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The Man Behind the Clean Show (Conclusion)

Pro baseball, stadium management, rodeo production have also been on Riddle’s résumé

ATLANTA — President John Riddle and his staff at longtime Clean Show management firm Riddle & Associates are experiencing many “lasts” in the days leading up to Clean 2019 in New Orleans.

You see, Germany-based trade fair organizer Messe Frankfurt recently purchased Clean from the five associations that have sponsored the show for decades. The New Orleans show in June will be the last managed by Riddle & Associates, which has overseen the every-other-year event under contract since 1992.

John Riddle’s personal involvement in assisting with Clean dates back to 1981.

American Coin-Op visited Riddle, 78, in his Atlanta offices in late March to talk about the upcoming show, but also took the opportunity to quiz him on his storied past and to find out what he’s planning in semi-retirement.

In Part 1, Riddle talked a bit about the Clean Show and reminisced about his days as a professional baseball player, then landing a job as director of operations for the Atlanta Braves.

From there, he was promoted to director of advertising sales, plus he was promotions director for the newly formed Atlanta Chiefs soccer club owned by the Braves. He left there in 1975 to become the general manager of the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau.

“I had the No. 2 position there. My job was to run the Convention Bureau on a daily basis. It’s a big promotion, in multiple ways, of a municipality.”

CABBAGE PATCH CRAZE

He left the CVB after about two years to enter into business for himself, owning several retail stores, including one that became famous for its link to a line of special dolls.

“I had a retail store in downtown Atlanta in Peachtree Center. It was called Terminus Gift Shop,” Riddle recalls. “It was the first store in Atlanta in which the local Georgia artisans had an outlet.”

At a regional art festival, Riddle met Xavier Roberts, who was creating soft sculpture dolls he called “The Little People,” dressing them in used children’s clothing and offering them up for “adoption.” Riddle asked if his gift shop could become an “adoption center”: “I was No. 1. People went absolutely nuts over this. … That put Terminus Gift Shop, really, on the map.”

Soon thereafter, Coleco licensed the doll line as the Cabbage Patch Kids that caused shopper riots in the early ’80s and have delighted children and collectors for years.

Another unique endeavor for Riddle was rodeo promotion. With a friend he’d met through Terminus, he became interested in roping cattle: “I was 42, got on my first horse in a long time, and the bug bit me.”

Riddle was at an Atlanta restaurant one day when a friend, Spurgeon Richardson, then the president of Six Flags Over Texas, spotted him in his Western garb. The two got to talking and Richardson asked Riddle if he could produce a rodeo for the amusement park. Despite having no such experience, he said yes.

“Then, the journey began to find a stock contractor,” Riddle says. “And we did, Preston Folks. We produced rodeos for Six Flags for nine years. Sometime, if you really want to have some fun, we’ll talk about the day we were putting bulls in the arena to feed them for the performance the next day and they got out.”

In the years since, Riddle has learned that it’s much easier to rope attendees than steers.

THE EXHIBITION GAME

When he worked at the Atlanta CVB in the mid-1970s, he booked a National Association of Music Merchants show for the new Georgia World Congress Center. Right before the event, and after Riddle had left his CVB post, a tourist robbery turned fatal had the city on edge and visitors leery of coming to Atlanta.

“A number of my friends that I had met when I was at the Bureau called and asked if I could do some things to help them. They wanted me to have meet-and-greets at the airport, be on the show floor and help the exhibitors know that the associations were really after their best interests. I did.”

Impressed by his performance, the Music Merchants asked if he’d come to California and offer the same services for a show there. He agreed, and soon he was helping manage shows for several associations and groups around the country.

“All of a sudden, all of the things I’ve got at home, I’m on the road, trying to make people happy on a trade show floor,” he says.

One day, Riddle received a call from Ward Gill, who was executive director of the Car Wash Association and Coin Laundry Association. Their trade show was coming to Atlanta in 1981. They’d sell the exhibit space but wanted him to run it: “I said I would, and I have been with the Clean Show ever since then.”

He served the every-other-year event in that way until the opportunity to manage the whole thing came up.

“In ’92, they wanted to put the show out to bid for a management company,” Riddle remembers. “They asked me if I wanted to bid. I said yes. There were, I think, seven management companies and fortunately Riddle & Associates won that bid, and it’s been a blessing ever since.”

Riddle admits that the first Clean Show for which his firm was fully responsible frightened him.

“I was scared to death, tell you the truth. It’s a big job when you put a show of this magnitude together. Things have changed tremendously as far as our ability to communicate, the speed with which we can communicate.”

Selecting a series of dates and a venue to attract the maximum number of attendees from all over the world is always challenging, he says.

While the spotlight is focused on him in these final months leading up to Clean 2019, Riddle readily admits that he couldn’t have organized and managed the event successfully without his loyal Riddle & Associates staff.

“They are my heroes,” he says. “Nobody could do this without a staff. Nobody’s that good, I don’t care who you are. I’ve been blessed for a career in baseball and many things that I’ve been able to do—God has been good to me—and one of the kindest things He’s ever done for me is put me in the midst of these people here.

“Whether it’s Paul (Philips), Beth (Scheuer), Ann (Howell), Jewell (Kowzan), Kayla (Brown), they’re unreal. … What people will see at that show is done by five people. These people are like family to me. These people deserve the credit. They’re the ones who do the work.”

Beyond that group, there are many other people associated with the general contractors and the event venues themselves who contribute to the finished product.

“If someone would walk on the trade show floor at 9:30 or 10 o’clock at night before we open, you would say there is no way this is going to be ready at 8 o’clock in the morning,” Riddle says. “If you don’t believe there is such a thing as miracles, come and spend that last night on a trade show floor, and when you come back the next day, it is spit-shined and polished.”

What will you miss most about the Clean Show?

He takes a deep breath, then says, “People.”

Relationships?

“Yep. … There are so many of you out there I enjoyed friendships with, enjoyed cutting up and kidding with. I’m a big jokester. Love to have fun. I love to work hard but I love to have fun, too. I’m going to miss it. There’s no doubt about me being emotional.”

While Riddle will be slowing down without the Clean Show to manage, he says there are consulting and other opportunities available to Riddle & Associates if he chooses to pursue them.

But he’s not thinking about those just yet.

“I just hope that we can deliver the quality of show that, fortunately and thank God, we’ve been able to deliver, at least in our minds, to date,” Riddle says. “This is a great industry and we like being a part of its future. Hopefully, we can give it another good show.

“These guys that exhibit, they spend a lot of time and a lot of money planning and providing the best information they can for the industry. I’d like to see a large number of people come out and take advantage of that.”

Miss Part 1? You can read it HERE.

Want to hear more of John Riddle’s tales? Listen to our The Man Behind the Clean Show podcast, available HERE!