Community, Connection + Collaboration at TOCA
The return of in-person events and “The Way Life Should Be”
Earlier this month, I traveled with a few co-workers to attend the 33rd annual Turf and Ornamental Communicators Association (TOCA) meeting in Portland, Maine.
For me, it was a return to traveling and my first plane trip since 2019. I was ecstatic, to say the least, so with the proper amount of liquids, gels, and aerosols, I zipped up my carry-on and set my sights on the Holiday Inn By the Bay. TOCA is just plain fun to say out loud and no, it’s not a Roman garment. (That could have been interesting had I not paid attention to any details before we left.) Thankfully, our team met earlier in the week, so I was able to pack appropriate clothing and arrive in Portland well-prepared for my first business trip.
Wind beneath my wings
Speaking of arrivals, my trip began with a somewhat lively chain of events. After a full day of work, two connecting flights, and a malfunctioning baggage claim conveyor belt, I finally checked into my hotel room just after 1 a.m. I was very tired, but so excited for the week ahead. I stretched out on my bed, texted my wife that I made it there safely, and drifted off to sleep, feeling a refreshing wind blowing through this window of opportunity I was given.
It turns out those winds beneath my weary wings were more than metaphorical! To my surprise, I woke up to a loud noise coming from a small gap just underneath the air-conditioning unit that was spackled into the hotel room wall. Apparently, the insulation had fallen out, so the cold, damp, Portland air and I were forced to become roomies for the first few hours of the trip. It wasn’t the warmest of welcomes (I’m looking at you, Portland), but I was just too tired to do anything about it, so I turned up the heat and tried to get some rest. The next morning, management was kind enough to place me in a room far less breezy, so all was right again in the world.
Our good friend TOCA
TOCA is a PR/marketing networking group within the professional turf industry in which EPIC has played an integral role. We’ve been a part of the organization for decades, and have had several people serve on the board of directors and offer keynote speeches at annual meetings, and we even did the logo and creative execution for this year’s annual meeting. But most importantly, EPIC has built and strengthened countless relationships in the industry through our participation in TOCA.
I love getting to know members of the media … the more trust we have and the stronger relationships we develop, the better our stories and content become for our respective audiences.
Going in, I was excited knowing that the attendees would be made up of those working in green industry communications—including editors, publishers, writers, photographers, public relations/advertising folks, manufacturers, industry leaders, and more.
Here, I’d have a unique opportunity to network and build relationships with people in an industry I’ve been getting more familiar with over my two years with EPIC Creative. As a PR professional, I love getting to know members of the media and their teams, because the more trust we have and the stronger relationships we develop, the better our stories and content become for our respective audiences.
EPIC team members told me ahead of our trip that seeing the way TOCA fosters collaboration and brings together competing agencies, manufacturers, and publications for the sake of improving the industry would be something special to witness. So I made it my goal to meet as many new people as possible while strengthening relationships that were already in place. Side note: My other goal was to have a lobster roll (lobstah), but more on that later.
A little bit of everything
TOCA was the perfect blend of networking, education, fun/free time, and celebration for all the hard work we contributed to the industry over the past year. For the three days we were in Portland, we enjoyed educational sessions with keynote speakers, a light dinner/meetup at Sea Bags, the TOCA Fun Run/Walk, a trip to the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, a silent auction at Rising Tide Brewery, and the annual Awards Luncheon.
This is not to mention all the laughs and great conversations that filled our time in between scheduled events…including a sweet Tesla named Sebastian that I met. There’s just not enough time for me to tell that story (which includes cobblestone streets and so much gelato), so you’ll have to ask me about it some other time. The main takeaway is this: If EPIC COO Tim Merath says he’s driving somewhere while on a trip, I’m going out of my way to call shotgun every time. But I digress.
The main educational theme centered around how companies can engage trade show attendees in a post-pandemic world. Live events are making quite the comeback, but after all the things people have endured over the past few years, we have to be much more mindful of how we create experiences and opportunities for people to reconnect at events moving forward.
Trade show attendees are certainly looking for more in-person social interactions, but how we engage that need and rebuild connections with others must be carefully considered. We can’t merely rely on what “worked in the past,” because far too much has changed. We must ask ourselves, “Are we providing a sense of community for our customers and clients?” And further, “Are we really putting in the time and effort to get to know them and understand their specific needs?”
One presenter, Rich Vallaster, Director of Marketing, Live Events, and the trade show wonk at Personify A2Z Events, spoke of the need to create “distraction-free” spaces for attendees. “You finally have their attention here—remember they’re busy people—make the most of these opportunities.” Vallaster expounded on how trade show exhibits are no longer just “exhibit spaces,” but rather they should be viewed as “hospitality and entertainment” spaces where omnichannel connections can take place. “This is an educational space, a demo space, and a networking space.”
[Trade shows] should be viewed as ‘hospitality and entertainment’ spaces where omnichannel connections can take place.
It’s a great reminder that companies have an important opportunity right now to meet people where they are, and provide meaningful connections and lasting solutions to the challenges they are facing in their new day-to-day routines. If that’s what people are craving, then we shouldn’t take that lightly.
In fact, it’s an exciting hour for us to enter into as creative professionals, and I have to say that I’m truly grateful to be a part of the team here at EPIC. Working with a company that believes in me and is willing to send me to cool events like TOCA and places like Portland, Maine, to invest in my professional development means more than I can express.
In the end, I can say that it truly was an unforgettable experience and one I’m looking forward to building upon in the months ahead. Just before boarding my shuttle back to the Portland airport, I stopped in a small gift shop to grab something memorable to bring back home with me. I noticed a small piece of framed art that expressed one of Maine’s state slogans. It read: “The way life should be.” I stood there and smiled, because I think that phrase was a great way to sum up the week. Building communities, meeting new people, working on bettering ourselves and our communications for the common good, and in the midst of it all, sharing delicious food together. Let’s do more of that with the days we are given. And if you’re still reading this and wondering, “but did he get a lobster roll?” The answer is a loud, emphatic, buttery yes…and it was wicked good lobstah.