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Old cronies and young whippersnappers

A few months ago I ran into Rich Johnson and Jim Murphy on the show floor at the NBAA show in Atlanta. We got to talking about how long we’ve been in this nutty business and started reminiscing about guys we had worked with over the years.

I did not know either one of these guys back in the day, but it was amazing how many common acquaintances we had. As we connected the dots we found common friends and associates all the way back to the early ’80s.

I worked with Al Bledsoe while I was a tradeshow manager at McDonnell Douglas in the early ’80s. Al was a tradeshow coordinator for the corporate exhibit department and I was one of his clients; a division of the company that purchased their services.

Al and I spent many, many hours in Cobo Hall in Detroit and the old McCormick Place East (now Lakeside Center) in Chicago.

Frankie Pozzo was my lead man from the old I&D Company. He was a hard worker, had a great sense of humor, and knew how to get things done on the show floor. I always invited him to our company’s hospitality event; he was more a part of my show team than some of our employees.

When I moved from corporate tradeshow management to this side of the business, one of the first guys I met on the show floor was Mike Stewart. He was the lead I&D supervisor for Hamilton Displays. I remember being amazed at the number of people he knew all over the country and the respect he had on the floor.

The sad thing is that all three of these guys are no longer with us. I guess that’s a sign that I’m aging in this industry. But there are still lots and lots of us around this business that have been in it a long time. In fact, I’ve started paying attention to the guys I’ve had on my crews in the last year. It doesn’t seem to matter whether it’s Las Vegas, Orlando, Atlanta or Chicago, the majority of the guys on the crews I’ve had lately have been much closer to my age than my 21-year-old son’s.

This certainly does not qualify as a scientific survey, but it seems to me our labor pool is aging. For the immediate term, that’s not all bad; an experienced labor force is a good thing. I’ve had some great crews lately, and have enjoyed working with guys that know what they are doing, and like doing it.

The longer term view, however, is a bit worrisome. Like our nation’s workforce in general, the retirement of the baby boomer generation is going to leave a gaping hole in the workforce. For our industry in particular, I’m not seeing a lot of young talent in the ranks.

It’s not just the I&D workforce. I look around my own company and see the same thing. Of our six account executives, none are younger than their early 40s. In our entire workforce, there are just a couple in their 20s.

As an industry, what are we doing to lure young talent into this business? I know, I know; none of us got into this business on purpose. Most of us came to it from other places. But what if we could bring people in at a young age and grow them up in our companies?

Having come out of a college journalism and marketing program, I am consistently amazed and dismayed that college marketing programs pay so little attention to tradeshows as a form of marketing.

Over the years, I have done guest lecturing at a number of universities, talking about tradeshow marketing’s role in the total marketing mix. Most students are surprised to learn this industry even exists.

As an industry, we seem to do a poor job of promoting our business at this level. The exception is the EDPA Foundation’s scholarship program, which works with two universities to provide students an opportunity to earn scholarships in exhibit design curriculums. (For more information, see www.edpa.com/foundation).

This is a great start, but what about the rest of our industry? There is going to be a season of transition and succession in the not-too-distant future. What are we doing to bring in young talent and give them the experience they will need to keep this industry the vibrant part of face-to-face marketing that it is now?

There’s something to think about, and to keep the old cronies awake at night …

See you on the show floor.

Jim Obermeyer has been in the tradeshow industry 29 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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