Designing a Trade Show: A Look Back at our Successes…and Lessons Learned

DesignColumbus is celebrating its ninth year as an event co-sponsored by the Construction Specifications Institute (CSI) Columbus Chapter and U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) Ohio, but the show had a long history before that. Read on for the story of DesignColumbus.

CSI has been active in the Columbus area for 64 years and traditionally used a trade show to market new products in a face-to-face setting. Early partners in their show included the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the Builders Exchange (BX).

While having one-stop access to information about new products and manufacturing processes is helpful for everyone on a project team, we all know it can be hard to carve out the day needed to attend a show when schedules are busy. Therefore, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the building market was strong, attendance at the CSI Columbus Trade Show started to decline. Another factor contributed to a decline at that time: the internet. Online building and product information had become plentiful and many professionals felt they had access to everything they needed without ever leaving their desks. By 2004, the CSI Columbus Trade Show had fewer than 20 attendees, and the show ground to a halt.

After an 18-month hiatus, the chapter board considered a “re-start,” evaluated formats that would provide a new kind of value to the design community, and selected board members committed to a 5-year program to build a new show. The show was re- branded as “DesignColumbus” to highlight its audience and it sharpened its focus to provide practical, detailed information about the region’s built environment. Local case studies showcased real-world challenges and out-of-town speakers were invited to share region-specific knowledge that was not otherwise readily available. Representatives from manufacturing companies with products involved in featured projects were on-hand to share information and assist in planning future projects.

The new format was a success. Architects, engineers, developers and construction managers appreciated the ability to talk about their projects using reference points provided by other local professionals. The next step for show planners was to select a common venue and timeframe to give consistency for attendees, so the Center for Workforce Development at Columbus State Community College began hosting the show each year during its spring break week. From 2006 until 2010 the crowd continued to grow until it was evident that demand had outgrown the venue.

At that time, sustainability was becoming more of an interest in the industry. The Central Ohio Chapter of USGBC (as it was known then) had recently formed and demonstrated interest in starting a sustainability-focused trade show. There were obvious synergies to be gained by joining the efforts of USGBC and CSI chapters. Current DesignColumbus co-chair Jim McDonald (a member of both organizations) presented the idea of a co-sponsored show to both organizations and it was unanimously approved. In 2011, the two organizations formed a joint venture.

The co-sponsored DesignColumbus 2011 marked an opportunity for another show revamp. With planning starting in the fall of 2010—and the show schedule remaining on track to happen the following spring—the search for a larger venue was a critical first task. After looking at several possibilities, the planning committee made the decision to hold the show at COSI. Since then, COSI has hosted DesignColumbus every year but one, 2017, when the show was held at The Ohio Union due to construction at COSI. The 2011 show represented the first year of DesignColumbus as we know it today, but each year the DesignColumbus planning committee works hard all year-round, reviewing the performance of the previous show and trying to improve on things like: How do we draw more attendees? How do we make sponsorships more desirable? How do we make DesignColumbus the best show in Central Ohio & the Great Lakes Region?

Here’s what to expect at this year’s show:

  • Another spectacular keynote: Lt. General Michael Ferriter, U.S. Army, Retired, President & CEO of the National Veterans Memorial and Museum.
  • The committee continues to adhere to the CSI chapter’s original intent of programming that cannot be duplicated in office “lunch & learns.” As is the case every year, case studies, panel discussions and learning tracks are carefully reviewed and selected to provide a range of knowledge.
  • We have worked with our presenters to make sure DesignColumbus 2019 presentations offer continuing education credits (CEUs) not just for AIA, but also for LEED Professionals (several are LEED Specific credits) and interior designers (IDCEC credits).

DesignColumbus 2019 will see these firsts:

  • Divided into four tracks for the first time in several years (welcome, interior design presenters, sponsors and exhibitors!), attendees can choose any program of interest to get help identifying client needs or troubleshooting current project challenges, thereby improving their own business outcomes.
  • AEP Ohio is our Event Sponsor – welcome, AEP!

Attendance for DesignColumbus has grown every year, which we hope is an indicator that we are staying on-track with what our attendees and sponsors are looking for. But we always welcome new ideas—and new committee members—so remember to fill out our survey after the show and contact Jim McDonald if you’d like to get more involved!

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