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Trade shows have way of building community

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The events industry contributes $8 billion to Chicago's economy each year. Operations at McCormick Place alone generate 66,000 jobs and $251 million in annual state and local tax revenue, according to the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau. But those numbers do not reflect the only impact meeting planners and trade show organizers have on the city.

A number of events have also begun to build into their schedules charity and volunteer projects that benefit host cities like Chicago. Last year alone the U.S. Green Building Council left that city with new initiatives, including a mobile food market that brings fresh produce to underserved areas of the city.

Hanley Wood Exhibitions repaired hurricane-damaged homes during an event in New Orleans. And at an technology industry event organized by United Business Media's Everything Channel, participants gave a technology makeover to a Los Angeles-area elementary school.

“Giving back is a big UBM initiative, and it is something that we're trying to bring into our business,” said Lisa MacKenzie, VP-events at Everything Channel. “Vendors participate happily.”

The U.S. Green Building Council is committed to establishing what it calls “community legacy projects,” said Kimberly Lewis, VP-conference and events at the council. The event, which moves each year, took place at McCormick Place West in 2010 and included work with Habitat for Humanity on two green homes, as well as the launch of six micro-projects. “It's a best practice for each city, each year. The projects are small, but they can go a long way.”

The group partners with local organizations, developing projects with the potential to catalyze broader change in the community, she said.

“It's about knowing the right resources to make it happen,” Lewis said. “We have a staff member coordinate the legacy projects, but a host committee in the city helps us understand what is needed.”

Many charity organizations have track records of working with trade shows and conferences. New Orleans promotes what it calls “voluntourism,” offering to help event organizers connect with such local organizations as the public library, recreation department and building and preservation groups.

But an outpouring of support can still surprise organizers.

Hanley Wood Exhibitions hosted a day of service in conjunction with its National Roofing Expo in New Orleans last year. Volunteers worked with Rebuilding Together to repair homes damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

The expo “adopted” two homes, expecting about 30 volunteers to materialize, said Brandi McElhaney, conference manager. More than 75 attendees, partners and exhibitors showed up ready to work, instead completing repairs to five homes.

The success of that event led to a regular volunteer initiative at the expo. Earlier this year, workers repaired the homes of veterans in host-city Las Vegas. Next year, the convention travels to Orlando, Fla., where more hurricane-damaged homes await repair.

The volunteer work provides an opportunity to share expertise with the local community, McElhaney said, but not all participants are already good with a hammer. They come for the chance to help make a difference while creating meaningful connections with industry peers.

Exhibitors can also partner philanthropic actions with bottom-line savings, said Amanda McDorman, senior manager at the Toy Industry Foundation, which oversees charitable giving at the annual Toy Industry Association's Fall Toy Preview show. Charities walk the show floor collecting excess toys for children.

“Rather than ship [toys on display at the show back to the warehouse] and incur further expense, kids can benefit; and it's a tax deduction,” McDorman said.

McDorman recommended getting information about the charity out to exhibitors early. “We want to make it as easy as possible,” she said. About 35% of 292 exhibiting companies at last year's event donated. •

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