Right away I realized two things about Joan Zimmerman when we first met recently for tea in Charlotte. She knows a good idea when she hears one. She also knows how to make it an even better idea.
In 1959, a friend of the owner of the public relations firm where she was employed in Greensboro, NC, proposed that the agency produce a regional flower and garden show in Raleigh. While the owner declined, Zimmerman leapt at the opportunity. Her background, she figured, was tailor-made for such an enterprise.
Born in Chicago and reared in England, Zimmerman was the middle child in a family of nine children, so she developed negotiating skills early on. She had experience in accounting, advertising, and special events from several companies in Chicago. She had worked in Europe in the special activities division of the U.S Armed Forces on projects for the USO and PXs. There she met her husband Robert, whose professional strength was sales.
To establish that inaugural flower and garden show in Raleigh, the Zimmermans enlisted garden clubs, nurseries, and landscapers to become exhibitors. They also leveraged her supervisor’s connections with the media. They pulled off a three-day event with some 15,000 attending. Even though the show didn’t make money, it was a hit.
The Zimmermans essentially developed a template for creating large-scale consumer shows, and they ran with it. They formed a family-run company called Southern Shows, Inc., and relocated to Charlotte. Fifty-five years later, Southern Shows operates in 11 markets, owning and producing 19 shows with a combined attendance of 600,000 guests. Their son, David, is president, and their other son, Bob, designs graphics and the website from his studio in Asheville.
According to Zimmerman, their Southern Spring Home & Garden Show, which is currently underway in Charlotte at The Park Expo and Conference Center, is the premier event in the South showcasing flowers, gardens, and other ideas for indoor and outdoor living.
In the early 1980s, as companies were realizing that women had money and influenced their families’ purchase decisions, the Zimmermans created the first Women’s Show, now a series of 10 held in key cities from Michigan to Florida. They also run a series of Home & Garden Shows, and their Southern Farm Show is the leading market place for agricultural equipment and the like.
The Southern Christmas Show, which I attended last year in Charlotte, is considered the nation’s best. The years the Zimmermans lived in Europe exploring the popular Christmas markets inspired them to devise a similar old town market look with a glockenspiel for the entrance. The featured attraction of the first Christmas show in 1967 was the world’s largest fake diamond.
“What does that tell you?” she laughed. “Peoples’ expectations were not what they are now.”
Then as now, though, the Zimmermans promoted their shows in print and broadcast media. Before the age of social media, they supplemented with their own world-of-mouth tactics. They rode elevators in office buildings and department stores in downtown Charlotte and said to each other, “Have your heard about the Southern Christmas Show?” Curious passengers asked questions, and they’d tell their story.
“They make for great one-day and overnight outings,” he said. “A dozen or so motor coaches, and many more church vans and buses arrive daily. For most of these far-away folks, the shows are a great excuse to visit relatives and friends.”
The Zimmermans know of several couples who became engaged at the shows and continue to make annual pilgrimages back to celebrate.
A seasoned traveler herself, Joan has honed a packing formula regardless of destination or duration that she encourages others to replicate.
“Don’t take anything you can’t carry,” she advised. “I take clothes that are simple, classic and versatile, maybe two bottoms and six tops. It’s hard to convey to some people, women especially, that people don’t remember what you had on yesterday, so don’t worry about wearing the same thing day after day.
“Pack things in your suitcase according to when you’ll use them,” she continued, “with the first day’s clothes on top.”
Joan’s other life lessons are:
- Never say never.
- Life works on the law of the boomerang in that what you throw it comes back to you. In addition to her involvement with dozens of nonprofits, that belief manifests itself in the company’s focus on giving back to the communities in which they operate. For the Southern Christmas Show, for example, they host an opening benefit and 100% goes to charity.
Slim, elegant, gracious, and beautifully attired, the yoga devotee freely shares with me that she’s nearly 82.
“I’m proud of it,” she declared. “It gives people hope.”
Consider me hopeful as well.