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Making sure every day is an event

From truck driver to stage hand and all the way up to contract negotiations James Brown has worked practically every aspect of event management.

Now executive director of the Joseph A. Floreano Rochester Riverside Convention Center, he leads the team while still keeping his eye on the details. That is no easy feat for a venue that hosted more than 350 events totaling $9 million in revenues last year.

He oversees an annual operating budget of some $9.5 million and a staff of 50 full-time and 300 part-time employees. That includes a mixture of salaried, hourly, union and non-union personnel.

Brown, 53, was named to his post in October, succeeding Floreano, who died in September following a battle with liver cancer. The center was renamed in tribute to Floreano’s 30 years of service there. Brown served as interim executive director and facility manager during Floreano’s illness. He credits Floreano, his mentor, for the leadership style he plans to carry on.

“He possessed many great leadership qualities, but one of his greatest attributes was his ability to show respect, support and love for his staff—and I mean all the staff,” Brown says. “Not just managers, but maintenance, engineers, housekeepers and kitchen staff. He knew that his success was also our success, and so with that, he was able to create an environment where every employee understood and shared the same vision and mission.”

A bond the two shared was that they both learned the business from the ground up, Brown says. He recalls his first taste of event management as a teenager, working a summer job with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra Inc. for its concert series at Finger Lakes Community College.

“I was essentially working as a stagehand, setting up and breaking down staging chairs and production equipment. We also doubled as security staff during the shows and even served food and beverage to the reserved boxes,” he says. “It gave me at an early age the hands-on experience and knowledge of working in public assembly, and I took to it immediately.”

One of the people Brown worked under then was John Parkhurst, now chief operating officer of the Rochester Broadway Theatre League Inc. Brown serves on the RBTL board.

Through his RPO experience, Brown earned a job with Hoffend Xposition Inc., a trade show company based in Rochester that provided goods and services to companies related to convention and trade show organizations.

“You would be surprised at what can constitute an exhibit space,” Brown says. “I worked in every possible venue and situation you could think of: boat marinas, wide-open fields, armories, shopping malls, tents and all in mud, rain or snow.”

He started as a front-line worker but proved himself to the Hoffend family as a valuable asset in other positions as well. They offered him opportunities in account management handling sales, operations and many logistics of trade show set up.

“This was all building up a further understanding of the industry. It also taught me that there is an association or organization out there for every conceivable profession in existence, and they all gather to meet both for professional development and for networking and social activities. This would come in handy later as I entered the convention center business,” Brown explains.

Convention business
During his decade with Hoffend Xposition, Brown enjoyed learning all aspects of the trade show business, but as he married and began building his family the travel started to take a toll. He felt it was time to find work that allowed him to be home more. Work at the convention center downtown seemed the perfect fit, and he took a position as event manager in April 1994.

Over the past 20 years, Brown has overseen thousands of events at the center.

The center plays host to as many as 3,000 guests. While each event is a business meeting or elegant party out front, behind the scenes Brown says they run more like a military operation.

“The devil is in the details. Never forget that although you may have the best team in the world, and I do, you still need to manage your time to ensure you are involved in the details of your operation,” he says. “In a large service industry like ours, the leader needs to be present during a multitude of events, because it often takes everyone on our team to make an event successful at the level the guest expects.”

Much of the business at the convention center is from out-of-town meetings and conventions held by New York-based associations. Some of the bigger accounts include the New York State Association for Computers and Technology in Education, which comes here annually, and the New York State School Music Association, which has ties to the Eastman School of Music.

One of the largest state conventions, Brown says, is the New York Distributive Education Clubs of America. It brings 2,500 students here from high schools across the state. They come with teachers as chaperones.

National associations also bring their meetings here, such as the Optical Society of America, which has close ties to the University of Rochester.

Local events include the Rochester Home Builders Association Home Show, which brings in 10,000 people over the course of two days, and smaller, but prestigious events such as the Rochester Regional Health System Gala fundraiser that plays host to 2,000 people in one evening.

The largest event, and the one that likely draws most locals to the convention center is the Greater Rochester International Auto Show. Some 25,000 to 30,000 people filled the facility the last weekend in February to see the latest in car trends.

The auto show is where Bradley McAreavy , president of the Rochester Auto Dealers Association Inc., first met Brown eight years ago.

“I remember my first auto show,” McAreavy recalls. “I was pretty nervous. I never worked something so big. I asked Jim a bunch of questions. He looked at me and smiled and said, ‘Don’t worry, Brad. We’ve been doing this for 20 years.’ He made me feel much more comfortable. It went fine and it has every year since.”

McAreavy continues to be impressed by Brown’s attention to detail and ability to manage even multiple events. The RADA holds a charity event with the Rochester Rotary called the Sunshine Kids Gala. Brown was a guest, McAreavy says, but also overseeing the 430-person event downstairs, while keeping an eye on a 900-person Badge of Honor police banquet upstairs.

“Jim has stepped into Joe’s shoes admirably. It has been a seamless transition,” McAreavy says. “I expected the board to look around to fill the position. I’m glad they awarded it to Jim.”

Susan George, manager of corporate events and affiliate relations at the Rochester Business Alliance Inc., agrees.

“He’s been good to people below him and now that he is in a position of power he still remembers his roots,” George says. “From layout to setup, he is always involved. Sometimes I wonder how he even absorbs everything I throw at him. His customer service is impeccable.”

What impresses George the most is the way Brown has remained connected to his clients.

“He could pass me to someone else now but he still stays involved with the details,” she says. “If I go for a meeting, he makes a point to step out to say hello.”

The meetings George brings to the convention center through RBA include the Athena Awards Celebration and the Rochester Top 100, both of which are attended by hundreds.

While the bulk of the business comes from associations based in Albany, Brown says local people play an integral role in bringing their conventions here. Some are members on the board and others are on the site selection committee.

Big impact
However the business gets here, it benefits the entire Rochester community through a financial ripple.

“We provide $30 million a year in economic impact to our community through the attendees and the exhibitors,” Brown says. “The payoff trickles down from airlines to taxis and restaurants. It’s all new dollars. The exhibitors at trade shows wine and dine prospective clients. The impact of trade shows should not be underestimated—the economic impact through hotels, meals and entertainment.”

There are challenges to maintaining the convention business the center has and drawing new business. Competition from new venues is one of them. Museums, collegiate field houses, gaming facilities and repurposed office and warehouse spaces have entered the marketplace.

Newer facility designs offer a greater focus on contemporary amenities and enhancing the guest experience, Brown says, putting more pressure on the convention center here and the 400 others across the country to adapt and rethink their approach to recurring and prospective groups.

Brown is taking an active role in making local government aware of the need for improvement, he says. There are updates the aging building needs and certain upgrades many clients would like to see.

“Internet is the big thing. Everybody expects it these days, for checking in at work, checking e-mails during breaks,” Brown explains. “They also want a fresher, newer building with a food court that has more variety. Green initiatives are important, too—energy efficiency, recycling and better lighting.”

Brown realizes there are also budget concerns. While he tries to make a good case for the allocation of more funding, he understands it has to be balanced with other needs.

“The convention center can be foreign to a lot of people. Everybody knows what the arena is. They know the ballpark. But ask many folks and they will say they have never been to the convention center,” Brown says. “You wonder if we weren’t here what it would be like downtown. On Saturday night it’s us and the hotels. We anchor downtown. There is life here.”

Off the job
The long hours, nights and weekends of the convention business do not leave much free time for Brown. He is a single father to three teenage girls. His ex-wife recently moved to West Virginia; the girls wanted to stay in Churchville with their father so 17-year-old Meghan and 15-year-old Emily could finish high school and 19-year-old Savanah could continue at SUNY College at Brockport.

“I try to be there as much as I can for my kids,” Brown says. “They have chorus concerts, gymnastics. It’s always a crazy schedule.”

Brown was born and raised in Henrietta along with two brothers and one sister. His father, Ralph Brown, had just finished service in the U.S. Marine Corps and his mother, Janice, had an office job for the CIA when they met in Washington, D.C. They moved to Rochester, where Ralph took a job working for Allstate Insurance Co. and Janice became an assistant in an office at the University of Rochester.

“My father was an All-American high school football player and his mother studied the cello at the Eastman School of Music, so we were encouraged at an early age to participate in both sports and music,” Brown says.

He chose hockey and lacrosse in high school because he loved the team atmosphere, he says, and for music he played the trombone.

Today his taste for sports runs more toward keeping in shape, and he does that by swimming laps four times a week at the Gordon Field House on the campus of Rochester Institute of Technology. When he can, he grabs an occasional round of golf.

While it might seem that Brown would be harried and always in a hectic pace, those who know him say it is just the opposite and that is the reason he does his job so well. He takes the time to pay attention to everyone and every detail around him. Brown says it is his motto.

“My leadership style reflects the need to be open and accessible to not only our clients and guests, but also the staff. If I don’t have the time to interact with them, then they can be made to feel as if that means I’m indifferent or don’t care. If they think I don’t care, then eventually neither will they,” Brown explains.

He also feels a special connection to his staff because he has worked his way up to his current position.

“My team knows and understands that I come from this business and know the realities of what is involved in each of their jobs, because I have done them,” Brown says. “That brings a level of mutual respect that cannot be duplicated in this business.”

Brown feels he is carrying on the leadership style he learned from a man with whom he shared mutual respect, a man, he says, who leaves a long-lasting legacy.

“While my 20-plus years at the center have certainly prepared me for the role I am in today, it has been in no small part Joe’s influence and unique approach to public assembly management that have given me the tools to lead this amazing team.”

James Brown
Position: Executive director, Joseph A. Floreano Rochester Riverside Convention Center
Age: 53
Education: James E. Sperry High School, Rush-Henrietta, 1980
Family: Daughters: Savanah, 19; Meghan, 17; and Emily, 15
Residence: Churchville
Interests: Swimming and golf
Quote: “The devil is in the details. Never forget that although you may have the best team in the world, and I do, you still need to manage your time to ensure you are involved in the details of your operation.”

3/13/15 (c) 2015 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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