In late February, PCMA’s Greater Philadelphia (PHL) chapter wanted to host an event to help its supplier members get some much-needed attention, but most of the country still was operating under COVID-19 restrictions. A face-to-face event seemed impossible. When sponsorship committee members agreed on the idea of waiting until spring to host an in-person, outdoor show, they thought they’d seen the last of any pandemic complications.
Weeks before the “Trunk and Meet” Tailgate Trade Show’s original date of June 3 — it was moved to June 10 due to inclement weather — the vaccination rollout was in wildly different stages around the country, and some of the attendees and exhibitors had been vaccinated, while some had not. Many of the participants were coming from other parts of the country, too, which meant some still were wearing masks while others were not. Finally, the rules for meeting during COVID-19 were fluctuating almost on a daily basis.
“[Planning] actually became a little bit more complicated,” Erica Keagy, the chapter’s administrator, said about the event held in the parking lot of Drexelbrook Catering & Event Center in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania. She and chapter president Lisa McGlashen spoke with Convene about how the tailgate initiative was conceived and how it drove home results.
A major goal of the event was to bring the industry back together in person after so many months apart, McGlashan said, because “that’s what we all needed.”
“How many times did you hear of someone losing their job over COVID — it was just heartbreaking,” she added.
McGlashen wanted to specifically help suppliers, she said, because it had been months since they had had face-to-face time with meeting planners. And the chapter also wanted to promote its membership because “our numbers were falling,” she said.
The inspiration for the event didn’t come from the popularity of tailgate parties among local fans of the Philadelphia Eagles, Penn State Nittany Lions, and the Philadelphia Phillies. Instead, Paul Wong, a chapter board member, jokingly suggested they do a “trunk-or-treat” event. At Halloween, groups of parents sometimes gather in a parking lot, where they decorate their cars and trunks and children then go from car to car trick-or-treating. The idea stuck.
“We went with it and made it mandatory that everybody used a car” as part of their booth, McGlashen said. “We gave them a table, but they had to use their cars, too.”
Some of the suppliers brought other modes of transportation. Crema Tutti set up one of its ice cream and champagne tricycles, Camelback Mountain Resort served tacos from its taco truck, and Delco Steaks brought in its food truck . Other vendors decked out trunks and tables.
The outdoor event helped with the safety factor, Keagy said, which resonated with the chapter — it would be easier to control F&B and pandemic measures like face masks and social distancing than at an indoor event. “We wanted everyone to be able to see one another in person, but in an environment in which most — hopefully all —of the people felt comfortable,” she said.
When they first started planning, the team added a be-well agreement to both the exhibitor and attendee packets and prepared to follow a specific set of guidelines due to the pandemic. They had signs ready to remind people to social distance, wear masks, and wash their hands frequently. But as the event got closer and the vaccination rollout gained steam, restrictions lightened and they realized much of what had been planned no longer applied.
Then the tailgate trade show was delayed a week because of rain, and local restrictions loosened even more. The chapter ultimately didn’t ask for proof of vaccination but used the honor system: Those who weren’t vaccinated, they hoped, would wear a mask. One of the suppliers, Destination Toronto, sponsored hand-sanitizer stations.
Three separate scenarios were planned: a more restricted outdoor event, an indoor event in the case of a second rain delay, and the event that ended up taking place — the best-case scenario. Many of the precautionary plans weren’t needed on “game day.”
Pricing was kept low — PCMA PHL charged exhibitors an “absurd” $250 a table, McGlashen said. The fee, which included registration, was kept nominal because their main goal was to help their supplier members rather than generate revenue. The only requirement was that every exhibitor had to have a car/table and couldn’t register in order just to walk the parking lot exhibit space.
For those suppliers who didn’t want to exhibit, PCMA PHL charged $50 to attend a reception after the trade show on the terrace at Drexelbrook Catering & Event Center.
The Tailgate Trade Show sold out its exhibitor space, Keagy said, even after the space was expanded. Ultimately, about 150 suppliers participated, which meant 75 exhibitor booths at the event. More than 100 planners attended.
“In the beginning, we didn’t even know if anyone would be interested. We thought, ‘Well, no one has money. No one wants to spend the money and will we have enough to even make this work,’” Keagy said. “Lisa and I visited the parking lot three or four times, trying to figure out how we could squeeze more vehicles in to accommodate everybody. We are thrilled with that number.”
Curt Wagner is digital editor at Convene.