Trade Show Leader: Abilities Expos’ Lew Shomer
Lew Shomer, chairman of 5NET4 Productions and Abilities Expos, found his way into the trade show industry like many others when he was vice president of marketing for a modem manufacturer in the 1980’s. In order to stand out from others at one of the early Comdex show, Shomer engaged a former Miss Louisiana model and her partner to perform a live song and dance skit.
After the second or third performance, word got around to the attendees that “you had to see this girl!" Next thing that happened was Sheldon Adelson came to the booth and said that we were making too much noise and drawing all the attendees from other exhibitors, and Shomer replied, “Isn’t that the idea?"
Two weeks later, Adelson called me to join the Interface Group as their vice president of marketing and the rest of the story was that Shomer said, “I was hooked.”
After two years, Shomer left The Interface Group, Comdex and the Computer Showcase Expos, and started Shomex Productions. Shomex started in the Career Fair business in 1984 and by the year 2000 was the leading producer of Diversity Career Fairs in the country.
With 911 and the emergence of the internet, hiring became a digital exercise and there was no need to bring people together face to face, so Shomex exited the business in 2008.
In 2008, Shomer and David Korse decided to become business partners and bought Abilities Expo from Questex. They did their due diligence and determined that the shows needed tender love and care and in the past eight years went from three shows to two shows to seven shows, and next year will expand with a franchise partner into Canada.
Also in 2008, Shomex was selected to manage the Society of Independent Show Organizers, with Shomer becoming its executive director.
During this time, Shomer re-enforced the qualifications for membership, expanded the membership globally, revised the sponsorship program and created a sufficient financial base for SISO to operate as a very healthy organization.
Shomer took some time to answer more questions about his time in the trade show industry.
TSNN: What were the leading factors that made you stay in the Industry beyond Comdex?
Shomer: Sheldon Adelson is certainly one of the brightest people I have ever met and just being around him allowed me to see his vision about the opportunities in the industry, as well as what he considered was the best practices of organizing and producing shows. His ability to understand markets and how to reach them fascinated me, as I had always been a marketing and sales guy; but Sheldon took to me a higher level. When I left Comdex, of course I thought every show would be like Comdex and exhibitors didn’t have to be “sold”, they just queued up to get their spaces. Lesson No. 1: Comdex was a unique product at the right time and this was still a business that was sales and marketing based. As a student of marketing I knew that my talents and opportunities were in a business that was driven by these two aptitudes.
TSNN: How has the Industry changed since you started?
Shomer: In the Comdex days, companies were driven into trade shows because 1) they had to be there to be seen, or 2) they would be conspicuous by their absence. Now, there is no doubt that the exhibitors are looking for a direct correlation between the cost of participation and their return on investment.
Although entertainment is still a major part of any show, attendees need to return to their offices loaded with new techniques, product knowledge and stronger vendor/buyer relationships. In addition, booths were always outdoing themselves with creative ways to bring attendees to their booths (at least that was how I started), and now there is much more emphasis on developing relationships. Also, technology keeps on changing the way we do business.
The 16 or 32 page direct mail brochure is certainly a thing of the past and the buyer is much more knowledgeable about the companies exhibiting and their products. The ability to announce products at any time during the year has basically eliminated the need to wait for the show to splash new product announcements. And, of course, social media and the need to be permanently attached to one’s community is an ever changing landscape as we all try to manage these new technologies and of course monetize them.
TSNN: What did you most enjoy about your days at SISO?
Shomer: It’s the people, it’s always about the people! Business relationships develop into long time personal friends and that made it very rewarding especially bringing in new members from all around the world and new sponsors that could see positive results by attending any of the SISO conferences. Of course, it’s also the people that worked for me at SISO, as without them I would have been lost.
SISO allowed me to express some of my creative side by making conferences both informative and fun and by bringing buyers and sellers together. We always felt that most of the major M&A deals over the past 8 or 9 years were always incubated or closed at SISO or through introductions at SISO. That made SISO a major instrument of the whole industry, certainly as it related to the for profit sector.
TSNN: What do you enjoy most about Abilities?
Shomer: Abilities creates miracles and at every show we see firsthand, non-verbal kids that talk for the first time as they engage with vendors, participate in events or come in contact with different service animals.
At our very first show (operated by us as the new owners), a single mother of a 6 year old that had CP was asked to have her son put in a special chair and for the first time was able to walk with the chair holding him. Alex now is 14 and he and his mom visit the L.A. show and we see Alex walking with the aid of crutches, but he can also do about 100 yards unassisted. How can you not love what we do?
TSNN: What would you like to leave behind for others to follow?
Shomer: I am a big fan of “follow your passion and you will never have to work another day in your life”. Trade show entrepreneurs are passionate people. Their passion transforms into creativity and that is why we have new shows all the time.
Education is a very important part of that process, and I am proud that SISO developed a turnkey educational project that is being used at the Pepperdine Graduate Business School as part of its advertising and media MBA program. Education outside the industry to find new talent and within the industry to develop talent are major programs of SISO and IAEE and need to be expanded so the industry can “grow their own”.
TSNN: What is the future for the Industry?
Shomer: There will always be a need to meet face to face and do deals, develop relationships and see/feel/touch the latest and the greatest. Technology, innovation and integrative experiences will drive the business. The ability to create and engage your communities before, during and after shows will dictate the new model for product introductions, information and eventually sales.
The industry also is very global and what used to work only in one market sector now has to be more universal with cross border languages and cultures, so the demand for multinational experiences will be very valuable in our industry. The future is optimistic as long as economies are in good shape and terrorism or some rare virus can be controlled.
Certainly, sustainability is something that will become important to the U.S., as it is in Europe, and organizers will need to accept eco-friendly as a way of doing business as opposed to being a business expense. The industry is changing and as with anything in life, one changes with it or ceases to exist.