NRF's Susan Newman – Exactly Where She Wants to Be

February 22, 2012

The Face2Face Series is sponsored by MarketArt.

Ask Susan Newman about where she sees herself in 20 years, and she doesn’t miss a beat.

“In the next 20 years, I will be coordinating Retail’s Big Show 2032,” she said. “I can’t see a better place to work. I am very grateful for where I am and what I get to do.”

Although Newman has entertained starry-eyed notions of going to Hollywood and becoming an entertainment TV show hostess, the senior vice president of conferences for the National Retail Federation said she couldn’t imagine working in any other industry.

In fact, she’s never worked in any other industry. After graduating from the University of Delaware with her sights on a career in communications and public relations, Newman fell into the trade show world by default.

“I don’t know that I even knew what the trade show business was when I was in college,” Newman said. “But my dad had a family friend who owned a business that had a convention segment, so I ended up getting a job right after graduation in the meeting planning department. It was my first time in, and I haven’t left since.”

After 24 years of paying her dues and working around a variety of shows and industries, Newman said she has found a great home at NRF, where she oversees its conference and marketing departments and educational content.

Though she may appear to have her work cut out for her, with 15 annual events, including the annual behemoth, Retail’s Big Show, under her guidance, Newman said the job couldn’t be more perfect for her outgoing, type-A, people-person personality. Plus, it doesn’t hurt to have a passion for the industry your association represents.

“I love retail and I support our members in big ways – I shop on a regular basis!” Newman said. “To me, it’s a big stress relief. Even if I’m not buying anything, just walking around a mall is just complete decompression for me. I have a daughter who’s 13, and she’s a big supporter as well.”

Yet, in this economy, wouldn’t running retail-focused shows be a bit of a buzzkill? Not so, Newman said. If anything, it’s been the unexpected growth of NRF’s shows that have posed the biggest challenges recently, she added.

“We’ve run out of lanyards, badge stock and program guides, and although those are good problems to have, when you’re an attendee and we don’t have the materials needed to complete registration, it looks like we’re unorganized, when that’s not the case,” Newman said. “The truth is we expected a 10-percent increase in registration, and we got a 25-percent increase in registration.”

Then, there are the nightmare scenarios that would terrify even the most unflappable event managers, such as running out of lunches for 9,000 people.

“During this last (Big Show) we switched the format of one of our lunches because … we didn’t have time to turn the room and do a seated lunch like we normally have,” Newman said. “We went to a boxed lunch because that was the quickest way to get in and out of that room, but what we didn’t anticipate was that people would think would think it was a grab-and-go. We’d planned for our normal sit down numbers and within 15 minutes we had run out of lunches with thousands of people still coming.”

She added, “It’s a valuable lesson learned … we’ll know next time when the word ‘boxed lunch’ comes up to change our proportions.”

So other than having to stand at the ballroom door for two hours turning thousands of hungry people away, what other concerns might cause Newman to toss and turn at night?

“Things like growth trends, what’s the future of the show, you can’t keep growing forever, so what’s going to happen when the growth stops?” Newman said. “I think there’s a natural loss of sleep just as the show is coming up, wondering what you’ve forgotten and what is it that you should be focusing on that you don’t even know you should be focusing on? Those are the things that keep me up.”

And, while knowing how to face and conquer on-the-job dragons is a crucial skill to hone, it’s also important to know when to slow things down and recharge one’s batteries. According to Newman, relaxing with her husband, two kids, two step-kids and dog are several of her favorite ways she likes to decompress.

“I love my down time,” Newman said. “I’m one of those people who love to take naps, love sitting around, watching TV, going to the movies and reading magazines. I would love to take more time to travel around and do more actual vacation kind of traveling than I’m able to now, but I really have nothing to complain about – great kids, great family, great job.”

Although she has dreams of opening a doggie daycare or someday doing volunteer work with the blind, Newman said she truly is grateful for where she is in her life right now. And even if her career gives her a strong sense of accomplishment, it’s her little ones who give her the strongest sense of pride.

“I’m hoping my kids turn into really good, decent people who make a difference in the world – and of course I would take full credit for that!” Newman said. “I will always be proud of what I’ve done and accomplished, but I would say it has to be bigger than that.”

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