Madison Chamber launches business expo for the next generation

By Brian E. Clark

For the past several decades, the Great Madison Chamber of Commerce has run an old-school business exposition each year at which companies set up rows and rows of booths set up trade-show style.

No more. The Chamber is going 21st Century at its “neXXpo” gathering today in the Alliant Energy Century Exhibition Hall with a forward-looking program that Chamber President Zach Brandon said he hopes “will redefine what a business expo delivers with information what’s being created and who’s emerging.”

More than 750 people from around the state have signed up for the event, which will run from 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Brandon said attendees will see and experience what’s next in business products and services at exhibition booths focused in five zones: manufacturing, startup, sustainability, talent and technology. In addition, the event will include a variety of seminars, a luncheon with keynote speaker and billionaire venture capitalist J.B. Pritzker, a pressure-filled business pitch contest and a two-hour networking program.

Rose Molz, president of Madison-based EZ Office Products, was an exhibitor at past expos showing supplies, furniture, technology products and other services to potential customers. But she said she’s going this time around to learn and to help other attendees understand that the Chamber is about growing the local economy.

“We as business owners can’t view our own companies myopically,” she said. “We have to look at other industries and sectors and what’s new in this fast-changing world so we can sustain our economy.”

She said she strongly supports the change in the expo format. “Oh, definitely,” she said. “Even though we’ve removed ourselves as an exhibitor, we helped drive the change. The old business expo had run its course and was not accomplishing what it was set out to do, which was build brands. It didn’t have much of a return on investment anymore.

“Moving it to a program that is aimed at figuring out what’s next in business is a great idea. It’s critical for everyone in the region to stay on top of what’s coming and what everyone else in the country is doing.”

Brandon, who has been president of the Chamber for less than 18 months, said the old model once made sense when companies needed a way to tell others what they were doing now.

“But with the Internet, that’s no longer necessary,” said Brandon, former director of the Wisconsin Angel Network, an early stage investment organization. “Every company should have a website to show what they do. I went to my first expo here last year.

“And while it was successful, revenue positive and had 230 exhibitors, it didn’t feel like we were achieving success. So we decided to change the whole reason for having this kind of event and focus on what’s next. Hence the name ‘neXXpo,’ which is a merger of the names next and expo.”

At its core, he said the gathering remains a business exposition, with companies showcasing what’s next the five categories of start-ups, technology, manufacturing, sustainability and talent.

“We chose those areas for a reason because start-ups, technology and manufacturing are largely underrepresented when it comes to business showcases,” he said. “And sustainability and talent are things every business needs to be thinking about.”

He said the planners also wanted the event to have a strong educational side, so they’ve included several seminars and a talk by Google executives who are flying into Madison discuss what they future may look like.

Brandon said the keynote speech by Pritzker, who co-founded Chicago’s 1871 digital start-up center, is sold out.