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Houston artist Joyce Dwight was looking forward to the Big Texas Home & Family Expo.
Scheduled for September at the George R. Brown Convention Center, the expo would give Dwight the chance to showcase her glass works to a huge crowd. She hoped it would boost visibility for her business, Fusion on Nance, which relocated from Katy to Houston about two years ago.
She says she spent thousands on the entry fee and the setup for her booth space. But before she paid the $2,515 entry fee and thousands more on raw materials for glass and wrought-iron displays, she checked out EMC Expos, the company that was actually organizing and promoting the show. Based in Jacksonville, Florida, the company presented itself as a real player in the expo industry. According to its Web site, EMC offered "cutting edge" showcases that attracted "significant, relevant crowds." Its Home & Family expo was the brainchild of three experienced businessmen. The company claimed ties with celebrities (at least in the expo world) like former Miami Dolphins coach Bob Shula, who would help draw crowds at the expos. It had shows scheduled throughout the country, including Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin and San Antonio. The company guaranteed the advertising and public relations that would make each show a hit.
"They didn't seem like slick willies, you know," Dwight says. "They just sounded like hardworking guys trying to make something work." So she went into full prep mode. But, she says, a few days before the expo date, she got a bad feeling. For one thing, she hadn't seen any billboards or TV spots. So she called the George R. Brown Convention Center, and that's when she found out EMC had canceled at the last minute. Dwight says no one at the convention center could provide an explanation, and when she tried reaching anyone at EMC directly, they had disappeared. The Web site was gone, and phone numbers were disconnected. That's when she knew she wasn't going to get her entry fee back.
Vendors like Dwight aren't the only ones out of money. Right now, there's a line forming for people who say they were stiffed by EMC.
While the folks at EMC aren't any good at putting on expos, they're pretty good at disappearing.
Rolando Dumagan, the company's former CEO, was a pain in the neck to track down. But thanks to a Craigslist ad he posted, I found him in Charlotte, North Carolina, selling high-speed Internet service.
Dumagan, who likes to be called Rolo, blamed the expos' failures in large part on poor publicity. He says the two companies EMC contracted to help promote the expos didn't do their job. Plus, there was just old-fashioned bad luck.
"Even with the marketing, you're still at the mercy of the crowds coming through, and everybody in the industry understands that," Dumagan says, adding that he, too, lost money when the expos failed. He says he had to file for bankruptcy.
Dumagan's former partners, Kyle Chong and Brandon Lewis, did not return multiple calls. But business filings in Florida help illustrate how three guys with no experience in the expo industry can book convention centers throughout the country and jack with people's livelihoods.
Expo Management Group incorporated in September 2006, changed its name to Expo Management Company in December and would subsequently bill vendors under the name EMC Expos. The partners, all in their thirties, found a Web designer in North Carolina to build an impressive site, where they boasted that "our management team has over 30 years of combined experience which is used to bring the world of consumers and exhibitors together under one roof." Admittedly, that sounds a heck of a lot better than "our management team has over 30 years of combined experience selling cell phones," which is a bit more accurate.
In 1999, Chong and Lewis opened a business called PCS Division, a Cingular retailer with stores in several states. It appears they were successful — Lewis owns a $3.5 million home in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, and a 32-foot boat, christened "Twintastic," after his twin boys. Chong wound up in a $400,000 home in Jacksonville.
By 2003, Dumagan moved from San Diego to Florida, where he racked up multiple DUI convictions. In July 2003, he pled no contest to a charge of "resisting officer without violence to his or her person," in response to one of the DUI's. Dumagan would ultimately lose his license.
Around this time, Dumagan joined PCS Division, thus spawning the holy trinity that would become EMC Expos. All they needed was an industry with really lousy quality control to make themselves a bundle.
With enough money, presumably from vendors' entry fees, expo organizers can pay a deposit to reserve a convention center.
The center's only role is leasing the space. Expo organizers handle everything else. In Texas, it does not appear that convention center reps care if an expo is a bust or not, as long as they get their deposit. That's why three former cell-phone salesmen with a two-month old company could book the Austin Convention Center the same weekend as the University of Texas's graduation ceremonies and a gigantic free concert featuring Bonnie Raitt and Kris Kristofferson. At no point, apparently, did anyone suggest to EMC Expos that they should shoot for another weekend.
"We just make sure that the client is happy," says Austin Convention Center spokeswoman Terry McBride. However, the resulting expo, held last May, was so sparsely attended that EMC would start postponing, then canceling, other Texas shows.
In Fort Worth, according to Fort Worth Convention Center spokeswoman Marcia Anderson, EMC initially booked an expo at the Will Rogers Memorial Center, then canceled and rebooked at the convention center. Then they canceled. Convention center reps leased the space despite the fact that their own notes say "new company/no facility history or references."
But Anderson pointed out that, "For us to reject business, since we're a government entity, we've got to have a pretty darn good documentable reason."
It's also not clear if convention center reps in one city talk to their counterparts in others. If they did, it shouldn't have been a surprise to anyone at the George R. Brown Convention Center that EMC would cancel, seeing as how the Houston expo was to take place one month after EMC scrapped Fort Worth. (George R. Brown reps did not return the Houston Press's calls).
Dumagan also canceled the Dallas Convention Center, according to center rep Michelle Skyy.
"The only response he had was 'something came up' and he wasn't going to be able to do it," she says.
"We've had to extend an olive branch either directly or indirectly through our other promoters to try to get them back in the building and to make good," Lapsley says. Out of all the convention center reps interviewed for this story, Lapsley was the only one to say he felt a convention center can do more to try to help vendors who've been burned. He says his role is more than just taking a check and turning on the lights.
"How much does it hurt me to make a phone call, how much does it hurt me to offer somebody free parking or free electric hookup for one show as a mea culpa?" he says. "I do have a bit of responsibility for the shows that are coming...into our community. To a small extent, we are the gatekeeper for the quality of shows that come into our community...We have a responsibility to research events to make sure that the people who are doing the shows have the ability to pull off a show."
Of the people who wished they had done more research on EMC, Steve Owen is probably kicking himself the hardest.
Owen is the vice president of sales for Wisconsin-based Hy Cite Corporation, which manufactures and markets household products like cookware and vacuum cleaners. Owen says he paid EMC $210,000 in exchange for exclusive sales rights at some of the Texas expos. But since EMC canceled so many shows, Hy Cite was never able to advertise its products, and wanted its money back. Owen says the EMC only refunded $1,000.
"In our business, if we don't take a show, our competitors definitely will," he says, "and this looked like an opportunity to get some shows in some areas that we really needed to have shows. Sometimes you're taking a bit of a risk when you're doing it. We certainly didn't think we were taking this big a risk."
Perhaps it was Dumagan's sweet, self-assigned nickname that helped him land such a big sponsor. According to Hy Cite rep Ken Knezek, "Anytime you expressed any concern about anything, he would say, 'No no, you're going to see this is the real deal.' And he would leave you a voice mail saying, 'Hey, this is Rolando 'Real Deal' Dumagan.'"
Today, Real Deal Dumagan is in Charlotte, North Carolina, selling high-speed Internet services for a company called Clearwire. He recently posted an ad on Craigslist, seeking reps for inbound telemarketing calls. Shortly after speaking to the Press, he deleted the ad.