Adobe Stock

For five decades, the Mid-Atlantic Nursery Trade Show (MANTS) has provided the green industry with a welcoming place to nurture partnerships and friendships, procure customers and help the green industry thrive.

In 1969 a group of forward-thinking nurserymen from Maryland and Virginia tossed around the idea of a nursery trade show. Carville Akehurst, who served as executive secretary of the Maryland Nurserymen’s Association, was a forthright member of the group who envisioned the show as a vehicle to stimulate commerce for the region’s nursery industry. The following year, the group took action and incorporated the Mid-Atlantic Nurserymen’s Trade Show, formed a board of directors and started ironing out details for the first show. MANTS debuted in 1971 with 64 exhibitors in Williamsburg, Virginia. (Learn more about the charter exhibitors who are still with the show starting on page 8.) Akehurst became the executive vice president of MANTS, a position he held for 30 years.

Akehurst was confident that MANTS would be an asset for the nursery business, a venture that would involve his wife and eventually his children.

A natural leader

“He was very much an administrative type of person, a good, solid businessman type that made him a natural to manage the association,” says Vanessa Finney, Akehurt’s daughter and current executive vice president of MANTS. “That was a good starting point for pulling together MANTS.”

Vanessa’s mom, Nancy, was an integral part of the administration of the show.

“Mom was a teacher, but she helped dad with a lot of the show’s administrative duties such as typing and mailings. When it came to stuffing envelopes, we all got in on that chore. I remember sitting at the kitchen table with my sisters when I was 7 or 8 years old stuffing envelopes,” Vanessa recalls.

The core mission

When Akehurst and his fellow MANTS founders started the show, the core mission was to stimulate commerce for the region. It was all about business from the start. And that’s persisted for the entire 50 years of the show, as the management uses the tagline, “MANTS means business.” The founders knew that nurseries needed to build relationships for the industry to thrive.

“They valued those face-to-face relationships,” Vanessa says.

The West Virginia Nurserymen’s Association became the show’s third partner by 1972.

Traditionally, MANTS was a nursery show and for many years featured only green goods. But the show has diversified to include allied companies — anything a grower would need to produce plants, all the way through the supply chain to goods bought at a garden center.

“And we continue to diversify with software companies, insurance firms, staffing companies, robotics and drones,” Vanessa says. “We certainly value the green goods side of the show and we know it’s important to stick to our roots.”

No matter how the industry morphs with new products, technologies and services, building relationships based on trust, integrity and honesty are the tenets of success for MANTS.

“The names of the state associations may have changed and the name of the show many have changed, but the core mission has never changed,” Vanessa says.

The MANTS staff and the board repeatedly analyze the show and its elements to make sure the needs of the exhibitors and attendees are met. They’re cognizant that it would be dangerous to slip into a rut, Vanessa explains.

“We discuss how or if things should be handled differently, including adding speakers or receptions, for instance,” she says. “Based on strong feedback from exhibitors, we’re staying the course. The exhibitors have mandated they just want a trade show.

“We are sticking to our core because it works and it’s very successful. But we continue to look at the big picture and make sure our mission is going in the right direction for the right reasons. We produce a consistent product for people. They have come to know what to expect and we meet those expectations. Exhibitors tell us we make it easy for them to exhibit.”

The MANTS culture encompasses consistency and integrity, coupled with open communication — something Vanessa’s father and the other founders worked hard to create and what the current team embraces.

“I’m proud of our MANTS culture and we’re known for that culture,” Vanessa says. “I want to deliver on that every year.”

MANTS is operated by a staff of four led by Vanessa and her husband Kelly. In recent years, they enlisted the help of Maroon PR, which helps handle marketing and other responsibilities for the show. A small staff managing a show with approximately 1,500 booths and more than 11,000 attendees requires strong relationships based on trust, something first cultivated by Vanessa’s father and his partners 50 years ago.

“We went from a mom-and-pop organization to something much more sophisticated,” Vanessa says. “We have a full-fledged decorating company and a registration company. But we still hold on to those mom-and-pop values.”

The Finney’s company, Quercus Inc., also manages the Maryland Nursery, Landscape and Greenhouse Association, as well as a few other professional associations.

Carville, Nancy, Vanessa and Kelly have forged relationships with key partners that help make MANTS a success.

“I can’t emphasize enough the importance of the relationships we have with others that help make this show a success year after year, including Peggy Daidakis, the executive director of the Baltimore Convention Center. She’s a mentor to me and my father mentored her. Our floor manager Charlie Blocher has been with us since the beginning. He manages our floor team, which helps move our exhibitors in and out,” Vanessa says.

And the show staff also works closely with the Baltimore local of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters union.

“My dad worked hard to cultivate that relationship,” she adds. “We all work in tandem with the end goal of putting on a superb show.”

A family legacy

With valuable lessons gleaned from her father and hands-on experience at the helm of MANTS, Vanessa is leading the venerated trade show into its 50th year, even though that was not in her original career plan.

“I had no intention of being part of this business as a career,” she recalls. “I would come home during the college break and help with the registration table or whatever was needed. My father was going to do this job until the day he died — and he did.”

Vanessa’s dad fell and broke his hip and died in 2001 from complications of the surgery. The shock reverberated throughout the family and the show staff. At the time, Vanessa was home on maternity leave with her third child, her mom had retired from teaching and was helping her dad run the show full time.

“Mom decided she was going to close the management company but get through the next show and she asked for my help,” Vanessa says. “She asked the MANTS board to find new management and we buckled down and put the show on.”

Her mom was grief stricken and Vanessa took on an enormous responsibility.

“I went into dad’s office wondering where to even start. I found his MANTS to-do list in his desk and it had 50 items written on it. ‘Get ice’ was number 20 and it included the name of the vendor, the contact name and the phone number,” Vanessa explains. “I went through each item and followed the list and his directions. The January 2002 show went on.”

After realizing they could do this job and do it well, Vanessa and her mom decided to keep going. The board also expressed confidence and faith in the mother-daughter duo. Nancy was executive vice president of MANTS from late 2001 through 2004. She retired after a serious surgery kept her from her duties for a couple of months. Nancy passed the torch to Vanessa and she was named executive vice president. Vanessa also brought her husband Kelly into the business at that time.

She experienced what many children of family-operated businesses face — never say never.

“For years dad tried to get me or my sisters to join the business, but we all had different professions. The fact that I’m running this business came unexpectedly,” she says. “Now with our own kids, we ask them if they have any interest in coming into the family business and they say no — for now. But I just sit back and watch. They’re helping during the show just like I did when I’d come home from college.”

Nancy still comes to the show to help each year, even though she’s not involved on a day-to-day basis in managing the event.

The next decade(s)

The future of MANTS is promising. Booth space is full, attendance is steady and there are 150 companies on the waiting list. But there is the concern and challenge of space, hence the waiting list.

“We have no more contiguous space at the convention center,” Vanessa explains. “We’re discussing potential solutions. For two years we looked at whether or not we should expand in the convention center, which would mean splitting up the space. We decided that wasn’t the right direction for MANTS. There are no blind leaps when it comes to the management of this show.

“Our board is a conservative organization and an awesome group of people. They take a strong interest in how the organization is run and we have thorough discussions. We’re like a family.”

The vision of the show remains true to the original founders’ mission statement.

“If it’s new plants, new technology and if it’s good for the green industry, we want to make sure it’s at MANTS,” Vanessa says.