When the International Fastener Expo (IFE) first launched nearly 40 years ago, the show had a different name and different owners. Las Vegas was also not yet the headquarters for what’s become a must-attend annual fastener event. Back in ’81, veteran fastener expert, Mike McGuire began the expo in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio as the National Industrial Fastener & Mill Supply Expo.
“Mike came from a strong background in the fastener industry,” shared Morgan Wilson, the current show manager with Emerald Exposition, which now owns IFE. “In fact, fastener distribution was a family business that dated back to his father and even his grandfather. So, he got the original idea for the show and then teamed up with a gentleman, named Jim Bannister, who was more familiar with the trade show industry.”
McGuire’s grandfather was a traveling salesman who started a side business as a distributor of nuts and bolts in 1929. His son soon joined the company, which lead to the founding of Capital Sales, Inc. As they say, like father like son — or, this case, like grandfather like sons. McGuire and his brother eventually founded Buckeye Bolt & Nut Co. Both of the family companies have since been sold. And most recently, McGuire founded Worldwide Fastener Sources, a comprehensive fastener sourcing site.
“Mike’s always been an entrepreneur,” said Wilson. “And maybe not surprisingly, he was quite successful with the fastener expo right off the bat. The first show brought about some 100 or so exhibitors and 2,000 attendees.”
The aim was to bring manufacturers and distributors of industrial fasteners, precision formed parts, and machinery tooling together. Although there was certainly a few regional event at the time, the expo was (and still is) the largest fastener event in North America. Now, it’s held annually in Las Vegas, typically attracting more than 650 exhibiting companies and 5,000 attendees from around the world.
“So, in 1997, Mike and Jim decided to hold the event in Vegas for the first time,” explained Wilson. “The audience was mostly from the Midwest and East Coast, and this location was not only more fun but possibly more accessible or inviting to a greater number of people.”
For a few years, the expo was held bi-annually, in Columbus and then in Las Vegas. But it didn’t take long for Vegas became the go-to, annual spot for the event. Then in 2015, McGuire and Bannister decided to sell. Emerald Expositions, a highly successful owner and operator of business-to-business and consumer trade shows in the U.S. took over.
“Emerald Expositions is actually one of the largest, if not the largest, trade show organizers in North America so acquiring this national fastener event made sense,” said Wilson. Emerald’s history also dates back to the ‘80s, when United News and Media acquired Miller Freeman Publications, a producer of trade shows and business magazines. After a host of acquisitions, Emerald Expositions was created (read more here).
At this point, the expo had grown considerably, featuring hundreds of exhibitors from almost a dozen countries.
“It was quite amazing what Mike was able to do with such a small team. When we came aboard, it was basically just him, his partner Jim, and show organizer and manager, Susan Hurley,” he said. “And when we jumped in, it was a new industry for Emerald.”
This is where Wilson helped considerably as he had nearly a decade of past experience working for a distributor in the fastener industry. “I started as the business development manager for the event and was able to help out with creating more precise branding and enhanced digital efforts, such as web development. We also renamed the event in 2018 to the International Fastener Expo or IFE.”
Emerald also offered a dedicated marketing and sales team, including one that targeted a greater international audience. “We were definitely focused on growing domestically, but also internationally because we have a lot of experience with global suppliers.”
One way the Emerald team did this is by implementing a Source Global Area, which is a specific international area on the exhibitor floor. The result has been an increase in attendees from outside of the U.S., including from about 30 different countries. The average attendee also spends about $1.9 million after attending the show, according to statistics from Emerald.
“We’re continually trying to find ways to make subtle improvements to the event for those who attend,” he shared.
This year has certainly been one of the most challenging, given the ongoing pandemic.
“We were definitely preparing for the worst as soon as COVID hit hard back in March, but we had hoped that by September things would turn around. Unfortunately, that didn’t pan out,” said Wilson. IFE was originally scheduled for September 28 to 30 in Las Vegas. But that failed to deter the organizers.
Instead, Emerald presented an online alternative: Match & Meet, a unique, AI-powered platform that offered several live, digital conference sessions, more than 50 exhibitors with virtual booths, and a host of product displays. The virtual show took place November 11 and 12, and attracted more than 500 participants.
“We’re aware of what IFE has grown to mean to the industry and we wanted to present an alternative,” he said. “Granted, it’s not as ideal as an in-person show and it took a lot of effort to build out the online platform for it, but we think overall it was a success.”
Over the two days of the digital show, more than 2,700 connections were made, with 6,700-plus messages exchanged. “We noticed how much more one-on-one time attendees spent with those exhibiting or speaking at the event than typically happens in person at the show, so this was interesting.”
Another bonus: “Now that the platform is built, we’re able to use it in the future. So, for example, we might incorporate this digital side to the live event next year,” he said. IFE is currently planned to return to Vegas, at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center on September 21-23, 2021.
What’s more is those who attended Match & Meet have ongoing access to the platform until mid-2021. “I’ve noticed people still logging in and connecting with others from the show. It’s great!” said Wilson. “But we’re definitely excited to return to the live event in Las Vegas next year. There’s nothing quite like connecting an industry together and in-person.”