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Twenty-three years and counting

In the early years of a business expo or trade show, it can be a chancy proposition for a company to dedicate staff time, money and resources without knowing the show has a successful track record.

The experience could be a great success. Or a big dud.
When James Watts, owner of Watts Line Specialty Company, launched the first Mississippi Business EXPO in 1983, he felt the event would meet a pent-up demand for business-to-business interactions. Watts, Joe Dove, then publisher of the Mississippi Business Journal, and Betty Pool attended a business expo in Baton Rouge, La., in 1982. They liked what they saw, and felt a similar event would go over well in Jackson.

“We felt the show had merit,” Watts said. “And after we did it in 1983, there was no question that it was going to be an annual event. Not that we had fantastic attendance or participation, because we didn’t. But everyone was very pleased about it, and had the same vision for it.”

Watts said the EXPO continued to grow each year in terms of the number of exhibitors and attendees. Often the reports Watts got back were that businesses had their most successful contacts with other exhibitors at the EXPO, as opposed to attendees.

Watts sold the Mississippi Business EXPO to the Mississippi Business Journal in 1990. The event was renamed the Mississippi Business and Technology EXPO in 2004 — its 21st year.

Ron Jones, general manager of the Mississippi Business Journal, said that after two decades of successful shows, there is a high rate of return.

“A large percentage of the exhibitors come back year after year,” Jones said. “The main reason they do come back is that they benefit from the show. It has proven to be worth their investment.

“For the past decade or so it has always been the third week of January at the Trademart in Jackson. What the exhibitors tell me is that it is a good way to kick off the New Year. It gets their marketing people involved, and it builds excitement. I wouldn’t change the date for anything, even though it gets a little hectic working through Christmas and New Year’s preparing for it.”

Another measure of success is that the EXPO is a sellout again this year. There will be approximately 200 booths at the event that are expected to draw thousands of participants.
Jones said a record number of exhibitors bodes well for good participation in the show.

“Where else can any individual or corporation meet so many potential clients and suppliers in two days?” Jones asks. “The answer is nowhere. This is Mississippi’s largest business-to-business marketing event and it saves participants thousands of dollars by putting attendees and exhibitors together at once.”

Jones said organizers are constantly trying to improve the show to give more reasons for the attendees to visit. There are exciting exhibitors’ programs this year such as the Construction Zone, an area set aside for people who have products and services related to the construction industry. There will also be a Meetings, Conventions and Tourism Mall sponsored by the Mississippi Division of Tourism.

“We also have technology clusters throughout the showroom floor,” Jones said. “Exhibitors who are technology related will be grouped together. We have always been a Mississippi business and industry show. We decided to rename the event the Mississippi Business and Technology EXPO after the technology show in Jackson was cancelled.”

Vital event for state’s business community

Joe D. Jones, CPA, publisher of the Mississippi Business Journal, said the EXPO is vital to the business community.

“From the consumers’ standpoint, we provide about 200 vendors in one place at one time,” Jones said. “It would take all year to visit all these vendors one at a time. Even if the consumer is not currently in the market for the product, EXPO provides an opportunity to stay abreast of current trends and the latest technology so that future buying decisions come easier.

“Secondly, from the exhibitors’ standpoint, to reach the steady stream of attendees by calling on them individually would be a gargantuan undertaking. Thus, in the grand scheme of things, everybody wins.”

One way the EXPO has grown through the years is by adding special events. Patty Revis, who was director of the EXPO for the MBJ from 1993 through 1998, added the Top 40 Under 40 Awards ceremony and an Exhibitors Lounge to the event.

“I’m really proud when I look back,” Revis said. “For me, EXPO and my position at the Mississippi Business Journal were intensely personal. At an early time in my career, it gave me the opportunity to make a lot of decisions that affected the long-term health and well-being of the show. I’m just proud that it is going so well and has grown so much.”

Business seminars are now held through the event, and the Time Warner Business Class Cyber Café provides visitors with the opportunity to check e-mail and learn about the latest new Internet options from the experts.

Also increasingly popular is the EXPO’s Business After Hours event that has grown to include more than 1,500 attendees.

“We look for new ideas every year to make the show that much better,” said Robbie L. Bell, MBJ special projects director. “The special events help attract more people to visit the exhibitors. The number of attendees has grown through the years. And the business community here has always recognized the value of getting a lot of companies together for one-stop networking.”

Bell said the intention is to continue growing the show each year.

“We don’t think EXPO need ever stop evolving,” Bell said. “We will continue offering new features each year and hope to continue seeing the quality of the show grow. We can accommodate as many attendees as choose to be there. In fact, our motto is, ‘EXPO is the place to be!’”

Joe Jones said that while awards, seminars and other activities enhance the appeal of the EXPO, it is still first and foremost a trade show and networking event.

“Exhibitors pay dollars to have their products and services exposed to a large group of qualified prospects,” Jones said. “And it’s our responsibility to provide that traffic.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.


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