In 28 years (1983–2011) with EMS World and its predecessor, Emergency Medical Services Magazine, Marie Nordberg served in a number of capacities and witnessed a universe of changes. One of her most profound legacies came with the creation of EMS World Expo. Originally known just as EMS Expo, it has grown from ragtag beginnings into North America’s largest and premier EMS event. Here she talks about the early days of the show and some of the memorable years that followed.
There’s still time to register for this year’s special virtual EMS World Expo, which kicks off Sept. 14. For more: www.emsworldexpo.com.
EMS World: Tell us the story of the first EMS Expo. How did it begin?
Nordberg: The first one was in 1989, and I think it must have been ’88 when Dave Caplin [a key architect of those early shows who died in 2014] approached [magazine co-owners] Debbie [Carver] and Carol [Summer] about doing a conference. There was no competition at the time, and he had some conference experience. I don’t know what finally convinced them, but they decided they would try it.
The first one was in Atlanta. [Editor] Barb Feiner and I went by ourselves and met Dave—Debbie and Carol didn’t even go to that first one. So it was just Barb and Dave and I who put together that first conference, besides the program. Maybe only 300 or 400 people attended that first year—I remember sitting in some classes that had five or six people in them. But nobody was discouraged because it was the first, and people were excited about it.
The highlight for me from that first one was that [Atlanta mayor and former congressman and U.N. ambassador] Andrew Young cut the ribbon to open the exhibit hall. He was a big name, so it was exciting to have him come. We met him at the door and escorted him into the exhibit hall, and that was kind of a big deal.
If I remember right, Ken Bouvier might have spoken that year—he spoke either that first or second year and I believe has spoken every year since. I’m sure he’s probably the only person who’s spoken that many times. [Ed’s note: Catch him again this year!]
Then it started growing, and we went all over the place. We had conferences in Atlanta, Nashville, Dallas, St. Louis, Cleveland, Las Vegas, New Orleans, all those cities. And we started out in the spring—those first years were always in April or early May. I don’t remember why they finally switched, but then it stayed in the fall.
I remember a couple of those years being in Atlanta during storm season and being in the exhibit hall with tornado sirens sounding outside and wondering what was going to happen.
In that vein, 2005 had to be a memorable year, when Hurricane Katrina cut the show short in New Orleans.
No doubt about it—I was just talking about that with someone, in fact, because August 28th was the day I believe I flew out of New Orleans. [Editor] Nancy [Perry] and I left the hotel at 3 o’clock in the morning and got a cab to the airport, and it was packed—everything in the airport was closed because the storm was coming, people were crying because they couldn’t get on flights. A lot of our EMS people just stayed there at the convention center. Some drove to Baton Rouge, some drove to Houston. Somebody even drove all the way to Pittsburgh because they couldn’t get a flight. They rented cars until the rental cars were gone.
For that first show in 1989, was it difficult to round up faculty and exhibitors?
I don’t remember that it was. We had a pretty full program, and we’d already contacted a lot of people through the magazine. We had several who were already writing for us. So we had the contacts, and they advised us on how to put together a program, and Dave Caplin took care of the exhibit hall part and got hold of exhibitors.
I remember we put together a respectable show, and once we got started, there was no problem getting speakers. In fact, we always had many more candidates than we could use. And of course we always leaned on the good people.
With the perspective of so many years working with it, can you distill what makes a successful show?
Well, good speakers with current information and a wide variety of topics to appeal to everyone from the new EMT to the physicians and nurses. We tried to cover all the bases and have something for everybody. For a while we even had a vehicle maintenance track—a whole kind of side division for people involved in that part of EMS who weren’t necessarily medical providers but maintained the ambulances, bought and sold them, regulated, all of that.
That was a lot of work because it was a whole new group of people. It was a lot of fitting people’s schedules together and getting the right people, and it was a challenge, but it worked!
It must be neat to watch not only the show grow and thrive but the regular speakers evolve and advance as professionals as the years go by.
Yes, absolutely. Will Krost, for example—when Will started out, he was a young paramedic with a young family, and now he’s a medical doctor in Nashville. Will was one of our regular people and a great help to us.
A lot of them have been around a long time. Mike Dailey was on the board of the magazine before I started and still is. Baxter Larmon, Erik Gaull, Paul Maniscalco, Rick Patrick, Mike Poynter, David Page, Ed Racht, Katherine West—they were all with the magazine for years and years, several of them before I started in 1983.
The growth of the show has been amazing. I read the magazine, and the topics haven’t changed that much—it’s the same stuff and yet different. The magazine is a little thin now, but obviously a much bigger online presence. People still need it. But yeah, it’s fun to see what the show has become from where it started, it really is.