Interview with a Trade Show Executive: NAB’s Chris Brown

July 17, 2014

As part of an ongoing series, TSNN Reporter Traci Browne will be profiling trade show executives and asking them probing questions like if time travel were possible, where would you go and why? Twenty-nine year trade show industry veteran Chris Brown, executive vice president of Conventions & Business Operations for the National Association of Broadcasters, which oversees the NAB Show, is the first interview in what promises to be a fun series.

1. Where did you grow up? What was your adolescent experience like?

I was an Army brat. Spent my very, very young years in Germany and Bangkok. I wish I remember more of that experience – my parents told me I was potty trained by a very strict German nanny (so not sure what emotional scars that left). My Father retired in southeast Virginia – the Tidewater area; I grew up there just off the Chesapeake Bay. It was a pretty typical middle-class childhood for me, not quite Leave it to Beaver but not far off either. I think I benefitted a great deal from the military upbringing; had a great family life, spectacular and loving parents; I was blessed in many ways. Back in those days we walked to school, spent all our free time out and about in the neighborhood with a pack of friends; we never worried about safety and never had any real issues; things have certainly changed. A key outlet was sports (I played most, but ended up focusing on tennis). Best thing about growing up there – I met my wife-to-be in High School!

2. What was the first show you went to? What do you remember most about it?

The first show I ever went to would have had to have been the FMI Show; that was my first gig in “show” business, and like so many others in our business, I had never actually been to a show. What do I remember? Pretty much being in awe of the size of everything – the size of McCormick Place, the numbers of people scrambling around the show floor, the trucks, the forklifts, everything; it was the scale of the effort that amazed me.

3. What show are you working on currently? What makes you excited about it?

Well, I work on a few – the largest is the annual NAB Show; but I also work on two smaller shows, Content and Communications World and the Radio Show. The “big” show is always an exciting project; maybe a bit stressful at times, but always lots to work on, lots of new elements to launch, grow and nurture. We cover fast-moving and constantly evolving markets, and it is fun and challenging to try and stay ahead of what is happening. And we are always looking to push the envelope. In the end, it is usually all that new stuff that gets me excited, even though just seeing the show come together on opening day is always a thrill. Content and Communications Week (CCW) is an acquisition we recently made, and it has been fun to pick things up, learn and identify where we can create added value to fuel growth.

4. What was your first job? Did you learn any valuable lessons or tools that you have brought with you into your current career?

My first job was with one of what was then one of the “Big 8” accounting firms, Arthur Andersen. I worked on the management consulting side, which is today called Accenture. Although it may not have been what I thought I was getting into, I ended up really being a software analyst, programming large off and online systems primarily for government clients. I was only there for about three years but I do think I learned a great deal (their training was world class) – about what it means to be professional (it was an accounting firm, after all), the nuances of interfacing with clients (customers), effective techniques for presenting ideas and the fundamentals of software and technology. The latter obviously has been helpful in my current position as I have never been intimidated by technology, and having a basic understanding of software design has also been helpful as we manage our own internal systems.

5. When did you become interested in working in the industry? How did you get started in the trade show industry?

Typical story here (I think) for our business – I fell into it. After doing the software thing for a couple of years I realized that I really didn’t want to get stuck behind a computer screen being a tech nerd. I was starting to lose interest and was craving real human contact. So I decided to get out – about the time the software business was taking off (so maybe not the brightest move). I happened to be talking to a former Andersen colleague of mine who had become the IT manager for Food Marketing Institute, non-profit trade association. Of course, I had no idea what one of those was but he mentioned that they had an opening in their convention department; selling exhibit space. I wasn’t sure I was a sales guy, but it sounded intriguing, I checked it out and the rest is how I got here.

6. Do you have any hobbies? (woodworking, birding, knitting, Herpetoculture)

Believe it or not, I am trying to figure this one out. My wife and I are transitioning to the empty-nester stage; up to this point pretty much everything has revolved around raising our family. We have just about finished that up with the last of four great kids about to go off to college. And now we get to rediscover ourselves and our own time. Sports has always been central for me, whether playing golf or tennis, or watching anything and everything I can catch – I love competing and love watching others compete; something about it. But I do want to discover new hobbies – not sure what that might be just yet, but probably not birding, and I don’t expect I will take up painting like George Bush. Old people seem to like wine, and since I am old I am finding it more interesting (but probably not the greatest of hobbies).

7. Do you have any pets? We want to know all about them if you do.

Yes, two dogs; one very mellow and the other one a bit “psycho.” Zoey, the mellow one, is getting a bit old and is a mix of golden retriever and greyhound (we think) – pretty dog with a very gentle nature. Her one vice – she is a sneak and master at stealing food. Tucker, the psycho, is also a mixed breed, part cocker spaniel and part beagle I believe. This is our weather dog, as he shivers, shakes and generally goes into a tizzy whenever a storm is approaching. And he rarely sits still; has to follow you everywhere.

8. What’s on your iPod?

Don’t have an iPod; have an iPad. And if you are looking for music, I have a fair mix that leans a bit toward rock, alternative and relatively hard rock. I have always been a fan of rock bands and the sound of a good electric guitar. While I do like the harder edge stuff (i.e. Metallica), I also like classic rock and even some of the newer pop artists. Believe it or not, I have some Lady Gaga, Lourdes and Rihanna (well, I am Chris Brown); along with Disturbed, Audioslave, Rage Against the Machine, The Black Keys, Pink Floyd, The Who, Aerosmith, Ozzy Osbourn, Jimmy Hendrix and even Salt-n-Pepa.

9. It’s the day before the show and the CDC has just announced a zombie apocalypse. Your first thought it to …

a. Immediately book a flight out of town. Every man for himself.

b. Call your attorney to find out if your cancellation insurance covers you for a zombie apocalypse.

c. Zombies Schmombies … you’ve been planning this for a year. The doors will open at 8 AM as scheduled.

d. Turn the show into a big party with open bar including top shelf liquors.

Our show is in Vegas, so D is the logical choice. Actually I think we experience a zombie apocalypse every time we go out there.

9. If time travel was possible, where would you go and why? (You cannot choose the future because it hasn’t happened yet and there is the possibility you may have to stay put wherever you travel to … so answer wisely.)

Would have to be either the time of the American Revolution, perhaps pre-revolution, or the time of the American Civil War. I have always been fascinated by these periods in our history. Given that I grew up primarily in Virginia, the life of the southern plantation owner has always held some romance (notwithstanding the abhorrent practice of slavery); I have visited Mount Vernon and Monticello several times and can see myself appreciating the contrast in elegance and harshness in those settings. These were times where huge decisions were being made, the principles upon which our country would be built were being formed and our people were dealing with massive moral issues like slavery. They were not necessarily easy times, but they were times that mattered immensely.

10. Name three people you would love to have lunch with? (Living, dead, famous, infamous, unknown …)

Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, my Dad (he would keep his composure better and would have better questions for the other two).

11. What are your future goals? (Career, education, travel, etc.)

Get the last two children through college and firmly on their feet.

Traci Browne is a content creator and is passionate about the content potential for trade show organizers. The proof of the pudding is in the eating if you've read this and enjoyed it. Check out more of her insights on the industry at www.tradeshowinstitute.com.

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