The region’s convention and trade show circuit may be down, but Scott Ling just made a six-figure bet that the industry will come booming back post-pandemic.
Ling’s Demers Exposition Services last week finalized its purchase of the bulk of the assets of Henrico-based convention supply company Exhibits Inc. following a bankruptcy liquidation auction that ended Dec. 1.
Demers, based in Connecticut, is in the same business as Exhibits Inc., setting up the booths, tables and décor for conferences and trade shows.
Exhibits, which had been in business 60 years, fell into bankruptcy in late September after the events industry was decimated and forced to mothball by COVID-19.
Exhibits co-owners and brothers Rich and Jeff Chandler put the company into Chapter 7 to allow for a liquidation to drum up money to repay creditors.
As the high bidder at auction, Demers paid $90,000 for the company’s name, supply inventory and intellectual property. An added $13,500 premium for auctioneer Motleys Asset Disposition Group brought the total price tag to $103,500.
Ling, who was in Richmond last week moving equipment out of Exhibits’ warehouse off Mechanicsville Turnpike, said the deal allows his company to expand its reach and capitalize on the 60-year-old Exhibits name.
His plan is to operate in Virginia using the Exhibits brand, its gear, its client list and its employees, six of whom he’s hiring back.
“I do believe it does have value,” Ling said of the Exhibits name. “I said, ‘you know what, it’s a good company that just is in a bad situation and they need some help.’”
While Exhibits and Demers are in the same business, Ling said his company is able to sustain the pandemic downturn in part from having previously branched out into doing audio-video setups for events.
“It’s really helped us during the pandemic due to the fact that everything turned virtual and we’ve been able to get some income doing virtual events,” Ling said.
Ling, who started Demers in 1986, said he’s also benefiting from his frugal approach.
“I go off what my grandmother told me — she was a depression baby. She said, ‘save your pennies for a rainy day,’” Ling said. “I always lived by that and we were fortunate enough to weather this.”
The only part of Exhibits that Demers didn’t buy was a small fleet of trucks, which trustee Bill Broscious will continue to work to sell. Exhibits has debt of around $421,000, with its largest creditors being the landlords on its two warehouses in Henrico and Virginia Beach.
Ling said he’s moving Exhibits out of those warehouses and into temporary space in Petersburg, where he said he was able to find cheaper rent on short notice. He’ll ultimately look for more permanent space of around 30,000 square feet closer into Richmond and in Virginia Beach.
While he waits for the pandemic to eventually fade, Ling said he’s preparing for the live events industry to come back with a bang.
He’s reaching out to convention centers in the region to let them know Exhibits is being revived out of bankruptcy. He’s also been talking with the Exhibits employees that he’s hired back and learning from them how to improve the company.
“They told me the good parts and the bad parts and we’re going to continue the good things and correct the things that needed a little correction,” he said. “My comment to them was if it’s not broken, don’t fix it. They have an operation here that’s not broken but could use a little wax and polish job.”
Ling said the word around the industry is that events will start coming back in some form in April. Though fears of the pandemic may linger beyond that, Ling said he’s betting on human nature to keep the industry afloat.
“Whether it was 2,000 years ago at the Roman Coliseum or 400 years ago at a Shakespearean play, it’s just in our DNA that people need to get together,” he said. “I think it’s going to come back extremely strong.”