What Trade Show Organizers Can Learn from the MLB’s “Field of Dreams”

Sue Pelletier, Senior Editor
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Field of Dreams
The “Field of Dreams” ballpark (Photo courtesy of MLB)

DYERSVILLE, Iowa — Even the most jaded trade show execs feel a little thrill when they step onto the expo floor to see it transformed from a bare-bones box to aisles of signage, products and pipe-and-drape. Attendees may not appreciate all that went into that transformation, but trade show organizers, exhibitors and integrated events services providers such as Freeman know just how much work goes into making that magic happen.

So imagine if, instead of an expo hall, your canvas was an Iowan cornfield. Instead of aisles and exhibitors, your space had to turn into the homemade baseball field featured in the 1989 Universal Studios movie, “Field of Dreams.” That’s the task sports event and experience specialist companies BaAM Productions, a Freeman company; Populous; and BrightView faced when the idea arose to turn Lansing Family Farm used in the movie into a real-life, league-sanctioned ballpark.

It took nearly two years, the installation of 4,000 tons of sand and 2,000 tons of pea gravel, not to mention a lot of local support, to plan, but on August 12, the Chicago White Sox and the New York Yankees faced off for the first game to be held in the cornfield-turned-old-time ballfield in Dyersville, Iowa.

“It’s a career highlight for us to have been selected to create this iconic baseball experience and connect with baseball fans who are drawn to that magic,” BaAM President Annemarie Roe said.

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The field, which was designed to be a tribute to Chicago’s Comiskey Park, home of the White Sox from 1910-1990, included state-of-the-art features, such as a first-of-its-kind LED system that also shone a spotlight much of the 159 acres of corn that surround the ballpark, provided by Iowa-based Musco Lighting. But it also kept that old-time feel of the movie by including a manual scoreboard in the corn behind the right-field fence and custom uniforms inspired by those worn by the Yankees and the White Sox in the early 20th-century setting in which the movie was set.

The companies behind the scenes weren’t new to working with the MLB, having created specialty games at unique venues, including the first regular-season professional sports event held on an active military base at the Fort Bragg Game and the first MLB Little League Classic at Historic Bowman Field in Williamsport, Pa. BaAM handled the construction materials, operational planning and event production, working with architecture firm Populous to design the event site and the Sports Division of BrightView to ensure MLB standards were followed throughout the construction process.

Field of Dreams
White Sox player Eloy Jimenez posing at the Dyersville ballpark (photo courtesy of the MLB)

Nothing Like a Trade Show, Except…

While exhibitors do some unique activations at shows, corn mazes and pitchers’ mounds generally aren’t among them. However, BaAM Project Director Ray Salverda, who led the construction management on-site at the Field of Dreams site, said that while you generally have the infrastructure you need in place at a convention center or hotel, “the skill sets we used in Dyersville are not very different from what we do at trade shows.” One of those would be the attention to every detail needed to pull off the Field of Dreams ballpark. While the details may have been where and when to get the corn planted to ensure it perfectly encapsulated the playing field’s unique shape rather than where and how to construct aisles to allow maximum traffic flow while social distancing, “to me, it was mostly the same, other than having to put on sunscreen,” Salverda said. “You’re always talking to engineers, and design and graphics are a huge part of it. As with all events, we worked closely with local officials. And thinking about how to engage audiences is something we do with all our events, whether they’re for the MLB or a trade show.”

field of dreams
BaAM Project Director Ray Salverda

“It just shows that anything is possible,” he added. “Don’t be afraid to use ‘found’ spaces that will have meaning for your audience. It doesn’t have to be a cornfield — we once created a theater in a rutabaga factory. I’ve always found that if you work with the city building inspectors and fire marshals, you can make any space possible, which is exciting. It unleashes everyone’s imagination.”

“It’s all about tapping into your audience and finding where their passion is,” Aimee Roy, BaAM Director of Communications, said. “The farm where we built the Field of Dreams is a hallowed site for baseball fans — why not embrace this site? Don’t be intimidated because it has never been done before. The possibilities are endless for those who want to create a special place for their audience that connects them with their passion.”

“If you dream it, we can build it…” she said. And as they say in the movie, “If you build it, they will come.”

Reach Annemarie Roe and Ray Salverda at (416) 703-5753; Aimee Roy at (407) 223-9673 or aimee@baamproductions.com