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Two-day event requires months of detail work

Behind the scenes, EXPO planning, execution takes teamwork

Mississippi Business & Technology EXPO attendees are accustomed to easy parking, quick admittance and access to an extraordinary trade show and high-profile events that seem to run themselves.

But ask anyone who’s made a living as an event planner how simple it is to throw together a two-day bash for 4,000 of Mississippi’s most powerful and influential business leaders, and she’ll tell you it involves countless hours of preparation, dozens of volunteers, and a little help from Mother Nature.

“An exposition manager prays for good weather during show set-up and tear down,” said Chris Bounds-Chapman, a certified meeting planner with the Mississippi Development Authority’s Tourism Division. “The general public is thankfully oblivious to the effect that rain, sleet, ice or snow can have on a show move-in day. Years ago, I flew into a snowstorm during a January expo in upstate New York and put my exhibit booth on the plane for fear it would never get there. My taxi driver dropped the booth container into the snow and ruined all my graphics. I found myself in an all-night drugstore buying colored markers to patch up the mess. The moral of the story is of course, book your fall/winter expositions in Mississippi, and better yet, book all your expositions in Mississippi!”

Preparations for the 2005 Mississippi Business & Technology EXPO began before last year’s event wrapped up, pointed out Mississippi Business Journal publisher Joe Jones.

“EXPO makes me tired even though I really do very little of the work that goes into putting the show together,” he said, with a chuckle. “Our staff here at MBJ does a superlative job of planning and organizing and they are the unsung heroes of EXPO. I just get to enjoy the fruits of their labors.”

MBJ special projects director Robbie Bell, who has been directing the EXPO for four years, said planning for the state’s largest networking event involves a year-round thought process.

“We make careful observations during the EXPO and take notes on ways we can improve, change, upgrade and generally keep fresh approaches coming each year,” she said. “I keep a file in which I insert newspaper clippings on interesting people who might be good speakers, or companies and individuals in the news that we might invite to enter one of our recognition programs.”

For example, Bell had been trying to land Jackie Pearson Bankston for the Mississippi Business Woman of the Year Luncheon for years, but cruise lines keep the popular entertainer booked frequently. Every year, her cruise line schedule conflicted with the EXPO dates.

“This year, Jackie made a special effort to clear her schedule in order to come help honor other Mississippi businesswomen,” said Bell. “Having been in the music business and worked all across the country since graduating from Ole Miss, Jackie has a lot to say about women in business.”

Switching into high gear

Even though marketing activities for the January EXPO begin in August, the special projects department goes “full-time EXPO” in mid-November, said Bell.

“We have other responsibilities that are ongoing, so we multi-task through most of the year,” she said. “As I network with business leaders across the state and make contacts related to our special publications, I always keep the antenna up for what they might have to say about business developments in their areas of the state, and some of the notions gleaned from those conversations also go into the EXPO planning file.”

As special projects director, Bell organizes each element of the EXPO by generating new ideas, overseeing the awards programs, securing the sponsors, planning the programs for each event, arranging for technical support and set-up details for every inch of the trade mart, planning the seminars and other EXPO extras, and developing and executing the promotion that helps generate booth sales and attendance.

“How do we pull this all together? It takes a lot of teamwork by the talented people at MBJ,” said Bell. “We don’t have a very large staff, so we have to work smart. Several people in the company double up on their duties and help with EXPO, in addition to their regular responsibilities. My brainstorming partner throughout the year is our general manager, Ron Jones, a veteran of 10 EXPOs. We both bounce ideas around, and he is the budget guru who makes sure everything we do stays on target. Once the booth sales start rolling in August and September, Ron is the go-to person for securing commitments, assigning locations and communicating with exhibitors on details they need. He negotiates the Trade Mart and convention setup arrangements and provides daily encouragement to everyone on the team.”

Unsung heroes

MBJ special projects coordinator, Cindy Calabrese, “is a genius organizer who tracks every individual entry and winner in each contest, extracting from them all the information and photographs needed to honor them appropriately and plan their video presentations. She handles all the table bookings as they come in for the Top 40 and Business Woman of the Year Luncheons.”

Calabrese maintains the advertising schedule and is the liaison to the production department for proofing EXPO promotional materials, banners, signs and other collateral.

“If there is a question to be answered for any participant, Cindy is the one to call,” said Bell. “An information technology professional, Cindy creates forms and manages data that is necessary to track our event participants, sponsors and exhibitors.”

Special projects support staffer Sharron Mangum coordinates the Salute to Business & Industry entries and handles ticket sales for that event, and also makes arrangements with participating restaurants for the Business After Hours networking party.

“Other members of the MBJ staff who are invaluable to the success of EXPO are creative director Rhonda Hannah and production manager Kelley Fuller,” said Bell. “Starting in July with the production of our first exhibitor ad for MBJ, to admissions tickets and every other piece of printed collateral, this team takes all the copy I give them and magically creates visual presentations that get attention from the readers.”

The editorial team led by editor Jim Laird contributes an enormous amount to the success of EXPO, emphasized Bell.

“They write many articles to inform the readers of what to expect at EXPO, and our publisher, Joe Jones, always writes several columns throughout the season that encourages participation in EXPO-related programs,” she said. “The circulation manager helps in several project areas, the advertising department gives support in helping advise their clients of upcoming opportunities to enter competitions or exhibit, and they handle the sales for the Top 40 special section. Our accounting department, headed by Debra Jones and Richard Jones, has an enormous amount of extra work to keep up with EXPO issues each year.”

There is also a legion of volunteers from companies around the area who give countless hours of their time to help EXPO flow smoothly, Bell added.

“The MetroJackson Chamber of Commerce Ambassadors come out in force, and their chairman, Derrel Palmer of Mutual of Omaha, is the official EXPO announcer. The Greater Jackson Business Network has also provided volunteers for the past four years,” she said.

The Mississippi Business & Technology EXPO is presented annually as a service to the business community, said Bell.

“The number of hours involved in planning the event and then pulling it off are worthwhile for us to continue to offer an attractive, exciting and colorful setting in which more business can be transacted in two days of outstanding networking opportunities than in many months of individual contacts,” she said.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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