S.3 Episode 18: How to Win in the Expo World!

When you know there is a strong need for an event how do you go about building it? How do you stay true to yourself and your own brand? This week Ashley Hawks of Forever Bride joins us to talk all about how her and her small but mighty team created the Forever Bride Market.  You will be surprised by the amount of detail and perfection that goes into it!

Tell us about you.

Born and raised here in the twin cities, so total Minnesota girl. My start in the wedding industry, started when I was really young. My mother owned a bridal shop here in the twin cities for 25 years. She launched it when I was five. I remember she, worked high up in the JC penny world back in the 80s when JC Penney was like the thing. She was in the fashion world for years and that was her specialty. And then in 1990 she decided to open her own bridal shop, Mary Kay’s bridal. I mean it was a dream come true. I mean I was a total girly girl and we’d go there after school and she would give me these little Dixie cups and I’d crawl around on the floor and the carpet, this horrible mauve pink carpet. Everything was this mauve pink. And I would crawl around picking up these tiny little pearls and diamonds that I thought were real. Well when you have, you know, 800 gowns in this massive bridal store, you know, and she saves everything. And so, you know, I’d go around collecting all these little beads and stuff cause we did alterations and so it was nice being able to give these little Dixie cups of beads to the seamstresses and kept me busy after school. And then I upgraded to vacuuming and cleaning millions of mirrors on a daily basis.

You were a model in the fashion world. Tell us a little bit about that.

I was a very ginormously tall young girl. But when you’re in fifth grade and you’re almost 5 10, that’s a lot. It’s very aggressive. So my sweet mother got me into modeling and I loved it. I’m surrounded with these other giant tall women and I was making money and I got to travel. I started traveling actually when I was 14, all by myself. Got in an airplane and flying around.

I learned a lot about, both about the wedding industry cause I got started modeling wedding dresses and going to bridal fashion week and things like that. So I was still within the wedding industry. When you’re young, a lot of these designers would let me stay at their house, you know, with their families and I’d get to know, a lot about the business and the behind the scenes. I just became completely obsessed with the industry and then of course as years went by I’m going to date myself a little bit, but the internet started to become a little bit more powerful and social media came out. I really became obsessed with how businesses made it through that transition. I remember being one of the very first Facebook users.

So what are you doing? Where did that lead you and what are you doing now?

About seven years ago, I partnered up with these two incredible entrepreneurs. One is present. We’re business partners. I met Charles and Mike years ago through my mom’s bridal shop again. We sat down and they started sharing this vision that they had for the wedding industry. It revolved around the community and telling people’s stories and really just creating a different experience for businesses to get their name out there and to really connect with people and build quality relationships while still using social media. It was a perfect fit for me. I mean, growing up in a bridal shop and knowing how hard it was to run ads and magazines and we would do the bridal shows and the industry was evolving quickly and I wanted nothing more to be a part of this and to be on the cusp of something really big and different. That was in 2012 when, when I left everything. I was modeling full time.I think I had like four other jobs, you know, Jack of all trades, master of none. That’s gotta be, I think the best piece of advice that we can give people listening right now is even if you are absolutely good at like three or four things, just pick one. It took me what, almost two years to fully quit modeling when I was building Forever Bride. I couldn’t let go of that chapter of my life. And it wasn’t until I retired. I remember going into the agency and we’d joke that you’re hanging up the strapless bra cause that’s like a whole part of the modeling world. It wasn’t until that point that I started taking myself a little bit more serious that my customers started taking me more serious and it just, it kind of put that fire on my butt. This is it. This is my one thing. I just dove deeper and it’s been the best decision I’ve ever made.

You were doing this digital thing for long time with Forever Bride. How did you come up with this event? 

When we started building Forever Bride it was digital,It’s social media, it’s smaller networking events, really community focused. When we were putting together the early vision of the company, wedding fairs or wedding expos were not a part of it. And in fact, at one point I vowed that we would never do wedding shows ever.

Why?

Well, I grew up going to these things. They were, they were at the convention center in the middle of winter. I’m the daughter of the owner, so I’m in charge of schlepping all these dresses at 4:00 AM through the snow and these parking garages. It was a ton of work. And then we’d set up, we’d be there, talked to hundreds of people, not really much traction would come from it and then you pack everything back. It was exhausting. It was a ton of money. It was a ton of work. Think of collecting emails. I mean back in the 90s you don’t collect emails. Right. You know, it’s more handing out brochures and business cards and hoping that they come back or giving your phone number saying, would you like to schedule an appointment? They are walking around that day, they’re getting ideas. They’re talking to people. They don’t have time to open their date book. They don’t have iPhones to open their date book and schedule an appointment or Oh yeah, we’ll totally come in maybe sometime. 

Years into building this and we did smaller networking events for our clients and it started out just as these little happy hours and they turn into these beautiful events with some food and some cocktails and you know, photo booths, things like that. And our vendors, my clients started coming to me saying, Hey, when are you guys going to do an expo? I said, Oh, that’s so sweet, but we’re not, that’s not my style. It’s, I don’t really think it’s your style. No, no, no, no, no. Not like, not like one of those, but like a Forever Bride expo. I’m going. Okay. So then if the seed was planted and through social media, our brides, we have this, this loyal following, we had brides messaging us through social media saying, Hey, do you guys ever do a wedding expo? No, that’s so sweet. We have a website you can sign up and when you have two different groups of clients asking you the same thing, you have to step back and go, okay, well there’s gotta be something to this. And I knew that if we were going to do a show of this size there’s a couple other shows here in the twin cities that are very big and they do a great job. Very well established, great reputation at the time we didn’t know if there’s room for another show. 

There’s a lot going on in the whole expo world. If I did it, I wanted to make sure that this is going to be really profitable for my clients because not only am I putting in a lot of time and money, but I’m going to expect them to put in their money as well. So I started doing some research and we started surveying our customers. Hey, if you were to go to a wedding fair, what kind of things would you want to do? What are some things that you like about the shows in town? What are some things you don’t like? There’s no limit to the amount of information that you should be gathering when doing something new and different. Then sometimes you have to step back and put yourself in your customer’s shoes. Like if I was to get married again and I’m going to get my butt off the couch on a Sunday afternoon and drive somewhere and get all my girls, what are my expectations? It wasn’t I’m going downtown and it wasn’t being surrounded with thousands of people in a very like state fair like atmosphere. I love popups like local popups where you’re meeting these local artists and you’re talking to small businesses and you’re shopping and maybe trying some great food. 

The idea of the farmer’s market is how we explain it to new people that we’re working with. It came from, I went to the farmer’s market with my husband and my kids. A couple weeks before the idea came and we were at the Minneapolis farmer’s market walking around and my little girl is just the cutest tiniest thing you’ve ever seen. And she was looking at these flowers and you know, we look but don’t touch. And we had walked away the florist, came running back and had this giant sunflowers big as her head on this huge long STEM and didn’t speak English but handed it to her like, you know, you keep it, keep it, her face just lit up and I’m like, are you sure? She goes, yes, yes, yes.Well now guess who we go back to buy our flowers every time. It was such a simple gesture and it meant so much and she actually grew those sunflowers. It was, it was just such a personal thing.

Tell us more about how do you design an event from the ground up that that is inspired by these ideas you had. How do you design a show like that?

The very first thing is numbers the entire show has to be about numbers. I don’t care how beautiful the dream and the vision is in my head, it comes down to figuring out all the small details, financially figuring out, the venues, a huge part, but, but literally it comes down to numbers. If we’re going to do this many booths, how much revenue do we need to produce? You know, your first couple of shows probably aren’t going to be hugely profitable at first, but what is the longterm goal? It literally was just a ton of math and numbers. Run the numbers and then basically you have to sell like hell There’s no substitute for selling. You have to sell the idea and the vision and you’ve got to get a lot of people on your side. 

And what was your strategy for doing that different than the other people that you talk about having in town and how you wanted to be able to differentiate yourself and then hitting the ground running, selling. , how did that work for you?

So we were lucky enough to already have really great businesses that we have built a relationship with. So for me to be able to come to them and say, Hey, I’ve got this vision. I know it’s a little crazy, but here’s our plan, and I wanted to make sure that they felt very secure in my plan. I wanted to make sure I had everything all presented where it wasn’t me going, well I’ve got this idea and we’ll try it and we’ll see. No. This is how we’re going to execute it. This is the results you are going to see. And I’m going to hold your hand every step of the way. Cause a lot of these businesses maybe haven’t done a fair in the past. Over-communicating, making sure that they felt comfortable of what was expected out of them. It just came down to trust finding people that really trusted in me. Over promise, over deliver. I mean I went above and beyond to make sure that every single vendor that was there felt taken care of. Of course you got to promote the thing. What’s the point of having a beautiful event and all your clients, they’re ready to show off their stuff if nobody shows up. 

I think it’d be interesting to get more in your head about like how do you find partners that are willing to help you pull this off from the venue to the different sponsors who kind of do different activities and things. So how do you, how do you figure that all out? 

A lot of the people that we work with, relationships and their reputation and just having a brand in the community is really important to them. So businesses that only care about awards or we did so and so celebrities wedding and those types of recognition, they might not be a great fit for something like this. I really wanted to work with businesses that truly care about the customer, that really love what they do and get excited about it because that type of energy and passion is going to translate into a really great expo because when you’ve got brides walking around, they want to talk to people that are excited about their brand. They don’t want to talk to someone who was hired to hand out brochures all day long. Really sitting down and meeting with people and finding the right customers that want that personal connection. I will give you one piece of advice for our marketing strategy. I think this applies to any industry. When you’re having an event of this size, there’s a lot going on and it’s really easy to go down the rabbit hole with your advertising we’re going to have this and this and this and this is going to be there. And it can be very overwhelming to the person who’s deciding if they want to come or not. 

I think the most powerful thing that we have done is focused on a couple of specifics and leave the rest of the imagination. For example, we do a make your own floral crowns station. It sounds so silly and so simple and yet this, this little idea that we had from the very first show is now one of the main reasons, according to our surveys that we send our brides, is one of the main reasons people come to this. Do you come to meet vendors or to make a floral crown? Oh, I come to make the floral crown. And then they just happened to book their photographer, their venue, their caterer. We’re incorporating a couple of new pieces into the show just to keep the experience there. You have to create experiences for your customers to keep them engaged, to keep them excited, to differentiate your show from something else. And then you have the ability to use social media. Cause if they’re taking pictures and they’re posting things about your brand and they’re using your hashtag, they’re doing the advertising for you. And that’s usually why we do two shows back to back because then there’s all this hype, there’s all this excitement. We ride that wave of social media that the brides created for us into our next show.

One of the things that I’ve learned that’s really important is it’s not about me. It’s not about my brand. It’s not about, you know, what I can do or how great I am or what awards I’ve won. I want to make sure that it’s all about my vendors and that it’s all about the bride. I want to make sure that, that the person who bought the ticket and drove out on a Sunday afternoon is feeling like a celebrity. I want her to feel special. I want her to know that all of this is for her. And if she feels special and she feels like this is just a beautiful experience that’s not only there to help her plan her wedding, but I want to create an experience that’s really fun and memorable for the people that she brought with.

How do you help consult your clients on what’s going to help them stand out to the bride? 

We send out so many emails here’s great articles about this and here’s ideas for this we try to hold their hand as much as possible and there’s always one person that shows up with a table and a chair. Do you know that I actually don’t allow chairs at my event? People go to rent their all ala cart items like linens and tables and things like that, I don’t allow chairs. If you want to bring your own, that’s fine. There’s so much psychology that goes into these things. Standing with your arms crossed and then you wonder why nobody came to you and people should not have to come to your booth. I send articles even about the psychology of like what to dress, you know, how to dress and what to expect, you know, and telling people too, you should make sure that your booth speaks for itself because no one is going to come up to you and go with, so what do you do? You should make sure that the bride goes, Oh, that’s a florist. 

What tips do you have for people that have booths at expos? 

Besides wearing comfortable shoes and having a pocket full of breath mints? I’d say one of the best pieces of advice, get there as early as possible because the networking opportunities are huge. Plus you don’t want to look like that business that’s not prepared because you’re running in last minute. Even though your customers aren’t seeing you scrambling, all the other businesses are. And it makes you look bad. So A, get there early. B, use that opportunity to network because when the show is over, everyone’s too tired. They want to go home, they want to go home. They don’t want you to coming over and going, so what do you do? No, get there early and look amazing. I don’t know what is wrong with some people, go get your nails done. Whether you like it or not, people judge and they judge instantly, not only about you but about your brand. 

Any final thoughts for people in the events industry that you want to leave with?

You are what you eat. You are a 100% representation of the books that you listened to, the people that you surround yourself with. The people that you spend time with, are you spending time with a bunch of complainer’s? You know, be aware of what you’re listening to. Be aware of you know the places that you’re going to, people that you’re associating with, even the businesses that you’re associating with. You know, and if you want to get somewhere in life, if you want to put yourself in your business in a certain arena, put your butt in that arena.

Cause: weliftup.org

Superpower: Making people feel special

Pet Peeves: The term girl boss, calling yourself an entrepreneur without being able to spell it.

www.foreverbride.com

Insta: ForeverBride

Twitter: ForeverBride

Insta: Charlesevaneide

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Twitter:The Meeting Minds

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