ROAD TO SUCCESS The Early Years of World Dairy Expo®

Published on Thu, 08/25/2016 - 4:32pm

Source: World Dairy Expo

The World Dairy Expo of today is undoubtedly a success — a landmark that all involved in the dairy industry hope to be a part of each year. But 50 years ago, the success of the show was less certain. Struggles with finances and finding the right focus had the fledgling show on a tipping point between success and failure. It’s hard to imagine for those of the generation where World Dairy Expo is a staple, but for those who witnessed the beginnings, it has been a long road to success.

That very first show in 1967 was to be a grand exhibition — 10 days of cattle, food and events. The vision of founders Allen Hetts, Gene Nelson, Howard Voegeli and Norm Magnussen was coming to life. The World Food Expo, as it was called then, had something for everyone — banquets, a tractor pull, World Food Forums, Cinderella of the World and more. Even so, those first few years struggled to attract attendees to the Expo grounds.“We had so much trouble getting traction,” said Joe Gilbert, a longtime Expo volunteer recruited by then executive director, Bev Craig. “Getting some interest, getting some money, getting anything. ”One of the early failures, Gilbert recalls, were the big bands hired to provide nightly entertainment. The goal was to attract attention off the street and to give exhibitors something to do at night. But the anticipated crowds never came.The show eventually found its footing, focusing less on attracting urban attendees and more on drawing interest for dairy industry members.
“There really weren’t many dairy farmers involved with the show in the beginning,” said Dr. Robert Walton, past World Dairy Expo Board of Directors member. “It was later on, as we were approaching the 1970s, when the cattlemen and the industry kind of got more involved.”Events such as the National Intercollegiate and National 4-H Dairy Cattle Judging Contests, and a shorter five-day show, provided a more farmer-friendly atmosphere.Though the show was turning a corner attendee-wise, they still found themselves in financial trouble. “It struggled through not being successful as a Food Expo and was about to go bankrupt,” said Walton. “It wasn’t going to survive, and that’s when we came up with this idea. That’s kind of where we started.”The idea was to form a corporation, World Dairy Expo, Inc., and sell stock to dairy businesses and producers for a seat on the Board of Directors. As CEO of ABS, Walton purchased stock from the new corporation and began his term as an Expo board member, a role in which he served for 38 years. With the implementation of the ownership system, the World Dairy Expo as we know today started to take shape.The Trade Show also played a key role in the financial stability of the show. “We recognized that we needed that source of income,” said Walton. “There was a great need for new things in the industry — equipment, genetics, milking machines — everything to do with making a dairy farm work.”
The idea of the Trade Show took off slowly, with no real sales strategy in the early years. It wasn’t until Tom McKittrick became general manager in 1988 that the Trade Show turned a corner. “Tom came in, sat me down and said ‘You’re the new sales manager,’ and I said ‘I don’t know anything about selling space,’” recalls Gilbert. “The next morning, Tom threw a bunch of farm magazines on my desk and said ‘There are a lot of ads in here, call those people.’ And that worked! By the next year, we had increased the sales space from 300 booths to more than 600.”
Even amid these early struggles, Expo continued to move forward. The relationship between staff, volunteers and board members was crucial in getting the job done. “There were problems, but we called them challenges,” said Gilbert. “Everybody went to work and didn’t ask credit for it, but they received credit one way or another. There was a reward in the sense of having done something worthwhile. It was the spirit of a mission, and that was to make Expo a world-class venue.”
Flash-forward 50 years, and it’s no doubt that their mission was a success. When asked if in the early years he ever imagined Expo would become the international success that it is today, Gilbert replied with a firm, “Absolutely not. Zero. Zilch.”After retiring from volunteering and not attending the show for several years, Gilbert said he couldn’t believe his eyes at the changes that had taken place upon his return last year. Expo’s educational program, the size and scope of the Trade Show and the feeling of cohesiveness throughout the show really impressed him. 
For Walton, it’s the people that make Expo what it is today. “This is the gathering place, truly, of the dairy industry for the whole world,” he said. “If it wasn’t before, it certainly has become that.”It is truly an impressive feat to have built something from nothing into the most iconic dairy industry event in the world. Whether they knew it at the time or not, those who were lucky enough to be a part of Expo from the beginning were making history. As we celebrate Expo’s golden anniversary, we look to the past to reminisce and thank those who built this historic show. But we also look to the future, and 50 more years as the place where the dairy industry meets.