By Mary Tucker, Sr. PR/Communications Manager
Dan Darby, CEM is Senior Vice President of LIGHTFAIR® International, the world’s largest annual architectural and commercial lighting trade show and conference, leading exhibitor and sponsorship sales, show development and design, event production and conference.
With more than three decades of experience in the trade show industry, Dan has worked on some of the largest, market-leading events in the industry including the Atlanta International Gift & Home Furnishings Market, NY NOW, Surf Expo and The Original Miami Beach Antique Show. Most recently he was Vice President of Marketing at Informa North America, overseeing centralized marketing services for the company’s Infrastructure, Construction and Real Estate portfolio.
An IAEE member since 1992, Dan has been an active contributor to the association, serving on various committees and on the CEM Faculty. Even more notably, he has been an avid contributor to the IAEE Southeastern Chapter. Dan has held positions on the chapter’s board of directors as Treasurer, Secretary, Vice Chairperson and IAEE SE Classic Educational Conference Chair. His dedication led to his terms as 2017 Chapter Chair and Immediate Past Chair in 2018. His indelible mark on the chapter inspired his selection to receive IAEE’s Chapter Merit Award in 2018.
Here, Dan shares with IAEE his thoughts on what he loves most about exhibitions and events, the benefits of continuing education and how being involved in your local chapter comes in handy both on and off the trade show floor.
IAEE: What brought you to the exhibitions and events industry (was it a deliberate decision or, like many, did you “stumble” into it) and what about it has held your interest for over 30 years?
Dan: I absolutely stumbled into it. I attended my first trade show fresh out of college as the PR rep for a very small software support company (also my first trip on a plane and first time further West than Alabama). By coincidence, I was recommended for an open marketing position at SEMCO Productions, an independent show organizer in Atlanta, the following year. That was the start of my (so far) 33 years in the industry.
Deciding to be a part of our industry nowadays seems to be more deliberate. I’m very happy that there are colleges now that offer degrees for event management – it’s an acknowledgment of the fundamental service the exhibitions and events industry provides every other industry. At the same time, I think the fact that most show producers come from completely disparate backgrounds and education degrees has made the industry richer and more inclusive – we approach challenges from different viewpoints and the solutions we develop are stronger as a result of that collaboration.
What’s not to love? Event management is fast-paced and there is an incomparable experiential element in the work we do. Also, the relationships we create and foster through events extend beyond our attendees and exhibitors – we have this unique opportunity to meet individuals from all walks of life. I’m still in contact with people I met decades ago.
IAEE: What do you enjoy most about being so active in your local chapter? What insights do you think you’ve gained from it that you may not have otherwise?
Dan: The exhibitions and events industry is all about face-to-face meetings and relationship building, and the local chapter is a microcosm of our industry. Through local chapters, you have the best opportunity to develop professional relationships – and friendships – with members from every facet of the industry. And so, in addition to what I learned from speakers at our meetings or from interaction with other board members, I’ve also benefitted by having a network of professionals with whom I can meet for a lunch or call when I need advice or a recommendation.
IAEE: What is the wildest idea you’ve had and why do you think it was so effective?
Dan: The wildest idea I was ever a part of (the idea was a team effort) was a plan to basically redefine America’s perception of antiques – through a sort of Got MilkÒ campaign that would feature celebrities who love antiques. Interest in antiques had been in decline over the past 10 years, with Millennials showing little to no interest. We were able to bring together several of the leading antiques magazines, prominent antiques dealers and representatives from other antiques shows for a meeting in New York. It was a great example of how competitors can collaborate to improve their industry.
IAEE: You’ve not only earned your CEM designation, you joined the CEM Faculty. What advice do you wish someone had given you prior to starting your CEM Journey and what have you learned by teaching?
Dan: First, let me say the CEM courses are invaluable. I still reference my course material after so many years.
I would advise students to take as many in-class courses as possible. The online courses are more economical and easier to schedule – but I found that the face-to-face interaction with other students made the classes a greater value. I would also advise students to take some courses that seem to have no relevance to their current role – you never know how career advancement will alter your responsibilities and oversight.
Teaching a course requires one to be somewhat of a subject matter expert in that area – so teaching reinforced my own knowledge. But, as I do at the local chapter meetings, as the instructor I interacted with students from every facet of the industry and it was always interesting to me how students from different job responsibilities would approach the same exercise.
IAEE: What is the most interesting development you see in the industry right now (in marketing or otherwise) and where do you see it going (or wish to see it go)?
Dan: It feels like just yesterday we were faxing corrections to sign orders and hand-writing exhibitors’ names on blown-up floor plans. The way in which we execute events has obviously evolved exponentially through technology and data.
We can now capture essential datasets to make informed business decisions and customize experiences in our content. We can now map journeys and build personas that are becoming more of a standard in our marketing programs.
Every year there are new companies which deliver solutions to the challenges we, as organizers, face. Often, we weren’t even previously aware of these challenges, but they have something that will either streamline the way the we work, enhance the attendee experience, or assist in meeting our event goals. I always encourage veterans and newcomers into the industry alike to attend Expo! Expo! just to see what’s new and innovative.
More and more I hear about organizers establishing 365 content programs to engage audiences throughout the year. There are a lot of events that compete for an attendees’ attention, but we should not look at just other industry events as our only threats. We need to consider online platforms as a competitor and an opportunity. It would be a mistake for us to not pivot our events to align with how people, especially younger professionals, are consuming and demanding content.
Here’s what Dan had to say when accepting the Chapter Merit Award this past December at Expo! Expo! IAEE’s Annual Meeting & Exhibition 2018 in New Orleans, La.