What Makes a GAWDA ‘Regional’ Go ‘Round?

Great Settings, Super Speakers, and (of Course) Golf!

By Charles McChesney

Regional meetings, a long-standing part of GAWDA culture, are continuing to evolve in reaction to changes in the industry and the way business is done, say the volunteers who help make them happen each year.

Regional meetings are organized by regional chairs who meet annually to hash out a schedule and talk about what worked. At a recent gathering, the chairs put together a list of best practices to guide them in their work. Among the best practices is choosing an attractive meeting site that is relatively convenient to an airport, offers activities for members and might stand as an attraction on its own.

That has worked in Gettysburg, setting of the battle that turned the tide of the Civil War and the place where President Abraham Lincoln began his address, “Four score and seven years ago …”, says Doug Morton, vice president – sales at Eleet Cryogenics. GAWDA members have come from as far away as California to combine a regional meeting with a visit to the battlefield, Morton notes. He has organized the Gettysburg meetings since 2007.

More Great Places

Atlantic City has attracted visitors for more than a century, because of its beaches, its famous boardwalk – immortalized in the game Monopoly – and, more recently, with casinos. Regional meetings there have included visits to vineyards and a distillery, too.

The Midwest regional meeting switches annually from Maumee Bay, Ohio to Lansing, Mich. At Seven Springs, Pa., regional meeting attendees not only get to play golf, they can compete at skeet shooting.

For 2017, the year’s first Regional Meeting was at the Old Overton Golf Club in Vestavia Hills, Ala. The course, rated the country’s best new private course in 1994, sits in the hills above Birmingham. “You get a lot of amazing views you’re not expecting in Alabama,” says regional chair James Cain, executive vice president at Atlas Welding Supply in Tuscaloosa.

Co-chairs Robert Gerry and Nicole Kissler, both of Norco, have set this year’s Northwest regional meeting for Sunriver Resort in Oregon. The setting is at the base of the Cascade Mountains. Previous Northwest regionals have been held at Big Sky Resort in Montana, Bellevue in Washington and the Coeur D’Alene Resort in Idaho, with its famous floating golf green.

The Houston regional, canceled due to flooding in 2016, will take place in 2017 at the University of Houston. It’s a place that co-chair Ashley Madray, executive vice president at Gas Innovations, says has proven to be “an energetic, collegiate and fresh environment” for the meeting. Golf will be played at the Bay Forest Golf Club, near Galveston Bay.

The New England regional is returning to Lake of the Isles, a golf course right next to the Foxwoods Resort Casino. Following that suit, this year’s Tulsa regional meeting will close out the season Sept. 11 and 12. It’s being held at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Tulsa, Okla.

Speakers Count Most

As inviting as such locations are, the speaking program is what makes a regional meeting successful, say most regional chairs. “Content is what’s going to engage and draw distributors,” says Abydee Butler Moore, executive vice president at Butler Gas Products. She has chaired the Seven Springs meetings since 2012, following two years of shadowing the prior chair. “It’s what justifies that ROI.”

Cain agrees. “We endeavor to make sure the business content makes the meeting worth attending in and of itself,” he says. That is a change from the past, to a degree. “Historically, the regional meetings were really regional golf outings,” Moore says.

Now, attendees want real value from the business meeting and the speakers. To provide that, Morton focuses on what distributors want because their attendance is key to the success of a regional meeting. In fact, distributor attendance is so important that the regional chairs’ list of best practices calls for 40 percent of attendees to be distributors.

“You have to have a certain number of distributors to make it worthwhile,” Morton says. Still, selecting a speaker is critical to success, he admits. “The hardest part is getting the right speaker and getting the red badges to attend,” Morton says, referring to the color of the nametags worn by distributors.

A Mix of Options

Regional meeting speakers have included GAWDA officials, leaders in the industry, former National Football League stars, politicians, economists, law enforcement officials and a fellow GAWDA member who recently conquered Mount Everest. Most regional meetings include a mix of three speakers who talk to attendees both on industry issues and on broader subjects.

To draw attendees in 2016, Morton invited Reggie Wright, Washington Region store supervisor, of Roberts Oxygen. His intriguing topic was, “The Customer is Always Right, Right?”

Wright manages nine stores in the Washington, D.C., area. At first, he turned down Morton’s invitation because he wasn’t used to making presentations to crowds of more than 100, but Morton talked him into it, he says. After finishing his presentation, Wright heard a lot of immediate positive feedback, and has heard even more at other GAWDA gatherings since.

The Networking

When speakers draw distributor attendance, the result is a chance for successful networking, say regional chairs. While the benefits to suppliers may be obvious, the networking is also a great help to distributors, they note.

With the pace of business nowadays, Cain says many distributors simply no longer have time to meet with suppliers when they “drop by” their operations for a visit. He says that he sometimes has to force himself to step away from whatever work he is doing to make time to meet with a visiting salesperson. It’s easier to take a break from the fray at a regional meeting to devote time to hearing from a supplier, Cain adds.

Weldcoa’s Bob Ranc, director of sales, industrial and medical divisions, says a regional meeting is an opportunity for distributors to expose other people in their organizations to the GAWDA network without the commitment of time and money that the larger GAWDA Spring Management Conference or the Annual Meeting require.

Ranc says the benefits can be particularly great for small distributors. Some who can’t justify the time and expense of attending every Spring Management Conference or Annual Meeting can connect with a supplier at a regional meeting “and maybe have something they can do together,” he says.

Regional meetings can be helpful to business operations in other ways, according to Ranc. They provide a chance for distributors to find out that companies that are known for large projects also serve smaller clients, for instance. At a regional meeting, distributors get a chance to speak with suppliers they may wrongly believe are too big to help them succeed.

Plus the Fun

While settings and speakers are important elements of success, regional meetings can also be great fun.

Morton recalls the early days of the Gettysburg meeting when Bob Urie, now vice president of operations at Butler Gas Products, would park his RV in the lot next to the Country Inn & Suites by Carlson. “Basically, it was a barbecue in the parking lot,” Morton says, remembering how they’d show movies on a sheet hung down the side of the RV.

That meeting has grown, yet continues to be held in the parking lot next to the hotel, for the fun of it. The barbecue has become a sponsored event and there are fully stocked bars and party tents, tables, chairs and organized games the first evening of the meeting. The next day features a list of speakers, meals and a golf tournament at the Links at Gettysburg.

Plus the Golf

Golf is a fixture at regional meetings in the GAWDA crowd. “Golf has always been a part of this industry,” Ranc says. Moore adds the perspective that past regional meetings “were breakfast meetings and golf afternoons.”

That’s not because GAWDA members are great golfers, Cain notes. With a couple of exceptions, no one is a scratch golfer, though he recommends that “everyone who can swing a club should get out there and play. I definitely think you miss something if you aren’t out on the course. The key thing in these meetings is building relationships,” he says. “If you’re not putting yourself out there, you are missing out – even if you are a terrible golfer.”

For at least one regional meeting, golf has also proven great for charity. At Gettysburg, golf tournament prizes are awarded. In 2016, prize winners turned back every prize as a donation, Morton says. The regional meeting was able to donate $14,496 to GAWDA Gives Back.

That generosity is integral to the regional meetings and the regional chairs who donate their time to make the events happen. They do it, they say, to give back. Moore says when she started out in the industry, she was urged to be active. “I was told by my dad, ‘Get involved. They will help you,’” says Moore. “In this industry, you get what you give.”

Morton says his work at regional meetings helped him meet people throughout the industry. He says it can do the same for others who are willing to get involved and seize the opportunity. ‘There’s room for young blood and fresh ideas.”