Trade Show Leader: Helicopter Association International’s Karen Gebhart

October 23, 2016

Karen Gebhart, vice president Business Development, Helicopter Association International, has spent more than 25 years in the trade show industry, even though, like most – it was entirely by accident. Now, she oversees HAI HELI-EXPO, the world’s largest vertical flight trade show and conference. HAI HELI-EXPO produces more than $2 billion in floor sales annually for the vertical flight industry and attracts attendees from 90-plus countries.

Under her direction, Gebhart also leads HAI’s membership, marketing, sales and business development departments. Prior to HAI, Gebhart served as executive vice president at the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. During her tenure at AOPA, she ran the communications, convention, membership, technical services, fundraising, sales, and public relations departments. Gebhart and her husband Ray reside in Frederick, Md. She holds a private pilot license and serves on the board of directors for the National Aeronautical Association, and as chairman of the Board for the Women in Aviation.

TSNN: How did you get started in the industry? 

Gebhart: Quite by accident.  Back in 1990 I moved from the marketing agency side to join one of my clients, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) as the head of membership.  In this capacity I got involved in AOPA’s annual convention.  Eventually I took over running the AOPA EXPO as we continued to grow and expand our reach.  I loved our show and thought it was the best way to demonstrate to our members what their association was doing for them on the grandest scale.  From there I moved to the Helicopter Association International (HAI) where I now lead the team that produces our magnificent HAI HELI-EXPO reaching the worldwide helicopter market.

TSNN: How different was the industry when you started, compared with today? 

Gebhart: There is far more use of technology overall.  Communication has escalated to immediate vs. “I’ll have to get back to you” responses.  Consolidation of service providers due to mergers and acquisitions.  CVB’s are more engaged and proactive.  Exhibitors have become more careful in their spending based on bandwidth of their staff and resources.  Attendees often need more justification to attend professional/trade shows for the same reason.

TSNN: What are some of the lessons you have learned being a part of this industry?

Gebhart: Planning for the future years much longer in advance is critical.  We must look at a ten year out plan for HAI due to the complexity of our show.  This means really understanding each venue and the future planning that city may be undertaking as it relates to any impact on our show.  Having the best team that will be passionate about their job is very important.  This also means providing strong mentoring and support of these team members to help them be successful.

TSNN: What is your favorite part of being in the industry? 

Gebhart: The show itself because it brings together the entire industry to connect, learn, and share across all boundaries.  I love to work with the cities, convention centers and hotels, bringing together the team that will help us host our show.  And the network of colleagues and friends in the convention industry that inspire and motivate each other to be our best.

TSNN: Anything you miss that you request was still around? 

Gebhart: Post-show recovery (if there was ever such a thing).  With the complexity and speed of the industry today, there is never a slow period, we are always on to the next event without pausing.

TSNN: Anything you are thrilled went away? 

Gebhart: Fax machines and snail mail for responses.  We can make decisions on the spot with immediate information vs. waiting on the mail or dealing with a fax.

TSNN: What do you hope your personal impact on the industry is?

Gebhart: That I was a fair and transparent business partner always making relationships and the bottom line for all parties equally important to success.

TSNN: Any wise words about what this industry means to you overall?

Gebhart: This is a powerful industry that impacts the lives of people all over the world.  It is an honor to be a small part of it.  Strive to always be kind, thoughtful, and fair to everyone you encounter.  Be a champion for your team.  Be an advocate for your attendees and exhibitors.  Be a partner for your venues and service providers.  And remember to be present for your family.  If you forget your place, listen to the song by Tim McGraw - “Humble and Kind” and practice some of those thoughts every day.

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