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Details, details: behind the scenes at EXPO planning

By the time attendees of the Mississippi Business and Technology EXPO 2006 arrive at the Mississippi Trademart, 65,000 square feet of carpet will have been rolled into place, American flags and dozens of flags representing each branch of the military will punctuate the walls, and enormous banners and signs will point the way to various feature areas.

“No one has to walk or stand on concrete anywhere in the building,” said Robbie Bell, vice president of business development for the Mississippi Business Journal, who has directed the EXPO for the last five years. “The ambience is festive and lively, and when you add the attractive array of exhibits provided by the participating companies and the anticipation of attendees as they canvass aisle after aisle, it all adds up to the state’s biggest and best networking party of the year.”

Planning a two-day bash for 5,000 of Mississippi’s most powerful and influential business leaders is a daunting task, one that involves countless hours of preparation, dozens of volunteers and a little help from Mother Nature. At press time, the weather for EXPO 2006 called for fairly clear days and mild temperatures, but Mississippi’s mid-January weather has ranged from freezing cold and dangerously icy to unseasonably warm with tornado sirens blaring.

“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.

Preparations for the 2006 show began before last year’s event wrapped up, pointed out MBJ 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.”

For example, when guests enter the three awards events in the west bay of the Mississippi Trademart, they will step into a fully gray carpeted and blue-draped room. A 14-foot screen to use for live feed provided by WLBT-TV3 will flank a large stage for the entertainers and speakers and the other side of the stage will house the head table. Forty servers will swoop through the large room with gourmet meals by Pretty Presentations of Newton.

‘Information, enjoyment, accomplishment’

“Five hundred people come in and out of these events three times during the two-day EXPO,” explained Bell. “They visit the exhibitors either before or after their programs, so a day at any of these events can deliver a lot of information, enjoyment and accomplishment.”

Other partners that provide materials and services to enhance the quality of the awards presentations include Bowie Audio Visual, Stagelite Productions, Green Oak Nursery, First Class Linens, Service Printers, A+ Signs, A Complete Flag Source, Steve Colston Photography and others, noted Bell.

“Mississippi Business and 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,” said Bell. “Title sponsor Time Warner Cable Business Class will have a special VIP parking section for their clients and invited guests, which will be directly in front of the Trademart.”

Planning for EXPO 2006 jumped into overdrive late last summer, just before Hurricane Katrina plowed through South Mississippi on August 29. Booth reservations slowed down while businesses assessed damage. Meanwhile, MBJ general manager Ron Jones, a veteran of a dozen EXPOs, negotiated the Trademart and convention setup arrangements, secured commitments, assigned locations and communicated with exhibitors on an almost daily basis. By press time, all EXPO booths had been reserved.

A mid-summer start

Also beginning mid-summer, MBJ special projects coordinator, Cindy Calabrese, began tracking down winners for the Top 40 Under 40 and 50 Leading Businesswomen awards programs, gathering information needed to plan their video presentations for the awards luncheons. She also served as the liaison to the production department for proofing EXPO promotional materials, banners, signs and other collateral.

A new full-time staff member in Bell’s department, Robyn Harris, special projects associate, has assisted with booth sales, Best Places to Work awards program registrations, and event details. “Her enthusiasm is contagious, so she’ll be a very valuable member of our team,” said Bell. Kathryn Stokes was recently added to the special projects team to focus on the Best Places to Work in Mississippi awards breakfast and the Business After Hours 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 MBJ 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. “Brooke Jones, our 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 EXPO and Top 40 special sections. 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. Everyone at MBJ contributes in some way to the success of EXPO each year. From the front door, where Ashley Varnes fields hundreds of calls about EXPO each week leading up to the kick-off, through every office in our building, EXPO is on everyone’s mind and agenda throughout the fall and January each year.”

The Mississippi Business and Technology EXPO is a labor of love presented annually as a service to the statewide 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 Lynne.Jeter@gmail.com.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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