In the latest installment of our #HeresWhy Q&A sessions, we interviewed Randy Acker, President and COO of EXHIBITOR Media Group:
What’s your story? What/who inspired your tenure in trade show media?
Like so many people in this business, I fell into this industry by accident. Prior to trade shows and events, my background was in restaurant management, with a degree in accounting and a love for numbers and business management. A friend of mine knew of an opportunity at EXHIBITOR Media Group in 1994 that he thought was a perfect match for me. It was indeed, and I got the job and worked here for 5 years.
I tried to leave the industry in 1999 to pursue an opportunity in commercial construction, but 3 years later I got sucked back in and have been here since. My brief time away from the industry was a beneficial EXHIBITOR-related experience, as I lived a parallel life to exhibit builders/producers. The experience has been invaluable in understanding the challenges that our supplier customers face.
The diversity, entrepreneurial culture and commitment to quality education at EXHIBITOR Media Group has made 24 years fly by. In addition to EXHIBITOR magazine and its best practices in exhibit and event marketing, we also offer a number of web-based products as resources to both corporate marketers and suppliers. Our trade show and conference EXHIBITORLIVE is now in its 31st year, and EXHIBITOR runs the only university-affiliated certification program, Certified Trade Show Marketer (CTSM), in North America. The company also provides a great subset of that education around the country via our regional EXHIBITORFastTrak program and our live online webinars via EXHIBITOR eTrak.
There isn’t really one particular person who inspired my career in the event space, but the industry as a whole is filled with so many people who have been and are willing to share their knowledge and bring people into their personal networks and circles.
You’re also a professor at Bemidji State University in Minnesota, where you teach students about exhibit design. Have you learned anything from them in turn that has enriched your career, shifted a perspective, etc.?
Being able to teach the design students at Bemidji State University has been a life changing experience for me. So many higher education environments, even marketing programs, only gloss over trade shows and events, so to be able to be part of a program that is dedicated to our space is quite a privilege. EXHIBITOR has been in the education business for many years, but I didn’t really understand the complexity of curriculum development and teaching techniques until I started teaching. This experience over the past 9 years has certainly helped me look at things differently, especially how we enhance and create learning opportunities for our various customer segments.
After nearly 25 years in this crazy business, I sometimes take the excitement of events for granted. The energy and passion from a room of 30 students who have picked our industry as their future and want to know everything I am willing to share is just as inspiring for me as it is them. In addition, working with 30 millennials for 16 weeks is a chance to get a deeper understanding of the mindset behind the future of our industry. The students’ clean perceptions offer a different look at who we are and what we do that isn’t always achievable in professional focus groups and advisory councils due to existing industry influences and experiences.
A bonus is that I now have life-long relationships with grads and have the opportunity to watch them grow in their roles in the business, which are very much ‘proud dad’ kind of moments!
What interests you the most in the industry? If you could learn more about one thing, what would it be?
My favorite part of the industry is getting the opportunity to be face-to-face with people. The business, professional and personal relationships that can develop foster so many opportunities to continue to learn and grow. I am a continuous learner, and our industry is a perfect platform because every day is different. As I mentioned before, teaching and sharing knowledge is something I love and I am always looking to become a better presenter. Trade shows are in every space and across the globe giving people and companies variety and alternative perspectives. It’s all about getting involved, consuming experiences, getting out of your comfort zone, innovating and evolving!
You’ve attended Exhibitions Day in the past – thank you again for your support. With so many great initiatives within the industry, why should members choose to support advocacy causes like Exhibitions Day?
To me, the key is to get involved versus sitting back and hoping it will just happen magically or that someone else will do it. With our industry, so few people outside of it have any basic understanding of what we do. Heck, we can’t even explain to our family and friends what we do, much less a stranger. It is up to us to make this $91 billion industry visible and educate people in all levels of government that face-to-face marketing is a critical part of the marketing machine that drives our economic engine.
Are there any topics within the advocacy realm that you feel passionate about, and if so, why? (i.e. travel facilitation, security, etc.)
In terms of advocacy, I am very passionate about two things:
- Face-to-face marketing works: nothing builds trust faster or better than being face-to-face with someone.
- Pay it forward for our future: share what you have learned with our industry’s future members. Guest speak at a local university or your alma mater. Become a mentor to someone with passion about the industry. Provide opportunities for young people with an interest. Encourage your associations to support our future. During EXHIBITORLIVE, we provide the exhibit design students an opportunity to get in front of future employers by giving them an exhibit space to showcase their portfolios of work to exhibitors and suppliers. I’m proud to say that there is almost a 100 percent placement rate for those who want to enter our industry.
However, there are also a number of realities that also need our collective attention, including the globalization and integration of economies which is certainly having an impact on trade shows and events. We have to face that the world is getting smaller and more integrated. Additionally, safety and security are certainly, and unfortunately, a reality for every sector in today’s world, including our industry.
What do you see on the horizon for the industry? For your line of work?
I firmly believe that face-to-face marketing has an ability to do things that other marketing channels cannot. F2F and its personal engagement are the quickest path to developing trust and furthering business objectives in a shorter sales cycle. We need to continue to evolve the way we leverage the environments we create for our communities, because memorable experiences are tough or impossible to create through other channels.
Listen to your customers, go out and engage the stakeholders, find out how they use our marketplace, how it works, why it works, what doesn’t, who they are looking for and why. Since the Great Recession, I have personally gotten much more involved in our industry by attending a variety of industry events to have a broader look at different stakeholders and constituencies. In those 10 years, I visited more than 400 different companies and talked with strategic teams for 2-3 hours asking these questions and more, seeking answers as we look for ways to evolve for the future. I can tell you that it makes a difference for all involved.
More and more, we see marketing generalists (versus event specialists) being responsible for their company’s trade shows and events. Our corporate marketer customers continue to look at not only traditional trade shows but other platforms, including proprietary corporate events, to further their business objectives. The key is that they realize F2F is a powerful tool in their marketing toolbox. Education and connecting them with resources and solution providers will remain a critical component of what EXHIBITOR Media Group can continue to provide. Smarter F2F marketers are more effective marketers, which keeps our industry relevant and successful – this is one of the reasons we partnered with IAEE to help their members educate their exhibitors. It’s critical to our industry’s future.