At Washington Auto Show, small businesses do the heavy lifting


WASHINGTON, DC. Feb..7, 2013.Washington Redskin, London Fletcher signs autographs at the Auto Show, being assisted by Ramon Cala who runs CALPRO with his brother Socrates at the Convention Center in Washington, DC . 2/7/13. (Jeffrey MacMillan/JEFFREY MACMILLAN FOR CAPITAL BUSINESS)

Robert Yoffe is the engine behind the Washington Auto Show.

But he’s no car enthusiast.

“I’m not a car guy. I’m not the guy you’d ask about certain products, and not the neighbor you’d come and ask about what you should buy,” he said.

For 25 years, Yoffe has been coordinating events at the popular trade show, his five-person firm part of a tight-knit constellation of big and small companies that takes the wheel in planning, scheduling and staffing the annual event.

Yoffe Exposition Services begins preparing more than a year in advance (Yoffe, for instance, started working on the 2014 edition months ago). His Marblehead, Mass.-based production company is responsible for lining up more than 1,000 temporary employees for the 10-day show.

He doesn’t handle the logistics alone.

Yoffe hired Socrates Cala’s District-based, family-owned business, the Calpro Group, to oversee most of the operational tasks. The Calpro Group is responsible for traffic planning, ticket collection, receptions, concessions, clean up and managing celebrities. The firm hires about 250 temporary workers for the show’s run.

Cala had been an account executive at the old Washington Convention Center, and has worked closely with auto show organizers in the past. This is Cala’s 15th go-round.

He’s not the only auto show veteran. Barbara Pomerance’s three-person firm, Pomerance & Associates, now based in Atlanta, has been handling communications and public relations for the auto show for 25 years.

Yoffe said he used to manage the auto show through a Norwalk, Conn.-based production company called Reed Exhibition Cos., but took over the work himself when Reed’s contract expired.

Cala, whose company handles 10 to 12 shows a month, said he particularly enjoys the auto show because of all the familiar faces he sees.

“I call it a reunion. I see the same people every year, and try to make them feel at home,” Cala said.

Another old hand is Hargrove, a trade show exhibition business based in Lanham. Hargrove chief executive Tim McGill has been working on the Washington Auto Show for 17 years. (Hargrove’s contract lasts until 2018.) Hargrove teams with Yoffe to develop floor plans, signs and graphics, but is primarily responsible for choreographing the movement of cars in and out of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center.

“The amount of product that comes into the building for an auto show is abnormally high,” McGill said, explaining that his company deals with the logistics of moving them in and out of the space once the manufacturers or dealerships deliver the cars. “We’re also dealing with a very high number of attendees, particularly on the weekends, which requires a constant effort to keep [the floor and aisles] clean.”

Hargrove does more than 300 trade shows and 1,000 events a year, according to McGill, and usually employs a couple hundred staffers to coordinate display set-up.

‘Experience marketing’

The automakers don’t take a back seat to auto show preparations. While the logistical and technical operations are sourced locally, the auto show’s main attractions — the cars themselves — often come from the manufacturers by way of businesses such as George P. Johnson, an “experience marketing agency” headquartered in Detroit. GPJ manages roughly 50 percent of the brands in any national auto show, according to Senior Vice President John Tulloch.

Depending on the size of the show, GPJ arranges to have a set of cars sent to the show, either from the automakers, if the cars are pre-production, or from local dealerships. Each brand displayed at the show typically requires about 25 people to maintain the cars, handle the audiovisual technology and work the floor, Tulloch said.

That group includes product specialists who can discuss the finer points of the new automobiles with attendees. GPJ might team with a company such as Gail & Rice, a Farmington Hills, Mich.-based talent agency, to find appropriate representatives.

“The training is pretty extensive — up to a week or more in some cases where they spend a lot of time hands on with the manufacturer’s products,” said Jeff MacLean, vice president of product communication at Gail & Rice. “Our people need to be more engaging. We try and make sure people know how to bring a feature to life.”

Mohana Ravindranath covers IT and small business for the Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication.
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