2021 IAEE Pinnacle Award Winner
By Mary Tucker, IAEE Sr. PR/Communications Manager
Jonathan “Skip” Cox’s impact on the exhibitions and events industry spans more than five decades, including four of them as an IAEE member. He devoted 55 years to Exhibit Surveys, with 25 of those at its helm. In that time, Skip has made an indisputable name for himself as a champion of return-on-investment (ROI) in the exhibitions and events industry. One of the most useful tools that he has contributed to the industry was developed in conjunction with IAEE, CEIR and PCMA: The ROI Tool Kit. This free and simple tool was created to assist exhibitors in planning for exhibitions and to measure performance. This smooth and easily understandable software became possible only through Exhibit Survey’s 50 years of industry benchmarks.
By taking an open-source approach to best practices, Skip’s research standards have contributed to industry advancement and he has been invited to present research findings at nearly all the major U.S. industry and several international association conferences such as IAEE, TSEA, SISO, HCEA, NACS, EDPA, CEMA, EXHIBITORLIVE, UFI, CAEM, and PCMA. He’s also shared research best practices internationally, and frequently contributed to publications and academic journals serving marketing fields.
Skip has taught thousands of clients, partners and customers how to use research and data to develop strategies to increase attendance, engagement and satisfaction. He introduced new-to-the-world measurement strategies and programs, ranging from The Exhibitor ROI Tool Kit, Exhibit Performance Model, Automated Corporate Measurement Programs, New Event Concept Feasibility Modeling and Event Value Assessment Modeling, to name a few.
Upon acquisition of Exhibit Surveys by Freeman, Skip and the team at Freeman continued to revolutionize the data and measurement discipline through the launch of the Freeman Data Solutions Suite at PCMA Convening Leaders in 2019. This suite included software and service offerings engineered to deliver insight into all event-related data sources based on 50+ years of research from his experience at Exhibit Surveys. Skip and his team have been instrumental in quantifying the ROI from exhibitions and events, and using the insights gained to guide the future strategies of exhibitors, corporate events organizers, exhibition organizers and industry service suppliers.
In addition, Skip has contributed to the professional advancement of countless colleagues, business acquaintances, customers, and partners who have sought his advice and partnership. Helping others advance in their careers is a passion project for Skip, as is celebrating the accomplishments of others. He also gives back with his time, mentorship and resources. His involvement with, and advocacy for, the industry has spanned more than four decades and includes board positions with IAEE (Chair), CEMA, TSEA and CEIR, and he has spoken on the topic of research and measurement at PCMA, IAEE, TSEA, SISO, HCEA, NACS, EDPA, CEMA, EXHIBITORLIVE, UFI and CAEM, among others – a true educator.
His limitless devotion and immense contributions to IAEE and the industry earned Skip the IAEE Pinnacle Award last year, for which he was recognized this past December during Expo! Expo! IAEE’s Annual Meeting & Exhibition in Philadelphia, PA (watch Skip’s acceptance speech here).
IAEE President & CEO David DuBois, CMP, CAE, FASAE, CTA (left) presents the Pinnacle Award to Skip Cox (right) during Expo! Expo! IAEE’s Annual Meeting & Exhibition 2021 in Philadelphia, PA.
Here, Skip shares with IAEE how his career evolved over the years, some of what he has learned along the way and his deep appreciation for the people he has crossed paths with in his more than 50 years in the industry.
IAEE: Your history in the industry is absolutely impressive! What attracted you to working in exhibitions and events, and what are your favorite aspects of the industry that has captivated your attention for more than five decades? Also, given your experience, what would you tell someone just starting out in the industry?
Skip: Like most people who enter our industry it happened to me by chance, and good fortune I might add. I started working part-time with Exhibit Surveys in high school running office equipment, and continued on during the summers while in college where I had a chance to learn some of the basics of the research and the business. Dick Swandby founded Exhibit Surveys about two years before I started (Dick is a former IAEE Pinnacle Award winner) and he became one of the true and trusted icons of our industry, so I was very fortunate to have a great mentor at a very early age.
I can’t say it was a grand master plan I had for my career choice, but I can’t think of any other career, company or industry I would have liked better. I loved the work I was doing – the small company atmosphere; the encouragement provided to explore new ideas and create new services, techniques or improvements for our company; and learning so much about many industries that the events we worked on represented was fascinating. Best of all, are the relationships I developed over the years with many good friends and clients, many of them through my long involvement with IAEE. That is what I have missed most during retirement – the many great and hard-working people in our industry.
For those looking for career opportunities I highly recommend considering the exhibitions and events industry. It is a vibrant, creative and fast-paced industry with many opportunities to grow professionally. Most important, it is filled with good and hard-working people. Many of the people in our industry stay in the industry for their entire careers.
IAEE: How did your focus land on the research aspect of the industry and what inspired you to create the business solutions that have helped exhibitors and show organizers maximize their efforts? What are some of the biggest lessons you learned in the process?
Skip: Good question, and not sure I have a good answer other than I always had a natural curiosity to try or build new “things,” and I was given the freedom and encouragement to explore and create new solutions by my mentor. In the early years I learned a lot from my mistakes, coupled with the patience of a mentor who would point me in the right direction when I needed it. As I gained more experience I learned that the most important factor was listening very closely to the problems, challenges and needs of our clients. As I think about it, coming up with insights and solutions based on data to meet the challenges of our clients – especially new challenges – was one of the most rewarding and gratifying aspects of my career. You never knew when the light bulb would go off and you came up with a good solution to meet a client’s needs – sometimes in the middle of the night, sometimes while out on a run.
IAEE: You have been very active in sharing your knowledge with members of the industry and advocating on behalf of the industry to those outside of exhibitions and events. What do you think makes this industry so valuable, and what do you think people need to understand most about it?
Skip: This question raises a lot of possibilities for specific topics to discuss based on the perspective from which you view and/or benefit from exhibitions and events as an attendee, exhibitor, organizer, or contractor, etc. But what we did learn during COVID’s negative impact on events is that universal among all event constituents, the value of face-to-face activity at events is very powerful. They were sorely missed during the pandemic; it was hard to duplicate the benefits of face-to-face in any other media or virtual activities, and the confidence levels for returning to live events have continued to rise as COVID began to get under control. Our tracking studies conducted bi-monthly during COVID among attendees and exhibitors confirmed these sentiments. This is somewhat of an over-simplification of an answer to the question, but it does confirm that the future remains bright for all types of face-to-face events.
IAEE: Your colleagues applauded your passion for mentoring others. What impact did mentors have on your career and why do feel it is important to help others advance their knowledge and careers?
Skip: I have mentioned the importance of having a mentor a couple of times in this interview, so obviously having a mentor has always been very important to advancing my career. Having a single or personal mentor is nice, but in reality mentoring comes in many different forms (e.g., what you learn from educational sessions, webinars, articles, customers, suppliers, etc.). As with a personal mentor, you are learning from experienced people who are helping you advance your career.
My mentor always had a saying I have never forgotten and that is, “You always need to be on the learning curve.” He was also a big believer in giving back to the industry and sharing what we have learned with others. Thus, we in essence were mentors to others as we gained knowledge and shared it with others. As you gain experience, you will have knowledge and expertise to share which makes everyone a potential mentor. Giving back to the industry was important to me, but we also learned and benefitted from every teaching experience in which we engaged.
IAEE: Congratulations on a well-earned and highly deserved retirement! Do you plan to stay involved in the industry and, if so, how?
Skip: Frankly, based on my first year of retirement I have been enjoying the freedom of doing many of the typical retirement activities like traveling with my wife Diane who has also retired, family vacations with our kids and the grandkids and trying to work on my golf game (“trying” is the operative word).
I have worked on a few research projects since retiring which I have enjoyed doing, but I am keeping that to a minimum at least for now. What I have done is become more active in several non-profit organizations that my wife and I have supported over the years by volunteering time and sitting on various committees. My volunteer experiences with IAEE and other organizations have prepped me well for this work.
I do plan to stay connected to the industry by attending industry events like Expo! Expo! IAEE’s Annual Meeting & Exhibition. It’s the best way to stay in touch with the many people I have known and worked with during my career. I miss the relationships I have made over the years.
The Call for Nominations for this year’s IAEE Awards is now open! Check out all of the award categories here and be sure to submit your nominations by 31 August!