and we came up with lots of creative ways to engage with our communities online in all sorts of different ways; different in each space based on our customer’s needs. And our original investors stepped up and helped us raise new capital, which was the oxygen that we needed to stay in business until we could start holding events again in the fall of 2021.”

What does the future hold?  “We came out of 2021 with momentum and are feeling very optimistic about our growth potential in 2022 and beyond. I’m blessed to be surrounded by an amazing, talented team of hard-working trade show professionals who have proven they can overcome any obstacle.”

Reach Joel Davis at (203) 371-6322 or joel@jdevents.com