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February 2005
Business Is Bloomin'
By Susanne B. Deitzel

One thing can be said about today’s retail atmosphere: it is more competitive than ever. With ’superstores’ and ’expos’ and ’outlets’ suffixing almost every major storefront, sometimes it is hard to see the forest for the trees.

But every once in a while, there is a vision created out of something other than raw materialism. Say, curiosity, or adventure, or whatever that motor is that drives new creations from old habits.

Take for instance, Southern Shows, Inc. One of the largest consumer show producers in the country, its concept was born in 1959, and embraced by Joan Zimmerman. Zimmerman, at the time worked for John Harden, now one of the most celebrated PR consultants in state history.

As she tells it, “Doc Dorton, (who ran the N.C. State Fair at the time and for whom Dorton Arena in Raleigh is named), came into the office complaining that his wife had to go to New York for garden shows, when North Carolina seemed like a much better location for such a show.”

Says Zimmerman, “I was immediately enamored with the idea, but John had so much on his plate at that time, he said, ’If you want to do this, I’ll provide you with the support. But you are going to do it.’” Joan’s husband Robert very quickly entered the scene, using his immense sales talents to attract the exhibitors, selling the show to garden clubs, horticulture associations, nurserymen – all the ones who made the show successful.  Joan did the organization and setting up the calls and Robert booked the participants that made the show a success.

From concept to execution the Zimmermans’ first show took nine months to organize. While Joan confesses to having a ’black’ thumb, for her, the first garden show was an extremely exciting idea. “Both Robert and I are just naturally curious, and always looking to see just how much we might be able to accomplish. We enjoy work and, because of the way we Southerners love our homes and gardens, we thought this concept might just have potential, and decided we should see what was out there.”

Since then, Southern Shows has become one of the most prestigious consumer show producers in the nation. Founder of the Southern Spring Home and Garden Show, the Southern Ideal Home Show, the Southern Farm Show, the Southern Christmas Show and its now ubiquitous Southern Women’s Shows, its reach has extended to twelve different cities and culminated in twenty different shows. From its newest addition in West Palm Beach, to its northernmost show in Detroit, and back to its home in Raleigh, Southern Shows has a sphere of consumer influence that has yet to be rivaled on the trade show circuit.

Recalls Zimmerman, “When we began this adventure, we had no money, no plan and no experience. But, we did offer a unique opportunity to connect businesses with an interested audience. While the first show didn’t make a profit, it was well received and established a positive first impression. Plus, John Harden’s extraordinary talent for PR established a powerful presence. Those two factors combined laid a firm foundation for what would follow.”

Since then the company has grown exponentially. Masses of regional and national trades’ people showcase their wares, and the shows are now supported by several major corporate sponsors. All the shows combined attract approximately 10,000 exhibitors a year. Exhibition space runs about $800 to $900 for a 10-foot by 10-foot square area, and sponsorships begin at $5,000.

While the greatest draw is still the Southern Christmas Show in Charlotte with approximately 140,000 visitors, the company’s group of Southern Women’s Shows the provide a steady and flexible forum to get exhibitors face time with consumers. Seasonal shows like Christmas or spring are limited to a few weeks, but the Women’s Shows aren’t subject to scheduling conflicts.

The Women’s Shows, a consortium of home, food, fashion, health, beauty and shopping displays, were launched in 1982 when, according to Zimmerman, “People had just begun to realize that women made 80 percent of the purchasing decisions for the family. Then,” she adds, “they realized women actually had some of their own money. The formula for the Women’s Shows addressed the market perfectly.”

Making a Show of It

Since its beginnings, the content of the various shows has been determined by soliciting input from an advisory group, which now consists of exhibitors and community leaders. And through surveys the company constantly asks for input from the general public. The company also relies on a vast bank of demographic and psychographic information that keeps them abreast of consumer trends.

“Consumer culture has definitely changed. People are better educated and expect much more. We embrace this, because it not only keeps us at the top of our game, but in the end, greater expectations drive better products,” Zimmerman comments.

She says another significant change in the shows is the available technology for producing them. “When I think of the days when we had manual typewriters, and when we didn’t have two-way radios to contact one another across an exhibit hall, it is rather dizzying. These days with e-mail and cell phones, we’re obviously able to be a lot more efficient.”

But the Southern Show team hasn’t replaced the need to be constantly in front of exhibitors and in front of attendees to get feedback and suggestions on the shows. “We tell all our folks working at the shows, ’If your feet aren’t aching and your face doesn’t hurt from smiling all day, you are not doing your job.’”

There’s No People Like Show People

Joan and her husband Robert have been partners in Southern Shows since its inception. Son David is now president of the company and oversees all operations. Says Joan, “David has improved the bottom line a whole lot! He is a brilliant numbers man and guru of organization.” She adds, “Between he and Robert, who still serves as the company’s visionary, the company is well set to keep growing.”

The rest of the staff is carefully selected through what Zimmerman calls “a rather unusual interviewing process.” Prospective employees first meet with the person they eventually might replace. “This way,” says Zimmerman, “They learn the good, the bad and the ugly of the job, and determine if it would be a fit for them.” The prospect then meets the people they would work with, then senior managers, then the principals. The screening concludes with a meeting between all parties to determine the candidate’s viability.

The Zimmermans could not be more pleased with the results of their hiring. “We look for the ability to organize, to be creative, to sell, to absorb and retain a lot of information, to be able to work one on one, or with a group – we really believe that every one of our managers is equipped to do anything they desire.” While a college degree is not required to work as a Southern Show employee, a flair for commitment and problem solving is a necessity.

“We have been incredibly fortunate with our staff. We wouldn’t trade one of them. Just think of it – the huge spaces, huge amounts of people, huge amounts of work – and after just a couple shows we send them off and say – ’Go do it!’ They come back to us only when they need our help with something.”

The process of setting up a show was arduous at first, but after finding, revising and recycling their successful formula, the Zimmermans have the show circuit down to a science. Firmly established planning, logistics, marketing, selling, execution, and analysis practices are adhered to, and tweaked as needed, for a continually improving product. Zimmerman says that the company also has the luxury of an ethical and hard working contractor base that helps set up the shows. “Once we move into a city, it is very rare for us to lose a contractor. We enjoy very good relationships and depend on our service contractors a lot.”

A Group Production

Leadership of the host cities for Southern’s shows also work extensively with the productions. Says Zimmerman, “We try to work with each city to attract not just people who want to go to the show, but groups that will take advantage of other sites and attractions as well. For example, Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority (formerly the Charlotte Convention and Visitors Bureau (CCVB)), has been very wonderful to work with. As I used to chair the organization several years ago, I know what the job entails, and I can say they do a wonderful job for this city.”

The former CCVB is only one of many organizations with which Zimmerman has been involved. She currently serves on seven boards, and throughout her career has chaired the Charlotte branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond and been on the board of the United Way and the Arts and Science Council; the list tumbles through dozens of important organizations and is also followed by dozens of business and citizenship awards.

Son David has major non-profit commitments to The Salvation Army, Charlotte Rotary and others, as well as serving as a director of The Scottish Bank. Robert has contributed to multiple organizations over the years, but now prefers to work in non-board capacities with the nurserymen’s associations, garden clubs and landscapers.

Comments David, “Being idle is something that doesn’t come easily to any of us. We are firm believers that everywhere we go – the city, the exhibitors, the visitors have all given so much to us – we must make a concerted effort to give back. So at every show there is usually a preview evening where the proceeds go to a local charity.”

While competition is stiff and getting stiffer (mainly in the form of home improvement superstores and the like) Southern Shows has enjoyed a tenacious grip on its audience. “We have to stay on top of what the big retailers are doing, which is interesting because several of them are our sponsors as well. We have the ability to put their product in front of more people in one day that one location ever could, and they provide us with the latest and greatest offerings to attract visitors to the show. It is a healthy, friendly arrangement,” comments David.

The slow economy has not really affected Southern Shows’ success. “We have been fortunate, because we really aren’t affected by a down economy. If things are tighter for the consumer, they are still looking for an affordable source of entertainment and attend in large numbers; if things are prosperous, they come and spend more money. Either way, the exhibitor gets great exposure.”

The Zimmermans have a tendency to make everything look and sound easy, and it’s obvious they love what they do. David says, “Unlike many family businesses, we work extremely well together, primarily because we each have our special strengths and skills which complement each other.”


Susanne Deitzel is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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