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SISO CEO Summit Highlights: Gratitude, Anticipation, Reinvigoration and Reinvention

Andrea Doyle, Executive Editor
SISO CEO Summit at Amei
The prevailing theme at this year’s Society of Independent Show Organizers (SISO) CEO Summit was gratitude.

AMELIA ISLAND, Fla. The prevailing theme at this year’s Society of Independent Show Organizers (SISO) CEO Summit was gratitude. A group of 200 industry leaders gathered from April 12-15, and seemingly everyone was thrilled to be back at an in-person industry event again.

“The tone and sentiment felt from both myself and the many others I connected with during SISO were of inspiration, optimism and motivation. There was a collective energy of anticipation shared between the group — the anticipation of successfully propelling our industry forward and the potential to reshape our future,” said Hervé Sedky, President and CEO of Emerald. “What we experienced during a year plagued by the COVID-19 pandemic were not just ripples, but tsunamis — and after months of facing challenges together as an industry united via Zoom calls, the joy we all felt to be reunited again, safely and in-person, was one of the true highlights at SISO.”

Leaders Finding Answers

There was more. “There was also a ubiquitous narrative at SISO that revolved around Leaders Finding Answers, which is an essential narrative for our industry to be engaged in right now because the opportunity to amplify the importance of in-person events is now. SISO served as an incubator of thought-provoking discussions focused on diversity and inclusion, how to safely and effectively reopen in-person events, and what role digital will play in the new world of face-to-face,” Sedky explained. “To this point, as the new Chair of the SISO Board of Directors, I announced the launch of three subcommittees that will serve as an extension of SISO’s overall industry advocacy and support, including a reopening subcommittee; a diversity and inclusion subcommittee; and a digital/face-to-face subcommittee. These subcommittees will represent the breadth and depth of our industry’s amazing talent, and I look forward to watching these teams support one another while working collaboratively to drive connections, commerce and growth for our customers, communities and industry as a whole.”

Related. Informa Markets Creates Global Partnership with Diversity Ally

There were about 120 fewer people in attendance than in 2019 because many international would-be attendees were unable to travel to the United States due to travel restrictions. London-based Doug Emslie, Group Managing Director, Tarsus Group, and current SISO Chair, was one of a handful of internationals who received permission from U.S. authorities to attend the event.

“To be in a positive, interactive and creative environment was truly energizing compared to boring Zoom events. It was like having a year’s caffeine in one go,” said Emslie. “For me, there were many highlights from diversity and inclusion to advocacy and some incredible outside speakers, but the true highlight was hearing from the majors one minute — Hervé, Nancy and Fernando — to the heartbeat of SISO, the smaller organizers, the next — Phil, Stephanie, Joel and Michelle. I was truly buzzing afterward.”

After the 2020 lockdown, gathering again was even more special. “The mood of the participants was frankly thrilled with being face-to-face as a group, and the networking and sharing were even more valuable than in a regular year. The content was highly rated and universally focused on moving forward as we recover and rebuild from the impacts of the pandemic,” said David Audrain, CEO/Executive Director, Society of Independent Show Organizers (SISO); Co-President of Exhibitions & Conferences Alliance (ECA); and CEO and Partner, Exposition Development Company.

Intense Focus on Health and Safety

Health and safety were a top priority. “Well-organized, well-attended, safe and lots of optimism about the future,” is how Aaron Bludworth, Chief Executive Officer at Fern Expo, described the Summit.

Bludworth’s company, Fern Expo, provided event support, and Fern HealthCheck helped facilitate a safe environment.

Fern HealthCheck is a digital way to indicate whether individuals have received a COVID-19 vaccination or recently tested negative for the coronavirus. If an attendee wasn’t tested and/or uploaded their vaccine record, Fern HealthCheck was onsite with optional, self-administered, lower-nasal, virtually-observed, 15-minute rapid-response antigen testing.

Related. Fern Launches Digital Health Passport

Special Focus on Small Businesses and Women Execs

Monday, April 12, featured the Small Business Roundtable, which returned for its fifth year and was geared toward C-level executives of companies with less than $10 million in annual revenues.

Back again for its fourth year was the SISO Executive Women’s Forum, a half-day of education and networking developed by the SISO Women Special Interest Group. This year’s Chair, Mary Larkin, President of Diversified Communications USA and the newly elected Secretary/Treasurer and Executive Committee member of SISO, said the focus of the program was to “provide the opportunity for everyone to reflect on the past year, and how to reorient yourself and your teams as we move toward a new normal.”

The main Summit kicked off on Tuesday, April 13, with a variety of speakers. Anirban Basu, Chairman & Chief Executive Officer of Sage Policy Group, Inc., presented an economic overview including the performance of the financial, labor, real estate and construction markets. For the closing session on Innovation, George Blankenship drew from his experience first as the architect of Apple Computer’s brand-building retail strategy, then revolutionizing the car-buying experience as an executive at Tesla Motors.

Fernando Fischer, President, Americans, Reed Exhibitions, was part of a well-received session, “The Value of Diversity.”

“I hope the message was well-received, and it is realized it’s just a matter of doing it. When building a more inclusive and diverse team, I’m positive they will see benefits and an impact on the community they serve,” Fischer said. “This was my first SISO and meeting such an amazing, creative and resilient group of leaders that represent our industry was reassuring about how welcoming it is.”

Calanca Receives Award of Excellence

Industry veteran Anthony (Tony) Calanca of Calanca & Associates received the prestigious “Robert L. Krakoff Industry Award of Excellence” during the Summit. This award is named in honor of a legend of the industry, Robert L. Krakoff, who built and ran some of the most successful businesses in the exhibition industry. It is the only award that SISO gives out, and it is only given to the most impactful leaders of for-profit businesses in the exhibition and event industry.

“I worked with Bob Krakoff for many years, and he became not only a mentor but a dear friend. I am immensely honored to be a recipient of this prestigious award. Added to the honor is the fact that recipients are chosen by industry peers. I am just so grateful,” said Calanca.

This Too Shall Pass?

Across every industry, businesses are feeling the economic effects caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Hervé Sedky, President and CEO of Emerald, interviewed Ken Chenault, former CEO and Chairman of American Express, during the first day of SISO. With a celebrated tenure of leading American Express through this country’s great financial crisis, Chenault highlighted important objectives that supported his business through this period and may possibly help the exhibitions industry.

Chenault’s leadership mantra is to define reality and give hope, and during this challenging time it is something he reflects upon every day. “With that being said, Ken emphasized that for today’s leaders who are currently defining their own reality it is crucial to assess the levers of your business model that require change — both short- and long-term,” explained Sedky. Chenault outlined key objectives that help guide businesses through times of crisis:

  • First and foremost, the safety and security of your people is your No. 1 priority
  • Align your business in an economic position that will allow you to emerge from this crisis stronger
  • Define what the growth opportunities are for your business
  • Identify and harness the core attributes that fuel your company’s competitive advantage
  • Emphasize the power of communication and embrace transparency towards your employees, customers, partners, communities and industries
  • Practice and project informed optimism

“I’ve heard leaders across a broad range of industries say, ‘This too shall pass…’ when referring to the challenges faced. So, I ended my interview with Ken by asking him if this statement is indeed true, and if he could pass on some words of wisdom regarding this,” explained Sedky.

In closing, Chenault shared the following:

“This is not going to pass. I think the changes that COVID-19 is bringing about have accelerated some trends and have also introduced new trends. I believe the travel industry is going to experience a resurgence of growth as there is real, pent-up demand, but we as leaders need to pay close attention to the trends that have been accelerated as a result of COVID-19, and identify the ones that will become more moderate to long-term.”

Reach Doug Emslie at +44 208 846 2708 or; David Audrain at (404) 334-4585 or; Aaron Bludworth at (513) 562-0432 or; Mary Larkin at (207) 842-5542 or; Hervé Sedky at (203) 840-5584 or; Fernando Fischer at (203) 840-4800 or; and Tony Calanca at



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