Talking With Tom

Talking With Tom

The SEMA Trade Shows Director on How Exhibitor Success Depends on Innovation

At the annual SEMA Show Exhibitor Summit, held during the summer before the Show in Las Vegas, Trade Shows Director Tom Gattuso provides tips and strategies to help new exhibitors maximize their time at the Show.

As product innovation propels the automotive specialty-equipment industry forward like never before, the 2017 SEMA Show promises to be the best opportunity yet for bringing buyers and sellers together. With 22 years of experience in producing automotive events, SEMA Trade Shows Director Tom Gattuso is the architect behind America’s largest annual gathering of small businesses in Las Vegas. He recently took some time to talk about what to expect and how to plan for the 2017 SEMA Show.

SEMA News: What are some significant changes to this year’s SEMA Show?

Tom Gattuso: There will be an increase in the number of product demonstration tracks, and it looks as though we will be located in more parts of the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC) than we’ve ever been. Chevy, Ford and Arctic Cat will be back. BMW and Continental will again do a drifting demonstration in the Bronze Lot.

The New Products Showcase will again be located on the LVCC Skybridge, but it’s going to have a new look and feel as we expand into some of the passageways. We expect the best representation of product assortment we’ve ever had.

SN: What is your strategy for organizing the Show, and how long does this process take?

TG: I always say that we work on three SEMA Shows at the same time. We have a 12-month, a 24-month and a 30-month window. We’re already working on securing things for 2019. For the current year, the plan escalates when the past year’s Show closes. We’re active throughout the winter months preparing for our space allocation. During the summer, we’re doing exhibitor logistical preparation. As we move from late summer into fall, we focus on attendee engagement and putting the final touches on what is to be the Show.

We’re always working, but the majority of the work is happening for the current Show, particularly the planning cycles for the LVCC that we’re going to use. Preparation will get a little more complicated because the LVCC is planning an expansion in January 2018. We have to be far out ahead of it to know which areas we’re going to use and how we’re going to maximize the space.

SN: What are the most important factors for exhibitors in pulling off a successful Show?

TG: Have a good pre-Show plan, which includes a goal, a way to measure the goal, and the ability to adjust it throughout the process. If your expectation is to come to the Show and wait for business to find you, you will not be as successful as companies that make a plan with a goal in mind and do pre-Show marketing and post-Show follow-up to ensure that they attain
their goal.

SN: How important is booth size and location, and how are you able to accommodate exhibitor requests?

TG: Buyers will find exhibitors despite booth size and location. I’m a big proponent of making sure everything in your booth is purpose-built for a buyer-seller interaction. Any wasted space is unnecessary. You don’t need to be in a large exhibit to effectively showcase your innovation. We see buyers go all over the Show floor, and we’re convinced that they’re in search of the companies with the best new products to help their businesses and not the companies with the
best location.

We try to make the exhibits the main focus of attention and put some of our features on the external part of the campus. If you notice, a lot of our product demonstration tracks and New Products Showcase areas are not in prime exhibit space. It’s more to lead traffic from one area to the next. We feel that there’s not a bad location on the Show floor because we’ve built in all these traffic drivers. It doesn’t look intentional from the outside, but every single thing we do—from where the coffee is served to where you register to where the Show office is located—is specifically planned out with a purpose to bring traffic to our exhibitors.

More than 2,500 exhibitors packed the halls of the Las Vegas Convention Center for the 2016 SEMA Show. The annual event attracts 160,000 industry professionals, including 67,000 buyers.

SN: What are some of the best sources of information for exhibitors?

TG: Our Exhibitor Services Manual (ESM) [] is a complete guide for success at the Show. It’s important to realize that we have support staff in place throughout the Show process. As an exhibitor, you’re assigned an industry sales director as soon as you click “send” on your application. That person will be your main contact and can help you through any of your needs.

On-site, we have people assigned to specific areas of the Show floor to help with the logistics of moving in and out. We have a Show office that’s fully staffed with trade show experts, intellectual property rights attorneys and customer-service reps to handle everything you need on-site. Between those three levels of support, we can address any issues or concerns you may have with the Show.

SN: How many first-time exhibitors are registered so far, and how can they take advantage of SEMA Show offerings?

TG: Right now we’ve got more than 300 first-time companies, but that list is still growing. The best way for them to take advantage of the Show is to visit the pages of and read the ESM, SEMA News and SEMA eNews, because we regularly provide tips for success to help with any level of Show participation. My best piece of advice for new exhibitors is to participate in the New Products Showcase, because it sets you on an even footing for innovation in
the industry.

SN: What opportunities should all exhibitors take advantage of?

TG: I sound like a broken record, but take advantage of the New Products Showcase. Our survey data tells us that almost half of buyers find exhibitors by way of seeing their products in the New Products Showcase.

Also, ensure that any information that is on our website is current and accurate, e.g., your company description in the online floorplan ( and SEMA Show Directory. Post press releases in the Online Media Center ( There are a lot of free opportunities to showcase your company in the best light possible that are proven resources for buyers as they research their participation at the Show.

SN: What are the advantages for exhibitors in using SEMA-recommended vendors and suppliers?

TG: We spend a lot of time building relationships with reputable companies and vetting the best deals possible. Our industry partners are invested in our success and are more supportive of our association and our members than companies that don’t earn our partner seal of approval.

SN: How can buyers and exhibitors make the most of their time and meet with everyone they need to meet with at the Show?

TG: Resources such as the online floorplan, the SEMA Show Directory and the mobile app are great places to start. More than two-thirds of our buyers arrive at the Show knowing which exhibitors they want to meet. Using those resources to their fullest capacity is key to that success. Our mobile app is simple and easy to use. The goal of the app is to help buyers find manufacturers, and we’ve had a lot of success in recent years in bringing the two parties together more than ever before.

SN: What should media attendees know about covering the Show?

TG: We have a world-class Media Center with the resources and staff needed to be able to effectively report on the innovation that happens during the Show. SEMA Public Relations Director Della Domingo and her staff work tirelessly to share as much information as possible from our exhibiting manufacturers so that you’ll be able to effectively report on the best of the industry regardless of the automotive segment you cover.

SN: How do you ensure that only approved, credentialed attendees are allowed on the Show floor?

TG: We have a staff dedicated to reviewing qualifying documents for buyers, exhibitors and guests. We work tirelessly throughout the year to set up standards for Show participation. From the minute registration opens, we enact our plan to ensure that we’re doing everything we can to maintain the buyer and exhibitor quality that the Show deserves.

  new products showcase
The New Products Showcase is the number-one destination for buyers at the SEMA Show. According to survey data, more than half of buyers find exhibitors by way of seeing their products in the Showcase.

SN:How do you use information learned from previous Shows to improve succeeding Shows?

TG: We are pushing as hard as we can to be innovative and showcase the best of the industry, but we learn something new with each Show we do, and we’re constantly refining the environment to match up to the current Show offerings. For instance, there are parts of the Bronze Lot that we had never used, but now that we’ve been there for several years, we’ve gotten better at managing the traffic through that area and increasing value for our exhibitors. The Show benefits by our pushing and constantly wanting
to refine.

SN: Do you have any post-Show suggestions for exhibitors?

TG: A big part of any successful exhibit plan is to have a good post-Show process to follow up with the leads you meet on the Show floor. My recommendation is to prioritize your prospects for follow-up. You should have a group of people you’re going to follow up within a week, a month and three months after the Show. Have a strict plan of prioritizing your customers to help with managing follow-up.

SN: Are there any changes to the SEMA Ignited format?

TG: We do have some new elements to SEMA Ignited that we’re working on. It promises to be our most active and spectacular event. We had more than 1,100 cars participate in last year’s SEMA Cruise, which culminated at SEMA Ignited. Our expectation this year is that both events will be even better, with new features and more to see.

SN: How is this year’s SEMA Show poised to be even better than last year’s Show?

TG: We are on pace this year to use more of the Las Vegas Convention Center campus than we ever have. That will include more exhibits, features, attendees and opportunity for the industry. The SEMA Show at its core is simply a mirror for the specialty-equipment industry. Our success is indicative of the overall strength and innovation of the industry. It’s not how big we are. The reason we’re big is because the industry is thriving and companies want to participate. The reason buyers come is that the industry is thriving and their customers are demanding innovation.

We’d rather not focus on our size as much as the fact that the industry is innovating and we’re representing our attendees more than ever. It’s not so much about having 2,500 exhibitors as it is that so many people want to be part of the event. We are lucky that our trade show serves an industry that has so much passion and camaraderie. Our Show week in Las Vegas is a homecoming for the industry that we look forward to all year long.

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