Partnerships, Precision Planning & the Love of Puzzles Makes for a Successful Event

When enormous firetrucks and ladders fill an exhibit hall, precision space planning is a key priority.

Planners know that meetings are like Jenga—intricate sets of parts must be handled gingerly and masterfully to guarantee a successful outcome. That’s certainly true for Peggy Tucker, the planner behind the annual meeting of the Virginia Fire Chiefs Association.

That’s because this group’s conference brings enormous apparatus—think fire trucks and ladders—to the 150,000-square-foot Virginia Beach Convention Center (VBCC). “The exhibits are a huge part of our event, and we take up all of the column-free exhibit space,” Tucker says, adding that it’s precisely laid out for them on a 10-by-10-foot matrix that is permanently etched on the tradeshow floor allowing for easier load ins, especially since this tradeshow floor is on grade with unlimited floor load.

“It’s like a puzzle,” she explains. Direct competitors can’t be adjacent, and small exhibitors need to be given as much exposure as possible alongside the big-spending, space-dominating companies displaying on the show floor. Tucker says one exhibitor alone requires 28,000 square feet because it brings six vehicles and other enormous pieces of apparatus to the show floor.

The challenge is laying out the space so that it’s fair to all of the exhibitors: “You have to assign move-in times, work hall by hall, use three entrance bays,” she explains. “And they all come in, and somehow it fits together. And it all happens within an hour.”

The load-in and out is so intricate that Tucker says she’d love to see what the effort looks like in time-lapse footage—and hopes to make that happen someday to capture the awe-inspiring logistical feat.

Overall, the show comprises exhibits and four days of concurrent education sessions. Paid attendees for the full show numbered about 800. Another 400 attendees came per day just to visit the exhibit hall, and as many as 500 people participated in the general sessions. A group this large means individual needs and preferences vary among the attendees. Tucker explains that Virginia Beach offers appealing options for the wide range of participants.

Staff and speakers stay in an on-site hotel. But the group books eight additional properties for attendees to “let them decide what appeals most to them,” she says. “Virginia Beach has so many great hotels less than a 10-minute drive to the convention center.”

The destination offers other perks for attendees. For example, other destinations required visitors to pay steep parking rates on top of their room rates. In contrast, “Virginia Beach Convention Center has an enormous amount of parking spaces, and they’re free,” Tucker says.

As a planner responsible for challenging logistical feats, Tucker finds the destination is an ideal solution for this association’s needs. “The thing that has always impressed me about Virginia Beach is that the [convention] bureau employees act as our partners,” she says. “It is a great collaboration among so many people who come to the table to make our event successful. That partnership: We feel it, we know it and we trust in it. That’s what keeps us coming back.”

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(Visit Virginia Beach)