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The Man Behind the Clean Show (Conclusion)

John Riddle says he’ll miss the people, relationships after his final Clean Show

ATLANTA — President John Riddle and his staff at longtime Clean Show management firm Riddle & Associates are experiencing many “lasts” in the days leading up to Clean 2019 in New Orleans.

You see, Germany-based trade fair organizer Messe Frankfurt recently purchased Clean from the five associations that have sponsored the show for decades. The New Orleans show in June will be the last managed by Riddle & Associates, which has overseen the every-other-year event under contract since 1992.

John Riddle’s personal involvement in assisting with Clean dates back to 1981. 

We visited Riddle, 78, in his Atlanta offices in late March to talk about the upcoming show, but also took the opportunity to quiz him on his storied past and to find out what he’s planning in semi-retirement.

“We had a great show in ’17 in Las Vegas, and New Orleans is right there with it right now,” he says. “Based on what I know and the years I’ve done this, I’m going to say that we can look for a good show, and, as always, you can come and actually see equipment work.”

Riddle says that aspect of the show is unique, due to the costs of shipping, setting up, and operating laundry and drycleaning equipment in a convention setting.

“We have … our package plan for exhibitor services (and) is such that it has enabled the exhibitor to actually come and operate his equipment in a cost-effective manner so that the attendee gets the advantage of that,” he adds.

Among the trade media that publicize and cover the Clean Show, Riddle is well-known for shedding a tear or two in appreciation during the press reception that is a fixture as soon as the exhibit floor closes on the opening day.

So, if he’s already prone to becoming emotional in that setting, how will he react knowing that it will be the last time he’ll greet the media at Clean 2019?

“It is an emotional thing for me to acknowledge the fact that this will be the last show that I do,” Riddle says. “I hope it won’t be the last I attend but this will be the last one in which I am in charge of it. I’ve been blessed to have been involved in this great industry since 1981.”

Riddle’s age and his desire to spend more time with family played significant factors in deciding that it was time to step aside and enjoy his golden years in a trout stream or on a golf course instead of on a show floor at 5:30 in the morning.

“We all have to say, ‘It’s time,’” he shares. “I think it’s time for me particularly to do that. It’s been an honor for me and for everybody in our organization to be associated with such great people.”

THE EXHIBITION GAME

When he worked at the Atlanta CVB in the mid-1970s, he booked a National Association of Music Merchants show for the new Georgia World Congress Center. Right before the event, and after Riddle had left his CVB post, a tourist robbery turned fatal had the city on edge and visitors leery of coming to Atlanta.

“A number of my friends that I had met when I was at the Bureau called and asked if I could do some things to help them,” he says. “They wanted me to have meet-and-greets at the airport, be on the show floor and help the exhibitors know that the associations were really after their best interests. I did.”

Impressed by his performance, the Music Merchants asked if he’d come to California and offer the same services for a show there. Riddle agreed, and soon he was helping manage shows for several associations and groups around the country.

“All of a sudden, all of the things I’ve got at home, I’m on the road, trying to make people happy on a trade show floor,” he says.

One day, Riddle received a call from Ward Gill, who was executive director of the Car Wash Association and Coin Laundry Association. Their trade show was coming to Atlanta in 1981. They’d sell it but wanted him to run it. 

“I said I would, and I have been with the Clean Show ever since then.” he shares.

He served the every-other-year event in that way until the opportunity to manage the whole thing came up.

“In ’92, they wanted to put the show out to bid for a management company,” Riddle remembers. “They asked me if I wanted to bid. I said yes. There were, I think, seven management companies and fortunately Riddle & Associates won that bid, and it’s been a blessing ever since.”

Riddle admits that the first Clean Show for which his firm was fully responsible frightened him.

“I was scared to death, tell you the truth,” he says. “It’s a big job when you put a show of this magnitude together. Things have changed tremendously as far as our ability to communicate, the speed with which we can communicate.”

Selecting a series of dates and a venue to attract the maximum number of attendees from all over the world is always challenging, he says.

While the spotlight is focused on him in these final months leading up to Clean 2019, Riddle readily admits that he couldn’t have organized and managed the event successfully without his loyal Riddle & Associates staff.

“They are my heroes,” he says. “Nobody could do this without a staff. Nobody’s that good, I don’t care who you are. I’ve been blessed for a career in baseball and many things that I’ve been able to do—God has been good to me—and one of the kindest things He’s ever done for me is put me in the midst of these people here.

“Whether it’s Paul (Philips), Beth (Scheuer), Ann (Howell), Jewell (Kowzan), Kayla (Brown), they’re unreal. … What people will see at that show is done by five people. These people are like family to me. These people deserve the credit. They’re the ones who do the work.”

Beyond that group, there are many other people associated with the general contractors and the event venues themselves who contribute to the finished product.

“If someone would walk on the trade show floor at 9:30 or 10 o’clock at night before we open, you would say there is no way this is going to be ready at 8 o’clock in the morning,” Riddle says. “If you don’t believe there is such a thing as miracles, come and spend that last night on a trade show floor, and when you come back the next day, it is spit-shined and polished.”

What will you miss most about the Clean Show?

He takes a deep breath, then says, “People.”

Relationships?

“Yep. … There are so many of you out there I enjoyed friendships with, enjoyed cutting up and kidding with. I’m a big jokester. Love to have fun. I love to work hard but I love to have fun, too. I’m going to miss it. There’s no doubt about me being emotional.”

While Riddle will be slowing down without the Clean Show to manage, he says there are consulting and other opportunities available to Riddle & Associates if he chooses to pursue them.

But he’s not thinking about those just yet.

“I just hope that we can deliver the quality of show that, fortunately and thank God, we’ve been able to deliver, at least in our minds, to date,” Riddle says. “This is a great industry and we like being a part of its future. Hopefully, we can give it another good show.

“These guys that exhibit, they spend a lot of time and a lot of money planning and providing the best information they can for the industry. I’d like to see a large number of people come out and take advantage of that.”

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