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ESCA Summer Educational Conference: Learning and Leading Together

by Ray Smith

It wasn’t Christmas or Thanksgiving, but for Mike Morrison, the ESCA Summer Educational Conference, held June 26-29 in Asheville, North Carolina, felt more like a family reunion than an association conference.

People seemed relieved to get back to some sense of normalcy, says Morrison, national sales director for WS Display.

“Not only was it a welcome change to be back face-to-face, but when you do it in an environment like the Omni Grove Park Inn in Asheville … it was as an over-the-top experience,” he says.

For the first time since 2019, the Exhibition Services and Contractors Association (ESCA) hosted its Summer Educational Conference, offering programs on the latest industry trends and giving its 175 members a chance to network with friends, make new contacts and have a say on the future of their industry.

ECN asked five ESCA members who attended the conference to share their thoughts on the four-day retreat. We interviewed Bob Ryley, senior vice president of GES and president of ESCA; Julie Kagy, director of operations, ESCA; Rob Wilson, president/CEO of Employco USA; Juan Garcia, business representative for International Union of Painters and Allied Trades DC 78; and Mike Morrison, national sales director for WS Display.

What was it like getting together in person for the first time in three years? How was the general mood?

Ryley: As service providers, we have all been out doing events for our clients, but it was the first time we were able to convene in this size as ESCA. It was the first chance to come together and talk about our experiences getting back to work and onboarding so many returning or new employees. The mood was high-energy throughout the conference.

Wilson: The pandemic showed us that there is nothing like meeting in person. We were at the EXHIBITORLive show the previous week, which could not even compare to the ESCA summer conference. The biggest difference was the Exhibitor show was all about sales and marketing, whereas the summer conference was about relationships and education. The general mood of the conference was relaxed, engaging and reconnecting.

Garcia: After almost three years not being able to attend ESCA summer conference, it was a real pleasure to meet once again face-to-face with fellow labor leaders, signatory and non-signatory contractors. This conference gives us the chance to meet with contractors in a neutral setting and discuss a lot of the issues that surround our industry. The mood throughout the conference was exceptional from day one and got better as the days went on.

Kagy: It was fantastic to be together after a three-year hiatus due to COVID. Our membership is very tight-knit and seeing how excited they were to be together again was heartwarming, to say the least.

How would you honestly rate the educational track at this year’s event?

Garcia: This year’s educational track was on point with where our industry is at today following the pandemic and where we need to be moving forward. Promoting diversity and inclusion in the workplace was a great track at this year’s conference. It would be a good thing to see more DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion] attending the conference.

Morrison: There were aspects of the educational portions that were strong in content. Some of it was opinionated, but that comes with every event, for the most part. You have to take the educational tracks that make sense for you and apply it accordingly. The culture is continually changing. Knowing what to expect helps in decision-making moving forward.

Wilson: Overall, the education track was excellent. The tracks were divided up into themes of employee retention, labor relations and state and future of the industry. All three topics are top-of-mind for most attendees. The majority of the presentations were very engaging.

Kagy: I was thrilled with the education this year. We had content that covered myriad topics. We started with Risha Grant talking about understanding biases, moved onto the future of tradeshows and events, hiring and retention, the young professional evolution, exhibition and event industry trends, an ECA update, legal updates, CEIR updates and closed the event with a report from our diversity panel. Overall, I was excited to hear all the content.

Ryley: The education track was very well done. The education committee wanted to focus on what is and has been important to us as service providers, and that was getting back to work and getting our people back to work. That includes rehires and new hires, with a focus on diversity, equity and inclusion. We also had a session dealing with young professionals, and how their perspective might be different from the Baby Boomer generation. Finally, we focused on what does the landscape of the industry look like. What does the data show for the comeback of the event industry? We did that with presentations from representatives of IAEE, ECA, UFI and CEIR.

Between golfing, fishing, rafting and touring the Biltmore mansion, did everyone benefit from meeting new people and building memories?

Morrison: This event has always been about relationship building. This is not the event to bring your portfolio and cram a presentation down someone’s throat. If someone comes in with that mentality, they’ll be disappointed. Focusing on meeting people and making friends first is the best way to approach the conference. Can you do business? Sure, but it’s easier when you make friends at the same time.

Garcia: All the activities are a great way to meet new people and share information about one’s industry and how we can all benefit from it. ESCA does a great job mixing these outings with new faces instead of just people we know. Very good.

Wilson: Weaving education in the morning to offsites in the afternoon and leaving a few evenings for you to plan for yourself created a great opportunity to meet new people, reconnect with old friends and create some memories. (I will never become a professional axe thrower – neither will David from Oscar and Associates.) Because of the relaxed environment, it was easy to meet other members. No one was selling to anyone, just being friends.

Kagy: Our event is all about networking and building connections. So much of our world is working closely together and having solid relationships helps to ensure great events. Our synergies are the key to event success.

Ryley: The networking opportunities during these social events are crucial. It is a time to meet casually with our suppliers and competitor companies, setting aside that competitive aspect for a short time and discussing issues affecting us all. It is also a great time to meet with our labor partners and facility partners, both of whom have great participation in our summer conference.

The word is that there were more than 30 first-time attendees. That’s refreshing. Can you elaborate?

Kagy: We had 44 first-time attendees. With so much longevity in our industry, we don’t always see such a high number of first-timers at our 31st Summer Educational Conference. We are so proud to attract new faces and help foster new relationships.

Morrison: More companies are allowing members of the teams to come to an event like this one where there is a resort feel to the conference. For some employees, they never get to visit premium locations like an Omni brand property, so it is a perk and an opportunity to broaden professional horizons.

Garcia: It was definitely a good thing that we had 44 first-timers at the conference. This is a sign that the industry is back and picking up momentum moving forward.

Wilson: It was great to see so many first-time attendees. I think, in part, it was because we have not been in person since 2019; it was a great location and a family-oriented conference. I would highly recommend the summer conference.

Ryley: We had 10 new member companies this summer, and 44 new first-time attendees. That is a big number of first-time attendees for us, but also represents what is prevalent in the industry right now. There are a lot of new faces out there.

How about the participation and importance of labor and the sponsors that put this event together and made it happen?

Garcia: It is important that labor continues to attend these conferences to let everyone know how labor is involved with this industry and all the work the different trades put in to help our industry. Labor does a lot of work to promote our industry at a local, state and federal level. I would like to see labor highlighted a little more in this conference. Last, but not least, I would like to give two thumbs up to the entire ESCA group for putting together this year’s conference and a special thanks to all the sponsors that made this possible.

Ryley: We couldn’t hold a conference like this without our great sponsors. They really came in strong this summer conference for ESCA. It allows us to put on a great program and hold the social events that everyone finds so valuable. I mentioned earlier about both our labor and facility partners. We always get great support from so many of the national representatives of the organized labor unions. They come in and really communicate what is happening in the various markets and what is changing. It is very valuable.

Morrison: There is no secret that sponsors are a huge part of the conference, and their monetary contributions help with the funding of the event. It works both ways, though, as sponsors have an opportunity to speak with companies they would like to do business with. At this event, sponsors are able to do a two-minute commercial with the attendees to leave an impression on them. I personally take full advantage of that every year at ESCA.

Wilson: It is important to bring labor, company owners, sponsors and other industry professionals together in an inviting environment. They may have differences from time to time, but we are all passionate about the tradeshow industry and we want to see tradeshows return to pre-pandemic levels, which we are seeing in many cities.

Kagy: This event relies on participation and sponsorship to be successful. It is truly only as good as our attendees and the engagement of those attendees. Special thanks should be given to our labor and venue partners who work with us to foster symbiotic relationships and lay the groundwork for the future success of our industry. Also, we wouldn’t be where we are without the generosity of our sponsors who clearly see the value of giving back to their industry and helping to grow ESCA and support the organization’s initiatives.

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