As he walks down a hall of the Los Angeles Convention Center in December, Rick Dobson is once again buttonholed by an attendee at the annual meeting of the International Association for exposition Management. Dobson hears him out, offers a few words of counsel, and is profusely thanked. In such encounters, the trim, navy-blazered Dobson resembles nothing so much as everyone's favorite professor. Students just can't get enough of him.
"everywhere I go I find myself providing consultancy," says the 18-year veteran of the tradeshow industry. "It is time to find out if I am right."
With that in mind, Dobson left his position of two years as executive vice president offor Atwood Convention Publishing and its sister company Galaxy expocard Registration to launch his own tradeshow consulting company in January. The transition is the latest in a series of surprising career moves for Dobson, who is in fact a teacher by degree, although he has never taught in a school, despite his bachelor of science degree in education. Just out of college, he accepted a job in convention management "out of curiosity and for the better pay. I had no idea of what I was getting into," he admits. What he was getting into was an apprenticeship in convention and tradeshow management that has led him to be considered one of the elders in the field, and, at the ripe old age of 43, ready to embark on his own.
No Such Thing as Security Two years out of college, Dobson became the convention and exhibit manager for the National Council of Social Studies. He left that job in 1983 and worked his way up over the next four years to associate director for AFIPS, Inc., producers of the now-infamous National Computer Conference. "The educational value of working on a conference that was once the country's largest computer show--and then suddenly it didn't exist--is something that can't be overestimated," he says simply. "No one sets out to experience failure but when it happens, the lessons can be even more valuable than the successes."
Between 1987 to 1990, he rose from director of exhibits to senior vice president of conventions and exhibitions at the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), overseeing the growth of its show from 300,000 to 500,000 square feet. He was also building an industry profile through seminars, published articles, and stints on the board of directors for the International Association for exposition Management, the Professional Convention Management Association, and MajorOrganizers.
"My experience with Atwood and Galaxy provided the last important part of the puzzle--a chance to live on the supplier side of things," he says. Involved in the production of 40 events in 18 years in several types of industries, "I've spent a lot of time looking at different ways to address the challenges in tradeshow management," Dobson observes. "The focus of my business will be to serve that universe of events [primarily association shows] that are not doing as well as they could despite a good staff. They need a new model, but they don't necessarily want to outsource the exposition function entirely."
He is a strong believer in, "but it's not always the best decision an association can make. Sometimes just assessing options is difficult for a group, and benchmarking makes it far easier to determine how to proceed."
Is he apprehensive about going out on his own? "A lot of people thought it was bizarre for me to leave NAB," he admits. "They thought I was assuming a lot of risk leaving a secure position for a more entrepreneurial environment like Atwood. But it's a false security anyway--the association environment is much more competitive now. . . . There is just one person you can count on. When you fail, you fail on your own, and when you succeed, it's on your own basis.
Teacher's Advice Dobson, who lives with his wife and two young daughters in Burke, VA, is particularly insightful when asked what advice he would give anyone considering entering the field of tradeshow management. "The profession has a lot of on-the-job training, so it's not important what field you come from. Diversity of experience is more important than technical background."
There are no set rules for succeeding, "but education has to be forever," Dobson says passionately. "Get involved in a hands-on way--take an internship with a general services contractor or go to a hotel and do housing. It's important to do it, not just read about how it is done."
One of the biggest problems in the industry today, he believes, is that general services contractors find themselves serving as floor and show managers, thanks to show managers who default to their suppliers because they simply aren't equipped to handle the job.
The industry has changed a lot over the last seven years. Prior to that, associations hadn't been subjected to nearly as much competition, and consequently not a lot of attention had been paid to the skills necessary for show and meeting production, he points out. But these days, "every successful show is viewed as an opportunity for for-profit companies," Dobson warns.
"For associations, professional tradeshow marketing and exhibit sales has never been so important," he adds. "Understanding your show and what is special about it is far more important today than simply being operationally knowledgeable. The greatest value add is in marketing communications and sales."