Medtrade turns 25: From back room to big stage

Thursday, September 30, 2004

ORLANDO - When surveying the two million square feet-plus of the Medtrade show floor, with its towering booth scaffolds, undulating light shows, cacophony of sounds and riot of aisle walkers, it’s all the more amazing to think that it started in a modest-sized room with little fanfare.

Those who were at that first show in 1980 recall that the original Atlanta Home Health Care Exposition consisted of a couple dozen exhibitors and maybe 200 attendees.

“It was a naked show,” said Sheldon Prial, director of government relations for Atlanta-based Graham-Field and founder of the Melbourne, Fla.-based Home Healthcare Providers Co-op. “They didn’t even have booths – they just used bare table tops.”

Despite its austere environment, Prial said the event generated a lot of interest among attendees.

“It was more like a club reunion than a venue for product sales,” he said. “It was the first major social event in our industry. The excitement it generated was infectious enough to justify doing it a second time. It was the germ of what proved to be the best show ever.”

Ron Pietraccini, who worked for Luzerne, Pa.-based Wasserott’s from 1976-98, said show attendees were appreciative that a trade show had been assembled specifically for the then-burgeoning home medical equipment industry. Up until then, HME was a side light at medical/surgical shows like the American Surgical Trade Association (which became HIDA).

“My first impression was that we finally got the living room instead of the closet,” said Pietraccini, who now serves as a financial adviser for UBS Paine Webber. “It was overwhelming – someone was finally showing what we’re doing.”

The brainchild of trade show veterans Edward Conrad and John Wintzinger, the duo’s company SEMCO used the same formula to cultivate the fledgling expo in the same manner as its other blockbuster shows, the Atlanta Toy Show and Atlanta Boat Show. From 1960 to 2000, SEMCO sponsored 32 trade shows.

Over the years, the show became the National Home Health Care Exposition and adopted the Medtrade tag in 1993, although people to this day refer to it as “The Atlanta Show.” Its scope grew to enormous dimensions as new product categories were added and SEMCO’s international marketing efforts successfully brought in attendees from around the globe. After 19 years, SEMCO sold the show to Bill Communications, which placed it under the auspices of Roswell, Ga.-based VNU Expositions.

“It was a growing show in a field where there appeared to be no viable competition – they had the market locked up,” said chairman Jim Bracken. “There was some consolidation, but it wasn’t rampant like in other industries. There are still a lot of mom and pops and they come to the show to buy. Medtrade had the brand name and a good reputation, so we took advantage of the opportunity.”

Accounts differ on where the first show was held. Most people believe it was in the basement of the Atlanta Marriott (now the Sheraton). However, VNU reports that the inaugural was actually held at the Georgia World Congress Center and moved to the Marriott for one year before returning to its permanent Atlanta home.