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How To Stay in the Fast Lane in the Trade Show Industry [Part 1]

At Expo! Expo!, it's all about connections! Tom Gattuso, CEM dedicates his time to staying on top of trends and making the most of his time on the trade show floor.

Tom Gattuso EE Blog

Tom gattusoAt Expo! Expo! IAEE’s Annual Meeting & Exhibition, you are with your people and part of a community you cannot find anywhere else. Advice, challenges and solutions are offered among attendees and exhibitors. Expo! Expo! offers attendees a wealth of information they can take straight to their organization. Like the exhibition and event industry, the attendee make-up of Expo! Expo! is rich in diversity and always evolving.

IAEE had the opportunity to speak with Tom Gattuso, CEM, Trade Shows Director of Specialty Equipment Manufacturing Association (SEMA). Filled with analogies and an infectious passion for the industry, Tom believes in the value of making connections and is the ultimate epitome of this year’s tag line, “It’s All About Connections!”

Tell us a little about yourself. What are your current responsibilities?

I’m the Trade Show Director for the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA). Like any trade show manager, I wear a lot of different hats and I have a lot of balls in the air all at the same time. I’ve been fortunate in my career. I’ve got 22 years of experience, specifically in automotive events. My life in the expo industry revolves around the automotive industry and events within it.

Wow, 22 years is a long time.

It’s weird to put a number to it. I started selling 10 x 10 booths and along the way, I have grown professionally and grown with the industry, which has changed a lot as well. It’s interesting to look back on it and have been lucky enough to work in such a passionate segment of the trade show world.

The automotive industry has seen plenty of changes over the years. How does that affect your role?

For us, we’re all about innovation and new products. We focus on putting an environment together that connects the buyer with the seller. I think that’s something inherent to the trade show industry. When I’m watching the industry grow, expand and change, it’s all trying to facilitate that buyer/seller connection. When we’re watching the automotive industry, specifically the special equipment, change and how they do business, we’re able to take innovations from the trade show industry and see immediate results when we plug it into our event. We see connections and conversations happen on the show floor.

What is your favorite part of the job?

One of the things I like about it is the constant rush of adrenaline that you get while you’re in the midst of producing an event. For me, my world slows down and I like being in this place where I can feel like I’m in the eye of the storm. There’s this sense of calmness about relying on your plan and knowing that there’s a vision that eventually gets put together. As things around you get more and more established and the plan starts to come together, everyone else around you come to that same place. Then, you get to the show. If you do it right, everything is clicking, everybody’s happy and business is being done. So, the exciting part is knowing we’re going to get there and pushing the process to that point as more people start to participate. We want to see them get through their tasks and come to the end of it and be successful. To have that vision and seeing it come true is highly satisfying.

Everybody in their professional life has these moments where it seems from the outside that it’s never going to come together, but when you’re good at your job, you can make it happen and be successful with what you produce.

Why do you attend Expo! Expo!?

I’ve probably attended Expo! Expo! for 10 years. I like to go to Expo! Expo! just to see what’s new and what trends are developing in the industry. That’s a big one for me.

How do large show organizers like yourself benefit from attending Expo! Expo!?

I would answer this question in a counterintuitive way. I don’t like to think of myself as a large show organizer. I think that one of the things that we go to Expo! Expo! for is to find ways to help facilitate this connection between the buyer and the seller. It’s looking at different ways people are successful and facilitating those conversations and seeing how we can adapt it to our model to the benefit of our industry.

Even though as large show organizers, we’ve got a lot of those connections happening, I look at our trade show through the eyes of one single buyer. The size of our event should be insignificant to a buyer that comes to our show because they’ve only got so much time to do their business. I need to treat the show as an event that one person can attend and benefit from. Then, find ways to make sure that can exponentially happen. Again, I don’t think of myself as a large show organizer because across the industry, the size of our event really makes no difference. It’s all about the quality of the conversations that you can help facilitate on your show floor.

show floor

We appreciate you bringing a different viewpoint to the question. 

The analogy I like to use when discussing this viewpoint is sailing a boat. If you know how to sail a boat and the fundamentals of sailing, you should be able to sail a 20-foot boat and you should be able to sail a 40-foot boat. While there are some things inherently different to both, the fundamentals, techniques and strategy are very much the same.

I think that’s a good analogy for the trade show industry. It’s not a different strategy. We’re all trying to accomplish the same thing, it just happens more frequently. It doesn’t matter how large we are and the number of buyers we have doesn’t influence your success at the show. It’s about having the best quality conversation you can have during the show floor. Our mentality is that it’s not about how big we are, but the quality that we’re bringing to this one place and how you can stand out to find the most people that will benefit you.

Even when you go to Expo! Expo!, you’ll find that your time is really valuable. How you spend your time and what conversations you have are direct indications of the success you’ll have at the show. So, I know that my time on the trade show floor is limited, and I really have to make the most of all of my conversations there. I’m factoring that in when I’m talking to old colleagues versus focusing on my time on the show floor.

Expo! Expo! is a tool where it’s divided into education, networking and show floor. I try to cater the conversation that I’m having to my best benefit. I like to maximize my time on the show floor and not necessarily do my networking on the show floor. I like to do my networking at the dedicated networking events because the show floor time is so important due to the limited time.

What education sessions caught your attention at any previous Expo! Expo! and what were those takeaways?

I definitely like the Keynotes that happen every year. I make it a point to attend every year. I’ve also participated in the CEM classes at Expo! Expo! and enjoyed those. I do that to get my CEM and stay fresh in what’s going on in the industry.

Some of my big takeaways are certainly from the CEM Program. When you do it at Expo! Expo, you’re in an environment that has this energy of passion, innovation and eagerness to learn. People are there ready to learn and open to discussing the industry. The inherent passion for the industry comes out and there’s this great energy of everybody wanting to learn and get better professionally. For me, it rounded the week out with some personal and professional growth with the CEM classes.

CEM picture

Were there any insights from previous Expo! Expo! that you implemented in your organization?

From an overall strategy perspective, I enjoyed learning from other industries on how they tackle the young professional conundrum. I think every industry is well served in making sure they are educating and engaging their youth. I’ve been able to have those conversations with organizers from other industries and see some of the things they do. From that, I try to figure out how I can implement what they’re doing into my event.

For example, there are now meet ups. People like to talk about having meet ups and they’d like to incorporate them into their show. It’s a relatively new concept. While it’s just people getting together, it’s got a name and it has a vibe to it. It’s being able to communicate with people in a place where we sound credible.

meet up

Can you explain further on what you mean on sounding credible?

What I’d like to be able to do is communicate through marketing messages to a young professional about the value of our event. One of the things I found is a lot of the times, if you’re not well developed in your career, it can be intimidating to attend a trade show. It can be intimidating to walk down the aisle if you don’t have a significant amount of buying authority. You may feel like you may not have an impact with exhibitors.

I’ve been working on ways where we can demonstrate the value that’s new to the industry on how they can learn and grow professionally. It’s not about your buying authority. It’s about your influence in the industry and how valuable you are to the future. What’s our value equation for all ranges of our demographics? When we focus on younger people, we want to make them comfortable in the environment and we want to make them feel like they’re just as much of a cornerstone of the industry and the future as anybody else. They should embrace that and thrive in the environment.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of Tom’s Expo! Expo! insights on Chapter involvement, tips for newcomers and his favorite Expo! Expo! memories.

While you wait, don’t forget to register for Expo! Expo!.


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