by Jim Obermeyer
I recently returned from the EDPA ACCESS Conference, held in San Antonio, Texas. Down from a typical attendance of near 300, this year’s event drew 90 people for three days in person, with additional registrations for the virtual component. By the end of the first day’s sessions—presentations on the state of our industry and the outlook for recovery—there was a definite sense of defeat in the audience. News we all probably knew but hearing it all at once was a bit of a blow. While the next two days had more of a positive note, the reality is we are all struggling to keep our businesses and livelihoods alive and kicking.
As I tend to do in these situations, I started looking for the silver lining. For me, failure is not an option. Something good must come out of this. As I am writing this the week before the Christmas holiday, I was reminded of an incident that had a big impact on me during the Great Recession more than ten years ago.
For several years at my company, we had hosted a holiday party, usually renting rooms at local restaurants and paying for the meal and drinks for our 25 employees and their spouses. And we usually had some sort of “white elephant” gift exchange as part of it.
When the recession hit us hard, as with many companies, we went through some tough times. Our staff was a bit smaller, and those that were there had been through layoffs and furloughs and short work weeks. But we made it through the toughest season and were seeing signs of life for the next year. A company hosted Christmas party, however, was not going to be financially possible that year.
One of my salespeople suggested an old-fashioned pot-luck dinner, held at the company facility. It sounded like a great idea to me—a chance for all of us to be together and not cost the company a lot of money. When I announced the party at a company meeting, I also asked that instead of spending $10-$20 each on some goofy gift, that each family select their favorite charity and donate the money on behalf of their family.
On the night we had the party, it was amazing to see these people and their spouses come in with the food they had prepared especially to share with this group. You could tell that favorite recipes were pulled out and prepared with great care for this meal. And it was a feast fit for a king—better than anything we had been served at any of the restaurants we had been to in the past.
When the meal was over, I stood to make a presentation and talk about how much I appreciated everyone’s hard work and passion throughout a very tough year. And then I passed around a fishbowl and asked each of our employees to write on a piece of paper just the dollar amount they had contributed. On another piece, I asked them to write the name of the organization that received the donation. My objective was to come up with a total dollar amount donated by employees of the company, and a list of charities that received the funds, without knowing how much each individual donated. I knew that there were several in this group that were barely feeding their own families.
From my perspective, I imagined a total donation somewhere in the $200-$300 dollar range. When the tally was complete, I was blown away by the number: $1,315 donated to 16 charities, an average of just over $82 per employee.
To say that I was humbled by their generosity is an understatement. This group had shown incredible kindness. For me it was living proof that in the toughest of times, positive things will happen.
We continued that tradition for years thereafter, but it was that first night, in the depths of the recession, that remains a key memory for me. While this pandemic may be more devastating and widespread than the recession was for our industry, I have no doubt that we will see positives emerge from this. There is always reason for hope.
See you on the show floor.
Jim Obermeyer has been in the exhibits and events industry 39 years, both as a corporate tradeshow manager and exhibit house owner. He can be reached at email@example.com
This story originally appeared in the Jan./Feb. 2021 issue of Exhibit City News, p. 12. For original layout, visit https://issuu.com/exhibitcitynews/docs/ecn_jan-feb_2021