Odds are you’ve never met Julie Johnson in person. But if you have stopped by the GEA Farm Technologies exhibit at World Dairy Expo during the last two years, chances are pretty good you’ve marveled at Johnson’s work.
Johnson, marketing projects and trade show coordinator at GEA Farm Technologies, and an eight-person crew spend three solid days prior to the official opening of Expo setting up the company’s exhibit. She’s one of those people who thrive under pressure and have a knack for creating order out of near chaos. Like many of her counterparts, she’s an unassuming, behind-the-scenes type who plays a pivotal role in making the trade show at Expo the greatest show of its kind on the planet.
“Putting together an exhibit of this size is definitely a team effort,” says Johnson, adding that she works closely with Dave Stith, who has more than 15 years of experience displaying the company’s equipment at industry trade shows. “His technical expertise, along with my design background, makes for an ideal combination for developing an effective and exciting display.”
Spend a little time watching Johnson, Stith and their crew setting up the display, and you’re bound to gain a new appreciation for the term “whirlwind.” From early Saturday morning through late Monday afternoon, the crew is in a state of near perpetual motion. The “to do” list includes unpacking crate after crate of display materials and products brought in on six semi trucks from company facilities in Naperville, Ill., and Galesville, Wis.; installing 2,000 interlocking Safetytred floor mats in the company’s two side-by-side exhibits (measuring 90'x50' and 8'x40'); climbing ladders to hang signs from the Exhibit Hall ceiling; setting up a bulk tank and other materials for the company’s popular ice cream stand (located in the Exhibition Hall Lobby); positioning and repositioning products on display shelving; hooking up air hoses and water lines; and measuring and remeasuring spaces to ensure that every bit of product and every piece of equipment in the exhibit is positioned just so.
It’s a job that Johnson absolutely loves. “Our exhibit is unique in the sense that many of our displays are fully functioning,” she says. “We want dairy producers to get hands-on activity with our equipment to see how all the different options actually work. There’s never a dull moment. There’s always one last detail to go over, one more problem to solve. It’s interesting from start to finish.”
GEA Farm Technologies begins planning its Expo exhibit months in advance of the show. “We usually start talking about the design and what equipment and products we’d like to feature in the Expo display in late March,” Johnson says. “We have three different product lines shown in our exhibit—WestfaliaSurge, Norbco and Houle—so coordination is a major challenge. We have a relatively large exhibit area, but there’s still only a finite amount of space to work with. And we want to make sure that each product line is representing its best-sellers and highlighting its new products. Since this is the world’s largest dairy-focused trade show, it is one of the best chances we have to introduce our products to our customers.”
Once the decisions about product have been finalized, Johnson goes to work on planning the exhibit. After drawing up a rough layout, she has an AutoCAD computer drawing prepared to pinpoint where each piece of equipment, along with accompanying signage, will be positioned within the display.
As precise as the digital drawing is, Johnson has learned to view it as a guideline at best once the setup work starts in Madison. “It seems like it never fails,” she says. “We’ll have everything planned down to a T on the AutoCAD. But then we get to the show, and there is always one display that doesn’t quite line up. Everything always seems to be bigger in real life than it is on paper.”
Time management is the toughest part of the job, according to Johnson. “The day can get away from you very fast. You’ll be going along thinking you’re doing just fine, and then all of a sudden you’ll look at the clock and think, ‘Wow, we’ve still got a lot more to do.’ Somehow our crew always rallies to get everything done just in time for the opening day.”
Nick Sarbacker, a consultant for genetics firm Semex’s young sire program, can relate to many of the setup challenges described by Johnson. Sarbacker is part of the team responsible for getting his company’s Walk of Fame ready for Expo each year—an exhibit that features nine young cows sired by Semex bulls.
The Semex exhibit is housed in a 66'x66' tent located just south of the Coliseum. The company hires a contractor from Illinois to put the tent up a week prior to the start of Expo. On Wednesday, a semi from Semex headquarters in Guelph, Ontario, arrives with the materials needed to assemble the exhibit.
Setting up the stall platform where the cows will spend most of their time is the major task for the crew of six workers. The platform consists of three sections, with three stalls per section. Each section is 15' wide and weighs 1,500 lb.
Once the platform is in place, crew members turn their attention to hanging banners and signs, installing a tube ventilation system to keep cows comfortable during the week and assembling a milking equipment system so the cows can be milked twice a day. Crew members also bring in tables and floor mats for a lounge area on one side of the tent (used to host a daily social hour for customers each afternoon during Expo) and unload trucks delivering feed and bedding supplies that will be used during the course of the show.
Getting everything in place inside the tent takes the better part of a day. “It’s more involved than people might think,” Sarbacker says. “There’s more to it than just bringing in the nine cows, a lot more.”
The fact that the Semex exhibit features live animals presents some unique challenges. “We try to get the cows on site as early as possible,” Sarbacker says, adding that the animals for last year’s exhibit came from farms in Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin. In previous years, some animals were brought in from as far away as Pennsylvania. “Because the animals are coming such a long distance, we want to give them some time to settle in and start adjusting to their new environment. We want them looking their absolute best by the time the show opens on Tuesday.”
Semex employees, along with hired help, tend to the cows 24 hours a day. Chores include milking, cleaning and bedding stalls and washing and grooming cows.
While getting the exhibit set up and the cows in place can be a hectic, pressure-packed experience, Sarbacker says a lot of the heavy lifting takes place long before setup week. The Semex genetics staff, led by sire analysts Brian Carscadden and Lowell Lindsay, spend months visiting farms across the U.S. to assess daughters of Semex bulls for the exhibit. “We’re looking for cows with good rear udders and wide rumps that are likely to impress our customers. But that’s just part of it. The real challenge comes in trying to get cows that are going to look impressive, not just as individuals but also as part of a group, up there on the display.”
Sarbacker has no doubts that the time and energy spent in selecting just the right animals is well worth it. “Semex has always had the philosophy that seeing is believing,” he says. “The Walk of Fame gives us the opportunity to put the best daughters of our best bulls in front of clients from all over the world while they’re attending Expo.”
“Being part of the world’s largest dairy trade show is no small undertaking,” GEA Farm Technologies’ Johnson agrees. “But the five days we spend in the spotlight during World Dairy Expo makes every minute spent on setup and teardown worthwhile.”