Practice Makes Perfect

Why ISA tweaks its program to leverage the best content and networking opportunities for its biggest annual event.

Charlotte, N.C.
Charlotte, N.C.

Leaders within the Industrial Supply Association know there are a lot of events competing for the attention of industrial companies — but they want ISA24 to be your favorite. We spoke with ISA CEO Brendan Breen on how the organization cultivates a crowd-pleasing event, year after year.

ID: Let’s talk about the trends that you plan to cover this year. Is there’s anything special or unique compared to last year that we should know about?

Brendan Breen: We always try to add a little bit more value and a little bit more uniqueness every year. Something that further reinforces why we’re different, but also something that is different than last year. We’ve added a third keynote this year and it is a lunch banquet with the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors to give a legislative update on both the current things happening on the Hill, but also some of the efforts that are underway on behalf of distribution by NAW … specifically, we want to talk about some of the business policies that they’re looking to advance and give our audience the opportunity to ask some questions from an expert. So this is a new aspect we’re very excited about. We’re getting really good feedback on this.

We’re also doing pre-conference workshops. What we want to provide is an opportunity for people to walk away with a deep understanding of a topic and an action plan of how to reinforce it. And so that necessitates a full-day workshop and we’re doing three of them. One of them is going to be around pricing and pricing optimization and another one on channel optimization, and then the third is about workplace culture.

So these pre-con workshops are another newer addition that we’ve added that I think add a lot of value to the overall event for our education sessions. We saw an opportunity this year that I’m really happy that we took advantage of.

Brendan BreenBrendan BreenIndustrial Supply AssociationWe’re also going to do another panel discussion on workplace culture, but this time from the perspective of Gen Z. We are bringing in a facilitator from Texas A&M who is an instructor there to rising seniors that are going to talk about what they’re looking for in their jobs. And these are the top students in the program. So if I am in that audience, I want to know: “How do I get the top talent coming out of an industrial distribution program from college?” These are the next gen and they’re different. They want different things. They care about different things and, rather than have us talk about it, let’s hear it right from their mouths and ask them these questions that really move the needle. So we’ll have a panel on that as well. So a really robust education agenda; really excited about that. That will always be a part of our event.

But really what brings people to our event, and it always has for the last 120 years, is the networking aspect. So that’s really the other side of this. Our bread and butter forever has been our booth program. This is where manufacturers and distributors meet in a speed-dating format that’s all pre-scheduled to have meaningful interactions at scale. So if you’re a distributor or a manufacturer, you might have 30 meetings scheduled over the course of the two days in booth programming. That’s a really efficient way to talk to a lot of people in a short amount of time.

So we’ve made subtle improvements to that program by giving people a better tool to organize their calendars. We’ve created how-to guides and best practice guides on how to have the most impactful meetings and use the time wisely while you’re there. We also think receptions are important as much as they are the “nice to have.” I think that they are an important way for networking to happen in an unstructured format. We’ve talked about these casual collisions that people have. We want to really facilitate that by having a better experience and not just having a bunch of bars and some buffet lines. I think that we have this opportunity to curate a little bit more of an experience and so this year we’ll be, for our opening party, at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, where there’s tons of different activations, which means there are things that attendees can participate in with other attendees.

It’s not just mingling around and walking up to someone. Maybe you’re joining a pit crew team and doing a pit crew race against other people. Or it is a driver simulation program where you’re racing against a total stranger and then you strike up a conversation. We’re leveraging a really awesome venue to create more opportunities for our members.

We also have a networking lunch, and we’re giving people assigned seats. I was skeptical about whether this would work and it did work, last year, really well. We give them prompts of discussion topics that are both industry-specific and personal so that you can get to know the people around you and make some new connections. This is just leaning into the concept that every minute from the moment you pick up your badge to the moment that you set it down and leave the convention center, we’re giving you an opportunity to get to know somebody else and that’s really what ISA is about.

ID: What else is ISA doing throughout the year?

Breen: We are in our second year of our Emerging Leaders Channel certification. This is a comprehensive year-long program that’s part education, part networking, where young, next-gen talent engages with channel-specific content, and also with their fellow cohort mates to forge better relationships and really solidify the future of this industry. And so now looking back on the first year, we got to see some of the huge wins and it got us excited. So the big wins from last year were, first off, making sure that we had two cohorts, not one.

And seeing the education, seeing the collaboration between distributors, manufacturers, various different roles, some in sales, some in marketing, some in HR, interacting with each other to talk about some of these big issues that their companies are facing was encouraging to see virtually. That was an interesting thing. But then all of those people also came to our Fall Summit. That’s part of the requirement. And to see the energy and the excitement and the optimism from their eyes about this industry, it was amazing.

And we had a lot of our senior [people], our board members in attendance at that event as well. And they were blown away on a personal level. They walked away so hopeful about the future of this industry. I mean, many of them have dedicated decades of their lives in service of this industry. And when they see a younger generation wanting to take that mantle and wanting to step into that, maybe they feel like this industry can last another 120 years. So if you’re interested in investing in your young talent or if you’re young talent and you want to get more plugged into your industry, reach out to ISA and we can talk you through the program.

ISA24 takes place in Charlotte from April 15-17. For more information, visit

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