Through the Eyes of the President The Superior Show Back Story

Each June, the Fort Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce holds its Annual General Meeting. A new President is sworn in, new members are welcomed, and a member of the business community provides the keynote address.

June 5, 2019, that Keynote was our President, Chris Sisson. This is his story!

Superior Show Service President, Chris Sisson presents 2019 AGM Keynote

A little bit about where we came from.

My Mom and Dad started THE COMPANY IN 1985, they were both working in the event industry, although back then it was just the trade show industry.

Cecile & Larry Sisson

My dad is the true entrepreneur, so with the encouragement of 2 loyal clients, he forced my mom into business ownership. He wasn’t going to the let the fact that they were living paycheque to paycheque get in the way of a good idea so with a ten thousand dollar loan from my grandad and twenty five thousand from a rich Uncle, at fifteen percent of course, because that rich uncle didn’t get there giving money away- they were off!

My mom held down the office, watched the pennies like a broke business owner should, and tried to keep some of the gold from her main enemy, the tax man.

Meanwhile my dad hit the road. He was at almost every event they did, and haunted the ones we weren’t doing. He would always say “the squeaky wheel gets the grease”. “You have to make sure they know your name”, “this is a relationship business and it takes time to build them”.

They were growing like mad, and had opened in Vancouver within a year. His focus was on improving his customer’s events and he invested his time and talents directly at their events.

And, I, like many business owner kids, my own included, got pressed into service early. I would spend my Saturday mornings vacuuming all the carpet at the Edmonton Boat and Sportsmen show, and my summer vacations consisted of setting up and tearing out the Camrose summer fair and the Lloydminster exhibition.

Chris Sisson (on your left)

I worked my way up through the company learning the operation.

We worked really hard back then, and could often be accused of working harder not smarter. But that’s what my dad knew and that’s what made Superior.

In 2004 it was time to buy the family biz and see if I had what it takes to move us to the next level. With all of the infinite wisdom and experience of an uneducated, one job, 28 year old, I forced my wife into business ownership, and we were off! What could possibly go wrong?

I needed to take on a bigger leadership role, but really all I could think about is that I could finally get someone else to go and set up the Camrose summer fair - now called Big Valley Jamboree, and the Lloydminster exhibition.

It was a fairly easy transition, I mean this was 2004 Alberta!

We weren’t trying to find work, we weren’t even doing most of the work that found us. When we had an enquiry at the office from a potential new customer, we would check our schedule and make sure it wouldn’t be too much of an inconvenience for us or our staff. If the moon and stars aligned just right, we would send them a quote. We didn’t ask what their pain points were, we didn’t consider how we could improve anything for them, they should just be happy we can help, they’re one of the lucky ones.

We happily turned away work and spent zero dollars or energy on marketing. We certainly didn’t need a sales strategy. I mean we say no to people when they call to hire us, why try and sell?

I was the only person responsible for sales and I would pick maybe 2 potential clients and phone them once or twice. Remarkably that actually worked once in a while - just enough to fuel my ego into thinking I was doing something special and that I was transforming the once little family biz into something more!

We are in the middle of Oil Country. By 2011 we were doing oil industry shows in a big way.

Oil Sands Trade Show & Conference, Fort McMurray, 2012

I was finally no longer setting up Big Valley Jamboree and Lloydminster exhibition. We were nothing like the Superior of old. I hadn’t noticed the risks involved with all of our eggs being in the same basket.

By early 2015 I KNEW we HAD to expand. So with no research, no plan and one email to our banker, we bought a building in Airdrie.

Southern Distribution Centre, Airdrie, AB.

Now remember, this is early 2015, so we’re making this purchase based on all the successes of 2014 but not becoming operational until 2016.

I just wanted to be big so bad! I was willing to stray even further from who we are and what made us successful. I was spending most of my time with the new staff and the new client. After all, this is what will make us a big business.

I let these new staff implement policies and procedures, hire new people and create new positions. They all seemed to be there to watch the others and report back. And they all seemed to get a manager title.

We still had many great customers but these were tough times for their events. We had so many cancellations that for the first time ever we actually had to add a colour to our event calendar that year. We added black to indicate the events that weren’t happening.

Now, we have expenses everywhere, NO revenue and tension building within team superior.

A Couple things were becoming abundantly clear:

  1. We were broke and getting broker with each passing month. We simply could not gain enough new work to offset the decline in the oil events.
  2. Team superior was divided.

Good long term people were frustrated with me and the time I was spending with the new “big” thinkers. And it was those good long term people that had been tasked with keeping everything rolling AND implement all the new “big” ideas.

Their patience was gone.

My desire to be big and the path I had chosen to get there had us in a bad spot.

I started to think that my poor timing and lack of planning paired with a forty dollar barrel of oil and a crumbling Alberta economy was going to fold up this 31 year old company.

I was super guilty of failing to recognize the hard work my parents had gone through in building a business and how you need a very different approach to grow than you do to maintain.

It was time for change.

It was time to remember who we are? What makes us successful? And more importantly, who makes us successful.

We had to cut expenses, and cut is what we did. EVERY expense was analyzed, EVERY position was scrutinized.

Now I’m sure you can all agree entrepreneurs love to grow and can easily tolerate the risks that come with expansion. It’s what enabled me to spend 7 digits on a building with no plan. But manage shrinkage? That is definitely not in my character, and it wasn’t easy.

We removed all those people watching people work.

We looked at our insurance provider, our credit card processing company and even how our garbage got picked up, and this is going to be my one shot at the city, we couldn’t look at who, only the how (hahahah crowd roars).

During this process all of the big business people left.

We knew that if we were going to find a solution, it would be found from within. It was time to listen to the great team that was still standing around me.

The first thing that they enlightened me to was the fact that I had been a real ass for a couple of years.

  • I was guilty of ignoring the team I had built and trusted, concentrating on a couple of new people and a couple of new events.
  • I have never strayed further from what my parents had started.
  • I had never been closer to running it completely off the rails.

I had tried to change the company so much that I forgot what made it great. It wasn’t one great event, it wasn’t one great person. It’s the diversity of our customers, the diversity of their events, the diversity of our team, and the relationships we have with them all.

Our great team, that had always been there, was now buying in to correcting this ship. No one was standing around watching them work, so they worked harder, they smiled more and we were starting to have fun again.

We just needed new revenue, there was no more optimism about the oil bouncing back in time for our company, diversify or die.

So with a renewed focus on investing in relationships.

After cutting costs in every area that we could, it was time to spend some money in an area we never had. Everyone says don’t cut your marketing in a downturn but we had never had any marketing! Any!

In 2017 we hired a photographer to work on the images for our new website. Looking to replace pictures we had taken ourselves from show floors, we sent her to a few spring events to bring in the WOW factor. And she delivered. Now we had a new website, that both looked great, and was functional for our clients.

Next we needed to look at our social media. We had a Facebook page that was mostly friends and family, but we had yet to really reach out to our industry and tap into its the potential with reaching clients. So we took our photographer for a beer, and by the end, she was on board. We had our first Social Media Manager, focusing on promoting us.

She ended up telling more people about what we do and in turn what our amazing customers are doing. We were now able to help them get more mileage out of their social media, in some cases, we were their only marketing that wasn’t in print. This made it easier to be seen as a partner, rather than just a supplier, and that creates a much stronger relationship.

We turned our focus on how to be a partner for our clients and offered existing customers incentives to start new events, or try new ways to promote their existing events. We were actually investing in our relationships with our clients.

We added a community tent program. We have 20x20 tents with the Superior brand. They’re always free, as long as they’re available, and as long as your event is good for the community, because at the core, all the relationships we have are building our communities.

Our community tent at UFest, Edmonton

We also began looking at technology that could improve processes.

We bought equipment that allowed us to get more work done in less time. We invested in new systems, some worked and some didn’t, so we moved on. We maintained an open mindset and questioned everything.

In house custom cement blocks for tents

In 2018 we hired our first ever 100% completely committed, sales person. We created a dynamic database with every sporting event, trade show, or festival in Alberta, and then started making calls. He did not send random emails like I used when I thought I was “selling”, but dirty old pick up the phone and call them. Make someone tell you no in person. Show them that they are worth your time.

He started booking sales meetings. Within six months we had results! We landed a major client with 6 events per year!

Alberta Beer Festivals

After their recent flagship event, I was walking through on opening day and both of the owners stopped to thank me for how great our team was to deal with. That was great to hear, but the biggest compliment came after a hug when one of them said “thanks for pestering me so much that we had to try you guys!”

I told our team we are rock stars!

This is what we do, we don’t need to try and be anything we’re not. We are the little company that does big things.

Not long after, I had 3 of my account managers accompany me to a sales meeting for a prominent venue. Now, if you’ve ever dealt with Superior you’ll know that for us to find a couple people that you could throw in a suit, or even a really nice shirt, and discuss operational processes of event move-in and move-out, it’s not in our wheelhouse. If you’re looking to find people that drive a truck to a field and start setting up an event that 9 days from now that will hold 25,000 people...all day long, our team is the best!

We won them over with our honesty and humbleness.

As we finally started making gains, it became more than just getting these new events, now our industry had started talking about us. Our customers were happy, and our competitors were annoyed, some are downright angry with us!

Now that we have removed so many hurdles from their path our team is feeling empowered. Superior is finally firing on all cylinders.

We won the 2018 Fort Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce Marketing Excellence Award, and were one of 4 finalists for the Alberta Chamber of Commerce Marketing award. We were also just asked to submit a 2019 application for Canada’s Top 500 fastest growing companies!

Chambers of Commerce Marketing Awards ~ Barb & Chris Sisson

So here we are in 2019.

15 years into ownership of Superior Show Service I have truly realized what it means to be a relationship company and how important treating people is, and not just clients, because without our team, we are nothing. Now don’t get me wrong, we are a team full of humans, so there are mistakes or there are learning opportunities.

A friend recently said to me, "Empires die when they stop conquering and try to defend their borders". We had been guilty of defending our borders for a couple decades, but never again. We will continue to sniff out new opportunities, we will continue to develop our team, we will continue to help our customers develop their events, and someone within the company will always have a foot on the accelerator!

I’m proud that the very same clients that encouraged my dad to start Superior Show Service are among our clients still. Our team can still be found throughout the year at events in Camrose and Lloyd along with so many other communities throughout the province, from Lethbridge to Grande Prairie. We’re grateful for the partnerships of so many of our clients, like the Chambers of Commerce, who continue to push us to new heights.

Always remember the value of the relationships you have.

We’d be nowhere if not for the strength of our relationships with our vendors, our customers, our staff and most importantly, the strength of the relationship with our community.

Please take a moment to visit our website, and see how we may be able to partner with you, on your next Superior Event!

Superior Show Service Inc.: Serving communities through Superior events
Created By
Chris Sisson


Allison Smith Photography

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