Editor's Note: Eric Udler is the producer of Super Pet Expo.
Let me set the stage….
Our 13th annual Edison, N.J., Super Pet Expo was scheduled for Friday through Sunday, Feb. 8–10. With booth sales at a record level and our online ticket office on fire, we were poised for the biggest show ever.
The weather experts began talk of an historic blizzard Tuesday the week of the show. It had the potential to cripple the area. I left my office in Rockville, Md., on Wednesday afternoon and headed straight up I-95, still positive the pundits would be wrong.
That was the calm before the storm…
Thursday morning, I arrived at the New Jersey Convention Center to find our decorator, Alliance Exposition, setting the showfloor. The questions came in waves:
Would the show go on?
Would there be ticket refunds?
What about exhibitor set-up times?
Voice mails from exhibitors and attendees flooded in. E-mails followed, but we found the top form of communication was Facebook. We had worked diligently to build a community of over 11,000 and soon it would pay off.
Exhibitors began moving into the hall Thursday at 3 p.m., each asking the same question, “What is your plan for the blizzard?” The team relayed the questions to me. I honestly didn’t have an answer but, based on the limited information we had at the time, we knew the show needed to go on.
There was not a flake of snow on the ground, but everyone was on full blizzard alert. School closings began to stream in Thursday night for the next morning. Travel bans were being laid down. I decided to sleep on things and see what greeted us in the morning.
I awoke at 5 a.m. the following morning to this promotional spot for our show on PIX 11 NYC.
The weather forecast was given with a stern warning that a wintry mix would start that afternoon and snow would continue into Saturday. The meteorologists were predicting 12 inches of snow or more. The plug for our show followed. It wasn’t the best stage to be on.
After watching the news, I left my hotel in Edison for media interviews in New York City. Our first stop was the aforementioned PIX 11. Sitting in the green room, I could not help but face the reality that a storm of this magnitude could cancel the entire show. It was sobering, to say the least.
Five minutes before I entered the studio to enthusiastically talk up a show I had doubts would go on, I was struck with a thought: The New York-New Jersey metropolitan area knows how to deal with snow. Municipalities have had plenty of notice and surely they will be pre-treating roads—at least that’s what they were telling reporters. Many local folks have four-wheel drive vehicles and snow does not scare them.
Show Director Liz Masich called me from the convention center around 7 a.m. to say she had received numerous e-mails overnight from exhibitors asking if we were still planning on having the show. The show was scheduled to open at 4 p.m. A decision had to be made—and fast.
We decided to postpone the show opening until Saturday morning. Making the call early in the day gave us the luxury of time. Now that we had a decision, we had to get the word out.
Luckily, I was going on TV. Just after the weather report, I was able to formally announce the show closing for that evening, and that we would be open Saturday morning.
It was a major relief. I drove across town to WPLJ for a radio interview. The first question they asked? “Is the show still going to take place?” Lovely! It wasn’t exactly how I had hoped an interview promoting our show would begin, but it was clearly the elephant in the room and it was another chance to convey our plan.
After the interview, it was time to continue the information push through every channel available to us. In addition to a massive e-mail blast, our onsite team informed each exhibitor moving in of the new show hours. Virtually all were relieved. Our web site’s home page was updated. The convention center’s web site echoed the message.
By 10 a.m. Friday, everyone who had purchased tickets online had received an e-mail announcing the delayed opening. Our Facebook page lit up with questions and we took the time to answer each one, in addition to posting timely updates. We engaged in dialogue with our attendees, openly and honestly.
On Saturday we aired additional radio commercials and extended our Facebook advertising campaign to assist in getting the word out that the show was open. To encourage attendance we posted pictures of the plowed parking lot, exhibitors holding sales and pets having an amazing time.
Saturday’s attendance was down 31 percent, not surprising as many were still digging out. A typical Saturday has 300 to 350 people in line at the opening. We had less than 100—but they were there, and, they continued to come in.
Sunday, we were crushed. Over 500 people entered the show within the first 15 minutes of opening and it grew throughout the day. The lines became so long we sent team members out to encourage those in line to purchase their tickets online with their phones. It was a record Sunday attendance.
Ultimately, our attendance was down 20 percent compared with 2012. In light of what could have been, it was a major victory for our team. We simply could not have done it without years of credibility built with a passionate fan base, an amazing facility management that handled snow removal like true professionals and a multifaceted communications plan that included TV, radio, e-mail and social media.