In our next installment of our #HeresWhy industry Q&A sessions, we interviewed Chris Dolnack, Senior Vice President and CMO of the National Shooting Sports Foundation:
Tell us about your career:
As a youngster, my dad used to take me to sporting shows – hunting and fishing shows – and I found myself, in my early twenties, working shows as a conservation officer. Then, I got into the fishing industry and I managed exhibits and consumer shows for Berkley, which is a leading fishing tackle company. So, having to be responsible for the logistics of 10 displays on 80 shows in, essentially, a four-month period kept me pretty busy. I quickly learned my way around most of the major convention centers in the country, and I also grew to really appreciate the value of face-to-face events, particularly in regard to sales lead generation. So, from there, I went to Smith & Wesson and Colt where my duties included trade shows. When I wasn’t directly responsible for trade shows, I was on the sales side and responsible for helping staff the exhibits. In some form or another, I’ve been involved with trade shows my entire career as an exhibitor and now a show organizer. I’ve been involved with SHOT Show for the last 20 years and assumed P&L responsibility for the last 10 years. I’ve been on both sides and I think I have some empathy for our customers, as well as a deep appreciation for them.
What is the economic impact of events like SHOT Show?
At the micro-level, in the city of Las Vegas, LVCVA estimates that SHOT Show accounts for between $70-$75 million to the Las Vegas economy. We have 64,000 people from over 100 countries there. So, you have a four-day show and, I think, the average stay is four nights for a domestic attendee and seven nights for an international attendee. From a micro-level, it’s very impactful to Las Vegas as the fifth largest show in the city. On the macro level, we’re an $51.2 billion industry, with 301,000 employees across the country. The industry has long arms and SHOT Show is the hub for that.
Does the travel ban affect future international attendees from coming?
Not at all. All the countries that are on the travel ban list are already prohibited from purchasing firearms or ammunition commercially, so any transfer of firearms, ammunition or related products would go through the federal government. From a travel ban stand point, it has no impact on SHOT Show. That doesn’t mean we’re not concerned for the rest of the events industry, though.
What role do you see advocacy playing in the industry?
Legislators are overwhelmed with issues and constituent requests. You don’t get a lot of time with members or their staff; you’re lucky if you get 15 minutes, so you have to explain your position very succinctly and it helps tremendously to back up those positions with economic data. I think that has been incredibly important for our industry. Connecting people is still the foundation of commerce, and always has been since the first open-air bazaar was held. Technology has transformed our lives in so many ways, but meeting face-to-face is the way business still gets done. When you factor in the economic value of the exhibitions and events industry to hotels, restaurants, airlines, rental cars, taxis and shops, and you factor in the number of associated jobs and the associated taxes they generate, we’re a key component to so many of these cities economic livelihoods. I think it’s incumbent on the exhibition and events industry to educate legislators and their staffs because they’re busy and they don’t know what they don’t know. Let’s face it, all politics is local, so when you’re talking about major population centers in their district and the jobs from all those various functions, they’re going to listen and give it careful consideration.
Have you noticed how trade shows have changed within the last 5-10 years?
Most certainly. Trade shows have evolved from being these mass-marketed, cookie cutter events where you have crowds of people shuffling down the aisles with their plastic bags and the booths were loaded with tchotchke that people put into their bag and they had this singular mass experience. I think today, trade shows – at least the ones that are working hard at it – are offering a highly customizable experience that will both surprise and delight attendees and exhibitors alike. I think we’re able to do that because of the advances in technology, particularly mobile technology, and the advent of having all this customer data at our fingertips, literally in our iPhone. It allows us to create very different experiences for the various personas attending our events. For instance, with SHOT Show, we’ve gone from being a four-day show to encompassing an entire week with various education sessions, a golf tournament, a 5K run, Industry Day at the Range and SHOT Show University. There’s something there for everyone.
What does your engagement look like?
Our customers are very passionate and highly engaged with both the association and the show. We’re the leading trade association on Facebook with 138,000+ Likes and 136,00 followers and we reached over 380,000 consumers during 2017 SHOT Week. We have 50,000+ followers on Instagram, which has grown over 37% since the start of the 2017 SHOT Show in January; including 33,787 posts using the hashtag #SHOTShow2017 and nearly 100,000 uses of the official hashtag #SHOTShow since 2012. We have 68,300+ followers on Twitter including over 4,400 uses of #SHOTShow hashtag during the show. And our mobile app adoption rate is among the highest in the industry.
As an industry, what challenges are you experiencing or anticipating?
The two greatest challenges our industry faces is increasing participation in hunting and shooting sports and thwarting legislation that would infringe on our customer’s constitutional right to keep and bear arms. One thing our industry has going for it is that shooting is fun and anyone can participate. In fact, you don’t have to be big, strong, fast or tall. You just have to concentrate on the target and squeeze the trigger. It always makes me smile when I see the look on someone’s face after they have hit the target for the first time.
What are the important lessons that you’ve learned throughout your career?
I think it goes back to listening to the customer and find out what they want and actively engage them and help educate them, as well. The easiest thing for a customer to say is, “your event is too expensive, we’re not getting the ROI, so we’re not coming anymore.” That’s usually a cop-out because, in my experience, when relationships go bad, whether its personal, romantic, or business relationship, it’s when one party feels taken advantage of and/or taken for granted. “You raised the price of your booth because you could.” “You don’t care how much it costs me to get my carpet vacuumed.” So, you make customers feel appreciated and valued, and you do that by listening to them and providing the value they ask for. If you do that, they’ll gladly pay you for it.
What are you most proud of in your career?
I think I’ve yet to do what I’ll be most proud of, but certainly I’m proud of building the team we have, not only internally, but also externally with our partners are highlights. We’ve partnered with companies that have demonstrated long-term commitment to investing in their business and providing exemplary customer service. Somebody’s always going to be a lower cost provider at some point in time, but it’s developing the relationships with people who are, at the end of the day, committed to making your customers happy, because if we don’t make them happy, someone else will.
What’s your favorite part of the job?
I definitely love creating value where none existed, and then being able to monetize it. I would have to say, while I enjoy that immensely, I’m a very lucky person because my vocation is my advocation. I love to hunt and shoot, I grew up hunting and shooting and I work for the trade association for the shooting sports industry. It’s very exciting for me to work in this business, but in terms of the show, it’s the opportunity to impact the lives of so many others. Whether it’s the 55 people here on staff, the 12,000 members, 64,000 show participants, at the end of the day, this helps to fund the association. At some level, we help to impact the lives of the 50 million hunters and shooters out there. That’s kind of cool.