Hear me roar. According to the ’70s Helen Reddy ditty, “I Am Woman,” which for a generation of young girls and women became an anthem of sorts, the numbers of women are too big to ignore.
Women account for more than half the population, make up a majority of students on university campuses, and continue to close the gaps in earning professional degrees. Women-owned businesses continue to grow and create jobs in every industry – from consulting firms, advertising agencies, car dealerships, cleaning companies … and the list goes on. Women start twice as many enterprises as men.
So, how have they fared in the tradeshow industry?
They make up a large portion of the membership in Meeting Professionals International. Women can be seen in any number of locations on the showfloor, as industry laborers, in executive offices, in management roles and at the head of the conference tables.
Although no one will ever say to a man, “So, are you going to return to work after the baby’s born?” women have said that the tradeshow business is hard work, and takes a considerable number of 12- to 14-hour days to be a success.
Each professional profiled in this series has wit, determination, a strong family support system – and a will to succeed. And, succeed they have. Elaine Cohen, Cindy Milazzo and Debbi Somers have each created their own niche in the market by creating a company where they had always wanted to work. Deb Taglienti earned her way to success the old-fashioned way – by being terrific at her job.
Somers Convention Furniture Rental, Inc.
Founded by Debbi Somers in 1989, Somers Convention Furniture Rental, Inc. is Nevada’s largest privately owned convention furniture rental company. The Las Vegas-based firm is housed in a 57,000-square-foot warehouse and contains an inventory valued at about $2 million.
Somers was introduced to the tradeshow industry during her tenure as a sales manager for Brueners Furniture Rental. Her success at Brueners, where she increased monthly rentals from several thousand to $40,000 per month, led to her decision to start her own business. With her marketing plan written, Somers visited three banks to obtain a business loan and all three turned her down. She finally obtained private financing and an SBA loan and found herself off and running with one employee, one truck and limited inventory.
“My initial goals were to continue to service the accounts that my former employer had let languish. I also had high expectations to form a relationship with the exhibit houses, show contractors and hotels.” She credits Fran Kissick from United Expo, as one of her mentors. “I saw her as the most influential woman in our industry when I started my business. She knew the ins and outs in the convention business and was very responsive whenever I had questions.”
Since 1989, Somers Convention Furniture has had major growth experiences – the aforementioned 57,000-square-foot warehouse, plus growth in inventory as well as a fleet of trucks. Somers can service clients across the United States. Following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the company was forced to look for additional cashflow by expanding the business.
“We entered into the custom-built furniture and special event industry,” she said. “This approach has been very successful. We currently have major accounts with leading hotels, nightclubs and event production companies.” This division accounts for a large percentage of her firm’s revenue. Such growth has been accomplished by her in-house staff that now numbers 20 full- and part-time employees.
Initially, Somers had some challenges upon entering the tradeshow industry. “The first two years were difficult and required much patience and ‘stick-to-it-tiveness.’ As we gained name recognition and acceptance from our peers, the job became easier.” Although she believes the tradeshow industry is still dominated by men, there are more female entrepreneurs and “society in general has become more accepting of them. In today’s environment, it is performance that counts.” Somers was previously interviewed in a Fortune Magazine story about female entrepreneurs.
To be successful in the tradeshow industry requires focus as well as 10- to 12-hour workdays. “The industry is very competitive and requires constant attention on new, innovative approaches. It is difficult for a woman to balance the demands of the business and one’s personal and family life,” Somers said. Her own family has been very supportive.
In her opinion, women continue to excel, as she has seen more women on the showfloor who are working to gain experience in all aspects of the industry – from I&D to sales and marketing. “The industry is open to women entrepreneurs. The only limitations on women are those that are self-imposed,” she said. “One must realize this is a very demanding industry and requires long work days to learn the ins and outs of the business and to gain respect of both the customers and peer group.”
Somers Convention Furniture Rental has three divisions – conventions, special events and custom furniture – each with a woman at the helm. “They are in total control of all aspects of the division for which they are in charge,” she said.
Somers’ advice to women in the industry: “Be prepared for anything. Always have a back-up plan. Be patient and don’t lose your sense of humor.”