MANTS executive VP looks back on 10 years


Carville M. Akehurst, who had directed MANTS from its inception, died in August 2001, leaving his wife, Nancy, and their management company in need of help. Nancy Akehurst, a force behind MANTS from the beginning, was appointed by the Board to succeed her husband as executive vice president.
Fortunately, Vanessa Finney, one of the Akehursts' daughters, was on maternity leave from her part-time job as a CPA at the time. "In the blink of an eye," said her husband Kelly Finney, "she went from that to having a sitter come to the office/house so she could help her mother and working 60 hours week."
In a telephone interview, Vanessa Finney looked back over the past 10 years and earlier. She remembers that she always attended the shows with her sisters and parents. "I remember the Greenbrier when I was 7. My sisters and I had the grandest time. I also remember Hunt Valley. It's weird. I never thought I'd be managing the show."
Vanessa worked for her father when she was in college. "I'd sit at the problem desk," she recalled. The banner proclaiming it the "problem desk" has been changed. It's now the information desk, she said.
Much about MANTS is the same — the makeup of people for one. They aren't all the same people, although there are some. The continuity is nice, she said, as are the friendships and relationships, some that go back at least two generations. Nurserymen in general are "really down-to-earth, well-intentioned, good people," Finney said.
What's different? "The whole challenge of putting on an event of this size within budget in this economic climate. Many people are struggling. We are trying to respond to that without losing the calibre of the show. We are working with people to make sure they can still get in. And if they can't this year or couldn't last year, we will make sure they are invited next year. We do have those who come and go.
"One huge thing that has changed is technology," she continued. Her father had a numbered, hand-written to-do list. If everything on the list was done, the show was done.
She and her mother used that list in 2002. It included everything from making sure ice was ordered to tasks that took weeks to accomplish.
"We still use it today, but it's computerized," Finney said. Technology has made possible registration online through the MANTS website. There are not a lot exhibitor mailings, rather a lot of email blasts and other electronic communication, to attendees as well as exhibitors.
"The industry as whole is not a high tech group, so we're not pushing or trying be leading edge, but don't want to be without technology. Yet there are still Amish patrons, so the show can't be totally electronic. "We need to accommodate all. It's a balance between paper and electronic communication," she explained.
As for the whole social media realm, Finney isn't convinced. "We'll probably explore that, but we'll have to evaluate the returns."
Her mother retired in 2005, and her husband joined the family business. He had formerly done fundraising, or "development," for several private schools and hospitals in the Baltimore area. His background in marketing and fundraising has been helpful, especially in securing sponsors for MANTS.
"We both really like working, doing what we do," Finney said. "We never planned on it, nor sought it out, but it happened. We really enjoy working with the people we work with.
"Everyone is very decent and nice to work with. The team we work with at MANTS — the decorating folks, floor management, those folks have been in place for years and years. The show is 41 years old and the floor manager, Charlie Blocher, has been at MANTS since day 1 — not in that position, but he has been affiliated with the show.
The decorator, Five Star Convention Decorating, also has been there since day 1, although under a different name at the beginning.
"Without the continuity of the decorator and floor crew, it would have been very hard for Mom and I. They knew what to do at times when we did not. They've been a big support structure.
“Those two and all the people who work for them have built strong relationships with the exhibitors over years. It's almost like a reunion when folks come year after year. That's one reason they return, to see friendly, familiar faces they may not have seen in a while.
"We're all in it together. Everyone wants to support everyone because we all want it to be successful," she summed it up.
"The board of directors is an important component, too. They are very engaged and supportive. They don't just sit back and rest on the reputation of show. They work hard to make sure it keeps its reputation and strive to make the changes we need to make to stay interesting, relevant."
Finney noted the interactive website floor plan started last year. "I hope more exhibitors use it, and publicize it more. It's a very useful tool for attendees, so they can figure who to see and how to get there, but the exhibitors need engage it, too, to make it as valuable as possible."
The interactive floor plan seems to be catching on. "We've been fielding a lot of phone calls, so I figure more people are using it. We didn't expect it to be widely used in the first year, but after three to five years, most exhibitors will understand and use it."
The website itself has been reworked. "It was getting old and stale. It had been the same for eight years," Finney explained. "We added functionality and tried to make it streamlined and easy for exhibitors and attendees alike."
As Kelly Finney said, "Things have worked out. Vanessa is an extraordinary woman. She is her father through and through, only more modern and tech savvy."