Show Goes On For Kolesar

March 5, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — Denise Kolesar spent her formative years, as well as her early career, surrounded by entrepreneurs.

She became one herself in September 1998, when she founded Kohler Expos Inc., a consumer expo business over which she now presides as president.

Kolesar actually majored in court and conference reporting in college and spent a few years as a court reporter.

In 1986 she went to work for John Loeks Jr. as a legal and personal secretary. Loeks was operating ShowSpan Inc. as a sideline business at the time, putting on about three consumer shows a year.

The very week she started working for Loeks, ShowSpan happened to be staging a sports show.

“I was thrown right into it without even a clue as to what a consumer show was,” she recalled. “When you start out small like that, you learn every aspect of the business. You have to do everything from picking up trash to meeting with big sponsors and exhibitors to organizing the event.”

Loeks went on to become president of several other companies in the entertainment industry, including Jack Loeks Theater Inc. and Celebration Cinema LLC.

And Kolesar went on to become a member of the management teams of both ShowSpan and Jack Loeks Theatres, dividing her work between the two companies.

Along the way she “got a good taste” of the financial side of the business because she handled payroll and worked with the accountant, she recalled.

Kolesar spent 16 years learning the ropes from entrepreneur John Loeks, but a family history of entrepreneurship probably influenced her more than anything.

Her father and his brothers collectively owned a handful of businesses, among them a grocery store, a car wash, a pool hall and a drive-in movie theater.

There was never a lack of jobs for Kolesar, her seven siblings and her cousins while they were growing up.

“They were family-owned businesses and you were expected to go to work at a certain age. My dad and his brothers really had a vision: They figured that through these businesses they would support their families and provide jobs for their kids.”

Her first expo, the West Michigan Women’s Expo in April 1999, attracted about 175 exhibitors and an audience of 8,000 to 10,000.

“There had been women’s expos around the country. This was the first one in West Michigan. Once people got the picture, they jumped on board.”

Since then, her company has organized 17 consumer shows, or roughly three a year, among them the annual West Michigan Women’s Expo in Grand Rapids and Mid-Michigan Women’s Expo in Lansing.

Kohler Expos also put on the Construct Your Future Expo for the Association of Building Contractors for three consecutive years.

Kolesar’s work these days includes contacting exhibitors, looking for sponsors, securing the desired date and venue for shows, preparing event budgets, organizing events and getting the word out through advertising.

“You design everything for the whole event — from renting the building, hiring the security, hiring the event staff, choosing the food vendors and working with the media.”

She maintains three to four people on staff from October through April, which are the most popular months for consumer shows.

This year’s West Michigan Women’s Expo is scheduled for March 26-28 at DeVos Place convention center, Exhibit Hall A.

The 300 exhibit spaces for the event were sold out by February.

Among this year’s sponsors are Pfizer, Alliance for Health, Hospice of Holland Home and Meijer Inc.

“We’re finding good, solid partners that are staying with us year after year,” Kolesar said.

The women’s expo is designed to be both educational and entertaining, with companies of all kinds booked to showcase their products and services.

“Consumer shows are a huge marketing tool. Face-to-face marketing is cost effective, and it’s the highest rated marketing plan there is for any business.

“The amount of business that’s done at an event like this can be huge. We had a company come out of New York that picked up more business at our show in Grand Rapids than they do in New York.”

She said that a company at the expo last year was bringing their product to the market for the first time and picked up three private label companies for their product during the event. 

The 2004 Women’s Expo will feature informational exhibits on everything from health care and personal fitness to business opportunities and from personal finance to education and travel.

There will be a lot of health care exhibits where women can talk one on one with health professionals, she noted.

On the lighter side, the expo will feature exhibits on gardening, home decorating, healthy cooking, fashion and hair care, along with spring fashion and spring bridal shows.

More than 50 areas of interest will be covered between the exhibits and seminars planned over the two-day event. Kolesar said that, on average, women patrons spend four to six hours at an expo of this kind.

“I like working with people and I like hearing success stories from both my exhibitors and my patrons,” Kolesar said. “I feel I’m bringing the community of women a wealth of information, along with a little bit of fun.”

Kolesar seeks out new expo opportunities but also is sought out by event promoters to oversee their events, as was the case with the Women’s Expo in Lansing.

She has been asked to do shows in Wisconsin and Illinois, as well.

Though she has made a mark with her women’s expos, those won’t be her sole focus going forward.

Her company plans to introduce a “50-plus” lifestyle expo at some point, and Kolesar said she has ideas for several other expos that she can’t discuss publicly just yet.

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