New season spells changes for Small Business Expo

Sep. 24, 2013 @ 08:01 PM

The Lee County Small Business Expo was different in just about every way this year.

The event was held in the fall after having spent the previous 24 years in the spring. It was also split into two days of activities, with a special evening gathering for select business leaders Monday night followed by the expo itself Tuesday at the Dennis A. Wicker Civic Center.

And attendance was down among both exhibitors and the general public, according to vendors and event officials.

However, many of the exhibitors who attended said they’ve long supported the expo and still appreciate the opportunity to reach a broad swath of the public with which they might not interact with otherwise, even though attendance was more of a trickle and less of the flood it has been in years past.

Stephanie Smith, who owns Pittsboro-based Smith’s Coffee Co., said the company is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. The expo is also in its 25th year, and Smith said her company hasn’t missed one. Smith’s parents started the company, and she said when they passed it on to her, they told her some expos were useful and others weren’t. And they were very clear about this one.

“My parents were like, ‘I don’t care which expos you do, as long as you do the Lee County one,’ ” Smith said.

Across the aisle, Kelly Klug was promoting both her own technical writing and consulting business, Lighthouse Documentation and Training, and an upcoming professional networking event, the Central Carolina Women’s Conference. She said she moved to Sanford in 2006 and started coming to the expo in 2007.

“Every year, I get at least one project that pays for my booth, so I keep coming back,” Klug said. “... I’m a big proponent of it. Where else can a small business like mine get exposure to 1,000 people?”

And while that may have been an optimistic figure given this year’s attendance — no official count was available Tuesday just after the expo ended, but by all accounts attendance was down significantly from the 2,000 or 3,000 who had come in recent years — exhibitors did stay busy most of the day, speaking with interested passers-by and potential customers.

Some exhibitors even sought something from the audience instead of the other way around. Communities In Schools in Lee County and HAVEN, a domestic violence group that has been beset with financial difficulties lately, were both on hand soliciting volunteers, donations and any other help people could give.

Heather Little, executive director of Communities in Schools, said she was glad the event wasn’t canceled — as had been considered in the spring due to low interest — because she was happy for the chance to publicize her group even more.

After entertaining ideas of cancellation, leaders of the Sanford Area Chamber of Commerce, which puts on the expo every year, decided to postpone it to the fall instead. Chamber President Bob Joyce said that turned out to be a good move, even if attendance was diminished.

Timing was probably a factor in the reduced attendance, Joyce said, both in the fact that it was in the fall for the first time ever and was a 12-4 p.m. event this year after having been 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the past. But he said that allowed business owners to only have to take a half day off instead of a full day, which is important in a time when many offices are short-staffed.

He also said the low interest could signal the need to address the very nature of the expo, and whether it should remain open to a broad swath of businesses or be more focused.

“Traditional small business expos relied on a wide range of merchants,” Joyce said, contrasting that with the more focused Senior, Boomer and Caregiver Expo. “... It’s possible we need to break down into specific services, like an outdoor expo or a wedding expo. And people could be ready for that. We’ll see.”