Wednesday, January 18, 2012

AQS Quilt Show Makes Worldwide News

Hello: You all might remember the high water in Paducah during the 2011 AQS Quilt Show. Well, I certainly do remember it. After the show I sat down and wrote a story about getting the news that we had to vacate the convention and expo center buildings... and what we did about it.

My story just appeared in the Winter 2011 issue of "i.e." Magazine, the magazine of the International Festival and Events Association. The Association distributes this magazine to its members all over the world.

Here is the text of the article:
Successful Event Planning
Creating Plan B on the Fly
By Bonnie Browning

OK, event planners, what would you
do if three days out from expecting nearly
30,000 attendees at a four-and-a-half-day
event you suddenly learned that 80,000
square feet of space, 2/3 of what you
need, in addition to parking and numerous
hotel rooms, would not be available
due to an approaching flood?

What if the decorator already had the carpet
and pipe and drape in place in anticipation
of 300 vendors beginning their load-in
the next day? What would you do with hundreds
of exhibits worth thousands of dollars
in the buildings you had to evacuate? And
what if you were working with only your
usual skeleton setup crew because this event
had always gone off like clockwork?

This is exactly what happened to
the producers of the American Quilter’s
Society Quilt Show and Contest in Paducah,
Kentucky, in late April 2011.

For 26 years the annual AQS Quilt Show
was held in the Julian Carroll Convention
Center and since 2002, the Paducah Expo
Center, on the bank of the Ohio River without
flood problems. Then, in 2011, heavy
winter snowmelt saturated the ground before
unusually wet spring weather dropped
17 inches of rain on the area in the ten
days prior to the opening of the show.

In fact, the weather was so bad that
as setup and quilt judging was being
completed on Easter Sunday, tornado
sirens forced moving some of the quilts
and the three judges to an interior safe
room, truly panicking one of them with
no tornado experience at all.

Just when the all clear sounded, suddenly
Plan B was needed. At 1:00 p.m. when the
decorator was finishing and judging was
near completion, the city engineer came to
the site to tell show managers to vacate. The
floodwall gates that protect Paducah (a city
of 26,000) had to be installed, and doing
so would cut off all access to the convention
center buildings and parking. The only
contracted usable space that remained was
the Pavilion, a 40,000 square foot air dome
facility with no parking.

After the team got over the “deer in
the headlights” shock, they sprang into
action. Because there was no Plan B in
place, a rapid assessment had to be made
in order to create one. Over the course of
four hours, this is what was done:
City staff and AQS staff pulled out cell
phones to see who could open doors to
empty buildings throughout the city to
assess space availability. Volunteers were
called to come evacuate the quilts while a
plan was developed. Many of these people
left their Easter family dinners to open
building doors or to fold, organize, and
safeguard the quilts. The decorator had to
dismantle the pipe and drape, and all of the
carpeting that had been laid for the show.

By 5:00 p.m. the management team
was ready to scout, and they split up
to look at alternative venues. The space
needs included vendor space (electric and
phone), classrooms (heavy duty electric
for irons and sewing machines), and
exhibit space (spacious and secure). All of
this had to be on some sort of transportation
loop. Vacant mall buildings were
looked at for exhibits and vendors and
area churches for classrooms. When the
show staff reconvened back at the convention
center about 8:00 p.m., all of the
options were discussed:

#1 Cancel the event. This was not viable.
Many of the vendors and visitors were
already in town; they had nonrefundable
hotel rooms and airplane tickets. Food
vendors had already purchased food.
The loss of the $17 million economic
impact from the event would be devastating
to many local businesses; the
annual AQS quilt show is better than
Christmas for merchants in Paducah.

#2 Find enough square footage to give
all of the vendors their contracted
amount of space, keeping the Pavilion
plan in place. This would require
multiple buildings and an unwieldy
shuttle bus system to get to all of
the locations. Vendors would not
do well if they were spread out to so
many locations.

#3 Find enough space in a concentrated
area to give all of the vendors at
least some space. This would require
relocating all of the exhibits and
vendors, including those slated for
the Pavilion. Adjust the transportation

Option 3 was chosen, to use two
adjacent buildings at the mall for special
quilt exhibits and vendors. This space could
accommodate all of the vendors by giving
the sponsors their double booths and the
other vendors a single booth. The First Baptist
Church had ten classrooms for the 100+
workshops, their chapel could be used for
lectures, and part of the contest quilts could
be hung in the church’s great room. When
all of the tables and sewing machines for the
classrooms had to be hand carried up the
stairs of the church, the baseball team from
a local college was recruited to help.

Now Plan B had to be implemented
– It was 10:00 p.m., Sunday, and the setup had
to be completely re-done in time for the
first event at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday evening.
Vendors were expecting to load-in at 8:00
a.m. Monday morning.

First thing Monday morning the entire
AQS staff was notified of the venue
changes. Reassignments were worked out
for vendor locations and staff jobs, and a
press release was written to disseminate
via email to vendors and instructors either
at home or en-route. A quick adjustment
to the event’s show guide made it possible
to insert one page indicating changes
made for the show, including addresses of
the new buildings involved. Staff created
“original location / new location” handouts
to guide visitors to new venues.

At 10:00 a.m. on Monday morning,
AQS management participated in a
press conference with the mayor and
other city leaders to announce to the
public the course of action being taken
to install the floodwall gates and what
would happen to the quilt show.

Power and other utilities had to be
installed in the vacant buildings; the
buildings had to be cleaned (crews worked
overnight on Sunday to get this done); and
new drawings of the facilities had to be
prepared for the decorator and matched to
orders for vendor electricity and telephone
services. Various city inspectors were on
hand to make sure all of the new venues
being used were up to code for the safety of
visitors, vendors, instructors, and staff.

Finally, it was time to begin resetting the
show in the new locations, which required
additional decorator staff. The 40,000
square foot Pavilion became the headquarters
for the show— admissions, membership,
and workshop desks; First Aid; Post
Office; wheelchair and scooter rental; and
a package check area, plus the Best of Show
award winning quilt and other major prize
winners, the bed-sized contest quilts, and
sponsor and vendor booths.

One of the biggest challenges was finding
a place to put the food vendors – this
event taxes every creature comfort including
providing enough food for the visitors
necessitating having outside food vendors
who are normally located in the parking lot
of the convention center. The ultimate fix for
the food service was the biggest disappointment
of the readjustments. Visitors found
plenty of food when they traveled to the
mall area, and the church turned out to have
a wonderful food service, so the downtown
restaurants and relocated food vendors did
not do the business they expected.

Ten buses had been scheduled to
provide transportation to/from the hotels
and attractions that contracted for that
service. To support the new venues, two
additional buses were contracted. The bus
route maps were updated and copies were
made to distribute to all venues.

Somewhere along the way, assistance
was provided to countless visitors who
were planning to stay across the river in
Illinois, where some flooding had also
occurred, with finding new hotel rooms.
By 5:00 p.m. Tuesday, all of the
vendors had loaded in. The first evening
event at 5:30 p.m. began on time.
Wednesday morning at 9:00 a.m., it
looked like every quilt show ever hosted in
Paducah: Hundreds of quilters were waiting
for the doors to open and before long,
the aisles were crowded and remained
that way all day. Thursday, Friday, and
Saturday, quilters continued to come—
almost 27,000 attended this year’s event.

The show went amazingly well
when you consider the entire event
was re-planned in eight hours time just
three days before the show opened.
Only two activities had to be cancelled
as a result of the changes made in the
show venues. Some vendors, even
those in smaller booth spaces, said this
was their best show ever.

Was all of this planning on the fly
necessary? Just how serious was the situation
on April 24 when we had to change
gears? The danger was real; the Ohio
River at Paducah crested at 55.8 feet,
16.9 feet above flood stage. The floodwall
gates were not taken down until May 17.
While we never know what to expect
from Mother Nature, quick action to develop
an alternate plan and hard work by Mayor
Bill Paxton, Judge Executive Van Newberry,
the City of Paducah, McCracken County,
City Engineer Rick Murphy, Mark Thompson
at Paducah Parks Department, Paducah
Expo and Convention Center, Paducah Visitors
Bureau, Paducah Ambassadors, Freeman
Decorating, Turner Communications, Anchor
Trailways, Neil’s Catering, ServiceMaster,
First Baptist Church, utility companies,
Mid-Continent University Baseball Team,
American Quilter’s Society’s staff, and countless
others, made it possible for the AQS
Quilt Show to go on! Kudos to everyone
involved, including our flexible, adaptable
sponsors, vendors, instructors, and visitors.

Heed our advice: Nurture and appreciate
good working relationships with your onsite
providers; never underestimate the value of
experienced event planning staff; and have a
Plan B in place before you need one.

Bonnie Browning is the Executive
Show Director of the American
Quilter’s Society. She can be reached
at phone: 270-898-7903, ext. 146 or


  1. Bonnie, you and your entire AQS team, as well as the community are to be commended for your quick thinking and acting. I was not able to come last year, but I can imagine the disappointment and frustration it would have caused all those quilters who had looked forward for a year to being there had it been cancelled. Good job!

  2. I was one of the attendees last year and it was a wonderful show again. My 2 sisters, niece and friend enjoyed our time there and plan to be back this year. We were amazed at how fast the changes were made and how well done they were - Good job!