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Hindsight is 20/20

I am writing this as I sit on the deck of my brother’s condo at Lake of the Ozarks.  It’s early morning, about 75 degrees and sunny, and the view of the lake is spectacular.  We’re here for a few days as part of a summer staycation. 

Two years ago no one had ever heard the word staycation. It’s a new entry in our vocabulary that loosely means take a vacation and stay in, or close, to your own hometown. For us, it’s better than last year’s word; nocation.

Lake of the Ozarks is an area known regionally for summer entertainment; boating, water sports, fishing, and family fun.  In the past decade, it has grown to become a playground of the affluent; million dollar lakefront homes and monstrous boats that are better suited for much larger bodies of water.

More recently however, the local real estate brochures are full of foreclosure ads and the boat brokers lots are bulging with repossessed yachts.  There’s nothing like a recession to change the complexion of a community that relies heavily on discretionary income.

Not that this is the only place affected by the recession…

It was about two years ago we began feeling the onset of the recession in our business.  At times it seems hard to believe that we have been battling this for nearly 24 months.  When things really started down-turning in the fall of 2008, I adopted the mantra of Gene Kranz, NASA Flight Director on the ill-fated Apollo 13 flight; failure is not an option.  Little did I know how close we would come to it.

There were days in the summer of 2009 where I literally felt we were seeing our last days as a company.  It is well worth my time, one year later; to look back at everything we did as a company in order to survive. There are a lot of lessons here, lessons about what we did well, as well as lessons about what we did not do so well.

Like many companies in times like this, we immediately began cutting expenses. I remember going through financial statements line by line, considering absolutely everything for potential cuts. As a management team we all agreed there were no sacred cows. Anything and everything was up for discussion.

The first pass netted a fairly sizeable savings. We felt pretty good about what we were doing. As time marched on, and the economy worsened, it became apparent our cuts were not enough. We had to go back through it and this time we needed to find some sizeable chunks. 

There were two areas that represented potentially large savings; our lease and our people.  Like many landlords in the early part of the recession ours was not interested in renegotiating. It wasn’t until we were deep into the recession, and in a position to either renegotiate or leave, that we were able to make it happen.

The hardest part of the process came when we had to look at each employee and consider their direct contribution to the survival of the business. We had been under a salary freeze for a year already and were considering an across the board reduction in compensation when several of our outside advisors strongly discouraged us from this move. 

Looking back now, I am glad we did not make this move, although the trade-off was dismissing a member of the management team, and re-assigning another to a direct sales role.

The other part of the equation of course is maintaining and increasing sales. You can’t save your way out of a recession; you have to sell your way out of it. During this same time we added two seasoned account executives; both bringing years of experience and loyal client relationships with them. We have focused heavily on business development for all account executives and have one person fully dedicated to it.

We are seeing much more activity this year compared to last. We are having our best year since 2007, which was our best year as a company, and the fall is looking very busy for us.

Are we out of the woods yet? Absolutely not. We are still recovering from the last two years, and it will be quite some time before we are completely clear. Are we in a better position today than we were twelve months ago? Absolutely. I believe we have learned an incredible amount about how to make this business work and we have done it with some very talented and dedicated people.

We have also had some excellent help from the outside. If there is one big thing I wish we had done sooner, there are many things I wish we had started earlier in the process, it is getting professional help. We’re tradeshow guys. Tradeshows are what we do. Tradeshows are where our talent shines. We are tradeshow experts. We’re not save-a-business-from-the-depths-of-recession experts. 

Those guys are out there. When we found them and engaged them, it helped us focus on the things we needed to do to get our business back on track. If I were doing this all over again, and I hope I never have to, I would have found these guys earlier and gotten them involved very quickly. They’re very good at what they do. That allows us to continue to focus on being very good at what we do; tradeshows.

See you on the show floor.

Jim Obermeyer has been in the tradeshow industry 28 years, both as a corporate tradeshow manager and exhibit house executive. He is a partner in the tradeshow and event marketing firm Reveal. He can be reached at jobermeyer@revealexhibits.com.

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