Profit is not a four-letter word to our members," declares Stephen A. Schuldenfrei, executive director of the eight-year-old Society of Independent Show Organizers (SISO), Framingham, Mass. And risk is not a four-letter word for Schuldenfrei: after serving as SISO's part-time executive director since 1992, he became full time last year--but he is paid by commission not salary. "If I don't bring money in, I don't get paid," he says. "I'm dealing with entrepreneurs and they weren't going to do it any other way."
Schuldenfrei is an entrepreneur, too. Through his show management and consulting business, Signature Trade Shows, Inc., he has served clients such as Object World Corporation. A show manager for most of his career, he previously produced shows for what is now ZD Comdex, Miller Freeman Expositions, and Electronic Conventions, Inc.
But his experience isn't only on the for-profit side. He fell in love with trade shows in 1978 while administrative manager for the Helicopter Association International, Washington, D.C. During his four-year tenure, attendance at the association's annual meeting and exposition doubled to more than 10,000 registrants, exhibiting companies increased 85 percent, and tradeshow revenue leaped from $200,000 to more than $450,000, he reports.
The For-Profit Split It all began in 1990 when 11 concerned independent show producers convened their own meeting in response to the stance taken by the International Association for Exposition Management (IAEM) on the unrelated business income tax (UBIT)--an issue that highlights the sharp divide between for-profit and association show managers. IAEM's position was pro-UBIT, even though UBIT benefits only its association members, Schuldenfrei claims. (UBIT exempts associations from paying taxes on trade shows as long as they are educational events.) "Our position is that IAEM should take no position," says Schuldenfrei. "UBIT gives associations a major financial advantage."
But the discussion over UBIT took only 10 minutes of that first three-hour meeting, Schuldenfrei remembers, as the show managers went on to discuss other industry problems. The group continued to meet, and in 1991, members created a formal association.
The organization that calls itself the Voice of the For-Profit Show Producer is not a rival to IAEM, Schuldenfrei emphasizes. "We exist because IAEM chose not to address this market a long time ago. There's no reason why IAEM and SISO can't work together." Indeed, they do. Almost all of SISO's members also belong to IAEM, SISO exhibits at IAEM, and Schuldenfrei speaks at IAEM events.
One way SISO carries out its mission to provide an educational and networking forum for CEOs of show-management companies is by not admitting vendors as members. "It's a problem for a CEO to go a meeting and be approached by 20 vendors," Schuldenfrei explains. "It's done politely, but done nevertheless."
At SISO's spring and fall executive conferences, and CEO Forum, members discuss strategic planning issues, share successful business techniques, and learn about mergers and acquisitions, and other timely topics. SISO meetings are very focused, Schuldenfrei underscores. "We don't have 'couch potato' events or even golf. They come in, talk about business, and leave. We do a dinner, but we don't do a gala."
He has ambitious plans for SISO. Under his leadership, the group has grown from 30 to 157 corporate members. Estimating that one-third of North American shows are run by SISO members, Schuldenfrei says he would like to see that figure jump to one-half. He also wants to start SISO events overseas. But because interaction is critical at SISO meetings, which attract about 75 attendees, Schuldenfrei doesn't want the meetings to grow too large. "When we get bigger, we will do more meetings, but keep the meeting size manageable."
The hottest issue for members now is promoting their industry, Schuldenfrei says. "The CEO of a Fortune 2,500 company was a sales manager or marketing person in the '50s, when trade shows were more of a party, a get drunk, throw your buddy in the pool kind of thing," says Schuldenfrei. "It's a tough sell to get them over that party image, even though every study you see shows the immense worth of trade shows." Toward that end, SISO members are going to be very active in the Center for Exhibit Industry Research's Exhibition Industry Promotion Campaign, which SISO initially proposed, he says.
Another SISO goal is to encourage more associations to outsource their shows to members. Currently, about one third of SISO members manage association shows. Bringing in a professional, full-time show manager can actually help an association cut costs, Schuldenfrei asserts. "An independent doing 10 or 20 shows can go to a general contractor, and say, 'I will give you all the shows, if you cut the price.' "
Biggest Challenge After 20 years in the tradeshow industry, Schuldenfrei still "can't wait to get on a plane." He has been married to his wife, Joan, for 29 years, and "she says it's lasted that long because I've been home about half that time." They have two grown children.
Radiating unflagging enthusiasm for the industry, Schuldenfrei says his biggest challenge is his tendency to be a tradeshow evangelist. "I get so excited, I bowl people over. To most people theis another form of marketing. Yeah, it is, but it's artistic. It allows you to create something from nothing, to see it grow, to put it together, and blow it away at the end and start all over."
Schuldenfrei relishes the challenge of putting on shows for the experts. "Nothing is better than to have your peers, say, 'Hey that was great. I learned something.' It's such a high. And it's legal, too."