Rockin' with Randal Acker

It’s like starting an old truck, with some interviews. Pull the choke knob, turn the key, baby the throttle, ease into it. With others, it’s like pushing a button and hanging on as the engine revs, seemingly on auto pilot. And you need to shift down a gear to control the direction.

Randal Acker - President of the Exhibitor Media Group

Randal Acker - President of the Exhibitor Media Group

Randal Acker is that revving engine. He knows where he’s going and he’s happy to share that direction. The president of the Exhibitor Media Group, Randal Acker (or is it Randy, I didn’t get a chance to ask that) has been in leadership at Exhibitor for 16 years and had a five-year spell with the company in the late 90s (I didn’t get to ask about that either). For many of those years, Acker has been a teacher, literally, serving as adjunct faculty at Bemidji State University. And figuratively, Acker is a teacher in his work at Exhibitor. That’s where we started our conversation.

MMPA: Editor’s Note: I honestly don’t remember the question I asked, or if I asked one.

Acker: How do we make a difference in our career? How do we share what we know as leaders? You could live in your own little silo, or complain about quality of talent today, but why don’t you do something about it? Get into classrooms, become mentors. Help things get better. Working today is about more than a career, and that’s part of our reason to be members of

MMPA. I’m a pretty loud voice about make a difference.

MMPA: Okay, let’s expand on that, the reasons you’re a member of MMPA?

Acker is an adjunct faculty member at Bemidji State University

Acker is an adjunct faculty member at Bemidji State University

Acker: It’s multifaceted. If I have staff that want to be involved, I want to give them that opportunity. We can all get so entrenched in our own day to day, but MMPA gives you the chance to gauge work by getting feedback from a knowledgeable and professional peer group. And when your peers say, ‘You do good work,’ that has great value for morale and more.

MMPA: Let’s get to the beginning. Who is and what is Exhibitor?

Acker: Why we exist – in 1982, we started as the educational content source that helped people do trade shows and events better, because there was a great need for improvement and consistency in all aspects of events and exhibits. Lee Knight started Exhibitor Magazine in 1982 and launched the Trade Show in 1989. He did so to tell stories and share best practices. Exhibitor became a trusted and credible source of content, and the magazine helped prove the value of the trade show. It all started with that trusted and credible content. Today, trade shows are part of a $90 billion industry. It’s grown, and the people have evolved. From admins to designers into professional trade show marketers. We’re the essential education and information hub of the industry. And now we have a Certified Trade Show Marketer (CTSM) program, including rigorous course work to show that you’re a professional. It’s like a trade-show master’s program.

MMPA: Who is your audience, and why do they need you?

Acker: Imagine you work for a small to mid-size company, and company leader assigns you to handle a trade show, and you don’t know how to do it. You would find Exhibitor and learn how to do it right. For many companies, marketing “generalists” are often thrown into leading one or two shows per year, and they come into an event with multiple plates spinning in the air. Sure, many companies do multiple shows per year, and we can help them too.

Nobody else teaches this like we do. You can learn through the school of hard knocks or learn from our experts and our programs and our content. The CTSM program extends our content to the extreme. We’ve had people tell us, “You’ve saved my life,” from a professional perspective. We can make a difference for people. We make it strategic, it’s not just logistics, tips and tactics.

MMPA: How do you prove that worth? Or measure success?

Acker: The bulk of what we do drives toward the face-to-face experience. Whether on the website, or through the magazine, we work to prove that we are a credible source, a trusted teacher. And we value and listen to communities that help us prove this.

The voice of the customer rings loudly through our organization. We have full time editorial staff, and they go to dozens of trade shows annually. They’re immersing themselves in these marketing channels, and they’re watching, learning, building relationships personally. We also have advisory boards and councils – editorial, show, advertising, and more – and we’re always asking – What do you like about what we do? We do surveys, we’re BPA audited; listening and learning is important to us.

We always look at metrics, and we survey our audiences in a variety of ways, but it’s face-to-face community interaction that gives us great value.

MMPA: Exhibitor magazine has been named an MMPA Magazine of the Year in 2011, and in 2017. So how does digital content compare to print for you?

EXHIBITOR magazine wins Magazine of the Year at last year’s Excellence Awards ceremony

EXHIBITOR magazine wins Magazine of the Year at last year’s Excellence Awards ceremony

Acker: We’re still very tied to the print component, but everything we do in print winds up in digital. We have an international community – multiple countries – and digital delivery is the most effective for that audience. If international marketers are going to do an event in America, they look to Exhibitor online.

Both print and digital fill roles, and we learn that from listening and from surveys. We still do a print Buyer’s Guide, and we know customers value this print tool, even though we also have a mobile phone version.  

For example, it’s interesting that every show you attend has a mobile app for attendees and exhibitors. And we’ve seen adoption of no more than 40 percent of attendees using these digital tools. Mostly the digital natives are not using these one-time or one-event apps.

MMPA: How about video? I noticed – on YouTube anyway – Exhibitor has posted many videos but not consistently. Is that because of video itself, or just YouTube?

Acker: I think many people are struggling with video, from publishers to marketers. The consumers watch how-to and other videos, but it’s not always adopted or accepted en masse. When we look at that, we ask, why are we continuing to do this? Our audience currently isn’t using video enough, not consuming it in large ways, and we are doing less video for now.

MMPA: Attending a wide range of trade shows, I’m sure you go to some that are more interesting than others. Are there events you attend for personal reasons?

Acker: I restored a 1968 Camaro, so I’m a car guy. And I would love to go to SEMA (Specialty Equipment Market Association, an automobile aftermarket group) and look at all the cool cars. I could also just go professionally.

A lot of that show is about community. The majority of show organizers are working to build community, and we already have a community. We work hard to make a difference for that community.